The Irish Women writing YA fiction and making it their own

Young Adult publishing is exploding. Some have claimed it as the saviour of the high street bookshop as young readers and their parents reject digital formats and opt for print books. YA books are the source material for blockbusting films such as The Hunger Games, top rated television shows like The 100 and My Mad Fat Diary. For readers much of the attraction of YA books is that genre doesn’t matter; in the YA section of the bookshop you can find science fiction and historical fiction side by side and authors of YA aren’t limited to one genre in the way that authors of adult fiction often are. However, the biggest attraction for many readers of YA fiction is an obvious one; story.

Writers of YA fiction and those who publish it have been fearless in pushing the boundaries about what is and is not suitable for teens to read. This has led to a number of heated debates in the media about censorship and questions of how dark or bleak a book that wins a children’s book prize should be. Many writers have been unafraid to explore issues such as domestic abuse, rape and questions of sexuality, gender and feminism.

While a lot of the influential and best-selling YA books are coming from the United States, Ireland is holding its own with some fantastic authors topping the charts and winning prizes on a regular basis. Louise O’Neill won the inaugural The Bookseller YA Book Prize in 2015, the Children’s Books Ireland Eilís Dillon Award 2015 and Newcomer of the Year at The Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards 2014. O’Neill is no-holds barred writer tackling subjects head on including rape culture and consent in Asking for It, and misogyny and the beauty industry in Only Ever Yours. Her books leave you feeling uncomfortable and angry, there are no happy endings and that’s what makes her so important. O’Neill is at the top of her game and her star is continuing to rise. ‘No hyperbole here but Louise O’Neill is the best YA fiction writer alive today.’ Writes Patrick Sproull of The Guardian.

I spoke to O’Neill about the rise of YA publishing and she told me; ‘There is a huge appetite for YA and children’s literature as evidenced by the ever increasing sales figures. Publishing is definitely more open to YA writers as a result and I think they’re more likely to take a risk on what might previously have been seen as “difficult’ material”’. On the rise of feminism and ‘difficult’ topics in YA she said; ‘It was a deliberate decision to make Only Ever Yours a feminist work. From the moment that I had the idea – a school in which girls are bred for their beauty – it was obvious to me that this book would be exploring issues that affect women. My second novel, Asking for It, isn’t as insistent in its feminism but rape culture is a hugely important topic and one that does, unfortunately, affect many women.’ With her next book however O’Neill will be moving to riverrun a new imprint of Quercus and while she has assured us that her next book will still have crossover appeal this will see her moving out of the teen market in terms of best-seller lists and eligibility for prizes. So who are the Irish women who can take her place on those lists?

The first name is obvious – Sarah Crossan. She won the 2016 The Bookseller YA Book Prize making it a two in a row win for Irish women and she also won the Children’s Books Ireland Book of Year Award 2016 and the Children’s Choice Award for One a book about conjoined twins written in verse. This indicates a real appetite amongst teens for diverse and interesting stories. Sarah Crossan is a perfect example of the author who can move between genres having written three contemporary titles and two science fiction titles.

Another fantastic example of an author not afraid to tackle various genres and difficult subjects is ER Murray; hailing originally from the North East of England, Murray is firmly settled in West Cork. The author also writes for younger readers but her novel Caramel Hearts is firmly aimed at a YA audience and it tackles alcoholism, divorce, bullying, theft, first love, friendship and cakes. The title belies the gritty issues featured in the book. I spoke to the author recently and she said; ‘I think young adult fiction allows writers to explore stories and emotions with honesty and bravery. The same themes can be found in adult fiction, but there’s a certain rawness and integrity that young adult fiction allows for. Readers are tough, and teen readers particularly so – and they’ll be quite vocal if something doesn’t resonate or ring true. Middle grade fiction is also starting to find its place when it comes to dealing with difficult issues and important themes – I think we’re going to see some shifts in terms of what people think children want to read and what children actually want to read. It really is an exciting time to be writing children and young adult books. So many opportunities!’

Deirdre Sullivan is a young author already on to her eighth book! Having written three books for younger readers, the Primrose trilogy and Needlework which was short-listed for the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year Award 2017. Needlework deals with abuse and recovery and the importance of creativity. Her next book will be available later this year, a collection of fairy-tale retellings called Tangleweed and Brine. I asked the author what is so attractive about YA for writers and this is what she said; ‘Adolescence is a really inspiring time for many writers. The period of transition between childhood and adulthood has so many gains and losses, so many things that build or break a person … there’s so much potential to explore different people, different stories … I think YA is freeing. Because it’s more a demographic than a genre. Like, it means “a book that will be marketed to young adults”. So you can have a horror, a fantasy, a romance and a verse novel all in the same section. It’s exciting as a reader and as a writer, because you discover things you didn’t know you loved. They find you. Which is what I would hope for young adults as well, that the stress of the teenage years be interspersed with lovely surprises, friendships, music, art, romance, identity, and my personal favourite, books …’

An author turning the fantasy genre to her advantage is Ruth Frances Long. Her trilogy A Crack in Everything, A Hollow in the Hills and    A Darkness at the End are contemporary urban fantasies featuring Irish mythology and using the streets of Dublin and its shadowy counterpart Dubh Linn as its canvas. Ruth was already established as a writer of romantic fiction for adults when she made the switch to YA. It was mostly an accident as she explains; I sort of fell into it because of the characters I write. I just enjoy teen characters so much. It’s such an amazing time of life. That said I focus on the story itself rather than a particular market so I hope my books appeal across the board. When I started to submit it, it was clear that it fell into the older end of YA, and when I signed with my agent, she was adamant it was YA. So that’s how I found out what I was writing.’

Claire Hennessy is a prolific author who has written a number of smart, topical, contemporary YA novels. Claire’s newest book Like Other Girls features a bisexual young woman facing the terror of an unplanned pregnancy and feeling she has nowhere to turn.  Her previous book Nothing Tastes as Good featured a snarky teen ghost trying to help another teenage girl to face up to her issues with food and anxiety and open up about a terrible secret at the heart of her problems. I think Hennessy sums up the reason why YA is so attractive to writers and readers; ‘It’s a space where terrific stories are being told and beautiful writing is happening and where, regardless of genre, your books all get to be together on the shelf, unlike with adult fiction. From a writers’ perspective, adolescence is a fascinating time – it’s so intense, it’s a time of figuring things out, and there’s a lot of in-built conflict already (school, for example – you’re stuck with a bunch of people you probably hate and you’re told what to do by all the adults in your life). It’s basically the time we learn the life lessons that we keep relearning over and over again, the time when we have the first taste of some of the experiences that will recur in life (love, heartbreak, betrayal, grief). There’s a thing actors say about how, by the time you hit twenty, you’ve experienced all the emotional stuff you need to tap into for any role – I feel that way about how YA books work. The characters might be young but the emotional truths are the core ones that we carry into adulthood.’

This is just a tiny selection of the many amazing women authors of YA writing in Ireland today. There are many more to seek out; Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Catherine Doyle, Celine Kiernan, Sheena Wilkinson, I could go on, the list is endless. For young Irish readers (and the not so young) who love to read young adult fiction there is a wealth of choice and it certainly seems that the future is in safe hands with new authors appearing on the scene who are unafraid to tackle the big issues such as mental health and disability like Meg Grehan author of The Space Between, Kim Hood author of Finding a Voice and Plain Jane, Sarah Carroll whose debut novel The Girl in Between deals with homelessness and Orlagh Collins No Filter deals with family breakdown while Sarah Maria Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts; a dystopian Young Adult retelling of Frankenstein, already a hit in the US will be available here in February. So if you know anyone whose perception of YA is that it’s all sparkly vampires and romance go forth and re-educate them.