The weekend of the 12th-13th July the first annual Young Adult Literature Convention came to Earls Court. On offer was a wide range of panels, workshops, and author signings, as well as several publisher and book tables where you could browse the top Young Adult books of the moment. Sharing a venue with the London Film and Comic Convention made things both exciting, with the many amazing and complicated costumes, and hectic, with Earls Court seeing its worst ever queues on the Saturday (no doubt due, in part, to the presence of Stan Lee!). There were definitely some kinks to be worked out in terms of space and organisation, but on the whole Malorie Blackman, the current Children’s Laureate and organiser of the event, and the YALC team should be proud of a very successful convention.
The panels included author discussions on young adult literature concerning the appeal of dystopian fiction and fantasy novels, gender and heroines, and the appropriate presence or absence of sex in books for a young adult readership. Many of these prompted thought-provoking discussions and were attended by an audience consisting of a wide age range, opening up issues and questions as a variety of people saw them. Discussions on dystopia included a comment from Malorie Blackman (who was also fantastically dressed up for the comic con occasion!) that the genre was about “the power of the individual to effect change” and that, in a society and period of their lives where young adults may feel like they are not being listened to, this notion of individual agency really speaks to them. A particularly astute part of the discussion and an extremely interesting consideration came from Patrick Ness on the very nature of the dystopia, making the point that if many dystopian novels are about “how do you survive when the worst thing happens” then The Fault in Our Stars, in its own way, could be considered as a kind of individual or microcosmic dystopia. It’s “about the world ending and how you’re handling it”.
The panel on sex and sexuality in young adult fiction was one of the best with an extremely sharp and charismatic chair in James Dawson, the recently crowned Queen of Teen for 2014, who began with his introduction of the authors and their use of “sexy-funtime” which set the entertaining tone for the hour. The general and valid consensus was that many young adults are having sex, even if their parents do not want to think that they are, and that the fiction they are reading should reflect that, as well as the issues that can arise from being sexually active. In many ways reading fiction is an accessible and non-judgmental way for young adults to explore their questions on sex and sexuality without leaving them to the “mercy of the internet and Google”. Another topic that kept coming up was the concept of “gate-keepers” (teachers, parents, librarians, editors etc.) who may possibly stand between a young adult and a new book. The selection of authors on the panel, however, illustrate that it is possible to address sex without upsetting the “gate-keepers” because these issues can be addressed to varying degrees. Examples range from Beth Reekles’ “fade to black” sex scene for younger readers in contrast to Cat Clarke’s more graphic book in which sex is used as a weapon. While parents may want to censor their children’s reading to some extent, this can be done without skirting round the issue of sex completely.
The panels also included questions for aspiring authors of various young adult genres which was one of the most successful parts of the convention; these panels were directed towards a range of interests and topics, addressing questions on the genre generally but also the processes that the authors went through to write their novels. One question, for example, from James Dawson was on the process of writing a sex scene and getting in the mood: “Do you buy yourself a flower? Do you run yourself a lovely bath?” Some less romantic responses included Non Pratt’s method of just trying to “hammer it out” (expanded, after the laughter had died down, to her process of writing her favourite scenes first), but other suggestions came through as well, like Clarke’s “sexy-time playlist” full of ideas from her Twitter followers. While these anecdotes are amusing, the point being made here is how helpful these questions are to aspiring authors who may not know exactly how to approach their writing and just need a bit of guidance to see how others do it. The other panels were just as interesting and the vast majority of authors chosen to speak were compelling and engaging, but for the sake of space they cannot all be covered here.
The workshops provided a more intimate venue for sessions on ‘Writing Historical Fiction’, ‘Finding your Writing Voice’, and ‘Speed-pitching to Agents’ among others. The workshops illustrated some of the kinks that need to be addressed for next year because in the very loud Earls Court any speaker without a microphone had to scream to be heard, something to which the hoarse throats of the speakers by the end would probably attest. From the parts that could be heard, however, the workshops were extremely useful to aspiring authors and gave them an opportunity as well to practice their own writing under the watchful eye of an experienced writer. ‘Speed-pitching to Agents’ was an invaluable opportunity to quiz agents about the writing industry, invaluable because they are in such high demand now that it is almost impossible to get a publishing deal without one.
Looking at both the panels and the workshops, there was an excellent range catering to all interests, and the speakers were well chosen for their particular sessions. After buying a ticket to the venue, all of the events (though ticketed) were free and, in contrast to comic con, the signings were all free of charge as well. That is, as long as you were willing to queue, which resulted in quite a few clashes between the YALC queues and the people lining up for photos with Mr Lee! This leads on to one of the only problems with the convention: space. As it was the first time this event had ever been held, the level of attendance had clearly been underestimated. It is quite possible that the YALC could have worked as a stand-alone event even in its first year, but that is something that can easily be worked out for future years. Overall, for a brand new event, the organisation was very good and the convention provided an extremely interesting weekend.
Definitely keep a lookout for the Young Adult Literature Convention in coming years!