Looking Back at London’s First Young Adult Literature Convention

YALC Logo © Book Trust/The Children's Laureate
YALC Logo © Book Trust/The Children’s Laureate

Last weekend saw the UK’s very first Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) take place as part of the London Film and Comic Con at Earl’s Court. Fifty YA authors covering every imaginable genre attended the event and spoke on a range of subjects from sex to fanfiction, graphic novels to dystopias.

There couldn’t really have been a better time for this convention to take place. Young Adult lit (and its new, somewhat misunderstood sibling New Adult) is all over the news these past few weeks, most likely thanks in part to the release of The Fault in Our Stars. Slate Magazine found themselves recently slated (see what I did there?) for publishing a post that vehemently argued against adults reading YA novels, announcing that adults “should feel embarrassed” for doing so. In fact if you google the phrase “adults shouldn’t read YA” you will find discussions on that exact same subject gracing the pages of The Guardian, NPR, CNN, and The New York Times. The latter has even referred to the issue as “The Great Y.A. Debate of 2014.”

Nick Lake & Anthony McGowan discuss adults reading YA books © Sophie Brown
Nick Lake & Anthony McGowan discuss adults reading YA books © Sophie Brown

The subject of adults reading YA was given a panel of its own on the Sunday afternoon. Given the audience, which I noticed consisted almost entirely of adults, and the panel which clearly had a vested interest in getting people to read, there really wasn’t much debate to be had. Most of the audience raised their hand when asked if they themselves read YA and the panel mostly agreed that people should simply read what they want to. Author Anthony McGowan had a slightly different viewpoint, arguing that he would have more respect for someone who had read broadly over someone who had read Twilight 15 times. Some of the others argued him down.

“What you’ve read doesn’t get put on your headstone. Read the books you want to read,” Meg Rosoff countered. There was however a general consensus that if YA became “for everyone” then a belief that adult books are too hard might become prevalent.

While all of the panels were deeply interesting and raised good questions, I found those on dystopian fiction, horror, and sex some of the most enjoyable. The panel on dystopia kicked off the weekend with Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman joining in the discussion of why the subject is so appealing to so many of us. One key point that was raised was the power of the individual or very small group to affect global change in dystopian fiction. This is a trope we see repeated in many dystopian stories: The Hunger Games, panelist Sarah Crossan‘s Breathe series, and even back to John Christopher‘s series The Tripods which began in the 1960s. It is a reassuring trope in some ways because it suggests that all of us are capable of making a difference in a bad situation and this is probably why it has remained so popular, especially with teens who can often feel powerless and at the mercy of others. Another point that was raised is that dystopia is far from being popular only in YA. Malorie Blackman admitted that after reading Dante’s Divine Comedy she found Inferno (set in Hell) the most interesting part, and it was mentioned how many more stories are set in Hell as opposed to Heaven. Utopias, the panelists agreed, are boring.

James Dawson, Cat Clarke, Non Pratt & Beth Reekles talk sex in YA © Sophie Brown
James Dawson, Cat Clarke, Non Pratt & Beth Reekles talk sex in YA © Sophie Brown

The “Sex in YA” panel, chaired by the newly crowned Queen of Teen James Dawson, touched on the reasons why authors might choose to include “sexy times” in their books. The general consensus came down to the simple fact that this is a subject which teenagers are deeply interested in. Teens, it was agreed, will be finding out about sex from somewhere and the authors all wanted to include accurate information on the subject in their books. It was also pointed out that of all the “bad” things our children might be doing in their teen years—drugs, abusing alcohol, shoplifting etc—sex was the only one which we would want them to have and enjoy as adults, and that keeping knowledge of the subject hidden away and taboo may have a detrimental effect on their later experiences.

The “Heroes of Horror” panel also discussed taboos within YA novels with the panel discussed what they felt the limits were on what they could include in their own pages. Charlie Higson, author of The Enemy series which features a plague that turns everyone over the age of 14 into (effectively) zombies, commented that in order to get a feel for what was allowable in YA horror he read some of fellow panelist Darren Shan‘s books, only to discover that almost anything goes. Shan added that the only time he had fallen foul of his editors was during a particularly gruesome scene where a young protagonist discovers the bodies of his family torn apart by demons. The body of the mother was on the ceiling, but by switching places and putting the father up there instead, the scene was allowed through! It was also discovered during the panel that at least half the audience have thought about and devised a plan in case of zombie apocalypse.

There were, of course, issues with the convention; for something of such a grand scale in its inaugural year, there simply had to be. One major concern had less to do with the YALC organization and more to do with the venue layout of the London Film and Comic Con (LFCC) as a whole. The stage for the YALC was small, open to the room with no walls or curtains surrounding it, and positioned right next door to the main photo shoot area which was hosting, amongst others, the Generalissimo Stan Lee. The lack of walls meant that sound travelled in from the rest of the room (including the nearby and very loud anime stage) while the sound from the speakers positioned right at the front escaped before reaching those sat toward the back. This made it difficult to hear the authors speak, even for someone with generally good hearing. The positioning of the stage also meant that the seats were often taken by friends of those waiting in the photo shoot queue. Although talks were ticketed, I attended nine over the weekend and no one ever checked my tickets. It was difficult to concentrate on the talks while many people sat in the back half of the seating area were talking on their phones or to each other. I arrived a few minutes late to a talk on Sunday and on taking a seat, had a lady next to me whisper “I don’t know what this lot are waffling on about but it’s nice just to find a seat!”

Rainbow Rowell discusses being a fan © Sophie Brown
Rainbow Rowell discusses being a fan © Sophie Brown

Another concern came from the signings area. Unlike the other guests at LFCC who were charging between £15 and £45 for an autograph, all the authors participating in the YALC were signing their books for free. Naturally this caused enormous queues, especially for the most popular authors such as Derek Landy (author of Skulduggery Pleasant) and Rainbow Rowell (author of Eleanor & Park, and Fangirl). The queues were badly organized with lines snaking around the compact area and blocking off access to other authors and sales areas. I joined a queue and was informed that the signing session would soon be over and thus I might not be seen, something I was aware of before joining. However I found it slightly bothersome that many people in front of me were carrying stacks of books to be signed, something I had witnessed in most of the author’s queues. As it turned out I was seen and had my single copy signed, however if I had not been then I would have found it more than a little unfair that someone further up had obtained six or seven signed books when someone at the back couldn’t get one. Perhaps the implementation of a signing limit would make for a fairer system and shorter queues, with anyone wishing to have large stacks signed being required to rejoin at the back?

My final problem was with the makeup of some of the panels themselves. The “Heroes of Horror” panel although chaired by a woman (Rosie Fletcher, Acting Editor of Total Film) featured only male authors, subtly reinforcing the idea that this is a male dominated sphere. Conversely the panel on female heroes was exclusively female despite many wonderful female characters having been written by men. The “Sex in YA” panel is another that could have really used some more diversity. The panel was chaired by openly-gay James Dawson but was otherwise entirely female; for such an important topic it would have been great to see a more varied panel comprised of different genders and orientations.

Malorie Blackman, Charlie Higson, Andrew Lane, Patrick Ness, Macus Sedgewick & Steve Cole discuss writing famous characters © Sophie Brown
Malorie Blackman, Charlie Higson, Andrew Lane, Patrick Ness, Macus Sedgewick & Steve Cole discuss writing famous characters © Sophie Brown

Malorie Blackman herself also noted a problem during the panel on “Reimagining Famous Characters”. This panel featured authors who had taken on famous characters such as The Doctor, James Bond, and Sherlock Holmes to write new material for them. Malorie noted how out of the six authors on stage, five were white men. Indeed four out of the six panelists were some of those asked to write in last year’s BBC collection of eleven short Doctor Who stories, with each Doctor so far receiving a new tale written by a different popular author. Out of those eleven stories, only two were written by women and only one by a person of color—Malorie taking spots in both of those minorities. Clearly the organizers of the panel were limited regarding their choices considering how few female and POC authors appear to write in this field, but seeing the panel in front of my eyes really brought it home how little representation there really is amongst those authors writing popular culture figures.

Despite the teething troubles, I really enjoyed every moment of this very first YALC and I hope it can continue for many more years. I do believe it needs to move to a separate venue, even if it remains a part of a larger convention, because the space restraints and sound issues were a constant problem but even these weren’t enough to dampen spirits. Over the weekend I saw parents, librarians, booksellers, and teachers attending panels and workshops. A grant had been provided allowing a number of high school students to attend and meet authors, and I saw countless teens queuing up to have their books signed. This convention really seems to have inspired people to talk about YA lit and to think about both the positives and negatives that currently exist within it. I can’t think of a better result.

GeekMom received entry to this event for review purposes.

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