Friday, 9 November 2012

Friday Feature: Guest Post by Liz Filleul - YA Reality Check


I've been a big fan of author Liz Filleul ever since reading her work for the first time a few years ago. We knew each other slightly over the internet at that point but lost touch, so I was delighted to renew our acquaintance on Twitter a while ago, and even more delighted when she agreed to write a guest post for me.

In popular YA novels, many main characters lead miserable lives at the beginning. Harry Potter famously slept in a cupboard under the stairs and was generally treated like crap by the Dursleys until he discovered he was a wizard and set off for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Katniss Everdeen struggled to put food on the table in Panem’s poverty-stricken district 12 until her survival skills helped her win the Hunger Games and transformed her into the symbol and leader of rebellion. Henderson’s Boys and the CHERUB kids are neglected and often ill-treated orphans until they’re selected to be part of the British Security Service.

Whether the hero/ine becomes a powerful magician, a secret agent or national leader, what happens to them reflects what most of us would like to happen when we’re going through a bad patch – a magic wand waved over us or someone to intervene to make things better. The rags-to-riches and good-overcoming-evil themes have been around forever, and we never tire of them.

But what about the real teenagers out there whose lives really are miserable and for whom there is no life-changing intervention, magical or otherwise? Where are the gritty YA novels and characters that truly depict their lives?

The other day I read a powerful YA novel called Taste the Bright Lights by a Northern Ireland journalist, Laura Canning. The story is narrated by Lisa, a 14-year-old girl who is frequently and viciously beaten up by her ‘stepda’, Paul.

(PLEASE NOTE: MAJOR SPOILERS FOR TASTE THE BRIGHT LIGHTS START HERE)

She longs to run away from home, but every time she tries she’s discovered by the police, returned home – and thrashed again. When her best friend Nicola discovers she’s pregnant and the pair of them get expelled from school for hitting a girl who’s been bullying Lisa, Nicola suggests they run away. They make it to Belfast, where they meet another girl, Karen, who lives in a squat, and move in with her and her friends.

There, Lisa and Nicola are taught how to steal wallets for money. They drink and take Es. They have sex with the boys who live at or turn up to visit the squat. Lisa doesn’t want to steal or have sex, but feels she has no choice because the boys have said she and Nicola can live there.

When Nicola has a miscarriage Lisa summons an ambulance so the girls are discovered. Nicola is welcomed by her parents and happy to go home. Lisa’s mum and Paul, however, don’t want her back. Lisa is relieved about that, but dismayed to find herself in the care of the authorities. First, she’s placed in a house with a caring couple, but because she’s not from Belfast, she has to be moved nearer home and into a care home. There, she’s smiled at and talked at by social workers and bullied by the other residents. The book ends with Lisa accepted by the other residents, but plotting her escape from the home, with a plan to earn her living from sex. You just know things aren’t going to get better for her.

(END OF SPOILERS)

Taste the Bright Lights reminded me of girls I knew in my own teens, whose terrible home lives resulted in them inadvertently making their lives ever more hellish. They got in with the wrong crowd, went from violent parents to violent partners, had babies when they were little more than children themselves. It saddened me that that was a few decades ago and, according to this novel, very little has changed for girls from abusive families.

Initially, Laura Canning approached agents and mainstream publishers with Taste the Bright Lights. They loved it – the style (an irresistible vernacular), the in-your-face characters, the gritty, sad and sometimes funny story.

But they knocked it back, saying it was too controversial for today’s YA market.

So Laura went ahead and published it herself. And I’m glad she did, because a story like this needs to be out there. Back in the 1980s, it would probably have been snapped up by a feminist publishing house. Just as back in the 1980s, children’s telly was way grittier than it’s allowed to be today. (Bernard Ashley said his Break in the Sun, also about a girl who runs away from her abusive stepfather, couldn’t be repeated on telly today because of the content.)

Historically, novels have been a catalyst for change – Black Beauty for example, and Dickens’s social justice novels. So it seems strange to me that publishers don’t think the YA market could stomach a book as grim as Taste the Bright Lights. Surely today’s market is as interested in grim reality as it is in angels, secret agents and apocalyptic fiction?

Isn’t it?

Liz Filleul lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she works part-time as a senior editor in a large publishing house and spends the rest of her time ferrying her son to school and various sporting activities, writing fiction and reading (mostly YA).

Liz won Sisters in Crime Australia’s Scarlet Stiletto Award for short crime fiction in 2004, and was runner up in 2007 and 2011. She has been shortlisted again for this year’s awards. She has had two novels published by Bettany Press in the UK – To All Appearance, Dead, a murder mystery set among collectors of girls’ school stories, and First Term at Cotterford, a contemporary school story. She is currently writing a YA novel set during World War II.

Liz blogs at Story Spinner.

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