James Dawson is the new Queen of Teen – crowned just last Friday! What does his new royal status mean to him, how does he plan to wield his bookish power, and what does he think about UK YA? Our own Isabel Popple caught up with him at the UK’s first Young Adult Literature Convention to find out.
All hail the new Queen of Teen, James Dawson! Crowned last Friday, James is the accomplished author of the Young Adult (YA) books Hollow Pike, Cruel Summer and Say Her Name, as well as non-fiction “growing up” books Being a Boy and the forthcoming This Book is Gay.
The Queen of Teen award, set up in 2008 to celebrate authors of teen fiction, is voted for entirely by young readers, and Dawson’s win – over seven other nominated writers, including US heavyweights John Green, Cassandra Clare and Veronica Roth – highlights the kind of person and kind of storytelling that British teens are looking for: somebody who speaks to them through both words and action, somebody whose characters are diverse and whose writing draws you deep into the page.
Congratulations on being crowned Queen of Teen this week. What were your first thoughts when they announced it?
Well, people don’t believe me, but we genuinely had not been told – I didn’t know who had won. In the limo before, there was the six UK authors. We were asking each other, “Have you heard?” And when we all said that we hadn’t, we assumed John Green had won. I think John Green was the favourite so of course we assumed he’d won!
So, just pure shock, then obviously they wheel you up on stage, get you to do a speech – which I had not prepared! So it was nice to have an honest reaction. I was just delighted because I had set out my stall, I’d campaigned, I’d said why I wanted to be Queen of Teen, and people really got behind it. I think because they really wanted a UK YA author to be Queen.
What does being Queen of Teen mean for you?
I grew up in a dreary, suburban town in the north and I never read any books about me.
For me, it’s an opportunity, and it’s an opportunity that I’m going to push really hard to exploit because people voted, so I think I owe them something now. I would really like to use it to champion UK fiction. You know, royalty is a UK thing! I think very often a lot of books are read through peer pressure, so one book – The Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars – will reign. I’d like to shine a light on the others and say if you liked The Fault in Our Stars, why don’t you also try reading Cat Clarke or Tanya Byrne. So that’s what I hope to do – get people reading some books they might not have heard of.
What does the YALC (Young Adult Literature Convention) mean to you and why did you want to be involved in it?
It’s a massive celebration, there’s nothing else like it. Very often in the UK you will hear people say things like, “There isn’t a market for YA in the UK.” I know that’s not true: I go into schools, I’ve been to events where there have been hundreds of people squashed in. I knew this would be popular even though there was a question mark hanging over it, but then every panel event has sold out – every single panel event, we’ve had people standing there on the sides. And these aren’t just our twitter followers, these are people who came for LFCC (London Film and Comic Con) as well. This weekend is a real sign to the whole world that there is a hungry, hungry market for Young Adult fiction in the UK – if John Green 50,000 copies a week of The Fault in Our Stars wasn’t proof enough!
What would you like to tell the world about UK YA?
I think we are telling real stories about real British people. I’m a big fan of American books, but there is a difference. Growing up in America is different to growing up in the UK. I think all young people deserve to see themselves in a book. I grew up in a dreary, suburban town in the north and I never read any books about me. When I wrote Hollow Pike, I wanted to write about me, basically, and I hope that British readers are able to recognise themselves in those stories.
There have been some hugely successful YA books in recent years, but the majority of them do seem to come out of America – Suzanne Collins, John Green, Michael Grant – do you think it’s harder for UK writers to break into the teen market?
Yes… but that’s not stopping people from trying, which is fantastic. I’m very, very lucky, obviously, and winning Queen of Teen means that I’ve obviously got my very loyal followers who voted and voted and voted, and that’s fantastic.
There is support out there, but it is about that thing: word of mouth. When a book has done phenomenally well in America, the word of mouth floats over because America is such a big, big book market. So when a book’s done spectacularly well and we hear about it on Twitter and Facebook, the book’s already had PR, whereas in the UK we almost have to do it on our own; we start from nothing. And it doesn’t necessarily work the other way because the UK market’s smaller than the US market.
But, you know, every once in a while a British book will do exceptionally well in America. J.K. Rowling – Hello! – biggest YA author in the world, a small British book that started from a tiny, tiny imprint at Bloomsbury. So it can work, but people forget J.K. Rowling all the time and let’s face it, none of the others would be there if it weren’t for her.
Can you pick a UK YA author who you think is “one to watch”?
I think Non Pratt is a really exciting new voice – I think Trouble is fantastic. I’m an enormous fan of a writer called Tom Pollock, who I think has something amazing up his sleeve. Next year there is a new science fiction trilogy coming from a writer called James Smythe, who’s written science fiction for adults. It’s going to be a very, very dark science fiction trilogy. There are so, so many, too many to even name! There’s room for all of them – that’s the thing with books, it’s not a competition. People who love books, love books.
What influenced your own reading as a teenager?
Horror. I wanted to be scared, and I think there are too few books that aim to scare. I’d love to see more horror because I as a teenager I was reading Point Horror, James Herbert, Dean Koontz, Stephen King. They’re not very trendy now -I would love it if horror became trendy again. It would benefit my own sales as well, let’s be honest!
What are you reading right now?
At the moment I’m just finishing Leigh Bardugo‘s Ruin and Rising – I’ve got about four chapters left of that. And then I’m on holiday next week so I’ve got a massive pile of books to get through. I’ve got books by David Levithan and books by Andrew Smith – whose amazing Grasshopper Jungle is my favourite book of the year. He’s American, but it’s my book of the year.
The Queen of Teen award highlights authors whose writing deals with “real-life, coming of age issues in a way that is honest, entertaining and fun,” and your writing has been praised for the way in which diversity is introduced without being preachy. When it comes to diversity in YA, do you think it’s something that we should shout about, or that we should just let it exist?
I write books that I would love to read, and the reason I’ve always loved to read is that reading should be fun. So that’s the most important thing: always, always story first. At the moment I’ve just finished a great trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, The Grisha Trilogy, where in the final book you find out that one of the characters is gay, and it just hasn’t been an issue. Those are books about a fantasy world that just happen to have gay characters in it, and I would like to see more of that.
Ideally we’d be in a world where every book was in some way diverse, so you wouldn’t even need to talk about it because you’d know that when you’re reading a book there would be diverse characters in there. I think it’s not just true of children’s or YA fiction, but all books. Yeah, white, straight characters are the majority, but ideally what we’d like is fiction to represent the diversity of the real world. I’m not a big fan, for example, of the “gay interest” section in bookshops because that seems to suggest that straight people wouldn’t be interested in the voice or the story of diverse characters and I just don’t think that’s true. Everything should be out there together. Sometimes, if you look at an author like Sarah Waters or Armistead Maupin, they have transcended the idea of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) fiction and you hope for that for everybody really.
Finally, can you give us a brief introduction to your next book, This Book is Gay?
This Book is Gay is a non-fiction title. It’s everything I wish I’d known when I was 15. Sex education is notoriously bad for young LGBT people, so hopefully it’s a manual that will address some queries about identity, and sex, and just celebrate the proud, proud heritage of being LGBT.
Isabel Popple, for Waterstones.com/blog