When someone first suggested I had a go at writing a book for teenagers, I wasn’t sure about it. I already had a successful career as a novelist and non fiction writer for adults and I assumed that writing for a younger market would just be full of grief about what you can and can’t say, and having to be much more succinct to fit a book into half the number of words. But my life philosophy is to give things a go, so I made a start on the initial Boy Soldier book, the first of what is now three series of books that I have done for Young Adults.
It didn’t take long for me to realise how wrong I had been about the pitfalls of writing for teenagers. Of course you do have to be more succinct, but disciplining yourself to cut out the waffle is no bad thing for any writer, for any age range. As for my concerns about what you can and can’t include in a Young Adult novel, they were put to rest pretty quickly too. Teenagers don’t want to be patronised and talked down to, they are aware of real life going on around them, and being played out through TV, gaming and the internet. Clearly it would be quite wrong to be glamorising sex or violence, but teenagers expect books to be honest and realistic, not candy coated or watered down. The publishers have a very clear idea on who my books are aimed at and what is acceptable for them, and I take their advice when we start discussing plot lines and characters.
I also had slight concerns about going into schools to talk to teenagers as I have always done for my adult readers at bookshops, festivals and libraries. My own experience of school hadn’t been that positive. I went to 9 schools in 7 years and felt that there was nothing in it for me. When I joined the army, out of juvenile detention, as a 17 year old recruit, I had the reading age of an 11 year old. The army’s education system changed my life and what I’ve always tried to say to young people, whether at schools or army training centres, is ‘if I can do it, anyone can’. Going into schools now as an author is an amazing experience, it really is. Even more than talking to adult readers, what you realise talking to teenagers is that you are being given the privilege of contributing just a tiny amount to the direction that their life takes. I guess that is the reward that teachers feel, and I have met some incredibly inspiring teachers and librarians over the past few years. There is a statistic that if a teenage boy stops reading at the age of 14, he never starts again. If I can keep just one teenager reading books, then I will be happy that I have played my part.