Monday, 20 June 2016

What I learned from the Lancashire book of the year award

This weekend, I had the absolute honour and privilege to be involved with the Lancashire book of the year award. For those of you that don’t know, the shortlist and the winner are all selected by young people. Chaired by Jake Hope, the young people spoke about their initial impressions, feelings and thoughts on the shortlisted titles. Jake was fantastic at facilitating healthy debate between the students and really digging deep to the root of why they liked and championed particular books.

Young Adult (YA) literature, in recent years, has covered some hard-hitting subject areas including sex, rape culture, mental health and war and the shortlisted titles this year really echo this darker content in showcasing themes ranging from terrorism to horror. Each of the titles on the shortlist exhibited different issues that challenged the young people which became apparent in the two author panels; Jake chaired an author panel that explored the horror genre (with Alex Bell, Leo Hunt, Simon Cheshire and William Hussey) while I chaired a panel that explored the representation of teenagers in YA literature (with Carla Spradbery, Eleanor Wood, Jeannie Waudby and Sarah Mussi).

This was the first time I had participated in an event with young people and I was struck by just how honest and articulate the judges were. To quote David Bowie: “children… as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They're quite aware of what they're going through...” This was evident in the judging process. The judges didn’t hold back on what they thought but more admirable still were the advocates that stuck to their guns and defended the titles they loved in front of twenty-four of their peers. We have this perception at times that we know what is best for young people. We think we need to censor stories and monitor how we speak to them but as shortlisted author, William Hussey said in his author panel, the worst thing you can thing is to speak down to and patronise young people. Young people are well aware of the issues and themes that are dealt with in these books. It was clear to me that they didn’t just read these books. They had spoken about them to friends and family. If they liked it, they really thought about why it was that they liked it and analysed these different elements.

Holly Bourne emerged victorious with Am I Normal Yet? The young people had so many interesting comments to make. One boy mentioned how he lent the book to a friend that suffered from mental health issues and she could immediately relate to Evie and her experiences. Another girl commented on how depression, anxiety and depression (and other similar conditions) are “invisible illnesses” and how when people talk about cancer, it is treatment with a seriousness and respect that most don’t show for conditions pertaining to mental health. I spoke to a small group of the judges after the ceremony itself and asked, as this is a book about OCD and mental health, was it a book solely for people that experienced it? I was met with rather heated replies that it is useful to know this information so that they don’t judge others and that it has helped them to understand what some of their friends, family and peers might be going through. I found this a very heartening and encouraging message. I went on to ask a couple of boys if they felt they could relate to Evie; did it matter that she was a girl and that some of the experiences would probably be more geared towards girls than boys? No, it didn’t matter because they were able to understand the essence of the character. They could get inside her head and really understand the complexities of the decisions she made. In particular, they felt that by going on a journey with Evie, they were better able, and equipped, to understand more about mental health and OCD.

At the main ceremony, I was moved by a round of insightful, touching comments about what being a judge meant to each of the young people. They felt they had a voice and a responsibility to pick the right book. Reading the shortlisted (and longlisted titles) broadened their horizons and spurred them on to be more open-minded. The boys in particular were quite surprised that they enjoyed romance stories. The girls were more receptive to horror than they expected to be. I think this is a clear sign that the “boy books” and “girl books” mentality has gone out the window and today’s generation are learning to be more open-minded and receptive to a wider sphere of themes and genres within the books they choose to read.

A huge congratulations to all of the authors involved. Jake said to me that, while there must be a winner, there was a real sense that every author that was nominated was already a winner. This might sound clich├ęd but it’s true. There was a champion in the room for each of the shortlisted books and to know that that book resonated with even one person in the room is incredible in itself. That one book leads to another book and another and that book becomes more than just a book; it becomes a gateway into a world of books and the key to fostering a love of reading for that reader.

I've learned so much by attending this event. I've discovered that young people have an appetite to read and know what they want to read and how they want it to be presented. They understand the big issues that this year's shortlist have posed and made some poignant and insightful remarks around each of the books. As Sarah Mussi commented, we live in dark times. One has to turn on the radio or the TV, surf the net, login in to social media or pick up the Metro to discover the horrific things that are happening in the world. We must remember that young people see, hear and think about these issues and news events. We must understand that they have their own views and self-awareness and this needs to be represented in the stories that are written with them in mind. Sarah added that young people cut through the BS. They are the toughest audience to write for and she aims for the Everest peaks when it comes to a challenge. This is why she writes for them and this is what she finds so special about writing for young people, a sentiment that was echoed by many of the authors I spoke to. We must remember to champion well-rounded characters and not be afraid to tackle big issues. We must not patronise young people. They have their own minds and views: let them decide what they think of a book and allow them to be challenges.

Lancashire libraries has captured most of the key comments on the day. I implore you to check out what the authors said and more importantly, the comments from some of the young people judging the prize. Some really interesting comments too around #LBOY2016.

I want to thank everyone that made it possible for me to be involved and a special thanks to Jake who is a dear friend that chaired the horror author panel and the judging process in what can only be summed up as spectacular.

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