• Vanessa Harbour

Philip Pullman suggests that there is no subject too big for children’s literature, while Melvin Burgess contends that young adults can deal with any issue if it is placed in context. As a writer of young adult fiction that often contains contentious subjects such as sex, drugs and alcohol, I am conscious that applying creative judgment is a vital part of my writing process. As an author I have an element of responsibility. This article first considers the relevance of the story with particular emphasis on the vicarious experience and why this is so important for the young adult reader. It then explores my own creative processes and how I make these creative judgments.

Keywords: creative judgment—young adult fiction—contentious issues—young adults—writing


When writing, I have a collection of ideas, notes and research from which a narrative will evolve as I make decisions about which word, which motif and which theme is going to make its way onto the page. All of this is achieved through the application of creative judgment. This is not exclusive to me as a writer; it is a process we all undertake in one form or another. I would suggest, however, that I am particularly conscious of the practice because of the type of writer I am: I write realist young adult fiction that often deals with contentious issues such as sex, drugs and alcohol. I am aware, as Blanchot suggests, that as I write I am leaving questions on the page. These are waiting to be asked of the young adult reader as they vicariously experience the scenarios I am creating (Blanchot 1999: 359). But it is never as simple as that, as will be seen.

Karen Armstrong highlights the importance and development of storytelling by suggesting that ‘A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest’ (Armstrong 2005: 149). This is an important aspect of my writing. When I am writing a story I aim to create images and plots that allow young adults to see the world differently, to explore situations that they may or may not have come across, and give them the opportunity to consider how they might react in these situations if faced with them in reality. I look to provide a ‘safe’ place to try out these experiences via the inner dialogue between reader and narrative; because stories, fictions, encourage the reader to slip into another ‘skin’, and enable them to live a new life there, where we can find ‘truths we might not otherwise stumble on’ (Malouf 2011).

I write about contentious issues; and the critical discussion of how these are or should be dealt with in children’s fiction is ongoing, involving many interested parties with widely differing opinions. At the same time that the presence of sex, drugs, alcohol and other sensitive topics in children’s fiction is subject to academic scrutiny,1 it is also subject to opinions promoted in newspapers and other media, where the expertise required to enter the discussion seems to require no other authority than simply being an adult. This is partly because writing for children is (almost)2 never written by children, and mostly written by anyone but them. Consequently, there is a vibrant and energetic discourse that invites serious and critical engagement. I first entered this debate when I co-wrote a chapter entitled ‘Junk, Skunk and Northern Lights—representing drugs in children’s literature’, which appeared in Manning’s Drugs and Popular Culture Drugs, Media and Identity in Contemporary Society (2007), and from which the following quotation is taken:

The coupling of children’s literature with controversial subjects such as sex and drugs should perhaps be considered as a cultural oxymoron, a combination that immediately signals an end of innocence and thereby an end to childhood itself. However, there is another side to the argument which suggests when addressing such topics, children’s literature is exactly where they should be located. (Melrose & Harbour 2007: 276)

In this debate, the popular press most often represents the view that children should be protected, and thereby remain innocent, characterising the inclusion of sensitive topics in children’s fiction as an unacceptable assault on that innocence. This is reminiscent of Foucault’s argument that ‘everyone knew … that children had no sex, which was why they were forbidden to talk about it’ (1998: 4): so that if we never mention contentious issues, we are ‘protecting’ children from themselves. However, there are others, especially writers and academic critics (including myself), who contend that in fact fiction is an ideal place to explore such issues. Indeed, as Philip Pullman has suggested, it might be that fiction is the best place to explore them:

There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book

... stories are vital. Stories never fail us because, as Isaac Bashevis Singer says, ‘events never grow stale.’ There is more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy. And by a story I mean not only Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk but also the great novels of the nineteenth century, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Bleak House and many others: novels where the story is at the center of the writer’s attention, where the plot actually matters ...

We don’t need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever. (Pullman 1996)

Pullman’s idea that the story is something that ‘lasts forever’ is an important one, and one I endorse. Engagement with fiction is immersion in a cultural space that allows us to find out who we are, or even who we are not, because stories and storytelling are all about helping us to make connections. In a highly persuasive idea that ‘Adults can nurture children … but they do not have the answers … what they can do is tell children stories about the connections’ (Phillips 1997: 2, emphasis added), Adam Phillips highlights the idea that storytelling is the key that opens the door to the connections that help us make sense of the world. While this is not exclusive to the book, the written text plays a big part in this process. But it is a mistake to assume a child, or young adult (just like all of us) comes to a story—in a book, say—in ignorance. They come knowing what they already know, with a view to encountering that which they don’t know in their ever-expanding gathering of knowledge.

Of course, books are not the only possible ‘key’ to this door. Melvin Burgess, author of several novels dealing with contentious issues, has already reflected that there are few secrets we can keep from children these days, as ‘in a world more embedded in fictions than ever, in the form not just of books but gaming, politics, film, TV, adverts, even education, kids are probably more able than their parents to appreciate the different ways stories are used’ (Burgess 2010, emphasis added).3 But as the focus of this article is the reasons behind the creative judgments that I may apply to my writing, I am concentrating on the written text, the book, the novel, as a form that enables readers to consider how they would react in certain situations, through empathising with the characters, and living the story by experiencing it vicariously. It is my belief that, by reading such narratives, readers are being given the ‘tools to read this world carefully and critically’ (McGillis 1997). Charles Sarland’s work supports this idea: he suggests that ‘research evidence uncovers a complex picture of the young seeking ways to take control of their own lives, and using the fiction that they enjoy as one element in the negotiation of cultural meaning and value’ (Sarland 2010: 44).

If the definition of children’s literature is literature written for children and not for adults, then we also need to consider the point at which childhood meets adulthood, the point at which the old child becomes a young adult,  but before maturing into adulthood (Savage 2007: xv). This is particularly pertinent when addressing issues in what has now been termed as young adult fiction. Young adult fiction is not children’s literature, in the same way that it is not adult fiction: it is fiction aimed specifically at young adults, and it deals with issues and storylines that aim to capture their imagination. Since Melvin Burgess published Junk (1996), the first British young adult fiction to deal graphically with the issues of drug taking, young adult fiction itself has been the source of many story lines based on contentious issues, which are neither child nor adult related but simply explorations of fictional lives, and experiences of young adults as emerging adults.

I would suggest that, though the young adults are not binary opposites of children or adults, they are ‘other’ because to some extent the young adults are on the edge of childhood and the cusp of adulthood, being neither one nor the other. Young adulthood is the bridge between the two. Young adults make a lot of noise and are the target of many marketing campaigns, as suggested by Martyn Denscombe:

Young people are expected to navigate through an acutely difficult social and personal context on their passage to adult status. At school treated as captives, children, and ignorant. At home, treated sometimes as dependants whose lives are to be directed, other times as responsible and independent adults. In the high street, treated as high-profile consumers, yet not old enough to be served alcohol in pubs and clubs. (2001: 174)

Yet young adults have no collective voice. Instead they are the ‘voices in the shadows’ just waiting to come forward as childhood and young adulthood are erased and before they are ‘camouflaged as “one of us”’ (Melrose 2011: 28, emphasis added).4

Young adulthood is the starting point of the journey to adulthood from childhood, where there is a transient gap between the child and the adult that is based on experience. It is a gap that is neither stable nor permanent but constantly under scrutiny, and always available for mutual exploration by the writer and the reader. This gap could be considered the ‘inter’, the ‘in-between’ space, in Homi Bhabha’s term:

we should remember that it is the ‘inter’ – the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between … – that carries the burden of the meaning of culture ... And by exploring this hybridity, this ‘Third Space’, we may elude the politics of polarity [adult/child] and emerge as the others of ourselves. (1994: 56)

I realise Bhahba is writing postcolonial theory, but my [adult/child] edit shows that it can be reapplied here. In terms of experience, it is the young adult who occupies that in-between space, standing closer to the adult as she/he begins to negotiate the last part of the journey between child and adult, inexperience and experience. And it is crucial to say that this meeting at the bridge, the in-between space, is not a site of adult domination but rather a site that the adult writer (in the form of a book and its characters) and the reader can jointly explore. Neither reader nor writer comes to this space emptyhanded. They each bring with them that which they know, and they are each in search of that which they don’t know or understand ... yet. For me this is the real purpose of young adult fiction: to be a site of mutual exploration for the writer and the reader. Just as the young adult bridges the gap between child and adult, so too young adult fiction can be seen to bridge the gap between children’s fiction and adult fiction.

This exploration through fiction being conducted by the young adult as part of a much wider cultural discourse invariably includes the search for identity, which is pivotal to their development as part of their personal and cultural maturation. Denscombe suggested that this identity is ‘uncertain’, and it is this uncertainty that motivates young adults to experiment with it by partaking in ‘health-risking behaviour’ (2001: 158) such as drug taking, binge drinking and underage sex. The ‘partaking’ can involve the vicarious experience derived through reading about such activities in young adult fiction where they could ask questions of themselves and the text. While these activities can be deemed deviant because they are illegal, their representation within young adult fiction has to reflect actuality and, as is borne out by my research elsewhere (Harbour 2011), these activities have become culturally and socially normalised.

The editors of Crosscurrents of children’s literature suggest that young adult fiction is a potential panacea for this unimpeded access to deviant behaviours. They consider that, by including these perceived ‘adult’ issues, young adult fiction could be seen to act ‘like a vaccination, preventing worse diseases by allowing the recipient to experience a mild and ultimately protective version of the illness’ (Stahl, Hanlon & Lennox Keyser 2007: 129). Melvin Burgess has expanded on this idea, believing that young adults can deal with most contentious issues if they are placed in context within fiction (Burgess 2009). Young adult fiction provides them the opportunity to develop an understanding of how to deal with real issues by means of the protected vicarious experience contained in and gained from the text. The vicarious experience is created by the interaction between reader and text, both of which are culturally activated. Their interaction is ‘structured by the material, social, ideological and institutional relationships in which both text and readers are inescapably inscribed’ (Bennett 1983: 3-17). Thus, when writing young adult fiction it is clear that ideally the writer should anticipate this interaction and understand that ‘Sentences end with full stops. Stories do not’ (Rosen 1985). And, as such, your narrative could have implications that go beyond the page.

As the writer or reader of a text, you are surrounded by the literary equivalent of a kaleidoscope of voices: the expert, the misinformed; the authentic and the fake; the known, the unknown; friends, family, foes; fictional and actual. All reflect and deflect differences, and all inform the metanarratives and micronarratives of any text. These myriad voices have something in common, and that is that they reflect experience: actual, vicarious, or imagined. Walter Benjamin describes this Babel as a ‘lived out’ experience (1999: 83-111). There is an element of ‘lived out experience’ that influences both writers as they write and readers as they read, allowing them to derive a meaning from the text. As such, the texts are an experience in themselves, where the writer and reader can meet to engage.

Experience is the natural partner of a writer’s creativity and creative judgment; or, as Benjamin again suggests, ‘experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn’ (1999: 84). Narratives are born out of ‘lived out experiences’, whether actual physical experience or virtual experience via the media-driven, technologically advancing, globalised contemporary world as provided by the Internet and televisual communication. In fact, as Baudrillard notes (2009: 174), technology is a source of ‘lived out experience’ because ‘it is in fact the world that imposes its will upon us with the aid of technology’. However the experience is achieved, it has to be understood that ‘the full meaning of experience is not simply given in the reflexive immediacy of the lived moment but emerges from explicit retrospection where meaning is recovered and reenacted’ (Burch 1990: 134). This means that any experience becomes historically and culturally embedded as the writer and reader consciously engage with the experience and explore it retrospectively. The experience can, therefore, no longer be immediate for either the writer or the reader, as the moment has gone.

Though the ‘lived out experience’ gap exists between adult writer and adult reader, it is naturally far greater between adult writer and child reader. Logically this gap is reduced as the child gets to be an adult and ‘experienced’. The young adult is not as innocent as the child but not as experienced as the adult because ‘cognitive development is experience-dependent, and older children have had more experiences than younger children’ (Goswami 2008: 1-2). This creates a potential problem for anyone writing for young adults, because they have to understand not only the position of an ‘othered’ young adult but also the contingent environment within which they live.

Seelinger Trites suggests that, in young adult fiction, ‘protagonists must learn about the social forces that made them what they are. They learn how to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function’ (2000: 9). Therefore the young adult fiction writer ideally needs to provide their readers opportunities, within the text, to ‘challenge’ who they are and the world they live in. In contrast, when considering children’s literature Seelinger Trites says that the writer will often ‘affirm the child’s sense of Self’ while ensuring they feel more secure within their environment (2000: 3). As a writer of young adult fiction I cannot make the assumptions of innocence made by the writer of children’s books, or assumptions of experience and understanding made by the adult writer for the adult reader. The young adult is invariably in receipt of ‘lived out experience’, but often this is via technology, schooling and peer knowledge rather than through personal experience.

Any writer who has contentious issues to deal within their narrative needs to consider Edna Hunt and Fiona Sampson’s suggestion that ‘In any writing process there is always going to be a tension between our own personal needs and the need of the writing to have a life of its own’ (2006: 3). It would be too easy to allow personal prejudices or crusades to get in the way; the story has to tell its reality, for good or bad. As I already stated, Melvin Burgess suggests that young adults can cope with most contentious issues represented in fiction as long as they are placed in a context that allows the reader to grasp the reality being presented. Writers need to allow their writing the freedom to develop in its own direction and not to force it; allow it to be real and not contrived. Indeed, as Foucault advocates, the writer should withdraw and let the text survive as witness rather than as an authority (2002: 51). Done successfully, this will ensure that the young adult reader is not left feeling as if they are being talked at or down to, or infantilized and patronized. Instead they will be drawn, willingly, into the experiential gap.

Barthes’s idea of the death of the author is that:

a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not as was hitherto said, the author. (1977: 148)

The young adult reader meets the text on the bridge, on the cusp, in the middle of the gap but does not recognize or indeed even see the writer, because young adults only meet characters with whom they can relate. A young adult reader does not need to think about the writer and his or her views. Consequently the writer needs to be ‘dead’ in order to leave their fictional characters space to breathe life into their own story—and all the writer can do is hope the characters created are met with empathy. Recognising and writing for this experiential gap is about asking the young adult reader to step into it by trusting characters who can tell their story, allowing the young adults to participate in the vicarious experiences without having an adult (parent, teacher, tutor, police officer, judge) looking over their shoulder or passing judgment.

I recognise the need, while absorbed in the creative activity of writing, to remain conscious of the image or potential message I am portraying as a writer. Accordingly, I believe that I must also be aware of the ethics involved in any portrayal I create, particularly as often my characters may be only 16 years old and therefore are potentially breaking the law. As a writer I believe that my ‘representing’ must be as accurate and as well informed as possible, as there is the potential for any reader of my text to use the information I have portrayed as the basis for their real life decisions (Burgess 2009; Zipes 2006: 41).5 We have already acknowledged that young adults may have awareness but will not necessarily have knowledge; therefore I, and all other writers, are in a position of power from which we can influence and inform others. Given this position, we need to consider what impact our writings may have. Writers need to be aware that any portrayal they create has the potential to encourage young adults to partake in illegal activities. They, the writers, need to understand the responsibilities involved when writing for young adults. And on a personal basis, I need to think about how I write, and what judgments I make, in order to provide the ‘right way of knowing’ for the reader.

I am conscious that my creative judgments about any representations I make are going to be influenced by multiple identities. The fact I am an academic, a writer, a woman and the mother of drug-using and sexually active young adults is going to influence how I interpret and portray any situation. As Webb states, ‘What we see is not what is there, but what our social and cultural traditions and their contexts gave us’ (2009: 2) as ‘we constantly, if subconsciously, produce meanings out of the material world’ (2009: 11). I perceive these as layers of interaction and understanding. Bakhtin, however, would call it ‘heteroglossia’: where the many layers become the multiple voices of the author, the characters, the narrator, the genre, and even the reader (2008: 263). These multiple voices will not intentionally ‘mis-represent’ an idea, but they may result in an ‘interested’ representation that has been swayed by my myriad identities and the particular cultural moment in which I am reading or writing (Webb 2009: 37).

Any representation within a fictional discourse relates to an element that has been written and will be read in a particular cultural moment. Creative pieces are not expected to reflect a truism within contemporary society, but rather to reflect the truth of the fictional discourse and its multiple layers as it represents the dialogic relationship between the writer, the characters in the novel and the prospective readers. Writing is a journey, on which you come to know what you do know and find out what you don’t know. As Foucault suggests, ‘it would probably not be worth the trouble of making books if they failed to teach the author something he hadn’t known before’ (in Rabinow 1984: 339, emphasis added).

I approach the writing of a novel from many angles, and using a multitude of voices and identities, as mentioned earlier. In part these identities are constructed in order to enable me to enter the experiential gap between my young adult readers and myself, the adult writer. I need to ‘impersonate’ young adults by creating characters, in order to engage and encourage young adult readers to join me in the aforementioned gap. Each identity has a separate power base that engages with and influences the discourse. Morwenna Griffiths suggests that the parts of a successful narrative are ‘intricate, involved, interlaced, with each part entangled with the rest dependent on it’, and each character ‘is made of nearly invisible, very strong threads attached to the circumstances of its making and under the control of the maker’ (Griffiths 1995: 2). Woven though the story are ‘the threads of an epistemology based on autobiographical experience’ (Griffiths 1995: 3), which provides additional depth to one’s writing. My writing will necessarily be influenced by ‘the conditions of its production’ (Mills 2006: 7),6 as Jack Zipes writes:

I am not being coy—children’s literature does not exist. If we take the genitive case literally and seriously, and if we assume ownership and possession are involved when we say ‘children’s literature’ or the literature of children, then there is no such thing as children’s literature, or for that matter, children … ‘children’ and ‘childhood’ are social constructs that have been determined by socioeconomic conditions and have different meanings for different cultures. (2002: 40)

This is also a consideration when writing for young adults, which ‘often shows how social [economic, cultural, political and other] problems bite into private experience’ (Mills 2006: 176). Indeed it is ‘impossible to discuss children and children’s literature today without situating them within the complex of the cultural field of production’ (Zipes 2009: 1).

When I am writing, and applying this creative judgment, my aim is, like John Gardner: ‘to make up convincing human beings and create for them basic situations and actions by means of which they come to know themselves and reveal themselves to the reader’ (1991: 15). Their personal identities are made of their past, their future, their dreams and aspirations and their fears as decided by me, the writer. The fictional characters I create are ones that I believe I have given space to, characters I have created to breathe life into their own story, and to be ready to meet the young adult reader in that perceived experiential gap. This is particularly relevant when writing for young adults as they look for characters that resemble themselves and that are imaginable; while also finding opportunities for vicarious experiences within a world that ‘rings true’ (Brice Heath 2011: xi). I hope that the characters are met with empathy in this perceived gap because they show similar cognitive development to that of the readers. They start to develop identities, and to form a code of ethics. Importantly, they help readers to achieve that point of cognitive development where ‘the use of systematic thinking begins to influence relationships with others’ (Lucile Salter Packard 2012). This allows me as the writer to withdraw, so that the text can survive as a witness, but not as an authority (Foucault 2002: 233).

I often use Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque as a narrative device because it allows me to interpret reality as if through a distorting mirror, showing plot lines that deviate only slightly from the norm, which allows me the freedom to deviate slightly from perceived social restrictions (Bakhtin 1984; Nikolajeva 2010: 10). This approach means I can write openly about potentially illegal pastimes in an informed but not didactic way. Amanda Boulter offers an explanation of the process for the author:

We need to find some distance between our own point of view and our characters’ and this can only come through the deliberate work of critical-creative imagination: exploring our own perceptions, cultural prejudices and social ideologies and thinking and feeling beyond them. (2007: 92)

I would also suggest that in order to achieve an ‘authentic’ voice within a narrative for young adults it is important to undertake extensive research that is then embedded within the discourse. The research should not be obvious but subsumed within the text so that the reader merely perceives a depth of narrative, which also encourages them to step into the ‘experiential gap’. Robert McKee says that when creating a story

We put each and every moment under a microscope of thinking, rethinking, creating, recreating as we weave through our characters moments, a maze of unspoken thoughts, image, sensations and emotions. (1999: 172)

This, along with research, enables young adult fiction to be a source of information for young adults, and its ongoing influence should not be ignored. Those of us who write for young adults need to continue to produce exciting story-driven narratives that open vistas for young adults, allowing them to explore, vicariously, activities that will help to inform their future choices. And personally, as a writer, I need to accept that the world around us is fluid and therefore we have to be prepared to respond quickly to any changes. As a writer, I need to understand and accept that ‘the writer never knows if the work is done’; and that, indeed, ‘the work of art, the literary work—is neither finished nor unfinished: it is’ (Blanchot 1999: 402). Instead this is just the beginning of my ‘writerly’ journey as both the critical enquiry and creative judgment continue to evolve and develop the more I write.

End notes

  • 1. See Hunt (2010), Rudd (2010), Nodelman (2008), Seelinger Trite (2000), Reynolds (2007).
  • 2. See Kimberley Reynolds (2007) Radical children’s literature, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 155-79.
  • 3. Melrose explores this in his first book Write for children (2002) and has since expanded the idea in his Here comes the bogeyman: exploring contemporary issues in writing for children (2011). See also Sonia Livingstone’s highly informative book, Children and the internet (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009) for an informed and coherent reading of this.
  • 4. It should be noted that Melrose’s work does not present young adults being ‘othered’: see Here comes the bogeyman: exploring contemporary issues in writing for children (2011). I find his suggestion that they are rather ‘camouflaged’ as 'one of us' a convincing one.
  • 5. Interview with Melvin Burgess on BBC Radio 4s Front Row 5 June 2009 7.15pm. Also see Zipes J. 2006 Why fairy tales stick (London, New York: Routledge), 41.
  • 6. Mills P. 2006 The Routledge creative writing course book (Abingdon, New York: Routledge) p.7. Much of Jack Zipes’ later work also concentrates on this idea.
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