Young Adult Books

 We’re all familiar with children’s books and adult fiction, but ‘young adult’ is a category to which I hadn’t given much thought.  But recently, while on holiday inSicily, I stopped into a book shop in Capo d’Orlando to look for an English novel by a good writer.  There are about four book shops in Capo d’Orlando, but I knew that the shop in the main square carried a few English books (about 25) and some German books, as well (about 10).  If that this represents much less than 1% of their stock surprises you, I have to say that less than 1% of the population of Capo d’Orlando speak any English!

I had a browse through the English language books, and one ‘from the bestselling author’ Carlos Ruiz Zafon caught my eye.  The brief write-up on the author said that “Carlos Ruiz Zafon is the author of six novels, including the international phenomenon The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game.  His work is published in more than forty languages and has been honoured with numerous international awards.  He divides his time betweenBarcelona,Spain andLos Angeles,California.”

The novel I bought was The Midnight Palace – originally published in Spain as a young adult novel, “The Midnight Palace is a haunting story of a secret society and a labyrinthine railway station with a dark past.”

“Murders most foul, chilling crimes and dark deeds” says Vogue.

The story begins inCalcutta,Indiain 1916 when twin orphaned babies, a boy and a girl, are carried to safety by a police officer who is then murdered.  The story continues in 1932 when the orphans have turned sixteen and are released from their orphanages.  Their mission, together with five other released orphans (four boys and a girl) is to find out who killed the parents of the twins.  Sound interesting?  I thought so, and as I read through it, I began to discover what seemed to be some of the elements making up best-selling young adult fiction:

  • The setting should be somewhat extraordinary as to place and time:Calcutta, 1932
  • The main characters should be adolescents: in this case 16 years old
  • Places should be intriguing: in this case a huge old railway station destroyed in a fire and an old tumbledown castle.
  • There should be some major wrongs that need to be put right: lots of murders
  • Plenty of mystery is a good addition, particularly if it takes all the deductive skills of the young orphans to solve it, with very little adult help.

Maybe I’ve become to unimaginative, and too literal in my thinking, but I got two thirds of the way through the book and lost interest.  There was too much in the story that defied credibility:

  • A villain who’s motives and plans are extremely complex
  • A villain who shoots fire from his fingers
  • Lots of supernatural powers
  • A burning, runaway train that keeps running away
  • One person taking over the soul of another
  • And an orphan boy who owns a watch inCalcuttain 1932

I guess to really enjoy this novel, one has to suspend disbelief.

The research I have done suggests that the ‘young adult’ category covers age 12 through 18.  It must be quite difficult to cover this age range with any one novel.  I suspect that writers who specialise in young adult fiction cater to a narrower age group.

There is one piece of young adult fiction that I remember well from my high school days, and that is The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger.  It was written in 1951 as an adult novel but has become an adolescent favourite, with 65 million copies sold, in almost all of the major languages.  I read it when I was 16 or 17 when it was required reading in my English class.

The Catcher in the Rye relies on a different set of themes that The Midnight Palace to capture the attention of adolescent readers. 

Briefly, it is a story told in the first person by Holden Caulfield, a 17 year old boy who is attending a military academy inPennsylvania.  He is kicked out of school and spends several days inNew York Cityduring which time he experiments in various ways and tries to understand himself.  Holden Caulfield has become an icon of teenage rebellion.  The novel deals with a number of themes which are important to Holden’s age group: identity, connection, sexuality, alienation and belonging, but I believe that this is a novel that anyone from the age of 15 onwards would find interesting and thought-provoking.


I had never heard of ‘chapbooks’ until recently.  They were popular, pocket-sized, paper-bound books which preceded the novel and existed from the late 16th century until the middle of the 19th century when they were unable to compete with newspapers and some churches considered them ‘ungodly’.  The form originated in England and Scotland, but similar books were published in the US, as well.  Chapbooks were an important vehicle for the distribution of popular culture, particularly for people living in rural areas.  They provided entertainment, information and (often fictitious) history.  Now, they are valued as records of popular culture, that has not survived in other forms.  Chapbooks were aimed at people without formal libraries, and, in an era when paper was valuable, the paper of old chapbooks was used for wrapping, and even for toilet paper.

The word chapbook is derived from the old English word ce’ap, meaning an itinerant peddler.  The peddler would buy the books, on credit, from publishers which were originally clustered in the London Bridge area of London.  The peddler would travel about, selling the books at markets, fairs and door-to-door.  In the mid 17th century enough chapbooks were printed in one year to account for one English family in three.  They were usually printed on a single sheet of paper and folded to produce a book of up to 24 pages, often with woodcut illustrations that may not have had any relevance to the text.  Reportedly, in most cases the quality of the paper and the printing were very poor.  However, in some cases, chapbooks were long, well printed and historically accurate.  At a time when an agricultural labourer was making 12 pence per day, chapbooks sold for 2 to 6 pence.

The literacy rate in the mid 17th century for English males was about 30%.  This figure rose to 60% a century later.  It seems likely that chapbooks contributed to this rise in literacy, with many working people readers and a few were even writers.  Before the industrial revolution, workers had periods of time available for reading, and chapbooks were read aloud to families, and probably in pubs, as well.

Between 1661 and 1688, Samuel Pepys collected chapbooks.  His collection is kept at Magdalene College, Oxford.  Mr. Pepys devised the following list of subject categories of items published during that time:

  • Devotion & Morality
  • History – true & fabulous
  • Tragedy: murders, executions, & judgements of God
  • State & Times
  • Love – pleasant
  • Love – unpleasant
  • Marriage, Cuckoldry, etc.
  • Sea – love, gallantry & actions
  • Drinking & good fellowship
  • Humour & frollicks

Stories set in a mythical past were popular, as were stories about heroes (rich or poor) triumphing in difficult circumstances.    Robin Hood is featured in chapbooks before he started giving to the poor what he took from the rich.  Ignorant and greedy clergymen were often figures of fun.  Some trades (cobblers, weavers and tailors) whose members were often literate were sometimes the subject of a story.

Today’s novel, while far more sophisticated (in most cases) than chapbooks, owes some of its attributes to the chapbook.  These include entertaining and informing, while historic novels provide historic settings.  But the modern novel goes further: considerably longer, written (mostly) in better English, with more complex characters, interactions and plots. Many novels today are intellectually more challenging than the chapbooks of two centuries ago.

Writing While on Holiday

I’m on holiday in Sicily at the moment.  It is very pleasant to get out of the constant rain of London.  You may have read that, early this year, the water companies in England issued a ‘hose pipe ban’ meaning that no one was allowed to use a hose (for watering the garden, washing the car, etc.).  It was OK to use a watering can or a bucket, but no hose.  The ban was imposed after two years of  ‘exceptional drought’.  Almost as soon as the ban was imposed, it started to rain, and it has been raining almost constantly since!  During one day last week, there was one month’s rain that fell in one region of England.  There has been a lot of flooding, the reservoirs are overflowing, and the ban has been lifted.

I’ve been in Sicily just over a week, and there has been bright sunshine every day.  No rain.  It’s quite hot: 35 degrees C (97 F) during the day and 25 degrees C (79 F) at night, but there’s no need for air conditioning at night.  There’s always a cool breeze.  In my experience Sicily doesn’t experience the 90%+ humidity that the East Coast of the US often gets in summer.  My sister, who lives in Philadelphia, told me on Sunday that she was in for another ‘100 – 100 day’, meaning 100 degrees F and near 100% humidity.

Here the sea is refreshing, and the food is simple but excellent.

My wife and I are here with my older step-daughter and her three children: two boys, 3 1/2 and 2, and a girl 6 months.  They are lovely kids, but a bit of a handful.  So, with the shopping, gardening, general handyman work, swimming, cooking, and playing with the children, I’ve had very little time to write.  I forgot to mention that I’m reading a novel by Susan Sontag (The Volcano Lover) and also working on a needlepoint belt for my son-in-law.  Moreover, when the kids are in the house, it can be quite noisy and distracting.  As a result, during the first week I was here, I did little more than finish the last few pages of a chapter 0f novel no. 5.

But recently, and happily, I’ve found a solution.  The kids have a ‘quiet time’ from 1:30 until 3:30.  They can either sleep or watch videos.  That time gives me an excellent window in which to work: it’s quiet, too hot to be in the sun, and the shops in Sicily are closed from about 1:30 until 4:30.  (Then they re-open until 8.)  Actually, when the children go to the pool at 3:30, I can stay behind for another hour, avoiding the still intense sun, and writing.

So, the last few days I’ve been able to write two pages a day, which is not far off my pace at home, and besides: my objective had been to finish chapter 7 and write chapter 8 while in Sicily.  I think I might be able to do it!

The Writer’s Voice

On Dave Hood’s blog (, I found an interesting piece about the narrative voice and the writer’s voice.  I quote from it as follows:

“What is the narrative voice? It is the quality of the narrative, whether the story is told in the first-person or the third-person.  It is how the writer chooses to tell the story–casually, seriously, humorously, and so forth. The narrative voice (may) belong to a character within the story, such as the protagonist.  Or when the story is told in the third-person, the narrative voice will belong to an unknown character, someone who is not a participant in the story.

The narrative voice is an extension of the writer’s voice. The writer’s voice consists of many elements, including style and tone. But the writer’s (voice) is created by many other factors, such as socioeconomic background, education, belief system, values, writing experience, and so forth.

How does the aspiring writer acquire his/her own voice? It takes time to create a voice. It begins by developing an original style. From style, the writer needs to write and gain experience. Over time, the writer’s voice emerges. It is a process.

To help develop a unique voice, the aspiring writer can do the following:

  1. Learn to write well. Learn the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. And then learn when to break these rules.
  2. Expand his/her vocabulary. The writer must use the dictionary to learn the meaning of unfamiliar words. The writer should also use a thesaurus to find similar words with different shades of meaning.
  3. Read widely and deeply. The writer ought to read fiction by the great writers. The writer also needs to read nonfiction, like biographies, and person essays. By doing this, the writer can learn how the masters constructed memorable fiction.
  4. Analyze the styles of great writers, such as Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, and George Orwell. Analysis teaches the writer how to create setting, plot, characters, and use other literary devices.
  5. Experiment with different writing styles, such as word choice and syntax. Only through practice and experience will the aspiring writer develop a unique style.
  6. Learn the element of fiction and use them. (Plot, setting, character, conflict, and so forth.)
  7. Learn the literary techniques and use them. (Imagery, symbolism, allusion, and figures of speech, such as simile, metaphor, and personification.)
  8. Make writing a lifestyle choice. The aspiring writer must write every day. Only by writing on a regular basis will the writer develop his/her unique voice.
  9. Write in a way that comes naturally. The writer needs to use words and phrases that are his/her own. Imitation is (not) acceptable.
  10. The writer also needs to place himself/herself in the background. To do this, the writer needs to write in a way that draws the reader to the sense and style of the writing, rather than to the tone and temper of the writer.
  11.  Avoid using a breezy manner. The breezy style is a work of an egocentric, the writer who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of interest and ought to be written on the page. Instead, the writer needs to make every word count, each word should move the story forward, and each word needs to have a purpose.”

I think that all of this is good advice, except for number 10, above.  I am currently writing a fictional biography (not autobiographical) in the first person.  The principal character is I, Henry Lawson.  Am I Henry Lawson?  No, but, inevitably, I the writer, will influence the character of Henry Lawson.

I very much agree with number 11, above: “make every word count, each word should move the story forward, and each word should have a purpose”.

Rules for Writers

The Guardian newspaper (in the UK) ran a feature in which they asked ‘some of the most esteemed contemporary authors’  for the ten golden rules they bring to their writing practice.  Here are some of the rules with which I agree or disagree, the name of the author, and my reasons:


  • “When I’m deep inside a story, ­living it as I write, I honestly don’t know what will happen. I try not to dictate it, not to play God.”  (Michael Morpurgo).  For me this works very well, and the key is to ‘live it as I write’.  The result, I believe, is a more genuine product.
  • “The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply.”  (Will Self)  This is self-evidently quite true.
  • “Respect the way characters may change once they’ve got 50 pages of life in them. Revisit your plan at this stage and see whether certain things have to be altered to take account of these changes.”  (Rose Tremain).  This is good advice.  A character may change for reasons that haven’t yet been made clear.  I think it’s important to recognise this, go back and add the clarifications.
  • “In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.”  (Rose Tremain)  When I have formed a vague plan as to the ending, I find that there is a far better one that arrives by evolution.
  • “Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.”  (Margaret Atwood)  This is  very important, and I agree that the best test is whether what I’ve written holds my own attention.
  • ” If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.”  (Margaret Atwood)  This may seem like a trivial point, but before I started doing this I would – for various reasons – lose several hour’s work.  Now, I religiously click on the ‘Save As’ button to send it to my memory stick, as well as my hard disc.
  • “Read like mad. But try to do it analytically – which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It’s worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work. I find watching films also instructive. Nearly every modern Hollywood blockbuster is hopelessly long and baggy. Trying to visualise the much better films they would have been with a few radical cuts is a great exercise in the art of story-telling. ”  (Sarah Waters)  This makes a lot of sense to me.  I like to watch good films critically thinking, ‘how could this be  improved?’  Spotting ‘compelling devices’ and making use of them in one’s own work is also good advice.


  • “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”  (Zadie Smith)  This makes no sense to me.  Why would a writer want to deprive himself of a really useful tool?  I use the internet, for example, to find the names and locations of real places, to discover ethnic habits and customs, to find out how a character would get from place A to place B (if it’s important).  The reason I do this is to make my fiction as realistic as possible.  One has to be careful not to get distracted, but once I find the information I’m seeking, I return immediately to the writing.
  • “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.  (Elmore Leonard)  For me, the repetition of the verb ‘said’ would  be  boring.  The writer has to stick her nose in; after all, it’s her story.  Use of a different verb, other than ‘said’, can characterise the feelings of the speaker.
  • “Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.”  (Elmore Leonard)  I tend to agree that it is best not to mix ‘said’ with and adverb; it is better to select a more expressive verb.  (See the comment above.)  But I don’t agree that the use of adverbs is a mortal sin.  Adverbs are part of the English language (and every other language, as far as I know).  Sometimes – not often, but sometimes – the best available verb on its own doesn’t adequately express the situation.  Then, I’ll use an adverb.
  • “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.”  (Elmore Leonard)  I agree with the point about not bringing the flow of a story to a standstill.  But I will often begin a new scene – before any action takes place – to life with a brief, clear description.  I think it’s sometimes important to prompt the reader’s imagination.