A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
My first reaction to the question ‘why do you write contemp?’ was a sort of vague, indignant ‘because there’re so many real stories we haven’t explored yet!’ And that’s true. But it isn’t the full story…
I write (YA) contemp because I didn’t read it as a teen, at all.
I read a lot. I read widely. I devoured Pratchett and Gaiman, Anne McCaffrey, Tolkien. I adored Theroux and Lonely Planet books and language guides. I read fiction set in foreign countries, by foreign authors – tales of hot dusty places and thick wet jungles, of wilderness and bright lights and endless opportunities. I gathered pieces of every world, slivers of hope and exploration and change. I rolled around in the strangeness of them, and the strangeness felt like home.
And at the same time, I returned, over and over, to the books I knew and loved. The books where kids go on adventures, and they save the world – or change it somehow. Where they pick up swords and fight.
Where real life and magic blur and it doesn’t matter anyway because it’s all real, regardless.
But I didn’t read teen fiction.
All there was in the teen shelves at my library was Judy Blume and the Sweet Valley High books. And as wonderful as those are, Teen!Fox really, really wasn’t interested.
Those books weren’t for him. They weren’t the stories that kept him up, staring out of the window and longing to pull on a good stout pair of boots and run off to seek new things.
And although I honestly didn’t think to question it at the time, and couldn’t have articulated it if I tried – those books weren’t for me because you wouldn’t find me in them. Not girl, not boy, not comfortable enough with myself to want to think about relationships (except, of course, the sort where some brave, dashing, brilliant person would grab me by the hand and drag me off on an adventure, sword in hand. But we’d be comrades. Partners. It was different).
For the longest time I wanted nothing to do with YA, because I thought the high school dramas and the first forays into romance were all that it could be. But I was wrong. We’re lucky – anyone reading YA now has so much more to choose from. Yes, the high school dramas and romances are still there. Cool. They’re important too – teens are still living in those halls and classrooms. But just like in real life, there’s so, so much more than that. So many different people, lives, experiences. There is – if you look for it – the same strangeness and wonder that you’ll find in any other world. And it’s wonderful.
I write contemporary YA because it matters. Because I want Teen!Fox to see himself in books. I want everyone to have that.
I write contemporary YA because I didn’t read it.
Sarah Benwell is a perpetual student of the world, a writer and adventurer, who holds degrees in international education and writing for young people, and believes in the power of both to change the world.
Sarah’s debut young adult novel, The Last Leaves Falling, is published by Random House (UK) and Simon and Schuster (US).