This is my third time attending Northern YA Lit Fest (the first happened in March last year, followed by the Supernatural and Fantastical in YA last July). This was by far the best of the three, although I could have lived without the 5am start and train delays at the end!
I really loved the fact that there was time to go to every panel and get everything I wanted signed, it’s the first book festival I’ve been to where that’s been the case. I also had time to sit and eat lunch. I did miss one of the panels (the one on Inclusiveness) to take my time over eating. I could have managed both but I have been a very poorly bean in recent weeks and I need to not rush my food right now. Also, I just couldn’t bear walking into the panel late…even if it was only 5 mins, but it would have been manageable on a better day.
YA Thrillers with Will Hill and M.A. Bennett
This was the first panel of the day. I have read and loved books by both these authors (After the Fire and STAGS). Will and M.A. talked about the influences on their writing; real life events for Will and, for M.A. wanting to write the sort of book her growing children would read. They both talked about the responsibility they felt when writing their books. For Will, this was sensitivity towards the real-life survivors of the fire at Wako and not wanting to hurt them. For M.A., this was the influence that J.M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton had on her book The Island.
They also talked about their upcoming books. M.A. Bennett announced that there will be FIVE further STAGS books (and if anyone was wondering who it was that loudly hissed YESSSSSS at that point, it was me). I have much excitement for further STAGS books. Will’s next book is going to be “cheerful” featuring war, drugs, sexual assault and kidnapping as well as “the futility of just about everything”. Sounds like the perfect summer beach read….
Next up was one of my favourite panels of the day:
Feminist Fantasy with Rose Edwards, Laure Eve and Samantha Shannon chaired by (absolute Queen) Melinda Salisbury.
I wrote down so many quotes during this panel! It was packed with interesting insights and commentary on feminism and fantasy writing and I could have listened to these four talk all day.
The panel talked about how fantasy worlds are still very male dominated and how it doesn’t make sense where in a world where you can invent anything at all, people* (*men) are outraged when women feature in powerful and traditionally male roles. Samantha Shannon talked about the backlash she has had since writing The Priory of the Orange Tree for having written a novel which features *shock* women, people of colour, queer people and trans people, saying that this isn’t authentic. Which prompted some of my favourite quotes from the panel:
Melinda Salisbury: “Because everyone knows homosexuality was invented in 1950”
Laure Eve: “which bit of world history is this? the time when we had dragons? because take me there”
Samantha Shannon: “I wanted to write a fantasy where anyone could open the book and know that they are welcome there”.
The panel also discussed the Bechdel test, the intensity of female friendships and the heartbreak when a female friendship breaks down (which I related to far more than I’d like to admit).
There was also a brilliant discussion about the “strong female character” trope which led to Samantha Shannon’s brilliant rant on the subject, including the perfectly described Bella-Katniss Dichotomy (if that’s not already an official literary theory, it needs to be, I could really have used that one at university) which only allows for women to be sorted into feminine, whiny types like Bella, or those with traditionally masculine traits like Katniss, ignoring the fact that women are more rounded individuals and the fact that Katniss was intensely vulnerable at many points in her story. Mel commented that “it’s terrible that we only allow women to be strong AFTER they’ve suffered”. And Samantha summed up the panel perfectly with the line:
“basically, we just need to stop being surprised by women”.
After that came the Inclusiveness panel, which by all accounts was amazing, but I missed due to my aforementioned need to eat. I also had a wander around the stalls and treated myself to a new book – The Hand, The Eye and The Heart (which is a Mulan retelling!) and a necklace from Literary Galaxy inspired by The Priory of the Orange Tree.
After the break was the Shame-Less panel featuring Melvin Burgess, Tamsin Winter and Laura Steven being chaired by the brilliant Katherine Webber.
This panel tackled the concept of shame. Melvin, Tamsin and Laura have all written books which tackle this concept in different ways. Tamsin talked about how harmful shame could be because it “attaches itself to who you are”.
The panel talked about the impact of technology on shame in the modern world and how everything that is shared online now is there permanently, as well as how the internet magnifies shame by giving everyone a platform. However, Laura especially was keen to point out that technology is not the problem, it’s the people who use it to shame others. Her books The Exact Opposite of Okay and A Girl Called Shameless deal with this issue. Laura said that with Izzy she was showing the difference between being ashamed of something that you have done wrong (there’s a bit with Izzy and a friend where Izzy does something not nice) and others shaming you. Melvin agreed with this saying “shame is often attached to the victims and not the guilty parties” leading the panel to conclude that we need two different words for shame: the shame we don’t deserve but is given to us by others and the shame we should rightly feel when we do something awful.
The final panel of the day was Mental Health in YA with Alice Broadway, Akemi Dawn Bowman, Sara Barnard and Alexandra Sheppard, chaired by Lisa Williamson.
Readers, I was not ready for this panel. Three of these five authors have made me cry (and I’ve cried at maybe 5 books in my adult life). I loved how open all the panellists were about mental health, talking about what helps them to protect themselves when writing and how they care for their own mental health. I loved that Akemi opened up about how difficult the process of writing Starfish was for her (describing the book as a “kind of therapy”), and that Alice talked openly about taking medication ( as someone who takes medication for mental health, it meant everything to have an author I love and admire talk about this). Alexandra talked about how she practices self care, and Sara made me laugh by saying that sometimes her partner has to take away the wire for the internet!
The panel talked about the impact on mental health of suppressing your truth and about the appeal of new starts, with Alice saying that the “teenage years are a million fresh starts”, and Sara talking about Suzanne (Fierce Fragile Hearts) being the “Queen of fresh starts” and coming to realise that it’s what is constant that is important. They also talked about parents in their books and how that impacted on mental health. There is a special place in my heart for Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman for this very reason. Akemi talked about the backlash she has had because people don’t believe parents like this exist, and about how the mother in her book doesn’t have a redemption arc because this isn’t her story. The parents in Fierce Fragile Hearts are equally hideous. Alice talked about how it’s a big thing for teenagers to accept that their parents have pasts.
There was so much going on in this panel, and I was so involved in listening to it, that that’s the extent of my coherent notes. I loved it. It was perfect. It brought a teeny tear to my usually dry eyeballs.
I had the best time at Northern YA Lit Fest, managed to get all my books signed and the only moment of stress was the train on the way home. Thanks to everyone who made it a great day!