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The magnificent peeps at Penguin Books tonight played host to the latest event organised by the Children's Book Circle - Weighing Up The Dark With The Light In Teen Fiction, which looked at issues are dealt with in teenage fiction and the now infamous Daily Mail article by Tanith Carey and Guardian Response.


Graham Marks took on moderation duties for a panel of 3 authors who have all dealt with complex and controversial issues within their YA fiction:

- Joanna Kenrick is the author of a number of "issues" books, including RED TEARS, which involves themes of self harm and bullying and was referenced within the Daily Mail article and SCREWED, which follows a girl on a downward spiral who engages in promiscuous behaviour;

- Anthony McGowan is the author of various books including HENRY TUMOUR, a book about a boy with a brain tumour and THE KNIFE THAT KILLED ME, a critically acclaimed book about knife crime that has also attracted the ire of the Daily Mail due to the violence within it; and

- James Dawson, the author of HOLLOW PIKE, a YA fantasy about witches with gay characters and whose forthcoming BEING A BOY (released in September 2013) is pitched the "ultimate guide to puberty, sex and relationships for young men".

9780571234837 190x300xHollow-Pike-Final-cover1-190x300.jpg.pagespeed.ic.WMKYvsHTdLSCREWEDfrontcoveronlysmall The Knife That Killed Me-1 Henry Tumlour HB UK-1

For the purposes of this report, I have had to paraphrase some of what was said but whenever possible, I have included direct quotes from the panellists. I have also put both Graham's questions and questions from the audience in bold underline for ease of reference.

Graham opened by saying that the earliest definition of so-called "sick lit" occurred in November 2000 and was about a book aimed at adults.

What was your reaction to the Daily Mail article?

Joanna: I was named in the Daily Mail article and thought that it was poorly put together and poorly expressed. RED TEARS was mentioned in the context of a quote from the writer and critic Amanda Craig who said that it had provoked a bout of self-harm in a school. There was no background on how such a case of self-harm had come about or where it occurred. The depiction of self harm in RED TEARS is not glamorous as the main character has depression, she's bullied and she also has other issues. Given that the book came out in 2007, I did feel that it was unfairly singled out for behaviour that is prevalent among teenagers and I had done a lot of research on the issue while I was writing the book.

James: I wanted to know who was actually upset by sick lit because I couldn't find anyone beyond the Daily Mail and Amanda Craig. I wondered if the article was just a good way of getting the journalist's name in the press because it seemed to be almost trolling.

Anthony: I had complex feelings about it. I'm always skeptical about the idea of "sick lit" because it begins with a concept rather than a character. The article seemed to focus on the moral objection to these kind of books rather than an artistic objection and I didn't believe the article when it spoke about the spate of self-harm because authors just don't have that kind of influence over people's lives. I think it came about because a journalist wanted attention.

"Sick Lit" books used to be called "issue books", which have always been around but have they now become a rising trend?

Joanna: "Sick lit' is a catch-all term for very different types of book. They're not all about sick kids with terminal illnesses. The main common theme is that they do deal with death.

James: I've seen it suggested on-line that a lot of girls who read this type of book think that the only way they can be seen as being special or be loved is if they're sick but I don't really think that anyone actually thinks that in real life.

When you were writing your books were you given any information or steer as to what you could or couldn't include in it?

James: No, not really. I had been worried with HOLLOW PIKE because 3 of the characters are queer and one was a self-harmer. The only real comment I got was that the self-harm storyline didn't really address the issue by the end of the book and I was told that it needed to do so and while revising, I made the decision to just remove that element of the story. However there were times when the "gatekeepers" were mentioned and I was worried that school librarians and bookshops wouldn't stock it.

Anthony: I had no guidance at all when writing HENRY TUMOUR. When I was writing THE KNIFE THAT KILLED ME I made the deliberate decision not to swear because people seem to have more issues with bad language than anything else. I was never told not to include swearing but it seemed to be the best way of dealing with it.

Joanna: I was sensitively edited but I did take out a bullying storyline because there was too much going on in the book. Despite my worries with SCREWED, my publisher was very benign with the sex scenes.

Graham You can normally get away with anything so long as the language is restrained.

Joanna: I tend to be quite restrained in my language anyway - I use "shit" but not "fuck". The sec scenes in SCREWED are explicit but I wrote them in third person (rather than the first person voice used for the rest of the book) to emphasise her distance from what she's doing and that she's on a downward spiral.

Do authors have a moral or social responsibility with their books?

James: I was a teacher so I know that parents can be very protective but authors are only responsible to use their common sense. YA fiction allows people to explore issues in a way that's appropriate. Issues are shown in a way that shows the consequences but also offers a light at the end of the tunnel.

Anthony: I try to make my readers engage with real issues but I don't see what harm authors can cause. What counts is narrative drive and character if you're to engage teens and make them think about the underlying issue.

Is there a subject that you wouldn't write about?

All of the panellists said no.

James: I think that morbid curiosity brings readers to books and there's always a place for books that deal with thorny issues.

Joanna: The teenage years are fascinating because you become more aware of people outside yourself, e.g. as a teenager I was obsessed with the environment and passionate about it. I think that teens become more compassionate and that can be influenced by books about teenage characters who have issues so our moral and social responsibility as authors is to cover those type of issues.

James: Books are for enjoyment and the books mentioned in the Daily Mail article are effectively weepies for teens.

Melvin Burgess' defence for writing about issues is that no kid is ever going to drag themselves through a book that they're not ready for. Do you agree?

Anthony: Yes. Melvin's books aren't about the issues - it's their literary values that make them readable.


There was then an audience discussion, which got a little passionate at times because of the strong views that the subject matter encourages and particularly with regard to violence in teen fiction (which could easily be a panel in itself) although everything seemed to end happily. I'm not going to recount this in detail, but the discussion did touch on things such as whether issues books always have to actually 'solve' the issue in the end and have a happy ending, what the role of gatekeepers is in issues fiction and what we mean when we talk about the issues for YA.

Many thanks to Penguin and to the Children's Book Circle for organising a thoroughly interesting event.