Writing for Teens: A Conversation with Jon Walter

nevertheless she persistedJon Walter’s latest novel strikes the gong for women everywhere in this 100th anniversary year since some women were afforded the vote. Nevertheless She Persisted is the story of two sisters in 1913 and their struggle to achieve and succeed in a world dominated by men. Clara and Nancy work in Holloway Prison in a time in which the prison population includes a number of imprisoned suffragettes, some suffering force feeding as a result of their hunger strikes. Seeing their own struggles for independence mirrored in these fighting women, Nancy and Clara must make the decision as to which side to be on.

Walter’s novel gets to the very heart of the suffragettes’ struggle; looking not only at the importance of the role of imprisonment in the suffragette movement, and the Cat and Mouse Act, but also at the political motives and arguments surrounding women at a time in which their roles in life were still dependent upon men.

He doesn’t hold back. There is a graphic description of force feeding, an account of the sisters’ escape from their home, in which it becomes apparent that their father is guilty of incest. So, this isn’t really a book I’d normally recommend on a blog primarily designed to showcase children’s titles. In fact, it’s being published as part of David Fickling Books’ new foray into adult titles, which began with Pullman’s book of essays, Daemon Voices, last year. However, Walter claims that he writes YA fiction, (his previous novel Close to the Wind is suitable for those aged 10+ years, whilst My Name is Not Friday was longlisted for The Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize 2015), and his publisher claims that stories are for all:

Fickling says: Ideally I would really like to publish books that are not strictly for kids or only for adults, but with wide appeal. We’re not trying to muddle things – we’ll always keep story at our heart.”

But this is marketed as for adults, and so I feel that Walter could have pushed even more on the corporeal or visceral feelings that these women suffered – he holds back on the physical and emotional descriptions of childbirth and its after effects and the physical and emotional constrictions that women must have felt at that time, but to his credit he pushes the boundaries on the political instead.

Nancy and Clara are scarcely out of childhood themselves, and indeed at the time many women were made to feel that their childhood continued into adulthood because their independence was so curtailed. However, they occupy an adult world and step into roles of responsibility within the prison system, all the while trying to create their own new world, to forge a new path of a new generation – a world in which women aren’t tied by the patriarchy, and in which they can wear trousers or ride a bicycle and fight for their own freedoms and earn their own money. In this regard, Nevertheless does read like a YA title. Jon Walter believes that all his books are for a YA audience:

Jon WalterChildren’s literature can be a great place for dealing with big questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we belong? How should we live? I write for children because I want to address those questions. And I also write for children because they occupy a place of transition, particularly teens, who inhabit the borderlands between childhood and adulthood. This is extremely fertile territory for fiction writers because it is unformed and unstable. It has friction and is ripe for conflict as the new threatens to sweep aside the old. Basically, I’m more interested in the world young people will create than the world we adults have left them.”

I wonder if the reasons that DFB have cast this as an adult title are twofold. Firstly, the issue of incest – generally one of the last taboos. Walter isn’t sure: “There are no rules that can’t be broken in fiction but there is definitely safe ground and risky ground. With YA it’s certainly not content. Authors such as Robert Cormier, Melvin Burgess, Margot Lanagan, Louise O’Neill, M T Anderson have all put that idea to rest. I think it’s more about the chosen subject matter. YA tends to find itself in the territory where the adult and children’s world collide. Dystopian fiction would be a good example of the convergence, which is probably why so many teenagers walk around with copies of George Orwell or Margaret Atwood. It’s also about the tone of the book and the primacy of plot, though these are not defining features. Is Stephen King YA? Are thrillers or crime fiction?  I could give you a whole long list of books that are relevant and suitable for teenagers but published as adult fiction.”

Indeed, the teenagers I meet definitely read novels that are in the general fiction area of the bookshop – from 1984 to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to Catch 22 (the latter not a novel I’d recommend for adults; it’s best read as a teen when you’re sucked in by the sheer lunacy). In which case, is YA a patronising term? Why does it exist at all? Jon thinks we might be imposing unnecessary age limits on our readers:

There’s a belief in children’s fiction that readers tend to read two years above their actual age. This is because, while they want to see themselves in a book, they also want to see what might be happening to them very soon. They want to do what the older kids do!

But there’s also something that happens to children aged 14 and upwards. They’re looking at the adult world and seeing how they are going to fit. This isn’t just about sex and drugs and rock and roll. It’s about politics, how the world is structured; the who gets what and why. It might even be about the world of work; what will they do to employ their time and will it pay them enough to live independently? These are very adult questions so it’s not surprising that teenagers often prefer to visit the general fiction section of a shop rather than the children’s section.

If you put these two things together, then the age range of YA  narrows considerably. Instead of a wide 13-18, it might more practically be seen as 12-15? And if so, are we failing to market properly to children and adults in the 15 -22 age range? And rather than pulling older readers in, does the notion of a young adult genre patronise them? My children are 19 & 22, one at university, one doing care work and deciding whether he will make a career of it. Like most people their age, both have a tenuous relationship to adulthood. Why are there so few books aimed at ‘kids’ of this age? It’s almost as though they don’t exist!”

And perhaps this is the second reason why Nevertheless She Persisted is classed as an adult title – the protagonists aren’t children, they’re in their twenties:

One of the problems with Nevertheless was that the suffragettes had an age limit (at least for official suffragette activity) of 21. The age limit for prison wardens was 24. I could have circumvented these with a younger character who witnessed the actions of others but I didn’t want to do that because a reader of fifteen upwards doesn’t necessarily need a protagonist their own age. I think the issues that Nancy and Clara deal with are resonant with the lives and decisions of today’s teenagers, despite the protagonists and setting being adult.”

All in all then, we tend to agree. The genres and age levels imposed upon novels are fairly arbitrary – after all how many novels are there that traverse across the genres rather than tidily fitting into one particular category. Is Jane Austen romance? Classic? Literary fiction? Perhaps in the end, it’s really just about marketing:

I think it is but that’s hugely significant. Successful marketing is about putting books into the right people’s hands – it can be the difference between a book being read or passed over.” Walter’s latest novel might be marketed as adult, but it’s an appealing read for any teen looking to discover the women’s suffrage struggle, or to understand the relationship between sisters, or to read social historical fiction that contains those small nuggets of detail that are so fascinating. It’s written with clarity and pathos and as one would expect from a Jon Walter novel, carries the reader at pace with style and poise. Walter appears happy with DFB’s new direction: “DFB are taking a risk with this but it might just be that their new adult list appeals more to teenagers than the books might as YA. If the list also succeeds in attracting adult readers who aren’t engaged with the children’s book world, then that’s even better!”

I’m looking forward to reading whatever might be next – perhaps Jon Walter might try his hand at a picture book next? And those, as we know, are for all ages.

You can buy a copy of Nevertheless She Persisted here.