In the #196 Feb 2018 issue of Writer’s Forum I interviewed YA author, Anne Cassidy, about why she believes it is important not to shy away from difficult subject matter such as rape, in young adult books.
Anne used two of her Young Adult books No Virgin and No Shame to illustrate how they sensitively deal with the issue of rape. No Virgin tells the story of Stacey Woods a seventeen-year-old girl from Stratford East London. She falls for a boy and finds herself used and exploited by an older man. In No Shame she goes to court to try and get justice for what has happened to her.
When writing about teenagers Anne explained it’s important to go back to your own teenage years and rediscover the teenager you were, the friends you had, the problems you had to overcame or otherwise. It’s key to remember how you felt about things. When I was a teenager I was very lonely. I was an only child and made friends easily but didn’t always keep them. The feeling of uncertainty, of needing to connect with people; those feelings can be used when writing about teenagers, whether they’re contemporary or from any other time in history.
The trappings may be different, the voices a bit louder, the technology mind boggling but the feelings are not different. Teenagers are struggling to become the kind of adult they want to be. That is the same in 2017 as it was in 1966. So, finding your ‘inner teenager’ is a must.
In No Shame Stacey, is very close to her best friend Patrice. She depends on her for lots of things. When it comes to the trial she has to stand on her own two feet. Stacey and Patrice have this thing about doing each other’s hair. When Stacey realises that she must act on her own she declines Patrice’s offer to style her hair and makes her own decisions about it. This is a statement about becoming more independent, something Anne explained that she went through as a teenager.
Teenagers deserve to read about serious and sometimes challenging subjects. I have always been interested in writing such stories. In No Virgin and No Shame I deal with the rape of young girl by an older man. Anne told me the first thing she had to do was to create my character and her family circumstances. She is a working class girl from Stratford doing her ‘A’ levels. She has a close friend and has had one boyfriend who she has had sex with. She is not a virgin and this is key to the situation she finds herself in. Anne asked herself the question: “How would a young girl find herself in a situation where an older man felt he could override her feelings and have sex with her?”
The one explanation Anne had for this was that she is manipulated by someone else, someone she likes and trusts. So at the beginning of the novel she is swept off her feet by Harry, a boy from Kensington who she meets by chance. It is these elements which lead up to the situation where she is raped.
Anne did a lot of research on the internet for No Shame. She revealed there is a lot of information about rape procedures and trials, which will help to get the basic facts right. She also knew an expert in criminal law so she asked a few questions. Anne explained this was because the factual stuff was important but it was also important to get the emotional story right.
Occasionally ‘facts’ have to be sacrificed for narrative development. For example, Anne wanted her main character, Stacey, to meet up with the rapist at the trial – just the two of them accidentally bumping into each other. It was important for the readers to see them together. It’s unlikely this would happen in real life but she engineered the situation in the novel.
We all would want to keep our children young and safe. But they grow up and go out into the real world. Just as we tell them to be careful on the roads we must do the same about other things. We hope that parents will have these conversation, but we can’t be sure about that. It may come up in school but that’s not until much later (year 11 perhaps).
Young Adult literature is exactly the place where young people can read and grapple with these things. It has all sorts of things going for it. It’s accessible (in school libraries) It can be read alone – so no embarrassment factor. A story speaks to an individual in a way that nothing else can. They can make their own mind up.
Anne believes you can not just choose a subject and say you want to write about XYZ. You have to have strong feelings about it. Anne read a lot about rape cases in the newspaper as part of her research and was incensed at the coverage and the way the story was portrayed to make the victims look as if they were to blame. These feelings simmered for ages before she decided to write No Virgin the first book about Stacey Woods.
Her advice to writers who want to write about gritty subjects for theYA market is to think about subjects that you are interested in and genuinely have feeling about. It might be political or about refugees or climate change. Whatever makes you sit up and want to speak – that’s the subject you should write about for teenagers.
Before you write about a subject you have to find the teenager you want to write about. That teenage character will probably have some of YOU in them. It has to be a sincere attempt to write something real. Then the writing will be good, strongly felt, authentic. If it’s just about ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ the gatekeepers will know. They are sharp. If it’s good they have to support it.
Anne Cassidy is the author of over 50 novels for teenagers. You can find out more about her writing on her website: www.annecassidy.com or follow her on Twitter: @annecassidy6
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