Book Events · Panel Notes

Express yourself: Bali Rai and a group of Young Londoners

Please note these are the notes I took during the panel, all of these are my jottings down and are not direct quotes from any panel member

Introduced by Liv Bird – Chief Executive of Booktrust, have scheme on website for online writer in residence, currently Bali Rai. A wonderful resource for anyone interested in reading and writing and getting children engaged with the process. Bali is a great supporter and advocate for young people, has made sure we’re listening to them.

Alongside Bali the panellists are all keen readers, teenagers. M (13), K (13), E (16) and L (16).

Idea behind the panel – part of offer from Booktrust was to focus on teens and YA as the book gifting was likely to be dropped, so remit was to talk to teens and YA. What could he do? For years industry spends lots of time talking about what children want, but there are never young people involved in this discussion. So this panel is for the industry to actually talk to young people. Teens have been briefed to be completely honest!

Q (Bali) how do you feel young people are represented in books?

M – Not shown very realistically, don’t feel that I’m reading about a kid my age just another book with an adult, authors not in touch with inner child or familiar enough with what teens are really like. We’re not just robots, we get mad and happy at the smallest things. Bad side particularly badly done, e.g. hoodies always mean bad, she wears a hoodie and isn’t bad, has been challenged in places for wearing a hoodie.

K – Agrees, characters are described as being ordinary kids but they’re not. Characters tend to be far more emotionally strong than real teens, they’re braver, they can do far more than real kids actually do. Would be terrified to do lots of things teens are being depicted as doing.

E – Don’t feel some books represent their world e.g. Twilight – liked that Native Americans contrasted with white Americans, not always seen. But Bella is so passive and found the relationship very uncomfortable. Contrast to Rani and Sukh where there is a strong character.

L – Some teen books focus on really small issues, suggest teens don’t have awareness of bigger things going on. Can relate to characters but feels like the focus is too narrow, and can be too one track minded.

Q (Bali) – So how does he as 40 year old male get into the head of a 15 year old female character?

M – All adults have an inner child and just need to tap into that, think about own experiences and how they related to others at that age.

Q (Bali) – Are we talking about seeing you as humans first rather than as teens?

M -Yes as individuals rather than teens as a whole thing, everyone’s different.

E – Immerse yourself in the culture, read the fiction, watch the tv shows, read the magazines. Get teen girls to read writing, see if they agree.

L – Interesting to have a conversation with the character, talk about the issues being faced, give characters proper personalities.

Bali -Barrington Stoke does this, every single book goes out to schools for feedback.

E – Maybe author can do this first individually, and then panel for discussion.

Bali – What about the voice you hear? One thing heard on school visits is that in some YA fiction the voice is not authentic, sounds like an adult.

M – Adults would sound more professional, teens have their own way of talking e.g. TTYL is actually said by teens, if writers don’t get teen lingo then they’ll never sound right. Most adults are pretty boring, they’re disconnected and have embraced adulthood and responsibility. Some adults think that young people can’t have opinions.

E – Agree, best way to get a genuine teen voice is to go out there and listen to them, go to schools and listen though be aware that teens talk differently in different situations so maybe look at their creative writing.

L – Stream of consciousness might give most accurate language.

Bali – But we have to be aware slang changes rapidly and so can date a book,

E – Still read Pride and Prejudice and loved it, so it maybe doesn’t matter

B – Talked about his love for The Outsiders and how specific the language is to that time period.

M – not a problem, gives a feel / understanding of then.

E – Sees books like this as a welcome challenge

L – Enjoyed Small Island, written in accent, hard but felt better connected to character

B – Has strong opinion about difference between children and YA and thus what written, feels a lot of what is written for YA is about children not YA. Are you children?

M – No, stop being a child when you enter secondary, that change from having a single constant teacher to a teacher per subject, more expectations, lack of consistent support. Completely different, child transition from being entirely dependent little person to someone responsible for themselves.

K – Sometimes the representation is right, it depends on how the author sees you, depends on the individual, some children are more mature than some teenagers. Feels she knows how the world works and how to cope alone. Don’t know everything about how adults work, still learning and still has development to do.

L – When she was 12/13 didn’t read teen books, started reading adult books. Teen books at that age are hard to relate to, teens feel more grown up than they actually are, and then as got a bit older went back to YA and could relate to it far more, feels voices are more like 16/17. Feels a definitely gap in the market, very few books that are really suitable for 12/13, no one is providing what they want to read. Capable of understanding from adult point of view but still so much developing to do.

E – Adults recognise teens have fewer experiences, at 14 was overconfident only now realise year on year how much developing is still happening. Don’t underestimate ‘cos teens will feel patronised.

Q (author) – Which adult books were you reading?

E – Catcher In The Rye (hated it but wants to revisit now older), Eva by Peter Dickinson, Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Jen Mah, biography of Mary Bell

L – Beloved (confusing but loved it), A Piece of Cake (about prostitution and drugs, very good but feels was too young, learned a lot about how difficult life can be, feels adults would have underestimated ability to understand)

M – Colour Purple (was told it was too old for her so motivated to read it)

Q (Storytellers Inc, St Annes) – Do you want to read about teens your age? She wanted to read things she shouldn’t have been, adult books.

M – Fine with both, older will have different experiences and perspectives. In Killing God by Kevin Brooks main character was about same age, could relate well to her.

L – Thinks with Twilight, Bella is an average teen, this is why she’s so loved ‘cos she’s the same age and relatable. Tended to read books that mom was reading so has influenced choices of books. Interested in both same age and older, likes to discover through other characters but there’s something comforting about reading a character same age going through same thing.

Q (Student, Publishing, 74) – Where are the males on the panel? What are your feelings about literature poetry? (Currently collecting poetry from teens, having translated into range of languages.)

M – Doesn’t read poetry, doesn’t understand why people do but has friends that love it, they say it’s quicker and shorter and interesting, can still have same depth.

E – Loves poetry, reads and writes it, enjoyed Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Romantics, foundShelley hard but loves Byron’s She Walks In Beauty, loves Caroline Duffy, easier to understand but still has depth. All introduced through school, so may not have experienced otherwise.

L – Don’t naturally think of poetry, thinks it should be as popular as prose.

M – There was supposed to be a boy but he chickened out. She feels boys more interested in sport / physical activities. One of her teachers has said boys can’t stay still, girls are far quieter and more passive so take things in better.

E – Thinks boys less vocal about reading, has male friend who reads loads, knows another guy who reads and writes creatively lots.

M – Doesn’t know any boys who read, feels they don’t even get what reading means. They don’t even like reading in class, make fun of it, don’t pay it proper attention. Knows that if they’d try they’d love it.

Bali – Does lots of work with reluctant young men, feels lots of them aren’t telling the truth, they do actually read but secretly.

K – Does think there are boys closet reading.

Q (Lucy Coates) -She gets asked not to put in swearing and sex as it won’t get past gatekeepers. How do you feel about them?

M – All teenagers know about sex, most teens swear. Not going to be anything new, no more bad examples to be set.

L – It happens, why shouldn’t it be in a book? Feels this is why there are issues around such things, should be open about things. Best way to tackle issues is to talk about them, a book is a great way to start a discussion.

Q (lawyer, freelance writer (Christian journals) and writes for teens) – How far do you go with gratuitous violence, gang issues?

E – Has an 8 year old brother, didn’t like him having toy guns etc. Now feels it does happen so books can deal with it in a responsible way, can show how things are bad and harmful. Brilliant school librarian guides right kids to right books to discuss these issues but important to have that discussion support.

L – By going there you can deal with a lot of issues e.g. why gang member joined gang.

Bali – Are there any lines that shouldn’t be crossed?

M – Is uncomfortable with idea of young teens reading about rape, but knows she was aware of it and so the right discussion could be had.

L – No, but it’s about the way it’s dealt with.

Bali – Authors do get feedback on this, e.g. his recent book opens with graphic rape scene and one school had issue with it.

Q (writer) How much are you interested in non fiction?

E – Leisure reading choices all fiction, non-fiction reading is mainly down to exposure (mum studying law), feels it’s not aimed at teens well, not interestingly presented

K – Haven’t read any, feels it’s not interesting enough, the layout’s not suited to teens, Horrible Histories are fun but others just show facts and are boring.

M – Don’t really read any, in the library walks straight to fiction, non-fiction just looks like a big mess, would go and look up specific thing, too much like studying.

Q – Is reading a form of escapism? And if so surely reading gritty, hard things doesn’t allow for escapism? Would something less everyday be more escapist?

M – Doesn’t matter if book is full of unicorns, werewolves, or not you’re stepping out of you and stepping into someone else. The character will always be different to you even if faced with the same situations.

Q – Is 24 and not ancient, but as a teen hated text speak, prefers to read words written properly, so wouldn’t text speak alienate some teens? Would it not make novel more for a niche.

E – Personally agrees, she and her friends feel boys sound like idiots in texts, thinks it’s about doing something new and original, e.g. novel written in notes on fridge. Okay in moderation.

M – Don’t need whole novel in text speak, just accurate to how teens talk – things like “Me and my mates” not “My friends and I”. No one talks perfectly.

Q – On the subject of boys reading, went on school trip to France, on last night talking “what’s said in France says in France”, group of boys ended up all talk about reading, discovered one of them actually writing a book. Do any of the panellists write?

M – Writes short stories, doesn’t share, hides under bed, writes about anything that comes to her.

E – Carries notebook everywhere, writes poetry lots. Some part finished stories.

L – Had to write short story for school, would love to be able to write but doesn’t feel that creative.

Q (Someone from Booktrust) – runs website with teen section, where do you find out about the books you want to read?

M – Walks into library and browses, title first, then blurb, then skim to see if interesting.

L – Amazon’s recommendations, libraries, mum, friends’ recommendations

K – Picks based on cover, then blurb, then reads last pages, finds books in school library.

E – No time now for library so book recommendations and Kindle free books.

Bali – really hopes people will now take this on board and talk more to young people.

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