James is a massive prude. Who Knew?

Okay, I really will get back to my YA BOOKS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE next week, but this week I’m annoyed.  This is a music thing.

Last week, as part of the day job, I attended some awesome training with the Brighton & Hove Healthy Schools Team (the “team” is now one woman, thanks to public spending cuts).  A big part of the training was on Sex and Relationships Education in primary schools.  This work so inspires my writing – work around sexist and sexual bullying in particular found its way into book 1.

The government wants teachers to focus on the early sexualisation of girls in particular (hint, have a word with Rupert Murdoch…oh wait…). Rather than tackle the media directly, the ConDems would like teachers to explain the perils of air-brushing, teen soaps and body image. Of course, teachers will happily adapt to whatever we’re told to do – we’ve been doing it for years.

The pop music industry isn’t helping. Jessie J may well be “doing it like a dude”, but she does so in skimpy hotpants. Lady Gaga may be “born that way”, but she’s also a skinny white woman, so I doubt she minds. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE pop music, I always have – the drama of it, the silliness. But do kids understand that it’s a fantasy? A multi-million pound, image-obsessed industry? The X Factor instructs us to believe anyone can be famous, but as Joe McElderry found out, it doesn’t hurt to be hot and straight like Olly Murs.

However, I really lost my rag today on discovering that “Biggest Star in Music besides Gaga or Beyonce”, Rihanna, is releasing not-very-good album track “S&M” from not-very-good album “Loud”. Here’s a sneak peek at the video:

So, we have “chains and whips excite me”, “sex in the air, don’t care, I like the smell of it” and a video full of sex toys and lube. And the thing is, 4Music WILL show this video to kids. Radio 1 WILL add this to its daytime playlist. I PROMISE 7, 8, 9 year old girls ARE going to watch this video. I’m not sure that’s okay.

Another don’t-get-me-wrong-moment: I am all for appropriate, open and frank discussions about sex with children and young adults. I don’t think there should be a big mystery at all, and have always really enjoyed teaching SRE in Year 5 and 6 at school. In schools in England, pupils are taught that sex is enjoyable and a part of a healthy, adult relationship. That said, it’s not up to Rihanna or the executives at Universal Music to decide when children should get their bondage on. It’s one thing to have it as an album track on an album which is labelled for explicit content (NOTE – the individual track S&M is NOT labelled as explicit on iTunes. Goes to show you can be as explicit as you like as long as you don’t say “f**k”), but another to release the single to radio and TV.

This comes only a few weeks after the artist caused a fuss for her suggestive performance of “What’s My Name” on the X Factor final. Perhaps after her last album Rated R bombed, her new “thing” is being sexified? I’m against censorship, I really am. Rihanna should be able to write (how much Miss Fenty actually writes is something of a mystery) and sing about anything she likes. It’s a question of responsibility – Universal must know that as a mainstream pop artist, Rihanna’s target audience is little girls (and gay men). Moreover, they take aim and sell AT little girls through magazines and TV spots. For instance, the amazing Peaches is a good example of an artist writing about highly explicit things, but not selling them to little girls via Cosmogirl etc.

In 1992, when Madonna released Erotica, her audience had grown up. The album and the Sex book were never meant for, or marketed at kids. Her earlier saucy efforts, “Like a Virgin”, “Dress You Up” or “Hanky Panky” went nowhere near as far as S&M and neither has Gaga – even “bitch” was edited from The Fame Monster (she’s a “free bit, baby”). Actually, the limit of Lady Gaga’s raunch ended at oblique references to “disco sticks”. Racy.

Censorship is mentioned in relation to YA fiction all the time too. More and more books, both on the web and in book stores are being clearly labelled at “Teen Fiction”, with some publishers printing suggested ages on the back. This at least gives parents and teachers a rough guide so they can pre-read and decide for themselves if they’re happy to share it in class or allow their kids to read. After all, it’s parents and teachers that get the follow-up question time. Perhaps someone from Universal Music would care to explain the “smell of sex” to my Year 5 class.

Rant over. I suppose it gives teachers something to talk about in the “Sex and the Media” lessons. That’ll be nice, parents and teachers can all explain why Rihanna gets excited about whips and lube. Really, really interested to see if 4Music post-watersheds this one.

CTFO

This week saw the release of Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar chasing “ballet horror” Black Swan. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t got a problem with graphic images of feet and nails (unfortunately two of my cringe points – I suffered).

The film documents the life of highly-strung ballerina Nina, as played by a waif-like Natalie Portman, as she prepares herself for the demanding dual role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake.  As the pressure starts to build, Nina descends into frightening hallucinations and paranoia.  Plus loads of sexy stuff too for good measure.

Black Swan got me thinking though, about the whole writing thing.  “Creative Types”, we don’t half know how to beat ourselves up.  As Nina pushes her body and soul to the limits, I couldn’t help but think about the ups and downs of the last 18 months.  Are auditions really that different to the gruelling submission routine I put myself through?  In the face of so much competition and rejection, what keeps a writer going?  Why bother?

Portman’s character strives for perfection over recognition, whereas I’d say I was the other way round.  I want people to read my work (blogging is the 21st century’s answer to standing in the street with a loud speaker screaming “NOTICE ME!”).  Somehow, my work feels less valid if there’s no-one to read it, like the metaphorical tree in the rainforest, if no-one sees it fall, it never happened.  The best way to reach a mass audience, as a writer, is to enter the arena of print publishing with all its ups and downs.

And what downs we have to show you.  Even this week, at a fairly late stage in the game, my first manuscript was rejected by a publisher.  Man, it stings.  Even after a year of agents, and then publishers passing on my book (all politely and often with excellent feedback, I add) it still hurts, sending me into tailspin, questioning whether I should continue at all.

I’m assured this is all perfectly natural for we “Creatives” (gip).  No one would like an arrogant writer, although you’d have to have at least a Nigella sized dollop of it to even think of sending it off to an agent I imagine.  Crises of confidence are part and parcel of a very long publication process – I have to keep a running list of “how lucky I am/how far you’ve come” style mantras for the darker days.  Luckily, unlike Nina, I haven’t started hallucinating yet.

The positives far outweigh the negatives.  Last year I told of the day I signed to my agent (YAY) and the lovely meetings I had in London with publishing houses (DOUBLE YAY).  Thankfully, I had yet more encouraging feedback from professionals this week too, much needed after a flat “no”.  However, I wanted to save my biggest thanks to my test readers, Kerry and Sam who have kept me going since I wrote a soap opera in a Brighton paper.  Had they not encouraged me chapter by chapter, page by page, I wouldn’t have ever got on the publication carousel – and for its sometimes dizzying pace, I’m glad I did.

At my lowest point, this week, right after the rejection, my friend Sam rang out of blue to tell me how much she loved the revised version of book 1.  It couldn’t have come at a better time.  I don’t normally get personal on here – but I just did, so there!  Like Nina Ballerina, writing is about learning to find the “good to keep going” and ways to not sweat the small stuff.  After all, it’s only telling stories.

YA Books To Read Before You Die Part 2

HIS DARK MATERIALS: NORTHERN LIGHTS, THE SUBTLE KNIFE AND THE AMBER SPYGLASS BY PHILIP PULLMAN


First published in 1995, Northern Lights was the fifteenth novel to be penned by little known ex-teacher Philip Pullman, but it was this rich, complex fantasy that propelled him towards being named one of the “50 Greatest British Authors since 1945”.

Released in the US as The Golden Compass, Pullman introduces readers to rough-round-the-edges pre-teen Lyra Belacqua and her life in Oxford.  But this isn’t our Oxford.  This is a world in which polar bears talk, witches rule the skies and your soul exists as a faithful “daemon” pet at your side.

When Lyra’s best friend Roger is taken by the sinister “Gobblers” and Lyra is forced to accompany the beautiful but icy Mrs Coulter to London, she begins a mammoth voyage that will literally see her travel to Hell and back.

On the way, she stumbles into Will Parry, an intense, brave boy from our world and the two begin to experience the first dangerous pangs of adolescent love.  In all worlds, the church-led Magisterium is keeping a very close eye on Lyra, but why?  What can the church possibly want with a normal girl?

“Imagination” barely begins to cover the scope of these three books.  Indeed, many a thesis and essay has been written on the series.  Big, BIG ideas are woven into Pullman’s colourful tapestry, but he never loses Lyra’s quest to ideologies or opinion, meaning the reader is on a philosophical journey, but a bloody exciting one.  As she travels several globes, Lyra encounters some of the most loved characters of any book series: rogue Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby, 300 year-old witch queen Serafina Pekkala and ferocious drunken polar bear Iorek Byrnison.  They’re so finely drawn, that as they remerge throughout the series, your heart soars as if you are welcoming home an old friend.

Lyra’s world is littered with villains to boo at – Marisa Coulter, in particular, is a spectacular creation.  Ambitious, seductive, clever and very, very ruthless, she’s a piece of work.  The real genius of Pullman, however, is in that as you learn more about Coulter, you grow to understand her motives, and even flirt with sympathy for the misguided beauty.

On publication of The Amber Spyglass, church groups levelled accusations of blasphemy at the series, claiming it was a battle against God.  Not at all.  Young people should absolutely be taught to question authority.  In His Dark Materials, they’re encouraged to consider “The Authority”, who he is and what he started.  Certainly organised religion is considered, and the concept of “sin” comes under scrutiny.  At a time when the reader, like Lyra, begins to grapple with sexuality, the message is a timely one.

When the film version of The Golden Compass was released in 2007, fan reaction was lukewarm, even Pullman distancing himself from the project.  As soon as the movie was announced, US film makers revealed the religious nature of The Magisterium would be reduced in the film version, angering the fanbase.  It was a brightly-lit, neon oddity.  Even an excellent performance from Nicole Kidman as Coulter failed to win over any new fans, and the rapidly re-edited ending removed the original cliffhanger.  A sequel seems highly unlikely.

At the heart of the series is two young people falling in love – the wide eyed innocence of Lyra and Will’s partnership is instantly relateable.  Like any good love story, there are highs and heartbreaks.  The furor about church-groups, Gods and blasphemy only took the spotlight off the adventure, magic and romance.  Somewhat the bridesmaid to Harry Potter, His Dark Materials has slipped off the agenda, the film only going some way to capturing new readers.

I would urge young adult readers to take a break from vampires, fairies and werewolves and try something that’ll really blow your mind.

YA Books To Read Before You Die Part 1

Recently, I asked my writer chums on Litopia what YA books (that’s Young Adult) they’d include in a starter pack to the genre.  I was flooded with responses, some I’d read, some I hadn’t.  I was going to present a “countdown”, but the choices were so varied they didn’t really live in the same chart (supernatural v. non-supernatural etc).  What I shall do instead is present a more detailed case for some of my favourites rather than directly rank them.

WEEK 1 – NOUGHTS & CROSSES SAGA (MALORIE BLACKMAN)

Dystopian WAY before dystopia was all the rage, Noughts & Crosses tells the tale of star crossed childhood besties Callum and Sephy and their struggle to be together.  But there are no vampires, no post-apocalyptic futures here, only a compelling world where rich powerful black Crosses rule over lower-class, white noughts.  Sometimes the simplest ideas…

Callum is white, Sephy is black.  To make matters worse, Sephy’s father is an ambitious politician on the rise.  In their world, the blossoming romance is fraught with painful difficulties.  Throw in a dissident terrorist group, with its claws reaching out towards Callum and his family and you have quite a page-turner.

I’ll say no more to spoiler the plot.  On paper, it may seem plot-lite, but far from it.  Blackman constructed a relentlessly believable parallel universe for Callum and Sephy to live in.  English to the core, it’s gritty, gory and intricate.  Both the large scale politics of society and the microcosm of family are perfectly presented – holding up a mirror to the actual world the reader inhabits.

A memorable scene is one in which Callum receives a blow the head and requires a plaster (band-aid).  Callum notes, that in his world, plasters are only made in dark brown skin tones.  That concept stayed with me for some time.

The sweetness of childhood sweethearts is captured with perfect innocence.  So much so, Blackman inspires fury at the small-mindedness of the people surrounding Callum and Sephy.  I ached for the young lovers to be together, but as with all Romeo and Juliet tales, the course of true love…and Noughts & Crosses is heartbreak galore.   That said, the brewing hatred between the two sides and the developing subplot with the terrorists, keeps boys, as well as girls captivated.

After the highly dramatic events of Noughts & Crosses, the alternate universe is further explored in sequels, Knife Edge, Checkmate and Double Cross.  Revenge, extremism, terrorism, gang culture – what young adult doesn’t need to study these staples of modern life?  What Blackman does so well though is give you characters to care about – the action, message and politics never feel bigger than Sephy.

Noughts & Crosses is now a feature of some secondary school schemes of work and rightly so.  It’s modern, relevant and captivating.  Tears will be shed during the moving conclusion to the first book, I guarantee.  The Royal Shakespeare company lavished the highest compliment on the saga, adapting it for the stage in 2008, although I remain bewildered as to why a film or TV adaptation never materialised.  A book that deserves much, much higher recognition.