YA Shot is an event that will take place in Uxbridge on 28 October, organised by Alexia Casale and many other people. Over 71 will be there, tickets are up-to £20, and there’s a full day of panels and booky –MG and YA- things happening!
Lisa Williamson is the author of The Art of Being Normal, which I reviewed here and really enjoyed. I got the chance to interview her, and I loved her answers, and couldn’t wait to share!
Do you think reading is important for teens today, and why?
I do! I'm convinced those who read fiction make for kinder, more sensitive and empathetic people. Having said that, not every teen is going to be reader and I think it's important we don't ever make anyone feel bad or inadequate about not reading for pleasure. What we should really be doing is finding a way of exposing reluctant readers to the range and breadth of books out there in such a way that doesn't feel enforced. I often meet young people who adore the Hunger Games films but would never think of reading the books. Changing that mindset without being preachy is hard! I often describe my personal experience of reading the Hunger Games for the first time and try to communicate just how intense that was, because instead of sitting in a cinema full of people watching Katniss fight to the death, I was actually there with her, in her head, just the two of us! For me growing up, books represented escape and relaxation. I loved how private and personal my relationship with a book felt, regardless of how many other people I knew had also read it. Reading also helped me figure out who I was, or rather who I wanted to be, and how to make sense of my place in the world.
Has reading ever done anything for you that you wouldn't mind sharing?
As I mentioned, as a teenager, reading was an escape. When I was thirteen, I was bullied for a short but intense period. Reading made me feel safe and a bit less lonely. I've grown up with the feeling that books are my friend.
Do you have any stories of people saying how TAOBN has helped them?
I do, and it's probably been the best part of being a published author. TOABN is told from the point of view of a young transgender person, and although I'd done masses of research and endeavoured to be as authentic and sensitive as possible, I was mindful of my responsibility as an author and, pre-publication, very fearful of 'getting it wrong'. Since the book has been out, I've been overwhelmed by the tweets and emails I've received. One young person said the book gave him the courage to come out to his parents. Another said she'd given it to her friends to help them understand what she's going through. Another said how happy she'd been to see the book displayed proudly in a high street bookshop and how it made her feel like she was no longer 'a freak'. All these messages have moved me deeply and demonstrate just how vital diverse books are!
Do you think books can help people in ways that other media can't?
Books are an amazing tool for sparking discussion. It can be daunting to have a conversation with your family about, for example, gender identity, but if you use a fictional story as a stimulus, it can be a much easier and safer way in. My boyfriend's mother died recently having suffered from Alzheimer's for a number of years. There is a lot of literature on the subject available online. However, I found the most useful material for helping me understand the disease were fictional titles (namely Still Alice, Elizabeth is Missing and Unbecoming). By inviting me to step into the shoes of a dementia sufferer, my perceptions and understanding were turned upside down and I feel I became more compassionate and patient as a result. Emotions are so powerful and I think stories that tap into this part of our brain have the power to change hearts and minds in a way I just don't think a pamphlet or online article can.
What's your favourite way of promoting books to teens?
Talking to them! I love talking to teenagers, not just about books but pretty much anything that excites them. I did an event recently where I ended up talking a lot about my personal experiences as a teenager. I was really open about being bullied and being in an emotionally abusive relationship and feeling scared about my future and afterwards several teens came forward and opened up to me in return. I think there's a real expectation that adults have their shit together and I wonder if we're doing teenagers a disservice by not being more open about our thoughts and feelings, even if they're in retrospect. I think it would have made a massive difference to me growing up.
I also love speaking at literary festivals. A whole festival devoted to books? What's not to love?
How important do you think compulsory reading eg for GCSEs is?
I think it's very important, even if those young people never go on to read a single book ever again. However, I definitely feel it's time to shake up the reading list. Teenagers are reading the same books I read at school twenty years ago and that's not right. For one, the teachers need to feel passionate about what they're teaching and how can they feel energised and motivated to teach a book when it's the tenth, twentieth, maybe even thirtieth time they've shared it with a class? The books I remember from school are often the ones I got the sense my teacher really got a kick out of teaching us.
I wonder if it's at all practical to introduce weekly or even daily 'story time' in schools? Every time I read aloud in a school, the kids seem to really chill out and actually listen. It made me think of how there's something really relaxing and uniting about listening to a story in a big group. Being read to at school would also mean young people who don't usually read off their own backs would be exposed to stories they would wouldn't be otherwise, and might, just might, be motivated enough by the experience to seek out a book of their own.
If you could give one book to every teenager, what would it be and why?
Yikes, that's tough! This is perhaps a more female-focussed title (although I think boys should most definitely seek it out too!) but 'Am I Normal Yet?' by Holly Bourne is an utter joy, celebrating female friendship in a way that's not often seen in YA fiction. It's also funny and moving and explores mental health in a way that's really accessible and real. I also recently read 'Goodbye Stranger' by Rebecca Stead. It's for slightly younger readers (the protagonist is twelve) and absolutely nails the nature of adolescent friendships in a very beautiful and understated way. I'm all about the friendship at the moment!
Reminder: you can find Lisa on Twitter here, TAOBN on Goodreads here, and you can buy it in hardback from Hive or from David Fickling. If you’d like to wait for the paperback, it’ll be here on 7th January 2016.