PHBC: THE YEARBOOK BY PETER LERANGIS

Posted by James Dawson on April 13, 2014

41SA3EJ197LWhat’s it all about?

High IQ boy next door David Kallas only agrees to work on the yearbook to be near his crush, Ariana. However, when he discovers a corpse at the local make-out spot, David soon finds himself balls deep in a historical mystery, a yearbook that seems to predict who will soon die and a calcium-based squid monster from Greece.

What?

This isn’t a joke. A calcium based squid monster from Greece.

Also…a BOY next door?

Yep. AND it’s told in first person. The Yearbook simply isn’t like any other entry in the Point Horror cannon. I’m not sure there were ever any other titles with a male lead. The author, Peter Lerangis is a hugely prolific author for children and young adults with some twenty titles under his belt.

I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if The Yearbook was not originally written to be part of the Point Horror range.

The Boy

David could have time travelled back (not surprising given the timey wimey elements of The Yearbook) from a current John Green era novel. He’s pleasingly nerdy without being neurotic, he’s cute (until he gets lumps all over his face) and comes with both a past and present (timey wimey) including a bereavement. It’s nothing to do with his gender (Jenny Jeffers is as well rounded), it’s all in the excellent writing.

The Yearbook is sophisticated beyond the average Point Horror novel. The insinuation of teen sex (‘Ariana was discovering heaven in a Chevy’) and multiple deaths put this in a different camp, not to mention readership. The first person perspective of David allows him more humour and more of an inner world than most Point Horror girls. He’s also allowed to joke about shitting himself.

Cyb6The Love Interest

Ariana Maas, who sounds like a Mouseketeer, is no pushover. For most of the book she’s into secretly evil Smut (with whom she has the aforementioned car sex) and sees David as a bit of a sex pest.

However, as she’s from the Nancy Drew school of running a Yearbook, she seeks out David when things get weird and they fall in love like falling asleep: slowly and then all at once.

Ariana gets bonus gross out-points for biting heartily through a tentacle until goo spurts all over her face. That David is one lucky guy. With her thick red hair, Ariana gets 90′s TV star Alicia Witt to play her.

Dialogue Disasters

By and large, the writing is excellent, so the dialogue disasters are few and far between. Even the poems…very shaky in previous Point Horror offerings – remember Funhouse – are fun.

However, special mention for every line the immortal Reggie Borden says: ‘You-know-who is pretty bugged about the biting. If you don’t speak up you could both be sacrificed, dig?’ Reader, I am not hip to his jive.

Of course, the most hideous moment comes with the revelation that ‘Mark’s’ segments of the novel aren’t from the past, but the future. OR, in fact, 2016, when we’ll all be printing HOLOGRAMS IN OUR HOMES. Wow, futuristic. Get down off your hoverboard, Mark.

Finally. ‘Smoking gash’. Tee hee.

Body Count: Numerous, both past and present, but three ‘on-screen’ deaths. And they have their bones sucked out.

Did the best friend do it? No. Not that kind of horror.

Some Mild Peril

The gross corpses could be pretty spooky, but I’m afraid a Greek squid monster isn’t VERY scary whichever way you frame it. However, The Yearbook is certainly compelling. The unraveling mystery, if anything, could have been slowed down as the revelations come thick and fast with little time to breathe.

Mr DeWaalt, a sort of warty version of Mr Schuster from Glee, is definitely the creepiest addition in a ‘hey kids, where are the cool parties?’ kind of way. I bet he’s having an affair with Liz off the yearbook staff. Or he’s gay.

Is It Any Good?

Definitely. The Yearbook has made me question EVERYTHING. At the time, 1994, if I’m right, I HATED The Yearbook with a vengeance. It was all wrong. The voice was wrong, having a boy lead was weird, having a monster was bizarre. As a thirteen year old all I wanted was teenage girls being terrorised by their best friend in a weird mask. There was a formula, a VERY SIMPLE FORMULA and The Yearbook didn’t follow it.

As an adult reader, The Yearbook is head and shoulders above most of the ones we’ve covered. While there’s way too much going on, The Yearbook feels fresh and original. David is witty and funny and well-realised.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what this says, if anything, about adult and teen readers of my own books. I can only speak for myself of course, but as a 12 year old, I very much craved the regularity and predictability of series fiction, something I suspect has an enduring appeal with modern mid-grade readers and why The Yearbook isn’t remembered as fondly as say, The Babysitter.

9780590112918Next month we get seasonal with April Fools by Richie Tankersley Cusick. After Trick Or Treat, will Ms Cusick redeem herself?

Over to you…

1. Is the monster called Omphalos or Pytho? What’s Omphalos? I’m very confused.

2. Why does Pytho bother with an overly complicated numerical system to pick her victims?

3. WRITING TASK: Write the scene where Rachel Green (I KNOW) discovers her boyfriend has been eaten.

4. Why don’t Chief Hayes and Mr Sarro just pour the coke on Pytho and how does she survive?

5. Why is Mark such a douche?

3 comments

SO THIS HAPPENED

Posted by James Dawson on April 1, 2014

As you may have seen on Twitter today (1.4.14) I had a nasty surprise in my inbox and I wish it were an April Fool. It’s not.

So, as you know, I LOVE doing school visits and I like to think I’m quite good at them. I have testimonials from librarians in the ‘Contact’ section of my site if you’re interested. I work for First Story and Stonewall visiting secondary schools every week. I think it’s important to state I am more than qualified for the role I went for.

As you can never do too many school visits, I approached an agency that sends authors abroad as well as to UK schools. Within minutes I got this response.

Thanks for getting in touch. I have had a quick look at your web site and although not a  problem from our perspective i am afraid it is a non starter when working with the majority of international schools we work with. The BOYQUEEN reference would be a big NO NO in the UAE and Gulf region in general. Many of the international schools are extremely sensitive and culturally very wary of upsetting any section of their school community – it may not be very forward thinking but that it just the way it is in many international schools

I am afraid we will have to pass on this occasion and wish you all the best with your school visits.

As you know, #BOYQUEEN has been my tag in the run up to this year’s Queen of Teen Prize.

So my reaction went like this: At first I was shocked but not surprised. I’m not sure I’d go to the UAE even if I was offered a trip. It feels morally weird.

Then I wondered if, three years ago when I started writing full-time, I’d made a terrible mistake in being as open as I am. Had I made a terrible career choice?

And finally I thought NO. This is what homophobia does. It makes you doubt your choices, your worth, your existence.

When the dust had settled I realised there was no real reason for this agency to ‘pass’. They could have said ‘we might struggle with the UAE, but we’ll give it a go’ or ‘we’ll focus on Europe’. After talking to some other authors, one wondered if she, a Jewish author, would get the same response given that she wouldn’t be welcome in the UAE either. The more I think about it, the more this was discrimination. It is discrimination. My sexuality is being used as a reason to not give me work.

I’m looking into legal advice. Why? Because the days where I used to keep quiet and keep my head down when bullies said things to me are over. That was five years of school I’m not looking to repeat. That voice in my head is right now saying NO, NO, DON’T MAKE TROUBLE, IT MIGHT AFFECT YOUR CAREER. But if it does, that’s more discrimination and I won’t take that either.

I draw strength from the response on Twitter and Facebook. Thank you to the readers, authors and librarians who agreed this isn’t good enough.

Whereas once I would have crawled under a rock and taken it, I won’t any more. I will be your Gayzilla because I hope my readers, especially those in school can see me NOT TAKING IT ANYMORE. This is another reason I’d like to be Queen of Teen sometime. I will NOT ‘tone it down’ because it makes some small minded people uncomfortable. I’m not doing anything wrong. Nothing. Not a single thing.

I like the books I write, I love my characters and I really love getting out into schools and meeting readers. I hate that, even for a second, I doubted myself.

Once more, for those of you who have always let me be me, thank you.

 

James xxx

20 comments

#BOYQUEEN2014

Posted by James Dawson on March 13, 2014

IMG_0812It’s that time again, dear readers. I’ve happily served as the Hand To The Queen, MAUREEN JOHNSON, but now it’s time to make a play for the crown once again. Nominations are open for QUEEN OF TEEN 2014!

The 2012 ceremony was the best fun EVER so I’d LOVE to be nominated again, and who knows, maybe even snatch the crown. Last time, we got to ride in limos, eat tiny pink foodstuffs and I got to hang out with loads of other cool authors.

At the time there was GREAT CONTROVERSY over having a BOYQUEEN, but I think it’s all in terribly good humour and, at the end of the day, I am a massive, massive queen. Having a crown up on my head would merely cement a fact penciled in since birth.

You can nominate me in the first round of voting at www.queenofteen.co.uk.

But why should you nominate me? Here’s my Queenifesto:

1. If you liked my books. Seriously. I do so hate it when things become a popularity contest.

2. “If I were a tree, I’d have good strong roots in a community like the UKYA world; a hollow trunk full of books; and long leafy branches to provide shade for bookish kids on a hot summer day”.

3. I would use my reign for GOOD. Having a BOYQUEEN would (inevitably) attract attention and I could use that to talk about ISSUES. I’m an activist at heart and will happily talk to anyone who will listen about school libraries, Gove, gendered kid’s books and spreading the good works of UKYA authors far and wide.

4. Having a BOYQUEEN would be weird and I’m all for visibility of weird people. I totes am one.

5. I could ride a pumpkin up and down the country and do lots of royal school  visits. I’d probably get a corgi too.

So make you voice be heard! There is a first round of nominations, and then proper, Hunger Games style fighting starts in May before the big ceremony in July. Who will be your queen in ’14?!

 

James x

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PHBC: DREAM DATE BY SINCLAIR SMITH

Posted by James Dawson on March 13, 2014

DreamDateWhat’s it all about?

New girl on campus, Katie Shaw, longs for her life to be filled with sexyfuntime so when she dreams up dangerously charming Heath Granger in her sleep she thinks he’s wonderful. However, when her waking life starts to take off and she meets hunkomatic Jason Miller, Heath starts to exhibit a more jealous side, putting Katie and Jason in TERRIBLE DANGER.

Terrible Danger?

Yes, siree. Heath is basically Freddy Krueger if Freddy Krueger was clever enough to have the skin off his ass grafted onto his face and buy a motorcycle. Heath goes to prove that girls will do anything for a ‘wicked but charming’ smile and he’s also able to mess with Katie’s waking life – causing fires, hallucinations, accidents and slowly taking over her body.

The Girl

Katie starts off well. It doesn’t last. Her first encounter with Jason is sweetly tongue-tied and awkward and the reader has sympathy for her insomnia. Sadly, once she meets Heath you can’t help but think she’s an idiot. The man is so classically villainous it’s a wonder he’s not in a cape. It takes our early Rihanna prototype a frustrating amount of time to realise he’s evil during which time you lose faith with her. Also, although Heath is a dream, she does kinda two-time him with Jason. You almost have to feel sorry for the poor psycho.

IMG_2910The Love Interest

Let’s look at Heath first: ‘His thick dark hair was wind-blown from the ride, and he had very dark eyes that made a person feel he saw a lot more with them than just how someone looked.’ Erm…what?

He’s so creepy in the first instance that it’s a wonder Katie wasn’t dreaming herself up a chip-pan fire to get away from him. And that’s before we even start on the ‘jungle cat’ thing…

Jason is genuinely hot with his ‘thick, sandy brown hair, lean, muscular arms and amazing eyes’ (it doesn’t say HOW they’re amazing, but I’m guessing they cry milk). From the Heartthrob board game, Jason gets PHILIP.

Dialogue Disasters

Love’s Raging Passion? Hey I’d like some of that!’

Heath is so high maintenance: ’Katie, a lot of girls just don’t understand me and that’s why they’re not special enough for me.’

‘By the way, your outfit is very fashionable.’ (Katie is a fan of the SWEATER DRESS).

Heath again: ‘You see this? It’s just like me – the jungle cat. I’m too slick and too fast and too smooth for you. Because I’ve got the wits of the jungle cat and you can’t match ‘em.’ The man is basically Kanye.

And a big shout out for Jason’s poem: ‘A rose is beautiful, so are diamonds and pearls, Katie Shaw, would you be my girl?’ (‘If I’m not a prize winning poet, it’s the thought that counts’. Counting the thoughts behind that shit did not take long.)

Body Count: 1

Did the best friend do it? There’s nothing to do, as it were.

Some Mild Peril?

There are some fairly scary bits actually. Elm Street taught us that losing control of something as fundamental as sleep is intrinsically scary. The middle section where Katie decides to stay awake and starts to hallucinate is pretty scary – she sees her face melt off, insects hatch out of her skin, faces at her kitchen window. All pretty effective. It’s a shame Heath himself isn’t more threatening.

Is it any good?

It could have been. Although this plot (evil genie) was done far, far better in The Cheerleader, there was a story to tell about nightmares within the Point Horror range. Where it fails is that Heath is never charming, so it makes no sense for Katie to fall for him in the first instance. The back and forth into the dream world actually becomes quite repetitive and, dare I say, dull. Things definitely pick up in the second half once Heath becomes out and out Krueger like. I wish more had been done with the dream world – it’s a book, Smith, there’s no budget – it doesn’t have to exist on one bloody back porch.

That said, there’s some nice teen messages in there about abusive relationships (which Katie certainly has with Heath) it’s just not particularly subtle. Snaps also to Smith for toying with a ‘is Katie just plain batshit’ twist at the end.

Finally, I can’t decide if the ambiguity of the ending (what Heath plans to do with the ‘dream energy’) works or not. Even Heath ponders why he doesn’t seek more victims. Why is he tied to just Katie? The house? Her age? Am I overthinking a Point Horror book? Definitely.

41SA3EJ197LNext up, following our first reader poll, you’ve chosen to delve into THE YEARBOOK by Peter Lerangis!

Over to you:

1. What is the significance of the Mexican crisp bowl which is described for no reason?

2. Other than Psycho, which other Hitchcock films do you think Jason brought over?

3. Who’s more high maintenance…Heath or Raquel?

4. How, exactly, did Heath remain in the dreamworld and where did he go?

5. Katie Shaw…innocent victim or delusional fantasist?

3 comments

THIS GENRE IS NOT GAY

Posted by James Dawson on February 17, 2014

TWO BOYS KISSINGFebruary is LGBT* History Month (at least it is here in the UK) so I’m doing various events, either as a role model for Stonewall or in my position as a gay man who also happened to write some queer characters in his books. This is not ‘leftie whiny bombast’, I passionately believe in using my (admittedly small) platform to increase visibility of a gay man in schools and in publishing.

Of course, all of this was made possible by HOLLOW PIKE. Although I was a 2012 debut, I actually started writing it in early 2009. I was reading a lot of YA (still am, obviously) but I was struggling to find young gay characters. They were out there, I’m sure, but at the time I wasn’t trawling blogs and Tumblr accounts, I was (like most YA fans) going into Waterstones or my local library and pulling the fanciest covers. Nothing wrong with that – I organically discovered Noughts & Crosses and Looking For Alaska that way.

Something I also wasn’t doing was shopping in the ‘LGBT section’ or ‘Gay Interest’ section of the bookshop. That segregation is something I’m still not sure I understand.

Anyway, as I’ve said before, I made three of the four characters in Hollow Pike queer because they were based on me and my friends at school. It was, as Kevin Bacon tells us, a ‘no-brainer’. I always say queer because Kitty, Jack and Delilah are in the process of establishing their identities. IF there were to ever be a return to Hollow Pike, each would have gone on to explore further. That’s my big sad about Hollow Pike not being a series – Jack never got a snog!

I braced myself to defend Kitty, Jack and Delilah but I can honestly say NOT ONE PERSON EVER in the publishing industry asked me to straighten them out. Instead I was praised for using LGBT characters in a story that was not ‘about’ being LGBT. It’s a story about witches. In fact, when I submitted my second novel, CRUEL SUMMER, it was actually my editor at Indigo who suggested making supporting gay character, Ryan, the lead. To tell the truth, I had thought they wouldn’t publish a murder mystery in which a gay boy was in charge. HOW WRONG I WAS. Amber, for that is her name, simply said – “he’s the best character, readers will love him”.

I’m proud of Ryan in Cruel Summer, although I don’t like him. He’s all my worst traits with the filter removed: he’s selfish, devious and surely has a borderline narcissistic personality disorder, but sometimes gay people are pretty evil. More on that later.

Since 2009, representation of gay characters has come on leaps and bounds. Even since Hollow Pike came out there’s been more and more LGBT characters popping up. I stress this is in YA. Queer characters in picture books, early readers and MG are still few and far between, but I’d argue this is, at least in part, due to the fact that romantic pairings of ANY sort are pretty rare in these books. A romantic subplot often pushes a text towards YA territory.

YA is booming. Massive authors Cassandra Clare, Patrick Ness, David Levithan, Maureen Johnson and John Green are all factoring LGBT characters into their texts. Even better, more and more ‘incidentally’ gay characters are being featured in thrillers, science-fiction or contemporary novels.

Last week two novels with LGBT themes were announced by Atom and Puffin. That’s alongside releases from Orion and Hot Key, and probably more I haven’t spied as well. Last week at an event, during a conversation about these deals, someone very innocently joked ‘Gay is the new Dystopia’. Of course I laughed and said ‘I don’t need a book to tell me that!’ but it did ring an alarm bell too.

I am over the moon that publishers are falling over themselves to acquire novels with LGBT characters. I would have given my left nut in 1995 for a WHIFF of a gay character ANYWHERE. What worries me is treating so-called ‘Gay YA’ as a genre. It’s not. Being gay is not a trend to be cleared off bookshop shelves in twelves months time when Mermaids or whatever become the Next Big Thing. Similarly, as each publisher had its own post-Twilight supernatural romance or post-Hunger Games dystopia I worry that if gay characters are treated like a genre, publishers may satisfy themselves with acquiring ONE book featuring LGBT characters.

I have friends with science fiction books on submission and despite NO SIMILARITY to The Hunger Games or actually any hint of dystopia, publishers are running a mile. It’s over. I would hate to think the same fate would befall LGBT characters. If treated as a FAD, this is what will happen. I suppose it’s about maintenance and diversity monitoring. DO publishers monitor the diversity of the characters in their books?

This brings me to my next point. Far cleverer writers than me have identified that, of the LGBT characters appearing in YA books, there are more L and G with very few B or T characters and precious few intersectional characters i.e. black or latin American gay characters. Middle class white gay boys are the most commonly featured. More often than not they are in contemporary love stories. Malinda Lo, author and activist, studied the trends in detail HERE.

As both writers and readers, we must be careful not to treat LGBT people like unicorns. We wouldn’t have to look very far online to see ‘gay’ being fetishised to almost mythical levels. Seriously, google ‘Klaine’. We are not trinkets to be collected and displayed like trolls or Pokemon. Being gay doesn’t wholly define gay people and nor should it. Sexuality alone isn’t going to get anyone very far in life. We need LGBT characters with dreams, foibles, ambition, jealousy, pet-peeves and obsessions.

Despite the 2015 titles being announced, LGBT characters are not a fad – they had a great year in 2013. Dozens of YA books quietly featured LGBT characters. A list is presented below.

More Than This – Patrick Ness Undone – Cat Clarke
The Night Itself – Zoë Marriott Two Boys Kissing – David Levithan
Cruel Summer – James Dawson Far From You – Tess Sharpe
Every Day – David Levithan The Glass Republic – Tom Pollock
Trouble – Non Pratt Shadowplay – Laura Lam
Grasshopper Jungle – Andrew Smith What’s Up With Jody Barton? – Hayley Long

 

That is but a selection from 13/14, there are many many more, but I selected texts I knew to have UK publishers. Hurrah! Hurrah to all the publishers representing the full spectrum of human sexuality. The trick is now making it last forever and ensuring LGBT characters are not a trend, but an estimated 5% of all characters to represent the estimate 5% of the world who deserve to see themselves in fiction. The first person to say ‘we’ve done gay’ gets eaten by the aforementioned unicorns. I told you they could be evil.

But let’s celebrate. Between equal marriage rights, the reaction to Sochi and Tom Daley, it figures that publishers would want to ride this wave of gay PR positivity. My own LGBT history is testament to the fact I had NOTHING in 1995 and now we have, actually, quite a lot. This is twenty glorious years of progress. Here’s to another twenty! What’s more, YA is doing this WAY better than adult fiction. Seriously. Let’s make a list of adult books with LGBT representation – I bet we can’t find NEARLY as many.

1 comment

PHBC: CAMP FEAR

Posted by James Dawson on February 13, 2014

f_1471926What’s It All About?

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best and Camp Fear is living proof of this. A group of old friends return to work at a wilderness summer camp years after they attended as youngsters. This time they are joined by clean person Rachel, who starts to suspect the gang might be hiding a DARK SECRET about their prior visit.

Before long, a series of SCARETASTIC TRICKS are being played and no-one’s a HAPPY CAMPER. *Dies*.

Going into this one was fun. I did read it in the 90s but had NO recollection of what happened.

Scaretastic Tricks?

Oh yes. Our mysterious tormentor cleverly exploits the campers deepest fears: snakes, water, heights…erm well that’s it, but they’re still pretty scary.

The Girl

Rachel is your standard girl-next-door. She’s quite exciting because she has short hair. Most Point Horror Girls have lots of hair. This is deemed a mistake because she wishes she could tie it back. Rachel has two main interests: pinning photos to a display board, thinking about removing them, but never doing so, and being clean. I mean, I like at least one shower a day, but Carol Ellis really enjoys writing about them. Not only that, the cleanliness of the camp site shower block is described at length several times. I think we all know what Ellis’s darkest fear is: dirty showers.

Towel_2Who are the Others?

Like any good mystery, there’s a roster of suspects. We have princess Stacey, All-American Jordan, pro-active Linda, cold Mark, goofball Steve, brooding Paul and finally Terry who feels like she retires to her cabin to talk to the invisible friends she keeps in a shoebox of animal remains.

Big shout out also to the token adults who keep driving away for ‘supplies’ (yeah right), Tim and Michelle, who I legit believe to be Christine Baranski and Peter MacNichol from Addams Family Values.

IMG_2814The Love Interest

Ellis has a dalliance with a love triangle in the first part of the book. Paul broods a little too hard and drives Rachel into the arms of Jordan. However, she quickly realises he has a sulking habit and Ellis realises she needs some suspects so Rachel throws her attention onto Paul for the remainder of the book. It works: I suspected Jordan all the way through.

Brilliantly there is actually a PAUL in HEARTTHROB and he’s actually quite hot and like his description in the book.

Dialogue Disasters

Jordan: ‘I’ve got a stick.’ We know, dear. Put it away.

Actually, Ellis writes pretty sharp teen dialogue and despite some ‘right, I think we should all go to bed now and leave the conversation for no reason’ moments, it all hangs together. The leaves are perhaps over described.

Ellis seems to go for some sort of name game I don’t understand. The male characters are called Steve Michaels, Paul Sidney and Mark James. That’s just a list of names, hun.

Body Count: 1

Did the best friend do it? Erm…well Rachel doesn’t really know anyone at the start. One of her friends is the villain, yes.

Some Mild Peril?

There are a couple of potentially haunting scenes. Strange noises in the night in the middle of the forest are always creepy and Ellis taps into everyone’s anxieties around school camps and being in the wilderness. It could have gone much further though.

Is It Any Good?

Camp Fear has all the ingredients of great Point Horror. It’s about as archetypal as they get, in many ways it’s the most traditional we’ve revisited yet. While this works to a degree – horror will ALWAYS exploit the bunch of adult-less teens scenario (this is almost a carbon copy of Friday 13th, clearly), there’s nothing to elevate it out of being A N Other Point Horror – Rachel isn’t quite interesting enough, Paul isn’t sexy enough, the thrills aren’t thrilling enough.

Worst of all though is the ending – to describe it as an anti-climax doesn’t begin to cover it. ‘I wouldn’t have shot them…’ WELL WHY BOTHER THEN?

Still, I whipped through Camp Fear in a single sitting so it can’t have been all bad.

DreamDateNext month it’s our VALENTINE’S SPECIAL as we go on a DREAM DATE with Sinclair Smith.

Over to you:

1. Would Camp Fear had been more scary if Ellis had investigated the possibility of the dead boy ‘haunting’ Camp Silverlake?

2. What’s with Terry’s curious smirking? Does she have wind?

3. Mr Drummond: Harmless baldy or one for Yew Tree?

4. Who did you suspect? Did you correctly guess the villain?

5. How gay is Mark?

7 comments

YA ARTICLE BINGO!

Posted by James Dawson on February 5, 2014

I’ve adapted Foz Meadows’s excellent YA BINGO post to be more relevant to the type of perennial stories we tend to see here in the UK. Shout for a line or a full house!

YA readers don’t know what’s good for them. YA books should come with age restrictions. YA books are ‘too dark’. Mention of Twilight.
YA books are not ‘literature’/YA is trashy. Mention of sex and/or self-harm. YA characters are bad role-models. Mention of Hunger Games.
YA is a new phenomenon. Moral panic/’concerned parents’. Mention of John Green (particularly as creator of all YA). ‘Get boys reading’
‘Strong female character’. Use of ‘light-hearted’, ‘fluffy’ or ‘beach read’ to describe book by female author. All and any SF referred to as ‘dystopian’. Mention of ‘six-figure advance’ and/or author’s age.

 

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ASK THE AUTHOR

Posted by James Dawson on February 3, 2014

You asked questions. I answered them.

This was fun! Shall we do it again soon? You were all very polite with your questions. Be sure to give a follow to the readers – they’re all big YA fans, so they’re family.

James xxx

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THE TYRANNY OF ASPIRATION

Posted by James Dawson on January 20, 2014

rs_634x890-140115075550-634.Lena-Dunham-Vogue-Cover-Annie.jl.011514Last week I had two entirely separate Twitter conversations that essentially boiled down to the same thing: In the words of Beyoncé, pretty hurts.

The first conversation was based on a much maligned piece in The Guardian on how dreamy romantic leads in YA fiction might damage the esteem of male readers. The second was a response to the earth-splitting revelation that ‘Girls’ creator Lena Dunham has been photo-shopped in Vogue. Neither Stephenie Meyer (for it is ‘Twilight’ that seems to come under attack in the article) or Anna Wintour are presenting the world as it really is – no acne, no braces, no bulges, no body hair, no-one over a size eight.

Of course, fashion magazines, with little actual proof on either side, have been singled out as causing mental health problems in teenage girls for decades. Attacking fictional beautiful people is a new one however, especially those who exist in the imaginations of YA fans.

In Being A Boy, I wrote at length about the effects of media images on young men, but this is a gender neutral problem. Both young men and women are bombarded with ‘impossible standards of beauty’. They are impossible because of Photoshop. But here’s the thing – EVERY professional photo has been retouched. ALL OF THEM. Dark shadows are removed, bits thinned, bits thickened, pores and blemishes are removed. YouTube is bloated with time-lapse videos of legs being stretched and eyes moved so far outwards, women start to resemble bugs. It effects men and women, and now female models are even being retouched to look less thin.

City_of_BonesThe well-worn argument is that people look to these aspirational images and feel bad about their own realistic appearances. Vogue and Twilight are making young people feel bad about themselves. If that’s true, that sucks. You tell me, dear reader. Did Edward Cullen make you feel inadequate as a man? Does Karlie Kloss make you hate your regular-length legs?

However, in my book, the message was simple: Such images aren’t real. Young adults, even young children, are more than capable of understand how digital photography has changed beauty for all of us. Who doesn’t filter the living shit out of iPhone snaps? They understand Star Wars is fiction, they understand Photoshop creates fiction. My problem is that this very simple lesson is not on the National Curriculum. Indeed, PSHE isn’t even mandatory. That’s my issue: this could so easily be taught. Many schools do teach it already, probably most, but it should be made a requirement.

A detour here on steroids. I also think schools should be teaching young men about steroid abuse. I’m not going to name names, but you know THOSE bodies aren’t just from the gym right? Readily available in any gym changing room but no-one tells you about the shrinking testicles, back acne or ‘roid rage. This detour would also be appropriate for cosmetic surgery. Beauty is a two-tier system. We could all look like supermodels if we had the money.

Back on track. Why not just place restrictions on Vogue? Why not limit the use of Photoshop under some trade descriptions act? Basically, I don’t think it’d make a scrap of difference. It’s about that key word: ASPIRATIONAL. When I was writing Hollow Pike, that word came up at several points in editorial meetings. The characters should be aspirational. And yes, fictional love-interest Danny Marriott, although he has his flaws, is also the gorgeous captain of the rugby team.

And why not? We all aspire to something. How can we not? I go to the gym four times a week for this reason. If Photoshop was outlawed tomorrow, I would still go to the gym and see guys who look like the models on the front of our romance novels. I would still want bigger arms, better definition and broader shoulders. Despite knowing it is physically impossible, I would still want to be six foot two and have wider set eyes. It’s fantasy, and fantasy cannot be censored. The heart wants what it wants. We can dance around a flaming pyre of Vogue and Men’s Health but I’ll still have my eyes and I’ll still compare myself to other men.

I honestly believe it’s easier to get mad at Vogue than it is to enter into discussion about physical aspiration. It feels like heresy to even whisper we might have a built-in archetype of beauty. Don’t get me wrong, we all have different types – anyone who knows me can spot my type at a hundred paces. I favour a larger ‘rugby build’ in my boyfriends (see Danny Marriott) and to each their own. But would it be fair to say there’s a standard deviation of beauty? Like is anyone going to look at Brad Pitt and say ‘he’s ugly’? Is anyone going to look at Natalie Portman and gag? No, probably not.

michelangelo-david12I suppose we’re left with a high-fashion chicken and egg. Which came first, the aspiration to look like a model or a fashion magazine? With slight variations, in the West, we’ve more or less agreed on beauty forever. Plato suggested ‘Forms’ of beauty that developed into archetypes. Evidence of early corsets has been linked to ancient Crete. Look at Michelangelo’s David, look at Botticelli’s Venus (they were tweaked by the artist a la Photoshop too). Look at Josephine Baker and Beyoncé. Look at James Dean and Ryan Gosling. Look at Farrah Fawcett and Blake Lively. There have always been aspirational faces and bodies and they predate both YA fiction and fashion magazines.

Evolutionary anthropologists suggest that we’re pre-programmed to look for healthy sexual partners and that this health is worn outwardly. Athletic, strong bodies with glowing skin, thick hair and decent muscle mass would suggest you’d provide good baby DNA I guess. Perhaps our aspirations are linked with our own desires and our desire to be desired. Say that ten times fast. Before I’m accused of being a body fascist, I loosely subscribe to Caitlin Moran’s ‘Human Shape’ idea. Moran writes that weight doesn’t matter (and is no-one else’s business anyway) until you stop resembling a human – i.e. morbidly obese or dangerously thin – a sign of poor health, which is just sad. (Some other time I’ll write about growing up skinny – that’ll be a long one).

It would perhaps be nicer to see greater physical diversity in magazines, TV and film. But wait – isn’t that what Vogue was trying with Dunham and they couldn’t do right for doing wrong. TV shows and films are full of ‘real’ looking people, too many to list here, but I still aspire to Chris Hemsworth’s body over, say, Michael Cera’s. Sorry! Please don’t burn me at the stake!

Rather than banning Photoshop, all journalists could sign a moratorium on describing women’s bodies. It’s shit journalism and a fairy dies every time the Sidebar of Shame is updated. It’s a nice idea but it won’t stop aspiration will it? I still want to be six foot two and built like a brick shithouse. After thirty-two years I’m content that that want is ever-present.

It’s not about shame it’s about blame. We need to stop looking around for things to blame, even if they are problematic, and refocus the time and energy on the never-ending quest to individual contentment. While we do that, I know I enjoy the escapism and fantasy of beauty. Yeah, sorry, but I really want to read YA novels about gorgeous werewolves, geeks who become models and girls who cry tears to another dimension.

 

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STRAIGHT, WHITE, MALE ROLE MODELS

Posted by James Dawson on January 12, 2014

As writer and presenter Dawn O’Porter pointed out at an event we did last year, she HATES being called a ‘role model’ because she (rightly) feels men are never held responsible for their actions in the way that women are. When Kate Winslet has three babies to three partners, she gets dragged through the streets on the back of a cart, when Eddie Murphy does the same, no-one bats an eyelid.

I think, however, that men from minority groups ARE called upon to be role models. I myself am a Role Model (capital R, capital M) for gay rights group Stonewall. Men of colour and gay and bisexual men are frequently called upon to be visible for others to follow their example. This is a lot of pressure – being a ‘good example’ is hard work, being a ‘bad example’ is grossly unfair. Tom Daley, who hasn’t even defined his sexuality, can now expect to be the media’s poster boy for all things gay. Every outfit, relationship and career move with be scrutinised and tied back to his sexuality. Daily shit merchants The Daily Mail last week commented on Boyzone’s Keith Duffy stripping down to his Speedos ‘under the watchful eye of Tom Daley’. He can expect more of that snide reporting.

Why is it that straight, white men aren’t held account as ‘examples’ for other young men? It the classic issue of privilege. As the most powerful group on earth, no one is calling out straight, white men for their bad behaviour. It’s an extension of an unspoken international boy’s club.

This is a bad thing. Not only because it’s unfair, but because young white, straight boys are badly in need of GOOD role models, a side-effect of not exposing bad role models. When promoting BEING A BOY people have often asked me, ‘who do you think are good role models for young men?’ and I’ve dodged the question or ranted about the pressure of being a role model, but I spent some time thinking about straight, white men who we should be talking about in schools and at home.

Why do we need role models at all? It’s about aspiration. Trans role model Laverne Cox of Orange Is The New Black recently spoke about being a ‘Possibility Model’ to young trans people and I think she hit the nail on the head. It’s about presenting possibilities to young people and saying ‘if I did this, you can too’. Clearly, young white, straight boys need this just as much as LGBTQ or young men of colour. This is supported by education figures showing that white working class boys are now the lowest attaining socioeconomic group in the UK (2008).

But first a word on role models. Anyone can be a role model. You can’t help who inspires you. For some young men, Mitt Romney will be a role model. Many young men (and this is somewhat stereotypical) like footballers. I’m not a big fan. They’re often grotesquely overpaid, arrogant and removed from school with no qualifications. However, like it or not, they’re aspirational. There’s a silver lining – the one thing footballers have in common – they’ve massively sacrificed and worked bloody hard. That’s a good message for young men. If you want something, you have to WERK. No lie ins for them.

Onto my list. I think now I’m ready for the next radio presenter who asks me about GOOD MALE ROLE MODELS.

51-ben-drew-13498838561. Ben Drew AKA Plan B

The reason I like Drew is that despite the future not looking bright (he was expelled from school and sent to a Pupil Referral Unit), he’s gone on to succeed as a musician, actor and director. Best of all, he’s self-taught. A native Londoner, Drew comes from a single parent family and is about as far away from stage-school privilege as you can get.

 

 

Russell-Brand_1534181c2. Russell Brand

YES, he’s a controversial figure, but as well as being flamboyant and funny, he’s eloquent, intelligent and outspoken. He’s a rebel and he sometimes gets things wrong. His history is colourful to say the least but I think there’s a message in overcoming the addiction problems he has had. Brand uses his fame to talk about things other than himself and his projects. Rare indeed, whether you agree with his opinions or not.

 

Ben_Cohen_20113. Ben Cohen

A sportsperson it’s OK to like. Committed family man Cohen, a retired rugby pro, has now started a second career as a charity campaigner. After his father was killed in a homophobic attack, Cohen now campaigns for better tolerance in sport. Furthermore, his recent stint on Strictly Come Dancing shows he’s not taking himself too seriously.

 

 

Rob-and-Paul-Forcan4. Rob and Paul Forkan

These brothers were orphaned in the 2004 tsunami. Luckily, the Forkan’s had family back in London, unlike so many other victims. Years later, they wanted to do something to honour their parent’s memory AND help orphans who weren’t as fortunate as they were. They started trendy flip-flop company Gandy’s with a percentage of the profits going towards building orphanages.

 

 

Carnegie-Hall-John-and-Hank-Green-signing-small-credit-Andrea-Fischman5. John (and Hank) Green

Best-selling author Green writes jolly good books but he’s equally well known for the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel he shares with his brother. A community of Nerdfighters rose up around these blogs, committed to the shared goal of reducing ‘World Suck’. These campaigns are often environmental, social or charitable.

 

 

Photo(201)6. Mark Ruffalo

Now instantly recognisable as The Hulk, actor Ruffalo uses his platform to campaign against war, torture, and, more recently, fracking. On the topic of abortion, Ruffalo said ‘I don’t want to turn back the hands of time to when women shuttled across state lines in the thick of night to resolve an unwanted pregnancy, in a cheap hotel room’.

 

 

Finally, I’m not presenting these role models as PERFECT MEN. A final problem with the whole concept of role models is the idea of perfection. No one is perfect and idolising people as such is setting them up for an almighty fall from grace (and how the media loves that). Part of the what makes us human is making mistakes and how we go about rectifying them. There’s a lesson in that too.

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