I've been thinking lately about a particular subject. And I wanted to write my own opinions down about this. But I kept going back to the idea of getting feedback from authors instead. So I sent out a very vague tweet and a bunch of lovely authors agreed to mull over the topic with me. I hope you enjoy this new feature of mine. It might even be something I return to in the very near future...
Here is the question I posed. Do let me know in comments what your thoughts on this subject are!
Do YA writers have a responsibility to provide hope at the end of their stories? Particularly when it concerns potentially vulnerable readers such as LGBT teenagers or those with mental illness?
author of The Bone Dragon and House of Windows
*generic spoilers: Only Ever Yours. The Bunker Diaries'
I don't think writers have a responsibility to provide a happy ending, but I think it is a good idea in general to provide a hopeful one. But rules are made to be broken and in some stories it would be irresponsible to have a hopeful ending. I'd contrast The Bunker Diaries with Only Ever Yours. The Bunker Diaries could have a hopeful ending without destroying the message of the book: Only Ever Yours can't. If Only Ever Yours ended happily or even hopefully it would destroy the message of the book about how dangerous gender inequality is and how totalitarian societies are not escapable, especially for the most powerless. That is what the book is about and so the ending must be as grim as the reality of the characters. However, a book can be very grim and harrowing and still offer the possibility for hope when that doesn't destroy what the book is trying to talk about.
Even more than hope, though, I think books - especially for young adults - should ask questions. They shouldn't send moral messages, though there can be a general sweeping message along the lines of 'This is important, we should think about it' or 'We need to change this in our world' provided no answers are given about how to do that. The best books leave questions in the reader's head: all sorts of questions. They're the books you chew over slowly. They're harder to enjoy because they don't make things simple, but they're the ones that teach us the most - not by telling us things, but by making us ask ourselves questions. For me, the ending of Only Ever Yours does this superbly but The Bunker Diaries'ending (and I'm talking purely about endings here) doesn't. I have lots of questions about the first third of the book, which I thought was superb, but the ending left me blank. Where were all the questions I thought it would lead me to? And that was my big problem with how nihilistic it was: it didn't lead me anywhere. It didn't help me teach myself something about my own views on the issues at stake. And in that context I *did* mind that it wasn't hopeful or happy, but that hopelessness and unhappiness didn't serve a purpose for me (though I got lots out of other things in the book).
As for whether all this is particularly true for vulnerable young people... I had so much to say, on top of all of the above!, I ended up writing a whole blog post on the subject. I'll send you the link when it's finished. ;)
author of The Earth Girl trilogy
You can certainly have an unhappy ending, and even a very unhappy ending needn't be totally devoid of hope. I think an author should think hard about an ending of utter despair, whatever age group they're writing for, because people of all ages can be vulnerable, but you can't make blanket rules on books. For some books, the despairing ending could be not just right, but the only possible option.
I don't think there are any topics that can't or shouldn't be written about for YA, any more than there are for adults. There are some topics that I feel shouldn't be lightly mentioned in passing, but treated with appropriate care and respect.
author of The Things We Did For Love and the Bluebell Gadsby Diaries
When I received your email, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to say. Then I tried to write it down, and realised it’s not at all as clear-cut as I thought. But for me, it boils down to this: I don’t think any writer should shy away from any subject they want to write about, but I do believe – quite strongly – that by labelling something Young Adult, you are entering an implicit contract which engages you to be truthful and honest, but within a safe place – and that safe place is hope. We know – and they know – that the world can be brutal, cruel, unforgiving. It’s the responsibility of all “educators” – and I use the term very widely to designate all of us involved in activities which will one way or another contribute to shaping young people’s minds – to nurture the energy in young people which makes them believe they can change the world for the better. To believe that they can make a difference.
In a sense, it’s what we all want from a story. In fact, I think it may be the whole point of stories… But it’s especially true of stories for children and teenagers.
author of Darkmere (Chicken House, August)
Well, I've spent the entire weekend trying to make my answer a 'No' - I don't believe authors have a responsibility to do anything other than tell a story. But after two days of untangling my opinion, a 'No' still doesn't feel like my answer.
I bet you’re really glad you asked me!
My first book isn't out until August, so I've only ever written stories alone in the attic with no expectation of anyone else ever reading them. It would be ridiculous for me to have a sense of responsibility over what I should or shouldn't write at this stage. Arrogant too – to imagine I might ever be able to influence anyone. Maybe this will change when real people read my book, but it’s not easy to believe.
My story involves a gang of teenagers and – without giving it much thought – I wrote them as realistically as I could. So they drink and swear and take drugs. My publisher told me this closes certain doors automatically when it comes to selling the book, but I chose to leave the teenagers as they were. I have a twelve year old son and although he and his friends are all thoroughly nice children, since they started senior school, they've learnt every swearword in existence. They don’t practice them in front of adults, but in their own conversations they use them constantly – and gleefully. And they’re not even teenagers yet! I imagine they’ll try drinking, sex and drugs later on because that’s what teenagers DO – whether or not books are pretending these things don’t exist.
I think ‘Clean Teen’ books cross the line between ‘telling stories’ and ‘telling lies’.
Similarly, whenever I’ve written about problems that young people might face - such as eating disorders or coming to terms with their sexuality – the most important thing has always seemed to me to write truthfully. I hate books that suggest the sort of issues that people wrestle with forever can be neatly resolved in 80,000 words just to provide a shiny, happy ending. Teenagers are young – not stupid – they know bad things happen. And they’re often more resilient than the rest of us!
I'd certainly prefer my own children to learn as much as they can about life from the safety of books before they have to go out and tackle real problems by themselves.
Some of my favourite writers are Kevin Brooks, Melvin Burgess and Sally Gardner, whose writing can be unflinchingly dark. So you can see why I felt certain that my answer was going to be a ‘No’.
It isn't, though.
I can’t make it a ‘No’ when it comes to hope. A book without any hope at all would feel plain wrong. I wouldn't want to write it or read it. A book in which everyone died and there was nothing but darkness would make me suspect that the author was suffering from clinical depression. There has to be hope or there’s nothing. That’s how the human spirit works. I think.
Anyway, I checked this with my husband who is a massive Star Wars fan, because I’d heard him enthusing about how brilliant and revolutionary it was when The Empire Strikes Back came out and the bad guys won. But – no – he said the ending only united the rebels even more. It also raised the stakes and made him even more excited for the next film – he was never allowed to lose hope for a moment.
One of the best books I read last year was ‘We Were Liars’ in which – well, the worst happens and I wondered if this could be an argument for a ‘No’. But when I thought about it, I realised the worst had already happened at the beginning of the book and the rest of the story was simply about the way the narrator (and her family) came to terms with it and began to hope again. In a way, the whole point of the book was hopefulness over tragedy.
So even my examples have worked against a ‘No’ argument.
It has to be a ‘yes’ from me – and I’d love to answer more questions in the future, as long as you don’t mind pages of rambling when I really just mean ‘yes’.
author of Panther
I think it really depends on the book. In some cases, like your example of The Bunker Diary, it would feel cheap and disingenuous to tack on a hopeful ending. I think YA books can be dark and bleak, without needing to tack on a happy or hopeful ending for the sake of it. That, to me, feels patronising.
An ending lacking in hope can be incredibly powerful. I recently read Only Ever Yours, which is a dark book throughout and especially so at the end. But it does to this to make a very important point about the world, from which people can think, learn, and actually maybe take something positive.
It can be tricky, because YA readers can be vulnerable, as you say. But as Patrick Ness has often pointed out, young people are great self censors. They won't read something if it's upsetting them. In fact, just yesterday I overheard a teenage girl browsing in the YA section of Waterstones. She picked up a book about anorexia, read the blurb, and returned it to the table because it 'sounded depressing.' She knew it wasn't for her.
Life is frequently difficult, and things don't always have happy endings. Young people know that from firsthand experience. That's why YA exists in the first place! There's no point in hiding that side of reality from them. YA is so vast that plenty of books have hopeful endings, probably a lot more than have hopeless endings. For every book about depression or anorexia or patriarchy there's a book about romance or fantasy or action. The fact that all these can sit side-by-side on a bookshelf is what makes YA so wonderful.
author of Close to the Wind and My Name's Not Friday
Luckily for all of us, there isn’t a formula to good books and those that try to prescribe a list of do’s and dont’s are walking a very dangerous path.
For me, there are no unsuitable topics in children’s literature. I might think of Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, about the death of his son, or Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norriss, a book for 9 year olds about suicide. I think every child should have a copy of them both.
Perhaps there are stories that are told inappropriately but I’m not even certain of that and I can’t think of an example.
That might be because no one book is the same to any two people. The action of reading requires us to put ourselves into a story and in doing so we make it our own. What one person might regard as depressing, another will find incredibly profound.
I've recently been getting feedback from schoolchildren on my book Close to the Wind. Elliot, aged 10, told me, “What made the book better was having a little bit of sadness in there. When there’s no sadness in a book it’s a little bit boring.”
He might also have said that without sadness a story can be unreal - that in life there is both black and white, good and bad and that’s what makes it ring true.
I believe that stories bear witness to our lives and the lives of others. If it’s real, it’ll come alive and if it’s alive, there’ll be hope. It’s impossible for it not to be. Hope is in every heartbeat and every intake of breath. If the story is alive then it has to be.
author of The Art of Being Normal
As an author, I don't feel a responsibility to provide a 'hopeful' ending as such, I simply believe injecting a sense of hope into my stories reflects real life far more than a totally bleak ending might. As cheesy as it might sound, life is full of moments of magic and euphoria, as well as pain and sadness, and I like to explore both. It's all about personal choice though; no topic should be out of bounds in YA fiction, and the writer should always have the freedom to tackle a particular topic in any way they choose.
TAOBN features a transgender teenager. It has an upbeat ending and I knew I wanted that to be the case from the very start. Not because I wanted to sugar-coat the subject matter, but because I felt it best reflected the lives of the transgender teens I had met, all of whom were very hopeful for the future. A few people have remarked the ending of the book reminded them of a John Hughes film, a comparison I was thrilled with! There are quite a few painful moments in TAOBN (I really do throw rocks at my characters!), so by the time they get their 'happy' ending, it feels thoroughly deserved.
What are your thoughts regarding this topic?! Let us know.