Identity @ Bath Children’s Literature Festival

by Emma Sewell
by Emma Sewell

bath-kids-lit-festMy second talk on Saturday had four great authors talking on the subject of identity, and how much YA books reflect the reader. As always, there are so many different things brought up that it makes it hard to include everything. So below I’ve tried to sum up the main elements discussed.

Each author had their own mini introduction with a little quote about how they saw themselves as a teenager…

Jenny Downham – author of Before I Die, You Against Me and Unbecoming. Originally trained as an actor. “She was uncomfortable in her skin, and longing to run away and reinterpret herself.”

Lisa Williamson – author of The Art of Being Normal. Has worked on TV and in some adverts, you might recognise her as the mum from the John Lewis Monty’s Christmas advert. “She was awkward, a bit nerdy, but comfortable with it.”

Alison Rattle – author of The Quietness, The Madness, The Beloved and V for Violet. Former Topshop designer. “Classic good girl, who horrified her mother by hooking up with the local hoodlum on a motorbike”… who she later married.

Harriet Reuter Hapgood – author of The Square Root of Summer. Fashion magazine sub-editor. “She wanted to stand out completely but at the same time be exactly the same as everyone else.”

Some people read books to escape and others read books to be able to identify with the characters. The panel seemed to be in agreement about two things. 1] Reading a book that feels like it sums you up is amazing, you want to keep the book forever, and never lend it to anyone for fear they will make friends with your new book BFF. And 2] reading something that is far outside your own world is wonderful too, and gives you a chance to learn about other people and situations. While you might not identify with the character at the beginning, as the story unfolds, no matter how different they are to you, everyone encounters the same base problems of fear, anxiety and love.

Creating the books is a turbulent affair, the topics can be quite hard-hitting. They discussed the benefits of researching your topics so that you can tackle your situations better. Reuter Hapgood said, “If you write about a straight white guy and get it wrong, no one is really going to get hurt by that. If you write about a marginalised person and get it wrong that can do real harm.”


What YA book would you give to your younger self?

There were deep looks of contemplation over this question, and then four very different answers.

Reuter Hapgood: The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, a book about love and forgiveness, and Lennie Walker’s struggles after her sister dies.

Rattle: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, not YA, but a powerful book about identity and rites of passage.

Williamson: The Spinster Club series by Holly Bourne, the popular trilogy who’s first book is Am I Normal Yet? The girls in the stories feel very real and are a complete contrast to the Sweet Valley High she used to read as a teen.

Downham: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, even though the book is about a boy, it is a story about taking life by the horns.


YA’s greater appeal

YA is brought by a lot of people who aren’t YA, I always like to think they’re actually Young-at-heart-adults. Identity is something that you are constantly discovering about yourself, we’re always reinventing ourselves. Reuter Hapgood summed up the fluidity of identity with a Buffy quote (I always approve of a nerd reference), “I’m cookie dough. I’m not done baking.”

Young adulthood involves a lot of firsts, and you have help and guidance with some of that through teachers, family and friends. But in adulthood you’re still coming across new challenges, and you’ve got to deal with a whole different set of rules and ideas to conquer them. Downham said, the cusp of adulthood is an interesting time, the myth is that when you’re an adult you’re allowed to do what you want, but there are all sorts of new boundaries.

Perhaps this is why YA is read by such a wide range of audiences, all the issues and decisions are relevant, you just never know when they’re going to arise in your life.

Summing up at the end the chair asked if there was anything you would want to tell your teenage self.

“You haven’t met your people yet.”

“You don’t have to be the person your parents want you to be.”

Unbecoming by Jenny Downham The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson V for Violet by Alison Rattle The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood

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