Written for SYP Scotland blog | Children’s publishing is thriving in the UK, and it’s one of the areas that many find themselves interested in, so for our November event we wanted to give you an insight into the field across all age ranges, from different perspectives. We had author and editor Liz Bankes (Catnip Books) talking about Young Adult and New Adult, agent Lindsey Fraser (Fraser Ross Associates) talking about Middle-Grade, and design manager Leah McDowell (Floris Books) discussing picture books.
That’s a lot to squeeze into an hour and a half, but luckily we just about managed!
Young Adult & New Adult – Liz Bankes
‘Curiously tame’ is the best description of herself Liz says she’s ever read. It was talking about one of her books, labelled New Adult. For those unaware, it’s apparently “young adult with sexy times” and Liz had to spend a long time explaining to friends and family that “No, I hadn’t written a sexy book for children.”
New Adult is, she believes, not really a thing. “It’s a marketing tool. I wasn’t sure that was what I’d actually written. I’m still not sure.” The original book cover suggested featured a shirtless man and was accused of “promising more than it delivered”, but she wrote a realistic romantic comedy of sorts, it wasn’t supposed to be sexy.
She’s had to spend a lot of time answering the question, “Do you think that 14 year olds should read about sex?” Liz could only speak about herself and her own work as “to speak for a category is very hard.” All she wanted to do was Dawson’s Creek with young people.
So why is this called New Adult? “Maybe it’s because that’s a time when everything is new. There’s a sense of possibility and change. But isn’t that Young Adult? Young Adult isn’t rigidly defined. People don’t know what it is. Isn’t it the story that really counts?”
“I still don’t think New Adult is a thing.”
In response to a blog she read – 7 Reasons You Should Write a YA Novel, From One Woman Who Did – Liz offers her alternative: 7 Reasons to Read, Write and Publish YA, From One Woman Who Likes It.
First, the young adults – they weren’t mentioned. When you work in publishing you want to make sure there’s good books at every age. Talk unpatronisingly to readers, it’s a key period in life. YA isn’t a thing, it’s not a genre – it’s too vast; but YA is also a space full of possibility. Age is just a number, you can just do it, and social media is where readers can actually talk to authors. YA can put across issues for young people and present decisions they themselves make and, finally, that the stories are just brilliant.
Opening to the floor, what are her top things she looks in YA as an editor? “The voice, the way it’s told, believing and liking what they do,” she explains. “You can tell if they’re writing for love or writing for a trend. Also, a bit of humour.”
Has she come to a conclusion on whether New Adult is a thing yet, and are her books that? “I wouldn’t label [my books] that,” she says. “They’re teen romance. I still don’t think New Adult is a thing. It’s marketing – not something readers care about.”
Does being an editor make her think differently on broaching topics that she could as a writer? “I do believe that reading about dark things is a great way to experience them. It’s better in a story than random stuff on the internet.” She does concede that as an editor she needs books that will sell, so needs to be cautious of rejection from bookshops.
As for her own career path, she set up a blog for focus. “It’s a good way of getting a voice as a writer.” She’d list her top five books in various topics. It shows your taste for editorial and is a good example of how you write. Her blog only had ten readers (“One of those was my mum!”) so an audience doesn’t directly link to success.
Middle-Grade – Lindsey Fraser
“You always feel comfortable by having books around you,” begins Lindsey as she unpacks so many books she may have pinched Mary Poppins’ bag. She begins with labelling: Middle-Grade was originally a US term, and it’s used a lot now, and we think we know what we’re talking about, but she’s not so sure.
“Not every child will like all the books,” she continues. “It’s such an unscientific industry.” She pictures herself as a child when considering books, as “the essence of being a child has not changed.” She refers to the Secret Lives of… series on Channel 4 – “the children are so bright, so interested, so curious. It’s a dull thing, a book. All it has to do is make a child want to turn the pages.”
Reading a book as a child and re-reading it as an adult provide totally different experiences; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is (obviously) not a true story, but you learn so much – there’s so much feeling and emotion in it, and that’s what Middle-Grade offers.
The children aren’t interested in how they look, but things are shifting: they’re getting more independent, walking to school themselves. “The book is the engine house of reading,” she adds. This is the age where children start to choose after years of having books chosen for them. It’s an important stage, “they’re making friends and keeping friends, not throwing tantrums as much.”
Charlotte’s Web was a defining book for Lindsey; she still remembers where she was, what she was wearing and the weather when she read it. “It hit all the right spots, it was emotional because… well, no spoilers!”
“It’s a gateway to a world they’re starting to discover.”
She recalls a teacher reading to her at school, stopping with laughter as she found the book so funny to read. “It’s these books that plug into you, it’s who reads it to you and with you, who you talk to about it. It’s like the YA community Liz spoke about.”
“Don’t be so snippy about old-fashioned,” she adds. “It has a market.” While short and snappy series were a dominating force for a while, she often finds young children who connect with the books she herself read as a youngster. What’s popular isn’t necessarily for every child.
“Middle-Grade is that child you’ll remember yourself being, in bed with a torch and four pages left to go when someone made you go out,” she comments, with knowing laughs in the crowd. “It is very difficult to market to, they’re resistant to it.” That’s why she is staunchly for libraries: “I’m so passionate about the library: you get to experiment with the world in front of you, get it wrong, learn about reading and life.”
“It’s a gateway to a world they’re starting to discover,” she adds. “So, write because you love it, do not think about the market.”
What does she make of technology in books, as it has so often been described as an evil? “As an agent, your life is about making the most of rights, and technology is your friend in that sense. If people are reading electronically, I don’t really mind. It’s not changing everything, it’s just offering an alternative way to access books.”
Picture Books – Leah McDowell
Leah begins with the history of picture books, with a rather dapper fellow called Randolph Caldecott looking down from the screen. He’s the ‘inventor’ of the modern picture book, all the way back in the 19th century. “He encouraged the idea that illustrations weren’t for decoration, but a narrative tool in their own right. The weight to convey narrative is evenly split.” When you consider how powerful a picture can be now, it seems quite a revolutionary thought for an era that didn’t feature them so prominently.
But moving towards this notion hasn’t been without its issues. Picture books are ubiquitous in childhood, carefully balancing both words and images to give an immersive story that they both contribute to, but #picturesmeanbusiness has highlighted an ongoing disparity. Authors are credited over illustrators, it’s seen as a lesser contribution. It even runs as deep as Nielsen metadata. This campaign has made a great stride towards highlighting and addressing the problem.
“It’s just a book, but it sows a seed.”
There is also a diversity gap, which the industry is trying to address. “It’s wrong to discriminate,” says Leah, “so there’s the same wisdom for children.” It’s not just ethnicity, but sexuality and socio-economic backgrounds too. Some books she thinks are doing a great job in this respect are:
- Sex is a Funny Word – a trans-inclusive book “about bodies, feelings, and you”.
- Last Stop on Market Street – socio-economic issues are handled, with the character questioning his gran on why he doesn’t have things others do.
- The Arrival – broaches the topic of immigration.
“But why care?” she asks. The core of children’s picture books is that they are important, they impact the reader development, mental, social and cognitive skills. We all remember reading Winnie the Pooh, for example; “it was our first look into the world around us, that it was bigger than imagined. It’s just a book, but it sows a seed.”