Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Polaris 23 - the definitive recap

Polaris is a Toronto held SF/Fantasy convention. While they tend to focus more on television and film, they do have a literary component, and this year I was invited to participate. I was on several panels (crashed two of them - I've never done that before, but it wasn't without the request of the other panelists), and got to meet some cool people (for a full list of guests go here). So, as ever, the usual recap must follow!

We begin our definitive recap on the first night of the con, it was a Friday night as I seem to recall. The charming Lesley Livingston and I were both guests for the event in an author-y capacity, and Jonathan Llyr (I work for his website HardcoreNerdity.com and we were also there as media) was a super special guest as well as presenter for the Constellation Awards. Screenwriter Joe O'Brien came along as our guest, though he really should have had a pass of his own, his video advertising our site (a parody of "The Most Interesting Man in the World" commercials - "The Most Interesting NERD in the World") was the star of the award ceremony and he was responsible for an awesome interview with Claudia Black which we will be featuring on the site soon.

Friday night was the meet and greet. It was quite lovely. It had free food. That makes Adrienne happy. We ran into several speculative fantasy author friends including (in no particular order): Julie Czerneda, Michelle Rowen (with whom we also had dinner), Violette Malan, Derwin Mak and Douglas Smith.

Of course there were actors a plenty as well, each doing a wonderful job at mingling and being utterly delightful, including: Claudia Black, Michelle Forbes, Matt Frewer and Michael Hogan - who was incredibly sweet and sociable the entire weekend. He played Colonel Tigh on the Battlestar Galactica series (even if you aren't into Sci-Fi, it doesn't matter, that show is quality - so much so it won a Peabody award. See it.). I had been commissioned by my friend Meghan to get an autograph from him. You see, she had sent along a photograph taken at another convention they had both attended of herself dressed as one of the major female characters (and she actually looks like the character, it's crazy) giving him a full kiss on the lips. Needless to say Hogan took one look at the picture and, grinning ear to ear, said, "I remember her!"

We got to chat with him for a while, got pictures taken with him (I act all cool and stuff, but I am pathetic when it comes to actors, I get star struck in a second - my little heart was going a mile a minute before asking him to sign Meghan's picture for her). We also chatted with Matt Frewer, who was utterly delightful as well. Though we learned even he is not entirely sure why his ears were pointy in Watchmen.

The evening was great fun, and we left at a decent hour, knowing we'd have to return in first thing in the morning (thanks Lesley).

Day 2

This was the day where we all had "stuff" to do. Lesley and I had several panels to sit on, I confess actually I wasn't meant to have quite as many as I wound up having, but since I was following Lesley around to hers, I wound up crashing two of them. We talked a great deal about YA fiction. A great great deal. Conclusion: It rocks, but doesn't get the respect it deserves. Also, YA isn't what you think it is (see last blog entry "The New YA" below). Lesley also signed books and did, as expected, a fantastic reading.

At the same time Jon and Joe were getting interviews in the media room with Michael Hogan and Claudia Black. They were also preparing for the Constellation Awards. Considering how many times they had to go off to rehearse with the Constellation Awards team, I was expecting to see a finely choreographed musical number to open the show.

There wasn't one. Constellation Awards people: get on that.

Mark Opausky (another founding member of our site) joined us for the award ceremony, which was highly entertaining (the ceremony, not Mark. I mean, not that Mark wasn't entertaining . . . I just mean . . . oh never mind . . . ). Of course Jon just totally rocked as a presenter, and, he'll be embarrassed for me to point this out, but he got huge cheers when his name was called and he stepped up on stage. We love you Mr. Llyr, we really do!

Our video was awesome. I say "our" because I like to take as much credit as possible for Joe's work.

I had to rush off early to be on another panel (which means I missed Hogan tossing Hewlett off stage, boo-urns!), the moderator of which decided not to show up so I took the job. It was called "It might be too scary for you, but your kids will love it". Oddly the panel was rated PG, which I found rather amusing as the whole point of the panel was that kids can handle way more dark than we think they can. If anything it should have been rated: "Awesome for kids, may offend some adults". At any rate. It was a very interesting panel, and I have to admit to rather enjoying my first time as moderator.

Then I returned to my friends to discover they were in the process of getting Michael Hogan rather intoxicated. And thus an evening none of us had expected to go past 10pm, went into the wee hours of the morning. Hogan was delightful, as a matter of fact, he seemed to be having a pretty darn fabulous time. But I have to say, I think us lot were also pretty delightful too, and, I at least can attest, had a fabulous time as well. In all it was just a really laid back fun time, hanging out, nothing fancy, just shooting the breeze.

Of course here's the thing . . . none of them had to be back at the con first thing the next morning.

I did.

Day 3

With around 2 hours of sleep I returned for the final day of the con to do a book signing and reading. To my great pleasure I had people show up to both (and just in case that gentleman from the signing is reading this, here is that link to the audio books I was telling you about: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, Timothy and the Dragon's Gate). I have to admit a small hint of pleasure when after reading my first choice of chapter and about to move onto a later bit, my audience insisted that before doing that they needed to know what came next. Of course I indulged their fancy, how could I not?

And then I was done, and it was good.

Very very good.

In all, for a first time Polaris attendee/guest, I have to say the event was lovely. I enjoyed the hotel despite the long trek to the squash courts for that one panel, and everyone I met was just so friendly and supportive. Well done all!

And here's hoping Michael Hogan survived. Has anyone heard what became of him?

Me, Hogan and Lesley. We is all very happy.

Hogan and Jon. They is extra happy.

Frewer and Lesley. No really it is. Trust me. Beneath the shadow that is Matt Frewer. Who the dude in the background is standing all superhero like, I have no idea. But it's a good picture of him.

Proof, I tell ya, proof that Joe bought a copy of my book! See that smile? See? I'm not pointing a phaser at his head or anything . . .

. . . oh. Um. How did that picture get in there?

Boys and their toys. Yes these are the phasers Jon and Joe acquired at the con. They are, I must confess, super awesome. They are the latest Star Trek film version of the phasers so they spin from "stun" to "kill". They "charge" up. And of course, baby, they light up.

If only we could make Mark understand just how cool that is. As it is, or at least as is evidenced in this picture, he's not amused.

Me signing books! (these next three photos are courtesy of author Derwin Mak)

They had these really cool posters of all the guests up along one wall. Derwin called it "The National Portrait Gallery". And so we posed next to our portraits. A portrait of a portrait as it were. How post-modern of us.

Cute story. As we are taking pictures of each other and just chatting in the hall, a group came by and one girl stopped at my photo and, touching it, said, "So pretty!" Well I was standing right there, so I turned and said, "Thank you." She looked at me for a moment. "Um . . ." I said, "that's me." She continued to look at me. "Okay, I know I don't look quite as good in the photo as in person but I mean. . . I don't look that different do I?" I laughed (though inside I was crying . . . no, no, I wasn't - I joke I joke). Finally I think it all clicked for her and she put her hand over her mouth and started to laugh too.

She said that she thought the picture was so pretty she had been tempted to steal it, and so we took this picture of her attempting to steal it and me preventing it. Because I like taking pictures that amuse me.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The New YA

YA stands for Young Adult. It is a literary category. It is tricky to quantify, it encompasses many different genres from fantasy to gritty reality. It encompasses many ages.

YA is not MG.

This is the most important thing that people need to realise when buying books for kids/teenagers.

YA is not MG.

MG is middle grade. Middle Grade is typically 8 -12. My books are Middle Grade. The first three Harry Potters are MG. Again, it encompasses many different genres, and while the age range is more specific, there are divisions within it as well. Within Middle Grade you can also have Upper Middle Grade which can be read too by 13 and 14 year olds (that awkward tween stage of literature).

So what is YA then? YA I suppose is anything above that in theory. And yet a YA will rarely have a protagonist younger than 14. Kids like to read up you see.

So what is YA then?

YA is a very new genre. People might argue that, they point to fiction for kids that has been around for forever. They point even to Judy Blume, who remains quite popular. But the new YA isn't that. I'd argue that these days those books you think of when you think of your childhood as being YA are actually Middle Grade. Even if they involved teenagers, these books were primarily read by kids in the tween age range. Once a kid got to high school, if they indeed even kept up with reading, they moved on to adult books. Teenagers don't much want to feel like kids.

I know. I remember that feeling.

I'd argue that the new YA, the YA of the last decade, is the first time YA is being written for YAs.

So what is YA then?

If we suppose that in the past teenagers moved on from what was at the time considered YA to adult books, and that now teenagers are reading actual YA books as actual teenagers, then how can we assume YA ought to remain in some category belonging primarily to middle grade fiction? If they can handle the adult stuff, why then can't YA have adult themes?

The question is asked all the time, "What is acceptable for YA?", "Am I allowed to do this in YA?"

The answer is very straightforward. Anything. Yes.

But remember these two important details. Your main character has to be a teenager. And the plot must have something to do with coming of age.

I'll also add that a faster pace than some adult literature is quite desirable. But then again in adult literature, there are times, dude, when it could also be quite desirable.

Other than that: Anything. Yes.

The new YA respects that teenagers get that the world isn't perfect. That there is sex, drugs, violence and bad language. That bad things happen. But the new YA still for the most part remains a genre of hope. It is rare you will find a YA book ending on a desperate note.

Granted I think this might frighten some adults/parents. Because we look back to our YA reading experiences, back when YA wasn't really YA but MG. We forget the texts we studied in highschool, the adult books we had to analyse, the adult content we were faced with. In our minds, YA still is innocent, because our YA was much more innocent.

There were authors pushing the boundaries, Ms. Blume of course, and the odd YA actually meant for YAs, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (you could consider both of them the inspiration and forebears of the new YA), but for the most part the books were much safer than they are now. However. They also weren't truly meant for teenagers. Because teenagers, again may I repeat, were reading adult books.

Because YA is also a very new genre we have to understand that books that in the past were categorised as adult, could quite conceivably have been categorised as YA had the genre existed at the time.

All very complicated, I know.

Why am I saying all this? I guess because I see articles like these and I just shake my head. The article is about a "children's book" called Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, and asks whether publishers should not take more responsibility for content. Aside from the absurd notion that it is up to publishers to censor what comes out onto the market to preserve one group's idea of morality, what the author of this article neglects to mention is that the book is not MG, is not a "children's book", but is YA. And the author of this article clearly has no concept as to what YA is. Nor do many of those interviewed. This false premise alone is the greatest frustration I have with this article. It means every argument postulated for or against, is discussing the wrong subject. It's like saying, "I read this slice of life book and was shocked to find dragons in it!" when the book you are talking about is clearly a fantasy.

Look, I write MG, I understand that there are certain topics I can't write about, or at least must handle very delicately. This is simply not the same with YA.

I will not pretend that YA with very mature themes are not a harder sell, and much harder for a publisher to market. I also will not pretend that even adult works dealing with certain themes do not get the public's ire raised as well. It is much easier to sell a work about chaste vampires, than one that deals in gritty real world issues. It is naive to say what I have said: Anything. Yes. I really should have added, "But you'd better do it darn well."

But we also have to stop pretending that the literary market is anything like it was when we were kids (and I wasn't a kid that long ago compared to some, and even since then, it has changed considerably).

JK Rowling made kids' books profitable. The MG market exploded with the advent of Harry Potter. She actually changed the face of publishing. This seeped into the YA market, which was already experimenting, and now with Twilight, it is not just a force to be reckoned with, but one of the few genres where sales have gone up in this economic climate.

Go into a bookstore and look at the YA section. It is an incredible thing. So many different styles and genres all shelved side by side. The opportunity to try new things is right there at your fingertips, not isolated from each other like over in the adult section. There is lovely PG rated work to be found, it isn't like it has disappeared, but there is the tougher stuff out there too.

And it's okay. It's good to have choice. I know parents are complaining that they need age banding on books so they understand what it is their kids are reading. But I just don't think that's the answer. A child is not universally ready for something at 12, and then ready for something else at 14. It depends on their upbringing, their reading level, their likes and dislikes. Gasp! On being an individual human being. I could not, and still can't, read/watch horror. Doesn't mean there weren't kids back when I was little reading the Goosebumps series. If we age banded based on my example, no one would be allowed to read horror ever at any age.

The answer, in my mind, is understanding the new YA. And the answer to understanding what it is kids are reading is to read what the kids are reading. To understand that YA for YAs is meant to be read by intelligent discerning minds, by teenagers who are far smarter than a lot of adults give them credit for. Let's not forget that many teenagers are heading off to university by the time they are 17.

You don't want your 12 year old reading YA? There is still MG. There is some amazing MG out there (if I do say so myself). But you need to understand that difference between MG and YA. Because it didn't exist before recently. It's new. YA used to be MG. It isn't anymore.

And again, that's okay.

One final thought: Shakespeare is taught in, I'd venture to guess, almost every highschool in the English speaking world. Shakespeare was a genius. He can express thoughts and feelings in a way that is beyond perfect, you just want to roll his words around in your mouth they are so glorious. However. Shakespeare was also a naughty boy, and his plays are rife with blatant sexual jokes and innuendo. He was also a violent boy, writing about eye gouging, suicide, fights to the death. . .

Your teenagers are reading Shakespeare.

Is all I'm saying . . .