The Power of Teenage Fiction.

Looking through my old files today, I stumbled upon this online discussion I moderated way back in 2005, as part of my employment at Melbourne University, when I coordinated the largest global online Author festival for Australian schools. Well, in 2005 it was the largest online festival ever held, but times may have changed that.

The following discussion brought together three authors from around the globe to talk about the power of teenage fiction. It ended up a powerful discussion and far too good not to republish here. I hope my readers will enjoy it

Authors involved in this discussion:

 Australian author Susanne Gervay:

As a lecturer, teacher, educational specialist with a Master of Education (UNSW) and an author with a M.A. in creative writing (UTS), Susanne writes with insight into issues that affect both children and adults. Within her writing, she tackles important questions about divorce, bullying, burns, male youth culture, feminism and events that have touched her, creating memorable characters, relationships and stories that continue beyond the page.

English: Australian athlete Louise Sauvage rac...

English: Australian athlete Louise Sauvage races at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An award winning writer, Susanne’s books make a difference. Her junior fiction ‘I Am Jack,’ written for her son when he was bullied, has been endorsed by Life Education Australia and is used extensively in anti-bullying programmes. Her young adult ‘Butterflies’ explores the impact of burns on a family and is endorsed by the Burn Unit, The Children’s Hospital Westmead and Louise Sauvage, the Sportsperson of the World for Disability. However it is not just about burns, it is about family, relationships, meeting challenges, fulfilling hopes and dreams.

Susanne’s website:


Cover of "The Last Snake Runner"

Cover of The Last Snake Runner

USA author Kimberley Little:

Kimberley Griffiths Little is an award-winning author whose contemporary and historical novels have received accolades for well-researched fiction and culturally distinctive characterization and settings. A native of the San Francisco Bay area, Kimberley is a graduate of the Institute of Children s Literature and is a member of SCBWI and Southwest Writers. Kimberley lives in a solar adobe house along the banks of the Rio Grande with her husband, a robotics engineer, and their three sons whom she homeschooled for twelve years. The author of THE LAST SNAKE RUNNER, Knopf, May 2002, as well as many other novels.

UK author Stewart Ross:

After several years teaching at a variety of institutions in Britain, the USA, the Middle East and Sri Lanka, Stewart Ross became a full-time writer eleven years ago. With over 175 published titles to his credit, in a remarkably short time he has become one of Britain s most popular and versatile authors.

As well as prize-winning books for children, both fiction and non-fiction, he has written two popular novels, two plays, two librettos, and several widely acclaimed historical works, particularly on Scotland. His books, several of which are illustrated with his own photographs, have been translated into about a dozen languages.

 A frequent lecturer, notably on the QE2, and occasional journalist and broadcaster, Stewart lives near Canterbury with his wife and four children. Each morning escapes domestic hubbub by commuting ten metres to work in a large hut in the garden.

Source: author’s website:

Discussion moderated by author and festival coordinator, Wendy J. Dunn.

WJD: You all write about such powerful issues in your fiction,  from exploring the underbelly of male culture, with all its potential for violence and courage, searching for identity, overcoming emotional scars when physically scarred (Susanne Gervay), to the clash of cultures and passing through the dark tunnel of grief (Kimberley Griffiths Little) and surviving disasters and conflicts of recent history (Stewart Ross). Can I start the dialogue by tossing out this question, “How much is too much for teenage readers?”

 Stewart Ross: How much is too much for teenage readers? The answer is simple: nothing is too much for teenage readers. I was at a London inner-city secondary school all day today (amid the bombs) and asked the librarian the very same question. She agreed entirely. There is nothing today’s teenagers don’t know about or come across – on the news, on the web, in magazines, in conversation with their peers – so what’s the point in pretending in books that this is not so? Readers are remarkably adept at finding their own level and will reject immediately what does not interest or appeal to them. The tyranny of the American Mid-west Bible belt is terrifying … Why, even today I was asked to cut references to drinking wine in a book on Ancient Greece because the US publishers were worried about the response of the ‘holy’ – i.e. direct religious censorship. We must resist trying to use books to create a false view of the world and instead see them as mirrors. Regarding the phrase, ‘Writers’ duty,’ the only duty a writer has – can possibly have – is to themself, to be wholly honest. The rest is up to editors and publishers.

 Susanne Gervay: Teenager read HONEST writing. Otherwise they disregard it. The only proviso is that it should offer hope and ways to deal with issues. However it CAN’T be didactic. NO ONE likes to be told what to think especially young people.

I’ve just finished a new YA novel – ‘That’s Why I Wrote This Song’. It’s about music as the language of youth.

The rebel without a cause. Except there is always a cause.

The rock bands, festival, music as the voice, are all there. I got inside my teenage daughter’s head to unlock real life.

Girls searching for who they are with music as their search vehicle. It was quite a journey for me, my daughter and I hope readers.

 WJD:  So you think we can totally rely on the teenage audience to *know* what is chaff and wheat in their fiction?

 Stewart Ross: Over here (UK) the most controversial teenage writer is probably Melvin Burgess. Interestingly, my impression is that his fairly explicit novels about drugs, sex and so forth are far more shocking to parents than they are to his readers. One teacher told me that either children have got to the things he talks about, in which case his books are old hat, or they have not, in which case his books are irrelevant. Our teenage daughter, for instance, recently tried to read his Of a Lady: My Life as a Bitch (girl becomes a female dog and loses all inhibitions etc) and found it hugely irritating and condescending. Still, his books are very popular … Children will read what they want to read and take from it what they want to take from it. Incidentally, I believe ‘teenage fiction’ is simply fiction about teenage characters. Nothing more or less.

 Susanne Gervay: I’ve heard about Melvin Burgess. I really think it’s not about shocking kids and dealing with sex. Writing for teenagers is about going further than that – dealing with the issues they feel.

I believe we have to trust our teenage readers. They do know the difference between chaff and wheat. Sometimes they are looking for chaff. It’s called chic lit or escapist books. That’s OK. At other times they’re looking for wheat like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.

Stewart Ross: Not sure that one can ‘feel’ an issue – can you expand?

 Susanne Gervay: Feel an issue. Well, I mean that it has to be relevant to the reader. It has to go inside them. It’s like when I get emails from girls mainly which say after reading ‘Butterflies’, it makes them put their own lives in perspective. They understand the journey of meeting struggles. When the book is finished, the emotions and insights they discover remain within them.

 Kimberley Little: Whew! I’m here, everyone. Hello, hello! It’s great to *meet* you all. I will probably have a more conservative view of YA literature since I personally do not read the really explicit stuff. I’ve tried to read some of the very *frank* books when I’ve read about the great reviews or the controversy about a particular book but some of it doesn’t appeal to me. I have mixed feelings about how far an author should go. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that there should be censorship, but as a parent (a past homeschooling parent for 12 years) of three teenage boys I have been very involved in their lives and in their reading and choosing of books. I can only hope that other parents will get involved and help their kids choose books that are right for them at the right age and the right time.

I read a book about the age of 16 that totally shocked me which had very graphic sexual scenes that I have never forgotten and I wish I hadn’t read it. It put stuff in my head I did not want there. And yet, there was this morbid, awful curiosity, too.

 Susanne Gervay: Some YA books are written to shock. I call them inappropriate. Realistic type YA fiction is meant to enrich, help young people on their search for answers to the eternal questions – Who Am I/ Why am I here? Good YA fiction empowers young people on their search for identity.

When I write YA literature I go on this emotional roller coaster. I cry when my characters are crying. Am angry when they are. Laugh when there’s something funny.

I find it emotionally exhausting. Often I am scared to start writing a book because of that emotional exhaustion as I write about characters who are real people to me and issues that are real to me as well.

Is it like that for you?

 Kimberley Little: Lest I am misunderstood – I do think that issues such as sex, drugs, homosexuality, war, all need to be written about from the teenage perspective, but I do think that as adults with a larger and wider life experience and maturity we have a responsibility to be sensitive to our young readers. And we never know if a ten year old is going to pick up our books. It’s a very tricky line we must walk.

 Stewart Ross: Mmmm, yes, I know what you’re saying but I’d like to go back to your comment about ‘wheat’ and ‘chaff’. It’s terribly easy to write ‘chaff’ (we’ve all done it, yes?), to play on kids emotions in a superficial way. That sort of thing is done in run-of-the-mill writing and soap operas all the time. Aren’t we really trying to get beyond that, to strive for something elusive -even elitist – called ‘literature’? A book that moves the human race on a notch or two? I believe there is too much pulp emotion on the current artistic scene: it’s corny (eg ‘Love Actually’ – what drivel!) and superficial. The one thing that books, as opposed to film and most pop music, can do is go deeper, exploring in an original manner the basic truths of what it is to be human. As writers, shouldn’t we seek the eternal? (Cue fanfare?)

 Susanne Gervay: I agree with you, Stewart. I don’t want to write chaff that’s for sure. That’s why I think about a book for what feels like forever before I start.

I want to reach into the basic truths of being human like you do.

 Kimberley Little: Absolutely, Susanne, and well said. Good YA literature, good ANY contemporary literature has the ability to enrich and empower our readers. First, it enriches and empowers the author, too. That’s why we all read, isn’t it, no matter what age we are. And

it’s one reason I write. The themes I end up choosing to write about keep cropping up in various ways and I’m beginning to realize the issues that are most important to me. And yet, it’s been so subtle, that it’s taken me awhile to figure it out!

Writing is very emotionally exhausting. I’ve been working on four different projects the past few months and wrote my first chick-lit in May – in 3 weeks! Then switched to my ancient historical and did 200 pages on that in June – I’m feeling whipped!

 Susanne Gervay: Jealous me!!!I don’t know how you can write so much and be so focussed Kimberley. I find is so draining because I put every part of myself into the writing. Some times I feel anaemic from it!!!

 Kimberley Little: Susanne, it was purely because I HAD to. Interested editors and all. It’s been frantic and completely draining, let me tell you! The sorry thing is nothing is under contract yet! Boo hoo. But hope springs eternal.

 Susanne Gervay: But, yes, Kimberley, it is about empowering readers to make their own choices.

Being un-subtle and didactic has the reverse effect. As a writer, I want to present the issues, give options and hopefully move readers to make positive choices about their lives.

 Stewart Ross: A writer CANNOT set out to ‘enrich’ and ‘help’ – we are not missionaries! We must write the truth as we see it – and be damned if necessary. Children understand that better than most adults. If a ten-year-old picks up a book written for adults, so what? Either they’ll understand it or they won’t? If they don’t, they’ll cast it aside. If they do, then they’ll read it and get something from it.

There seems to be a general impression that we are ‘do-gooders’ – we are not! We are writers! We write because we want to / we have to. Above all, we are entertainers!

(This is fun, isn’t it?)

 Kimberley Little: Hey, Stewart, sometimes we all read *soap-opera* type stuff just for the pure entertainment value or an easy fast read when we’re tired. I don’t do that very often, but sometimes it IS fun. Although, I’m sorry, but I just cannot get into Harry Potter. It’s one of those books that just doesn’t appeal to me, after I read the first one with my youngest son. They’re all the same. But I’m not here to bash H.P. 🙂

Stewart Ross: I think we’re confusing the role of the writer with that of the editor, yes?

 Susanne Gervay:  Stewart, for me writing is about having the courage to personally be exposed. I write so close to my life experiences and adapt for fiction and life and creativity of course.

I guess when my son experienced extreme bullying on a survival camp, I explored male capacity for violence and courage. I wrote ‘The Cave’. There was blood on the page there – mine. It wasn’t because I was being worthy; even though I hoped it would throw up serious issues and open choices for youth. I know that literature that is didactic and worthy fails.

 Stewart Ross: Couldn’t agree more about HP! (But we all have to be so careful about jealousy, don’t we?) In my writing workshops with children (never demeaning ‘kids’) I always cite the opening of the first HP as an example of how not to begin a novel … anyone agree?

 WJD: I am wondering from this discussion if there are far bigger cultural differences between our three countries than I ever realised, i.e., what’s on and not on in regard to teenage fiction?

 Kimberley Little: Stewart, you are absolutely right. I NEVER set out with the thought that I’m planning to *enrich* or *empower* my readers. I don’t think about that until after the book is finished and I start realizing what I’ve just written. And even then, themes or messages are very subtle; it’s our own beliefs coming through whether we intended to put them there or not.

Usually not. They just show up!

First and foremost, I have a story to tell and I’m trying to figure out the best way to tell it.

 Susanne Gervay: Editor and writer. That’s an interesting thing. My publishers censored ‘The Cave’ – removed some of its heart because of the commercial reality. That is they wanted to keep the gatekeepers happy. They weren’t anyway. However that is a book I am very proud of. One day I hope it can be published with the removed bits.

 Stewart Ross: Interesting idea that writing is being ‘personally exposed’ – I agree 100% and often compare it to taking your clothes off in the High Street (US shopping mall) and waiting for everyone to laugh!

 Susanne Gervay: I’m running naked with you Stewart. What a team!!!!!

Swearing. Honestly. I have to confess that even I do it sometimes. Shock and horror!!

Swearing is not essential to YA literature but on a male survival camp at 3 in the morning as guys slide into each other, maybe they don’t say – ‘Please excuse me, may I pass by.’

Writing has to be honest and swearing used when appropriate. It shouldn’t be the focus of a book but if needed, it’s there.

 Kimberley Little: There was a question (I think) about how editors might get involved or give their input when their author writes about difficult subjects. I’ll tell you a story . . . when I was doing the editing with my New York editor on THE LAST SNAKE RUNNER, which is based on a true story in 1599 between the Spanish conquistadors and a Native American tribe there was a very bloody, three-day battle. Most of the native people were killed, the village burned and the rest taken into slavery for twenty years. Then the remaining adult men had their foot chopped off as punishment.

The book was coming out the summer after 911 and suddenly my editor became very conscious of how the public might take the violence so she asked me to tone it down a bit. Not that I had tried to make it bloody. I just told the story as the records had been written by an eyewitness account by one of the soldiers in 1610. But there were a few lines that did seem to go over the top and so we cut or revised them during the revision process. But, surprisingly, I didn’t miss them. The emotional core and the true story were still told in an honest way.

 Stewart Ross: I feel this is too fascinating and raising too many questions to be dealt with in one hour of fairly unconsidered responses … I can’t keep track! Cultural differences … what is writing for … censorship etc, etc! Help, Wendy!

 WJD: “Cultural differences… ? what is writing for … ? censorship” What question do people vote we continue with?

 Susanne Gervay: Censorship is a BIG deal in my writing. I’d love to discuss that.

Kimberley Little: What exactly do you mean, Susanne that censorship is a big deal in your writing? As you write? Or have your books been banned?

 Susanne Gervay: Censorship. There’s self-censorship. I really can’t write books for young people without hope and options for life.

YA’s are different to adults as they haven’t the experiences we have. Sometimes the mountains they have to climb seem insurmountable.

Australia has the highest male youth suicide in the world I believe.

So I tackle hard issues warts and all, but there is always this ultimate belief that life is worth living. You just have to choose the pathway that’s right for you. That’s not easy sometimes, but it’s always there. Have had censorship of my novels by publishers especially ‘The Cave’. I was very upset about it, but in the end gave in.

I have had a book withdrawn. 5000 books were pulped due to writing too close to the truth. I now change names I can tell you. I am VERY VERY careful. It nearly ruined my career. I was a leper for 3 years.

Now it’s all right because ‘I AM JACK’ is a best seller in Oz (junior fiction) and ‘Butterflies’ (YA) is also. It’s amazing how you get forgiven when your books make money.

 Stewart Ross: Fascinating idea that the ‘deeper’ meanings of novels are often unrecognised by the authors … just what the Lit. Crit. people say. My first adult novel was, according to my brother, “pure autobiography”. Well … Perhaps all fiction is more or less autobiography? (And all autobiography more or less fiction?!)

 Susanne Gervay: I agree that the writing is basically autobiographical. Hidden, mutated but ultimately centred on our experiences.

Kimberley Little: Whoa, Susanne! You had a book pulped because of censorship – by your publisher no less? I gotta get a copy of that book! Gosh! I didn’t realize Australia had such a high suicide rate. I just came back from visiting my brother out of state and he said that in the last couple of years three teenage boys they knew personally in their neighborhood had committed suicide, one just a month ago. I find this really, really horrible and tragic.

WJD: That’s one of the reasons why I personally believe that YA fiction needs to be like Pandora’s box. Yes – tell about life, but leave the reader with hope…

Susanne Gervay: I worry for our boys. I have a boy. The apple of my eye of course. No groans from everyone. Some boys are locked into silence and they let things get out of control in their minds. I believe that powerful and relevant literature can give some boys a voice and enable them to see ways out.

I partially wrote ‘The Cave’ because of that, as well as for my son and because some issues disturbed me.

However I have had too much flack about ‘The Cave’, so I’ve decided not to do another confronting YA male novel. I’m sticking to girls. A lot of teachers have begged me to write another type ‘The Cave’. I can’t now. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but not for a LONG time.

Ultimately when you write it has to come from a deep place inside. It’s called an honest place. However our motivations which are part of us, are part of the writing.

 Stewart Ross: Susanne, I know what you mean when you say that “there is always this ultimate belief that life is worth living” but isn’t that your belief, your credo? I don’t think that all writers have to hold this position – or do you think writers should not be published if they disagree?

 Kimberley Little: I don’t deliberately censor myself as I write, I try to just get it all out on paper and then sit down and see what I have once the novel is drafted. Mostly, I think I write for myself, especially during creation. Even as an adult reader I want to finish a book with some sense of hope otherwise I’m depressed for days!

 Stewart Ross: I’m interested in this ‘YA’ concept, which we don’t have in the UK. Does it help or is it just a ploy of the marketing people? I tend to think that there are just books and books and books, and one reads whatever one feels happy with. I read what were, I suppose, ‘adult’ books from the age of 10 onwards and now (aged 194) I also read books intended primarily for children. Surely the best literature is age-less and time-less.

 Susanne Gervay: You’re totally right Stewart. I feel the YA division has caused a BIG problem in Oz. Catcher in the Rye and To Kill A Mocking Bird would be classified as YA literature today in Oz. The marketing has in effect backfired, as YA sales are much harder to achieve that kids or adult.

I agree that certainly by 12 years of age, most kids are capable of reading anything. However their interest level will determine what they read and it’s often not adult books.

However YA readers can and do chose adult books.

Kimberley Little: Books for boys are so important and yet so many seem to get ignored unless they have potty humor. Raising three boys and having three brothers let me know how much emotion and angst boys have as well as girls and I guess it’s no surprise that my first three books have had male main characters. My characters are full of emotion and feelings and tears. I think that’s important and yet, my books have not been big sellers, unfortunately. Sadly, boys are more likely to suffer depression, autism, ADD, etc, and take their own lives.

 Stewart Ross: The boys issue is enormous – each day I wake up delighted that I’m not a teenage male any more. In liberal intellectual thinking circles they have been unwittingly castrated, and the pain has spread throughout the gender. At the age of eight my daughter was coming back from primary school with ‘boys are stupid’ jokes. Ouch! (We have two boys and I feel their bewilderment daily.)

 Kimberley Little: Yes, yes, yes, Stewart! My 17 year old came home just the other day and told me that he is so sick of hearing boys get bashed for everything. He said he didn’t think he even wanted to get married because girls just put down boys all the time. Now there is something wrong here!

Susanne Gervay: Have to say another word about boys. I LOVE them of course because of my dad, son, husband and annoying brother!!!!! Actually they’re all annoying except my father

I agree that the jokes and ‘bum’ humour, is the focus for younger boy readers. I don’t go there. I will continue to write for boys in my younger books, but the older books. I’m giving it a rest. Anyway it was hard to write from a 17 year old male perspective…