Some years ago, I came across an amazing book. It was written for a younger readership but like many books in that genre it pulled no punches when dealing with challenging, even poignant issues. At the same time it was packed with wit, energy and a kind of magical sprightliness I found immensely appealing. The book was Follow Me Down and its author was Julie Hearn.
I met Julie herself years later: we were both teaching on Oxford University's International Creative Writing Summer School. It was a joy to make friends with a writer who was as much fun and as charged with imaginative energy as the book she'd written. I'm delighted that Julie will be teaching a day course on writing teen fiction as part of my autumn programme of Fictionfire events: she's a truly inspiring teacher with so much knowledge of the craft and the industry to impart. I've asked her over to Literascribe to describe how she came to write in the YA genre and why it matters to her. Over to Julie -
“Why did you start writing Young Adult fiction?”
I get asked this a lot.
Firstly, I was tired of writing for adults. Aged thirty, I was a journalist, writing a mother and baby column for The Daily Star. Aged forty I was at Oxford University, writing about maternal power and witch-hunts in Early Modern England, for a MSt in Women’s Studies. I felt – and still feel – a wicked sense of satisfaction over that shift but, aged forty-one, the thought of writing more stuff requiring footnotes appealed about as much as the thought of writing more dross for the tabloids.
I needed another shift.
Secondly, the story idea that hooked me so completely that it got into my dreams seemed tailor-made for the Young Adult market (for readers aged eleven to seventeen, or thereabouts) I had found it in the Bodleian Library’s collection of printed ephemera: an eighteenth century handbill, about a young girl being shown as a “monster” at Bartholomew Fair.
The Changeling Child
To be seen next door to the Black Raven in West Smithfield, during the time of Bartholomew Fair, a living skeleton taken from a Turkish Vessel. This is a Fairy Child supposed to be born of Hungarian parents but changed in the nursing. Aged nine years or more, not exceeding a foot and a half high, the legs, thighs and arms so very small that they scarce exceed the bigness of a man's thumb and the face no bigger than the palm of one's hand and seems so grave and solid as if it were threescore years old. You may see the whole anatomy of its body by setting it against the sun. It never speaks. It has no teeth but is the most hungry creature in the world, eating more victuals than the stoutest man in England. Gives great satisfaction to all that ever did, or shall, behold it.
I wanted to give this Changeling Child the happy ending she surely did not have in real life. I wanted to address issues of abuse, and difference, and love and loyalty without cynicism or the rueful wisdom of an adult author addressing adult readers.
I camped out in the Bodleian, researching Bartholomew Fair and eighteenth- century London. I read about the surgeons at St Bartholomew’s Hospital who dissected corpses as often, and as cheerfully, as they might have cut up a chop for supper. I read about the grave robbers who supplied those corpses, charging extra for anything “unusual”. My young protagonist, I decided, was going to be a time traveller who would meet the Changeling Child and uncover a plot that could see her dead before her time, and under the knife of my hard-hearted dissectionist, Dr Flint.
Writing Follow Me Down was like sliding down a rainbow – a giddy, exhilarating swoop towards – what? I didn’t know. I didn’t wonder, much, about the publication process. It was enough, back then, to be making things up, with no worries about libel actions or plagiarism!
Follow Me Down went to auction. It was translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish and Japanese. It was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award and nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal. It paid for my kitchen extension and a holiday in Antigua.
Best of all it sent me on a writing journey that has been challenging, rewarding and never, ever dull. I care about this kind of writing. I care about my readers and, while mindful of what author Madeleine L’Engle said - “…the best children’s books ask questions, and make the reader ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.” – I am careful about the way I frame a question for impressionable young minds.
I care about my characters.
“How old is the protagonist in Follow Me Down?” I was asked, a while ago, during a radio interview.
“Tom’s fifteen,” I replied. And then I realised: “No … sorry… he’s twelve. In the book, I mean. He’s fifteen now.”
The interviewer gave me a look that said “Are you mad?”
When I tell that story to other YA writers they smile, and nod. They absolutely get it. They, too, have worked so hard to create characters “real” teenagers will recognise, and bond with, that should those characters knock at the door one day they would not turn a hair.
They, too have slid down a few rainbows in their time.
It is great, great fun.
The Next Big Thing in Teen Fiction - Could You Be the One to Write It?
Day course in Oxford, 19th November 2016
Are you keen to write or develop your fiction for teens or young adults? Julie Hearn, who has published seven acclaimed novels including Follow Me Down, The Merrybegot and Rowan the Strange, will help you develop your storytelling techniques, including crucial aspects such as openings, character and voice, plot and pace. You'll learn about the young adult genre and what's hot in the current market, maximising your chances of success with your submission. With discussion and writing exercises during the course, you'll leave with increased confidence, enhanced skills and the courage to make your pitch.
The course runs from 9.45-5.00 and includes all refreshments and a delicious lunch.
For full details and how to book, visit www.fictionfire.co.uk/course-dates-&-details
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.