author, book, politics, publishing, Uncategorized, yaliterature

What is a Political (YA) Novel ? by Catherine Barter

Today’s post is something very different and very exciting! To promote YA Shot I have been lucky enough to take part in this blog tour. For this stop I have been really fortunate and given the opportunity to work with Catherine Barter, the wonderful author of Troublemakers. I gave Catherine a vague idea of the themes she could potentially discuss; she chose politics and YA.  Enjoy 😊 

What is a political (YA) novel?

This year’s YA Shot is human rights themed. I couldn’t be more excited to take part, and to go to some of the panels and discussions. The topics are things like Power, privilege & inequality, Whose stories get told? Who tells them?, and If we didn’t have human rights.

Sounds amazing, right? These are such urgent and necessary topics to talk about right now, in relation to arts across the board – film, fiction, poetry, TV and theatre. But it feels to me like YA and children’s books are becoming a front line for politics in literature. Certainly political topics are all over the place in YA literature right now: from The Hate U Giveto Things a Bright Girl Can Do to recent anthologies like Make More Noise(a collection of short stories celebrating girls and women). And it looks like there’ll be plenty of politics in YA in 2018 too: Nikesh Shukla’s forthcoming YA novel Run Riot, which deals with gentrification, is one I’m especially excited about.

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When my first book, Troublemakers, came out last year, I was lucky to be invited to take part in some conversations and panels about politics in YA, and to write a few pieces recommending political books for young people. It was timely – by chance, Troublemakers came out in the same month as an unexpected general election. And I work in a political bookshop where I’ve been trying to grow our children’s books section, so it was a topic that was on my mind.

Troublemakers features a fifteen year old girl who is trying to find out about her political activist mother; her brother, also her guardian, is working for an opportunistic politician who is running for Mayor of London, which is driving a wedge between him and his partner, Nick, a lefty vegetarian type who runs a Fairtrade Coffee Shop.

So, no doubt, there’s lots of politics in this book.

But it all got me wondering: is Troublemakers a political novel? Actually, I’m not sure. What is a political novel, anyway?

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On one hand: all novels are political. Who gets published, and who doesn’t, is political. Who defines the qualities of ‘good’ literature, and the impact of that on things like book prizes, is political. This is true for all of the book world, but maybe more urgent when it comes to children’s publishing; the impact of stories that are read by young people can last a lifetime.

And for all the conversations about diversity and representation in children’s books, it’s not clear that much progress is being made in making YA more inclusive or reflective of its readership. Mariam Khan’s (@helloiammariam) recent posts on twitter revealing she could only find 9 UKYA books being published by BAME authors in 2018, for instance, was a bleak reminder of the structural inequalities that persist in YA.

So on one hand: everything is political.

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But, apart from the wider context in which books are produced, what else makes a novel political?

I asked a group of students a while ago what they thought were the necessary ingredients of a story. A couple of them thought that books ought to have a ‘message’ — a point of some kind, or a moral. A message isn’t necessarily political–it could be something like value your friends or seize the day. But quite often it is. Some of the most famous political novels have a clear message. 1984, for instance, is a thumping critique of totalitarianism. Its message is pretty clear: let’s not do this.

Dystopias, of which there are plenty in YA world, have always been fertile ground for political fiction. Whether it’s through stories about environmental wastelands or brutal dictatorships, dystopic fiction is an obvious place to look for a political message. It has always found ways of offering stark warnings about the darker side of human behaviours.

But clearly, and maybe now more so than ever, political YA novels are not limited to dystopias.

Some of my favourite and the most talked about recent YA novels are explicitly political novels that are set very much in the here and now. Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give is a powerful challenge to racism at all levels of culture, one that ends with a spine-tingling call to arms. Louise O’Neill’s Asking For Itis a blistering critique of rape culture, brave in its subject matter and its refusal to spin a happy ending. Marcus Sedgwick’s Saint Deathoffers up a fierce condemnation of a global capitalist system that creates poverty and destroys lives.

In addition to being evidence that YA is serving up some of the most timely, radical and exciting fiction around, to me there’s no doubt these are political novels, because, in different ways, they challenge the status quo and advocate for change.

That’s not to say they’re didactic–they’re all more nuanced than 1984, if you ask me, and they tell moving stories of families and friendships through rich, complex and real characters. But they’re doing political work, too.

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I’d love to write books like this, but I’m not sure that Troublemakers is a political novel, or at least not in the same way. It’s about the toll that political activism can take on people, and it’s about trying to work out your own politics when you’re surrounded by arguing and divisiveness and fear. To me, though, those things are more about politics than political. The most political storyline might be the one involving a politician who takes advantage of the threat of terrorism to grow his own power. This is rife at the moment, it has been for a while, and it’s something I’d like to think the book is critical of–but this storyline isn’t the backbone of the novel. A novel that involves a politician isn’t necessarily a political novel; some kind of message, or advocacy, or challenge to power is necessary, too.

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What blurs all these lines is: as an author, you can’t control the meaning that will be created between your book and the reader. You can set out to write whatever you like, but what a reader takes away from a novel will depend on what they brought with them, as much as the author’s intent. An author might not write with a message in mind–but a reader might find one anyway.

This is part of the magic of fiction. Unlike non-fiction books, which are more likely to deal in facts and make fixed arguments, fiction is all about the messy, sparkling, unfixed world of imagination, the mysterious, open place between and reader and a writer where new pathways of thought and empathy are carved out.

Politics is nothing without imagination. So maybe all good novels, whether they explicitly advocate for social change or not, can be radical places, sites of rebellion. Maybe YA could be the most rebellious of all.

Thank you Catherine for creating such a thought provoking piece! From this I have taken so much! From more books to add to my ever growing TBR to never reading YA fiction in the same away again.  Don’t forget to check out my twitter where I will be hosting a giveaway for Catherine’s brilliant novel!

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