As a dyslexic reader I was so happy and amazed by the rise of teen fiction and YA. When I was a teen there was no such thing and I gave up reading for nearly 10 years. Then I discovered a teen fiction section in my library and discovered Michael Grants Gone series and Charlie Higson’s The Enemy. Here were two authors writing amazing horror novels for teens that were every bit as engaging and horrifying as the movies and TV shows I loved like 28 Days Later. Like many dyslexics I read mostly graphic novels and manga (of which I am a stupidly huge fan), I needed something less complicated to read, larger print, more accessible language, less complex use of grammar and sentence structure and plots not bogged down with unnecessary dialogue and descriptions. I wanted good engaging stories that fed my imagination and broadened my limited vocab without being so hard to engage with because they often dealt with topic I didn’t feel connected with. I tried reading sci-fi and fantasy for adults but the sheer size of the novels and the language is just too much for me to handle.
But then the YA movement just started getting bigger and better with titles like Hunger Games and Maze Runner that at the time I never thought would end up being the amazing and impacting films they are now. YA fiction stole my heart with great genres like teen dystopia and titles like Uglies and The 5th Wave (what a brilliant book about an unseen alien invasion using extinction events to wen out mankind). Thank to these YA titles I got my confidence in reading back and improved my reading to the point that I have read a bit more adult fiction that does appeal to me. But still many of them didn’t match my interests or experiences as a teenager or adult from a different background.
I grew up mixed race Asian, it was impossible fining books with female characters let alone male ones that had a diverse a background as me. I am half Tamil Malay and half Scottish, one parent strict catholic and one atheist. I had a total tiger mum and no idea where I placed within social groups. Too white on the outside for one click, too Asian on the inside for another. I also realised I was bi and being a member of the LGBT community was another topic never broached in fiction for younger readers. I discovered geekdom and that was a saviour too me falling in love with Star Trek and X Files that allowed me to escape and fantasies.
So what does a LGBT half Asian raised by a catholic tiger mother and a sci-fi and adventure loving father read when she is also dyslexic. Turns out nothing and I didn’t read, not until discovering manga. But then YA had another revolution for me as the books I wish I had read as a child started to appear. Authors such as David Leviathan, Bali Rai, James Dawson and Liz Kessler published books about race, gender and sexuality giving me tales about coming out and trying to navigate youth when you don’t fit the mainstream mould. Then I discovered my Favourite author in Holly Black who lead me to Cassandra Clare and Mellissa Marr whose books were taking away the stigmatisms and allowing us to have characters that just were, their gender, sex and race not affecting the overall story, who could be heroes regardless.
I worked for a major book retailer and I champion these authors in store hoping to inspire the next generations of dyslexic and reluctant readers while also educating teens on great books that will open their minds to different characters or help them feel magic and special about their own lives. This is when I started seeing the true power of YA to educate and help young readers deal with issues so prolific in our society but rarely talked about. First champion is Laurie Halse Anderson and her amazing book WinterGirls. As someone with a tough upbringing and personal tragedy in my past I went through the illness of anorexia, I use food as a way to control my pain and was very ill. WinterGirls is a very harrowing and accurate story of a girl with anorexia. It understands the mind-set of one who suffers with this how easy it is to keep it hidden, how easy the internet can provide support for not eating with anorexia support blogs and how good it feels to not eat. No one tells you how much a sense of accomplishment you feel by not eating and having a character that understood that aspect was amazing. As the story progresses you start to see the real tragedy of not eating, how it not only affects you physically but mentally. Laurie Halse Anderson has done some amazing research for this book to truly show this disease from all angles and it didn’t shy away from the horrific details of the disease and what happens to the body as it dies. It was a punch in the gut and has a horrific death of another major characters suffering from Bulimia. A book like this is so important because it isn’t self-help or set of rules to get better it’s a story with a relatable character that you understand and wish you get better. It inspired me to think more about the way I eat so I don’t ever fall back into bad practice and it can be a great tool for girls going through this awful disease to see what it’s like from the perspective of someone like them.
After this I discovered an amazing author Louise O’Neill and her book Only Ever Yours. At first it caught my eye as a teen dystopia akin to Uglies mixed with the Handmaids Tale. But it didn’t take long for me to realise what a piece of mastery I was reading. Set in a future where the female gene was bread out women are birthed artificially and raised in special schools training them till 16 where they are either married off to the highest bidders or sent to work in the various pleasure entertainment districts. This book is harsh and bleak, written with such intense intelligence and social commentary. We follow one girl and her class of 30 as they approach their 16th birthday and the hearing that will determine the rest of their lives. Ten of these girls will become wives the rest pleasure workers. I don’t want to spoil such an amazing book but it deals with issues from treatment of women in society, domestic abuse, prostitution, eating disorders, mental illness, homosexuality, body image and the roles of media in perpetrating stereotypes. I can’t begin to praise this book enough, from the reality show the girls watch called America’s Next Top Concubine to the use of a vomitron. An example of how clever this book is that all female characters are written in lower case proving how low women are rated in this world. As the class competes for the top slots by making sure their weight and appearance are perfect, that they know how to pleasure their future male partners and excel at domestic skills we become more horrified by this possible future world. One of the most challenging aspect of this book is how it gets into your head with its constant damnation of imperfect. It forever drills into the characters and you that being fat is akin to a crime, never lets up with talk of weight to the point I started feeling guilty eating lunch while reading the book. Now as a thinking and intelligent women I knew that I wasn’t going to stop eating because a story made me feel bad but Louise O’Neill has a way of writing that makes you look at yourself and judge your own thoughts and actions, she challenges your way of thinking and it is simple mind blowing. I recommend this book highly it is pure genius.
So you can imagine I was excited when I heard about her new book and then I was terrified. Her latest book is called Asking For It and it is exactly what you think it is about. I have to admit rape was not a subject matter I wanted to read about as it makes me very nervous but as someone who sells YA books I knew I had a responsibility to read and understand this book so best to know how to sell and promote it. And promote it I very much did as It is amazing. Once over the initial fear I found myself reading another book that judged me and my ideas. Asking For It is about an 18 year old girl who is sexually abused by 5 guys at a party. What makes this book different is that our main character is so very unlikable, she is like all those bitch characters from films like The Duff, self-centred, think she’s god’s gift and can have any man she wants. She dresses and acts so very inappropriately that at one point I found myself thinking “god this girl is asking for it” only to be horrified by myself for thinking that about someone. But this is the point, this is the debate that is very central to the novel. Does a girl who acts and thinks like this ever deserve such a horrific event to happen to her. So much around the issue of consent is steeped in a lack of education. It becomes clear that this girls attitude to sex is so wrong, there is a scene that I found harder to read than the actual gang rape as it was such a blatant disregard of consent and she feels it’s better to just lie there and take it rather than keep saying no!
The actually major seen of controversy is told in a serious of flashes. The book is not explicit in its descriptions but our lead wakes up with no idea of what happens to her and finds out through social media. This is another amazing look at social media as a tool for cyber bullying as she is subjected to photos taken by one of the perpetrators on Facebook. There is so much fallout from this and it tells a very haunting tale of a community’s response. Some people say she was asking for it, some believe that boys will be boys and since they are members of the football team it’s not worth destroying their reputation over this and some just wish she would stop trying to get attention for something she had encouraged. It’s a mind field to navigate all the different ways people act and I found myself wanting to scream and punch some of the characters. But in the end it is an important book because it really makes you think about the issues around consent. I think teens of 15 plus should read it, both male and female, I think parents and educators should read it and this book could go a long way to opening dialogue and making a difference in the battle for consent.
This is where Waterstones let me down, I had been championing this book. I had it displayed with similar hard hitting books, with a header explain in was a confrontational and challenging read for 16 plus. I had the book sealed so younger teens in the same section wouldn’t be able to read it without breaking that seal. Then Waterstones made the decision to reclassify the book as adult fiction not teen and it was taken out of my department to adults where it just sits with other adult titles without context. This was Waterstones chance to champion a brave book that is so relevant in the lives on young adults. This book is for YA the author herself has said it is for a YA audience, it is a topic that needs to be talked about and a chance for teens to again be educated in something that will affect them but people aren’t talking about. The official line is that the book has too much emotional weight for younger readers and that Waterstones doesn’t actually have a YA section but a teen section. This means teen is more 12-15 and after that they go to adult fiction. I say this is stupid and a lot of authors identify their novels as YA not adult, books for those 14-18. As a good children’s books seller it’s my job to make sure that when teens are buying books they are for their age within the section. Waterstones can’t say they don’t have a YA section when half the book in teen are YA. I actually think Only Ever Yours was more emotionally weighty and difficult to read because of the subtle way it played with your mind but apparently that’s ok to be in teen.
I just read an awful YA book called Daughters Unto Devils hoping for a good possession book as a teen Halloween recommend but ended up with a book low on scares and high on unnecessary sex scenes at the beginning. I think more YA should be open about the important dialogue about sex rather than in the case of DUD use it as a plot tool to extend the story and shame the girl in it. The book basically implied that fooling around and have sex at 16 will bring shame on your family and therefore the devil, promiscuous girls shouldn’t be shamed they should be educated to respect their bodies or be able to say no when they really don’t want to have sex. Somehow DUD manages to be a teen read but Asking For It nope. I don’t like it when people underestimate the intelligent and emotional strength of younger readers. I run a manga club and some of the younger readers are so eloquent with the way they speak and show a great deal of maturity. I had an 11 year old boy who wanted more manga recommendations but didn’t want to see women being sexualized, he went on to ask why there is so much of it on manga and I explained a little about Japanese society and he replied “so Japan is still rather reserved about these things and manga is an out let for them to see things they can in Japan”, an 11 year old boy! Now I am not going to say Asking For it should be read by anyone under 16 maybe 15 at the very least as it is a theme that needs a lot more maturity but taking away the option for them to read something weighty and controversial that could also educated them isn’t the right choice. I am deeply disappointed that a novel that could have made a difference is now not being marketed to its intended audience.
Thanks for reading I can be contacted @lonedreameryaoi and if you are manga fans in the Bath area do come join us https://www.facebook.com/groups/BathWATManga/