Rebels & Outcasts: Manchester Literature Festival YA Panel

Celebrating its 10th Birthday this year, Manchester Literature Festival has a particularly impressive Children and Young Peoples line up. With events ranging from a debate on the future of Children’s Poetry (with Michael Rosen no less) to Comic Art Masterclasses and a bumper Family Reading Day with the likes of Lydia Monks, Johnny Duddle, Yasmeen Ismail and Kristina Stephenson in attendance we were really spoilt for choice.

It was, however, the YA event ‘Rebels and Outcasts’ which really stole the show for me. Featuring three amazing authors, Sarah Crossan, Julie Mayhew and Laura Dockrill, this really showcased the best that YA has to offer.

Chaired by Steve Dearden of the Manchester Writing Squad the discussion focused not only on the individual authors and their books but the phenomenon of YA writing itself. Indeed, the event opened with the bold statement that ‘YA has an urgency and a way of engaging with the world, the here and the now, that is perhaps lacking in Adult Literature’.IMG_0476

First to read was Sarah Crossan from her book One. Written in free verse, One is a beautiful exploration of the relationship between conjoined twins Grace and Tippi. I’d read this book a few weeks prior and it simply blew me away – it’s too hard to try and do it justice here with just a few words but suffice to say that this is one of 2015’s must read books. Sarah spoke about the research and writing process for this novel much of which you can also read about in her fantastic article for the Guardian Children’s Book site .

Julie Mayhew, author of the Big Lie, a story of rebellion and revelation set in a contemporary Nazi England, introduced herself as the girl least likely to write about Nazis and went on to explain how the inspiration for her book came from her 7yr old and Justin Beiber! (You can read more about this in the lovely 6 Questions interview from Wenlock Books). She spoke about not wanting the book to become a history lesson but wanted to explore giving girls a voice – something that she realised had so far been neglected in other alternative histories.IMG_0479

Laura Dockrill was last to read but by no means least; her multivoice novel Lorali was perfectly suited to performance and Laura had the room totally captivated with her rendition of some of the book’s mermaid obsessed bloggers. Though we heard but a tiny sample, it gave a real sense of the explosion of different styles and voices that make up this novel. From the Clockwork Orange-esque pirates to Lorali’s own voice as well as chapters written from the POV of the Sea itself, the book abounds in a continuous experimentation and joyous exploration of language.

Given that these are all books that in some way break the rules (either by virtue of their content or their style), the Q&A’s opened with a discussion about YA being a space in literature which currently allows more freedom to authors and led to all three discussing the question ‘am I allowed to write this?’. Sarah Crossan spoke about anticipating the inevitable accusations of ‘how are you qualified to write this given that you’re not a conjoined twin’, to which Laura Dockrill deftly replied – who asks Eric Carle does he know what it was like to be a caterpillar and turn into a butterfly? How much research did he do?.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be a mermaid but I do know what it’s like to be unique, to be different, the only one in fancy dress at the funeral…” – Laura Dockrill

For all three the solution was to tell the ’emotional truth’. You might not know what it’s like to be a mermaid or a conjoined twin or even the daughter of a high ranking Nazi but you might know what it’s like to be unique or to be that little bit different. Julie Mayhew spoke about the excitement in being able to throw ideas out there to investigate and to invite your readers to explore how they might behave in the same situation and though acknowledging that it can be easy to get bogged down in the research and the details, Sarah Crossan stressed the importance of getting the emotional landscape of the book right. Once you’ve got this then the story will work; it’s why books like Lord Of The Rings work – why we believe that trees can talk – because the emotional landscape of the book works.

It was a fantastic event that felt right at the cutting edge of YA fiction at the moment. It’s such a refreshing change to see events with high profile YA authors like this making it ‘Oop North’ – thanks and congratulations to Manchester Literature Festival.

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