With New Visions approaching fast, we took a moment to chat with Juno Dawson about banned books, LGBT fiction and the rise of YA. Look out for him at the UKYA panel this September.
Queen of Teen 2014 Juno Dawson is the multi-award-winning author of dark teen thrillers Hollow Pike, Cruel Summer, Say Her Name and Under My Skin. In 2015, she released her first contemporary romance, All of the Above.
Juno grew up in West Yorkshire, writing imaginary episodes of Doctor Who. She later turned her talent to journalism, interviewing luminaries such as Steps and Atomic Kitten before writing a weekly serial in a Brighton newspaper. Until recently, Juno worked as a teacher, specialising in PSHCE and behaviour.
Juno writes full time and lives in South London. In her spare time, she STILL loves Doctor Who and is a keen follower of horror films and connoisseur of pop music. In 2014 Juno became a School Role Model for the charity Stonewall.
Why do you think YA is important, and why is it flourishing?
At no other time in life (except perhaps the menopause) do humans go through such rapid change than at puberty. Your body and mind are rearranged quite beyond your control while at the same time we force young people to attend hyper-competitive schools. I think YA authors use metaphors and stories to explore these changes in an accessible way. Moreover, adults who have survived adolescence can relate to the struggle and also the optimism that seems to underpin a lot of YA.
What is the relationship between a YA book and its reader?
This is reader-defined. I learned a long time ago that once your book is out, it's out of your hands. The relationship between any book and her reader is enormously intimate and personal.
the irresponsible thing to do would be to pretend that sex, drugs and violence don't exist. Because they do.
Gender and sexuality seem to be prominent themes in popular YA. How are they done well, and what happens when they’re done poorly?
Only in so much that identity has always been a key theme of YA fiction because that's usually when your identity is solidifying. Pullman used shape-shifting daemons in the same way. I think, as someone from the LGBT community, I hope for well-rounded characters with all the same interests and foibles as anyone else. The poorer characters, and I'm forgiving of stereotypes given that I am one, still tend to support or teach the main character something about their life rather than tell a story of their own. The gay/black friend has become shorthand for 'isn't my main cis, straight, white character a kind and tolerant soul.'
The mayor of Venice recently withdrew what he referred to as ‘books on homosexuality’ from school libraries in an attempt to protect children from sexual themes. What effect will this have? What would you say to him and his supporters?
'Go fuck yourselves.' I'd also probably say he's done nothing but draw attention to a worthwhile cause and some wonderful titles.
there are literally HUNDREDS of diverse titles out there. The issue therefore becomes 'why don't readers know about these titles?'
As an adult writing for the YA demographic, many would say you have a position of responsibility. How does an author show responsibility to younger readers? What should YA authors NOT do?
There's nothing authors should or shouldn't do. Look at Junk by Melvin Burgess, it does everything you 'shouldn't do' and it won the Carnegie. I'm totes paraphrasing this from Patrick Ness, but the irresponsible thing to do would be to pretend that sex, drugs and violence don't exist. Because they do.
Readers often refer to a ‘crisis of representation’ for LGBT+ characters. How can YA authors help?
There really isn't one. People who've only read Harry Potter and The Hunger Games think there's a crisis. Actually there are literally HUNDREDS of diverse titles out there. The issue therefore becomes 'why don't readers know about these titles?'
Where is YA going?
Straight to hell.
Questions from the community:
'Why are the B and the T in LGBT+ so often ignored and misrepresented?'
I don't think this is strictly true. There are some wonderful titles like Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman or The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson. All of the Above (by me) is about 'bi' characters although they avoid using labels. It's just a case of looking, although I agree there are far more titles with gay and lesbian characters.
'Why are ‘falling in love with your straight best friend’ and variants still such a crutch in Queer Fiction? Can’t we move past it? I personally find this to be a very bad plot device, even though I know it’s still very relatable. I just hate it.'
So then don't read them?
I don't think we should pretend it's all rainbows and unicorns when the teen suicide rate for young LGBT+ people is still so high.
'I've noticed that whenever I find a trans or non-binary character in books, they're always ‘caught’ (a cis character sees them bathing, for example, or finds a binder) rather than them coming out on their own terms, even in LGBT+ friendly futures. Why?'
I guess this is just for plot purposes. It is frustrating when a person's identity becomes the 'problem' section of the narrative but I think this is something writers will move away from as society understands gender and sexuality better. We must be mindful that for many young people, coming to terms with their identity and seeking acceptance with friends and family IS still a huge trial. I don't think we should pretend it's all rainbows and unicorns when the teen suicide rate for young LGBT+ people is still so high.
And finally, what are you reading at the moment? Anything you would recommend?
I'm reading The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. This year I'm trying to not just read YA. That said there's some wonderful YA out right now - The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew, Lorali by Laura Dockrill andWay Down Dark by JP Smythe.