A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
There’s an old Neil Young song that I love — a bit of a banger — with the simple chorus: “Why do I keep fuckin’ up?”
I am currently re-reading Middlemarch. It’s a good twenty years since I last ploughed through it and I’d forgotten one important fact: at the start of the book, when Dorothea Brooke makes the appallingly stupid mistake of marrying Edward Casaubon, thirty years her senior, she is only nineteen.
Middlemarch is YA!
There are, I think, two things that constantly draw me back to Victorian writers like George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. One is their understanding of the central importance of money. The other is that they wrote about people who, like Uncle Neil, fuck up.
Dorothea’s fuck-up is appalling. Casaubon, a dried-up, pedantic scholar, is the last person on earth that she should marry. Everyone keeps telling here that this will be a catastrophe. But does she listen?
Then there’s Wuthering Heights, where everyone fucks up. Catherine is only fifteen and Heathcliff sixteen when he overhears her fatal announcement that it would “degrade” her to marry him. She is seventeen when she marries Edgar Linton. Heathcliff is still only nineteen when the eighteen-year-old Isabella suicidally runs away with him.
A hundred and fifty years on, in the more enlightened world of contemporary YA fiction, we are surrounded by main characters who never put a foot wrong. Harry Potter, his brow bearing the mark of messianic election, walks through his books like Jesus Christ pulling loaves and fishes out of his arse. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, we are requested to bow down and worship Lyra Belacqua, floating through the world of which she is the focus as the fulfilment of a universe-shattering prophecy.
Away from the realms of fantasy, although The Hate U Give was a much better book than I’d expected, there is something deeply unsatisfactory about the way in which the narrative is shrink-wrapped to the virtues of its central character, sixteen-year-old Starr Carter. Actually, that first name’s a bit of a giveaway: this is a girl who, even under extreme pressure, maintains an integrity utterly at odds with her age.
So there’s the trope I’d like to eliminate from YA literature: messianic main characters. Harry, Lyra and Starr may face complex challenges and dilemmas, but they are never called morally into question: they never wilfully do the wrong thing. I want to see selfishness, ignorance and sheer stupidity. I want teenagers who act like teenagers. Because the whole point about teenagers — unless I was some sort of misbegotten one-off freak — is that they have absolutely no idea what they’re doing.
George Eliot and Emily Brontë wrote about young people who do what young people tend to do: stupid things.
Harry, Lyra and Starr — they’re never stupid. They’re never wrong. They never fuck up. I suppose that’s admirable. But it’s boring and dull… and far more implausible than schools for wizards or talking bears.
See Uncle Neil fuckin’ up here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKaDCP-wKr8 (warning: contains disturbing scenes of a grown man wearing a baseball cap back to front)
Wuthering Heights timeline: https://www.wuthering-heights.co.uk/wh/timeline.php
Donald Hounam grew up just outside Oxford. He toyed with medieval history at St Andrews University, and wrote a PhD thesis on apocalyptic beliefs in the early Crusades. He threw paint around at the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford, then found himself in Dublin where he threw more paint around and reviewed films until his flatmate set the building alight one Christmas, whereupon he scuttled back to England and started making up stories.
He is guilty of two novels featuring forensic sorcerer Frank Sampson: Gifted (2015, published in the US, 2017, as A Dangerous Magic) and Pariah (2016).