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What do young people’s stories tell us about who they are?

Organisers were shocked by the scale of the response when they asked for thoughts about young adult narratives

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On December 16 2017, the University of Northampton presented Investigating Identities in Young Adult YA Narratives: One Day Symposium, organised by PhD student Anthony Stepniak and MA English course leader Dr Sonya Andermahr, Tré Ventour reports…

Arriving at 8:30am, I was met by my peers, second-year English and Creative Writing students Michael Lukose and Alex Cojocaru (co-organisers). Dr Helen Scott (Dean of the Faculty of Education and Humanities) opened the day with a welcome talk, and by 09:30 Dr Samantha George was in the midst of her presentation Generation Dead Young Adult Gothic Fiction and the Politics of Difference – Inside and Outside the Academy, whose title comes from the module she developed at the University of Hertfordshire.

 

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In the weeks prior to the event, when Anthony called for papers on young adult narratives, he was shocked at the sheer response. And on the day, fifty-something academics had filled the English-Creative Writing blocks at Avenue Campus before 9am.

When the term “young adult” is brought up in in relation to literature, we often think of things like Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games (Susanne Collins); one is ridiculed for sparkly vampires and the other is often said in the same sentence as “plagiarism”, manga and Battle Royale, regardless of their popularity and commercial success. In recent years, the Divergent Trilogy (Veronica Roth) and Maze Runner (James Dashner) have joined the throng, as has Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson, with the last book releasing in 2009 and Hollywood “attempting” adaptations of first two books in the 2010s. The YA fandom is home to characters like Tracey Beaker and Harry Potter, not just Edward Cullen and Katniss Everdeen. I solemnly swear that YA narratives are up to some good, even with the sparkles. Mischief managed.

My background is in communication and culture, film studies and creative writing. I’m a film and television enthusiast and Saturday showed that young adult narratives aren’t exclusive to the written word. Screen narratives also help the genre. Remember that indie, low-key book series that went onto to become multimillion-pound franchise with eight films and now more spinoffs in the works? Harry Potter? No? The boy who lived through all that and then some is one of the best examples of a young adult narrative, as Harry, Ron, Hermione and company are allowed to develop over seven books (eight films).

Despite some of the most well-known stories being young adult / coming-of-age, it is still a niche genre. Yes, I believe it is a genre. Yet, that doesn’t mean it can’t be a subgenre within another. For example Spider-Man: Homecoming is primarily a superhero film but when the layers are peeled back, we see Peter Parker (Tom Holland) in high school and what that’s like for him.

There are numerous young adult narratives out there but they are never marketed as such. They’re often marketed as comic book, drama or dystopia to name a few, didactically bringing in the audience that a niche genre would not (at least not yet).

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Throughout the day, I saw a number of fantastic presentations, including What it Feels Like for a Girl: Gender, Perspective and Empathy in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. This was presented by Dr Leah Phillips (stepping in for Leanne Weston). 13 Reasons Why is the adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 YA novel of the same name; and in my view, it’s one of the best shows of 2017 and on Netflix. Dr Sonya Andermahr’s You’ve just got to find a way to live there anyway”: The Dystopian Chronotopes of Trauma in Patrick Ness’s More Than This’ also stayed with me. Patrick Ness is known for such books like the Chaos Walking Trilogy, A Monster Calls (recently adapted to film) and Monsters of Men. Aside from presenting her paper, Sonya unknowingly pitched Patrick Ness to me too, as my only exposure to him is the adaptation of A Monster Calls. I’m sold.

With 2018 on the horizon, the latter half of the noughties and the 2010s (so far) have been a rebirth to YA narratives. I say rebirth because the genre has always been there. Almost Famous (2000), Back to the Future (1985), Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967), John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (1984) and American Pie (1999) are great examples of how far the genre goes back. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015), Edge of Seventeen (2016), Carrie Pilby (2016), Perks of Being a Wallflower (2007 adaptation) and Dope (2015) come to mind in terms of the modern millennial experience.

At the Errol Flynn Film Festival in October, I saw coming-of-age films that showed queerness: The Wound (2017), Centre of My World (2016) and Beach Rats (2017) to name a few. We also had French film Raw (2017) earlier on this year. Remember that film Moonlight which won Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay at the 2017 Oscars? Yes, another YA narrative – at least in part.

Spending the day at my university around these academics, and seeing them present their papers, it seemed that there were few YA narratives in literature that use people of colour and / or LGBTQ characters. I know there may be more in the genre but my exposure to the LGBT community within YA literature is limited to two: Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal and Patrick in Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999).

On Saturday, we had the honour of hosting Lisa Williamson (The Art of Being Normal) and she said that she intentionally uses characters who are Other. Why use only the white heterosexual archetype when there are more types of people in the world? People of colour, Muslim, LGBT etc. Many of which are minorities within minorities. The Art of Being Normal revolves around two secondary schoolchildren’s relationships with their families, each other and their classmates, as well them discovering their identity. That is all I will say… because… spoilers.

I know The Art of Being Normal isn’t the only example but there needs to be more LGBTQ+ stories in fiction and that goes beyond YA. It’s the same on screen as well. “I’m fine with more straight white men in films and television shows, but there needs to be a story-driven reason for it, you know?” said nobody ever. The world now isn’t the same world that my parents grew up in. It’s much changed and it will leave us behind if we don’t adapt.

Watching the interview between Anthony Stepniak and Lisa Williamson at the end of the day allowed me to reflect on what had happened previously. From the awesome papers to Leah Phillips’ presentation on the ‘YA Lit, Media, Culture Network’, it showed that the need is out there. How do movements start? They start with a few people in a room, talking – networking – innovating.

This could be the start of a revolution for the Millennial Generation and beyond; it’s a call to action, a protest. For every happy robot, there’s a Sophie Lancaster. And it’s for people like Sophie, who lost their lives for daring to break the mould why there should be more different sorts of YA narratives, more types of people daring to express themselves, be themselves.

And if we can have more of these events in not just Northampton but across the world, indeed I could drink to that.

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