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What Makes Great Young Adult Fiction? by Sam Hawksmoor

The world isn’t perfect.  You learn this the first time you hear the word ‘no’ and more bad luck for you if all you ever hear is ‘yes’, because you’ll never develop self-discipline and if you never develop self-discipline you never develop self-worth. This is an unfashionable view but that doesn’t mean that it is wrong). Great Young Adult (YA) fiction is quite often about young kids who for one reason or another rate their ability to make a difference,  if only they are given a chance.  I’m not really talking about heroes – more often than not it’s about kids who know their weaknesses and have to raise their game or take decisions on their own for the first time. Take the fantastic and much neglected The Droughtlanders by Carrie Mac. (Aside from the fact that it is criminal you can’t easily buy this outside of Canada, this is one of the most inspiring openings to a trilogy you’ll ever read).

The Droughtlanders gets to grips with climate change, revolutionary politics, regime change, circuses, cowardice and the terrible price of jealousy and revenge.  Carrie Mac must have once had an awful time with a brother or sister to understand just how competitive and harsh brothers and sisters, especially twins can be to each other.  Here we have twin brothers (in a Romulus and Remus situation)  Seth and Eli, one all gung-ho for violence, guided by an evil father who rules the Keylanders (outside the city walls) with an iron fist, the other brother is painted as a coward who deplores violence, worships his scientist mother, who works on crops and making things grow.  Little do either brother realise that their mother is in fact working for a Droughtlander terror organisation that wants to bring down this cruel regime.

Outside the city walls a disfiguring disease runs rampant and anyone who has it is shunned.  Their state controls the weather and has stolen the rain from the rest and impoverished millions. The mother is blown up by the father, the Eli runs to the outside, the Seth pursues, vowing to crush any rebellion and kill his brother if he has to. But they have another relative – a sister they weren’t aware of… and she is working the other side. Within the text you discover the outside world riddled with poverty and disease and bravely, for YA fiction, sex and the consequences of sex; babies. Babies brought into a warzone. Carrie Mac does not shirk from dirt, sickness sheer folly and manages a giant cast with consumate skill.  She also displays a fantastic knowledge of circus life and Cirque du Soleil in particular, which again marks out her fiction as totally unique. Do all you can to find these books.

The Triskelia trilogy works because it mines age-old themes but addresses contemporary issues in an engaging, electrifying way.  It’s simply a damned exciting read that doesn’t shy away from the consequences of violence or sex.

This is why I read YA fiction.

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Sam Hawksmoor’s author website: www.samhawksmoor.com

Sam Hawksmoor’s bio page

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The RepossessionThe Hunting     The DroughtlandersAcross the UniverseSparkTracksKeeping Corner

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

The Importance of Literacy and Teen Reading, by Jim Eldridge

Writing Teen Novels has been very kind in letting me talk about my work writing for teens over the last three months, and I thought I would take advantage of their good nature and this month do some “politics of literacy” (with a small “p”) as far as young readers, and – in this blog – non-readers and reluctant readers are concerned.

Last year in England there were riots in the cities in which people died and millions of pounds of property was destroyed. Much of the blame was laid on disaffected young people, many known as NEETs (not in employment, education, or training).

A survey shortly after the riots revealed that 60% of young males in the UK had an average reading age 12.

Another survey into the prison population of the UK found that 60% of male prisoners had a reading age of 12.

Other studies had found that a large percentage of children moving from primary school to secondary school at the age of 11 had a reading age of 7.

I’m sure you can see the connection, and where I’m going with this.

Studies have shown that many teens – particularly boys – do not read for pleasure. Many do not read at all. Many – as the studies I refer to above show – cannot read much above a basic level.

For me, encouraging literacy as been a life-long passion. If people cannot read and write they cannot fill out a job application. They cannot read instruction manuals. They cannot read election manifestos. Previously, they went into factories, but  traditional manufacturing in western countries (shipbuilding, factories, etc) have virtually disappeared; so the physical skills of the cannon-fodder of semi-literate workers (i.e. the social group from which I come – both my grandmothers were illiterate) are no longer required in most western countries. The new skills for the better-paid jobs require literacy and numeracy.

What do the semi-literate do? They vent their anger. They become a criminal sub-class.

Way back in the 1960s, when I was training to be a teacher, the Plowden Report was published, which warned that high levels of illiteracy could lead to major social problems in the future. The Plowden Report urged that more money be spent on literacy in primary schools, as it was easier for young children to learn to read than older children. The politicians at that time nodded politely and gave lip-service to the recommendations, but no cash.

What do we have now? 60% semi-literacy in our inner cities, riots, and a feral criminal sub-culture; all of which has proved enormously expensive, both financially and in human costs.

I’m not saying that teaching kids and teenagers to read will solve all social ills, but in my view it would certainly reduce the problems substantially.

A couple of years ago my agent asked me if I was interested in writing for a publisher called Barrington Stoke, who published books aimed at dyslexic children and teenagers, and reluctant readers of the same age. I leapt at the opportunity. It may seem a niche type of writing, a very small and low-profile market; but I will repeat those figures again:

A survey shortly after the riots revealed that 60% of young males in the UK had an average reading age 12.

Another survey into the prison population of the UK found that 60% of male prisoners had a reading age of 12.

Other studies had found that a large percentage of children moving from primary school to secondary school at the age of 11 had a reading age of 7.

So, for every child who reads for pleasure, a massive majority don’t. There are millions and millions of teenagers out there who have never read a book for pleasure.

I have now written three books for Barrington Stoke: DUNKIRK ESCAPE, SINK THE TIRPITZ and BOMB! (This last book, BOMB!, has just been short-listed for the 2012 Sheffield Children’s Book Awards). The response I have had from parents and teachers has been truly gratifying, many telling me that their teenage son had never read a book before, but had enjoyed my book.

My hope is that someone with reading problems will manage to read one of these short books, and next try something a little harder. And the next time, something a little harder still. These books are aimed at encouraging confidence in reading, through reading for pleasure – because reading should be ENJOYABLE. For 40% of us, it is enjoyable. For those other 60% the studies mention, it is often an excruciating and painful chore to be avoided; and then reading becomes a lost skill.

So, writers, teachers, all those involved in literature, let’s think of literacy. My publishers tell me that the basic rule is that girls read, boys don’t. So let’s get teenage boys reading for fun. It could save a life.

For details of my books and writing go to:

www.jimeldridge.com

For details of books from Barrington Stoke go to:

www.barringtonstoke.co.uk

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Jim Eldridge bio page

The Dunkirk EscapeSink the Tirpitz (Solo)Bomb! (Solo)The Invisible AssassinAvery McShaneEarthfallPowder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor

Writing ‘The Malichea Quest’ Series: History, Science, Adventure and the Paranormal, by Jim Eldridge

After my first two blog posts about writing for teens, which were mainly “writing background” and “philosophy”, we come at last, fellow writers and readers, to a practical one: writing my latest book for teens (or YA book, as the trade calls them), “THE INVISIBLE ASSASSIN”, the first in my new series of action-adventure thrillers (with a “paranormal” undertone) called “THE MALICHEA QUEST”, published by Bloomsbury last month (April).

As I said in my first blog post, I don’t just write for teens, I write for all ages, from 3 to 113 (and for anyone who lives longer than that). So, when I first get an idea, I toy with it for a while, and then think “Who should this one be aimed at? Children? Teens? Adults?” And then, once I’ve decided that, I start to work out how to put that idea into concrete form.

In the case of “The Malichea Quest”, I was reading a book about censorship, and how the Church in about the 8th century destroyed all books that were deemed to be heretical, if they were written by non-Christian writers, or questioned the Church’s view of the world. Galileo was later to fall foul of this same orthodoxy when he proposed that the Earth went round the Sun, and not the other way around, as the Church insisted. This same orthodoxy continued well into the 20th century, with the Roman Catholic Church banning certain books, and the Nazis burning those books that offended them. This same attitude to “unorthodox thought” still continues in the 21st Century: ban the books and stop people reading them.

At the same time I read that in AD793 the Vikings descended on Holy Island in Lindisfarne off the east coast of Britain, and destroyed the monastery, and all the books in the library. As the library at Lindisfarne at that time contained most of the learning which scholars from across the known world had brought to the monastery in the form of texts and scrolls, all that knowledge and learning literally went up in smoke. These two acts in the 8th Century destroyed much of the scientific knowledge of the time. It has been said that if these two destructive acts hadn’t happened and the scientific knowledge had been allowed to spread instead of being destroyed, humankind would have been on the moon 500 years before we actually were.

And, as I read this, I thought: what if these scientific texts hadn’t been destroyed, but had been hidden for protection – and had remained hidden? (If you want to know more about all of this, then there is a page devoted to “The Legend of Malichea” on my website.)

Once I’d got the basic idea, I mulled over who might be the most receptive to this, and I felt that the older teen/YA readership would be. So, next: who was going to be my hero or heroine to tell the story of the search for the hidden books? If you remember, in my previous blog about teenagers, I said that teens, to a great extent, invent themselves, once they leave childhood. They create their own persona, their own identity. So what about taking this to its logical conclusion: a hero who has created himself because he has no family. He was abandoned at birth; then taken into care. He doesn’t know his genetic background, he has no family role models. He has invented himself. As a result, he has no apparent advantages – he comes from a very poor background, and he is dispossessed of family identity. But could that not be an advantage in itself? A young man who battles against his mysterious background, and the social norms, to creates his own life. It could make him emotionally tougher, a surviver.

And so Jake Wells, the 19-year old hero of “The Malichea Quest” series was born.

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Jim Eldridge bio page

The Invisible AssassinPyramid of Secrets (My Story S.)Standing Alone (My True Stories)Death in the Desert (Black Ops)The LabQuillblade: Bk. 1 (Voyages of the Flying Dragon)The Spark Gap

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