Saturday 12 October 2019

The Importance of Books by Vanessa Harbour

We all know how important books are. We know what a vital role they play. Sometimes though it really helps to be reminded why. Some of you may have seen a tweet I posted earlier this week about an experience I had when lecturing. In discussion with a group of students about character I asked them who their favourite characters were. The answers were diverse and eclectic but often what accompanied their answer was an explanation. This explanation nearly always included how the characters and/or the book had helped them and why. For some it had been through a darkest moment, for others, it had been to deal with difficult situations and overwhelmingly, it was how they had helped them get through adolescence. Sorry, I’m not listing the books here as I don’t want any student feeling they are being talked about.  Here I am talking in generalities. The majority of these books were young adult fiction. Another reminder of how important young adult fiction is and how vital it is that publishers continue to produce amazing YA by the incredible YA authors from the UK. I picked up one the other day at the mass book launch and publisher launch for Guppy Publishing. Gloves Off by Louisa Reid, is brilliant and so powerful. A must read.

But as I said, we know books do this. We know books can provide an escape and support when needed. Maybe that metaphoric hug just when craved. No character in a book will judge. Books are places where you can tell the characters your deepest darkest secret. A book can be whatever you need it to be. Between those pages is a safe place to be and that is what we, as writers, create.

Books do so much more. They can open a dialogue, providing a chance to discuss difficult and/or sensitive subjects. The reader can ask questions of the text, of themselves and, when they are ready, of others – whether that is parents, teachers, siblings or friends. Again, this is not news. Windows and mirrors, a chance to see someone experiencing the same issues as them or a chance to try and understand what it is like to experience those issues, walking in their shoes.

Back in 2011 in my PhD, the research I did highlighted how important it was that young adult fiction continued to cover challenging subjects. The thesis looked at the representation of sex, drugs and alcohol in young adult fiction, but I believe it is so much more, covering many more difficult and sensitive subjects, and not restricted to young adult fiction. Philip Pullman has previously stated that there are some themes too large for adult fiction and can only be dealt with adequately in children’s fiction while Melvin Burgess also suggests that children can cope with anything as long as it is in context. Both of these have helped me understand so much for many years now.
Melvin Burgess
Philip Pullman

The important phrase there is ‘in context’. I do have an issue when contentious subjects are used for shock value or the scene is just gratuitous. It needs to serve a purpose and be part of the narrative. I have been a little concerned in some areas of Twitter to see a call for some issues to be ‘white-washed out’ and never ever included.  This for me is a problem. The moment you exclude something and refuse to talk about it, there is a risk it will become mysterious and exciting. This creates the exact problem those who wish to 'white-wash' them out have been trying to avoid. The issue suddenly becomes something intriguing. If you include issues in a piece fiction, ensuring it is not sensationalised or glamorised, then it provides an opportunity for dialogue. A chance to discuss these issues in a meaningful way. I personally believe this is important.

More than anything I want to say to people and, in particular, young adult writers, keep writing. Your books make a real difference.

Dr Vanessa Harbour

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