Jul 14, 2014

London YA Lit Con (YALC)

London YA Lit Con (YALC)

Panel area at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
This past Saturday I went to the first day of London’s Young Adult Literature Convention (part of the London Film and Comic Con and curated by Malorie Blackman, who did a stellar job). It was absolutely amazing and exciting, and a lovely reminder that enthusiasm for books is alive and well, thank you very much. It was also very crowded, a bit overwhelming, and part of a chaotic major event that didn’t seem fully equipped to deal with enormous crowds. By the end of the first day I was exhausted enough that I couldn’t face going back on Sunday, even though it meant missing Meg Rosoff and Holly Black (I am, however, still the proud owner of a signed copy of Doll Bones, because awesome friends are awesome).

Cosplayers at London YA Lit Con (YALC) and London Film and Comic Con
A veeeery long queue of cosplayers.
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Cosplayers at London YA Lit Con (YALC) and London Film and Comic Con

The following is of course about the London Film and Comic Con rather than YALC itself, but: between the inadequate number of toilets and places to buy food or water, the lack of a floor plan or visible signage, the poor queue and crowd management (there were reports of people being turned away because the building was full as early as noon), and the less than helpful manner of some of the staff (probably in the minority, but I had bad luck the two times I asked questions), I found myself really missing the smooth running of major literary festivals like Edinburgh International Book Festival.

I realise it’s unfair to compare YALC, an event in its first year, with an established one like Ed Book Fest, and I’m sure that all the issues that cropped up this year will be ironed out in the future. Part of me really wants YALC to part ways with Comic Con and become its own more manageable and better run event, but at the same time I can definitely see the argument for having a programme and space dedicated to YA at a major event celebrating stories across all media and where so many different fandoms congregate. Perhaps this side of this year’s experience will help me be prepared and plan around these issues in the future.

Anyway! These are really minor quibbles in the face of the heartening bookish passion that was absolutely everywhere at YALC, and probably more than anything else they’re a sign that I’m getting old. Rather than continue to sound like Ms Grump McGrumpypants, I’ll show you some more photos and tell you a little bit about the excellent panels I attended.

Wall of books at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
YALC Wall of Books.

Wall of books at London YA Lit Con (YALC)

Swag table at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
Swag table, where I got some posters and some Rainbow Rowell badges.

Book Swap at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
Book swap corner — an excellent idea.

Bookshop at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
Books! ♥

We Were Liars Be a Little Kinder Than You Have To at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
For Amy.

We Were Liars Lie To Us board at London YA Lit Con (YALC)

We Were Liars Lie To Us board at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
“Spiders are yucky”?!

Jedi cosplayer with Light Sabers at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
Of course Jedis like to read.

London YA Lit Con (YALC) programme and panel tickets
My panel tickets.

Malorie Blackman at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
Malorie Blackman kicks off YALC with a welcome speech in Klington.

Malorie Blackman, Sarah Crossan and Patrick Ness at London YA Lit Con (YALC)

It's the End of the World as We Know it: the Ongoing Appeal of Dystopia panel with Malorie Blackman, Sarah Crossan and Patrick Ness, chaired by James Smythe: First of all, keep in mind that my panel notes are very brief and partial and that I have an embarrassing tendency to pay extra attention to the person I was there to see when writing things down (you can guess who in this case). Sorry!

All panellists agreed that dystopia is an apt metaphor for the experience of being a teen, and this is part of the appeal. A world full of rules we must follow but whose reason for being no one will explain fully? Welcome to adolescence. Malorie Blackman also suggested that dystopia is appealing because it gives us an oblique way to address current political issues. No book is really about the future; no matter how far off they’re set they’re really about right now.

Patrick Ness said he’s interested in dystopia in part because it allows him to address the question, “How do you survive the very worst thing?”. However, dystopia is not the only way to explore this. Both Chaos Walking and A Monster Calls address this question, even if they come at it from very different angles. In the end, dystopia is just one more angle from which we can approach a very common fictional theme.

Patrick Ness YALC crowd photo
I can see myself in this photo Patrick Ness tweeted. Eep!

In answer to the question, “Have we seen it all in dystopia?”, Ness said that we absolutely haven’t. There are always new angles, “new wrinkles to explore”, and you can use dystopia to explore different kinds of metaphors than the ones it’s been used for so far.

There was also an audience question about the tired old “Is YA too dark?” brouhaha, and Patrick Ness’ reaction (“Oh god, no, not again”) pretty much mirrors mine. As he said, there’s room in YA for all the stories, for darkness and light, for happy endings and “books that understand that your life can feel hopeless”. If you keep young people from stories that acknowledge this, you’re basically abandoning them to wade through these feelings alone, and that’s the unethical choice.

Patrick Ness signing at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
Patrick Ness signing.

Superfans unite! panel with with Tim O’Rourke, Rainbow Rowell and Lucy Saxon (cosplaying as Captain America), chaired by Andy Robb: I was ridiculously excited to see Rainbow Rowell, of course, but I came away from this panel in awe of new-to-me author Lucy Saxon, whose openly fannish nature completely won me over. She defined being a fan as being really open about your love of something, inviting others to come talk about it with you, and forming connections through that. For Rainbow Rowell, being fannish is about engaging with stories beyond what’s on the page. Her own immersion in Harry Potter fanfiction was a way of continuing the experience. She added that as humans we sort our lives through stories, so it’s not surprising that we feel the need to continue to develop our relationship with the fictional universes we inhabit in a variety of ways.

When asked whether her writing process was different for YA and adult fiction, Rowell said they’re essentially the same. She doesn’t set out to write YA or adult novels; it’s just that sometimes she wants to write about adults and sometimes she wants to write about teenagers. She likes writing about adults, but she also really likes the emotional intensity of the teen years, when every experience feels momentous and new.

The exciting piece of news of the day is that Rainbow Rowell has a YA fantasy coming out “next fall” (which I’m assuming means 2015?). Also, she said her fannish dream was to write for Marvel, preferably X-Man. It was lovely that pretty much everyone’s attitude on the panel was a respectful thumbs up to fan work. The same was actually also true of the fantasy panel I went to next, where there was an audience question about fanfiction to which everyone gave awesome answers.

Rainbow Rowell at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
EEEEE! Rainbow Rowell!

Rainbow Rowell signing at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
Rainbow Rowell signing.

Bring Me My Dragons: Writing Fantasy Today panel with Frances Hardinge, Amy McCulloch, Jonathan Stroud and Ruth Warburt at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
Bring Me My Dragons: Writing Fantasy Today panel with Frances Hardinge, Amy McCulloch, Jonathan Stroud and Ruth Warburto: This panel was further evidence that there’s no one in the world smarter or more awesome than Frances Hardinge (not that it was needed). The other panellists were great as well, and gave thoughtful and generous answers even to questions whose point of departure I unfortunately felt was a great misunderstanding of and condescension towards YA and its readers.

For example, they kept it remarkably cool when asked to comment on what the questioner feels is one of the defining characteristics of YA: its supposed tendency to present its readers with “moral lessons”. Amy McCulloch started by saying that exploring themes (much like adult fiction does) is not the same as moralising. Frances Hardinge added that she’s never once started a book by going “Right, I have an ideological manifesto and I shall wrap a story around it”. She echoed McCulloch’s assertion that an exploration of ideological issues is not the same as a moral lesson, and added that one of the best things about fiction (for all ages) is that it gives you the chance to present the different sides of an issues and illustrate everything that gives it complexity in a way you can’t quite do in an essay. Writing YA, then, is not about preaching to young readers and trying to “mould their little minds”, but about using their “willingness to ask questions” as a point of departure for what is hopefully a nuanced and complex story.

Both Jonathan Stroud and Frances Hardinge said that then they write for young people, they write for younger versions of themselves; Hardinge then went on to call her novels “coming of age stories with revolutionary tendencies”, which I think is pretty apt. She doesn’t think that what defines YA is necessarily the age of the protagonist: some novels are YA by virtue of their “YA frame of mind”, which for her amounts to “a readiness to question and unpick your world”.

In regard to what makes a YA hero, she said they’re gratifyingly varied; and also that they’re like other heroes but more so: “like eggs ready to crack into their future selves”. She likes them with a touch of the subversive, and she definitely thinks that you can make YA villains quite dark. For example, her book Gullstruck Island is “a study of how genocide comes to happen”. If anything characterises darkness in YA, it’s the fact that it’s usually handled with thought and weight, rather than as a condiment to spice up the text.

(Also, because I can’t not say this: I appreciate that the panellists where at times put in the unfortunate position of having to defend YA at an event where the conversation was supposed to have moved far beyond this, but it’s simply not true that YA is different from children’s literature because it’s nuanced whereas the latter is predominantly black and white. Diana Wynne Jones, anyone? Hilary McKay? Rita Williams-Garcia? Sharon Creech? There’s absolutely no need to put down and oversimplify MG in order to acknowledge YA’s complexity — shades of grey can and happily do exist in both. Sorry, otherwise awesome panellist [not Frances Hardinge] who wandered down this dark path.)

Frances Hardinge and Jonathan Stroud at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
Frances Hardinge and Jonathan Stroud.

Frances Hardinge signing at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
Frances Hardinge signing.

E-reader and copy of Fly By Night signed by Frances Hardinge
There’s now a Saracen on my e-reader, keeping company to Neil Gaiman’s rat and Hank’s anglerfish (as well as Patrick Ness’ signature). I’m saving that space at the bottom for if I ever see Sarah Waters, or Margo Lanagan again.

I tried to tell Frances Hardinge how much I love her books and how rewarding it has been to share them with the kids I work with over the past year, but I think what came out was more like “Your books! Awesome! My brain, it likes your words! Kids think awesome too! Oh look, goose”. I will never not be terrible at these things.

Doctor Who panel with Malorie Blackman, Charlie Higson, Andrew Lane, Patrick Ness, Marcus Sedgwick and Steve Cole at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
Eavesdropping on the Doctor Who panel with Malorie Blackman, Charlie Higson, Andrew Lane, Patrick Ness, Marcus Sedgwick and Steve Cole. All I caught was the bit where they discussed how the panel was originally five white guys until Malorie Blackman was added, and yes, this is a problem. Then she brought up how unacceptable it is that a woman hasn’t written a Doctor Who episode since 2008. We need diversity behind the camera as well as in front of it.

Graphic novels panel with Ian Edginton, Marcus Sedgwick, Emma Vieceli, and the awesome Sarah McIntyre at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
Some more eavesdropping: graphic novels panel with Ian Edginton, Marcus Sedgwick, Emma Vieceli, and the awesome Sarah McIntyre.

Crowd at at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
YALC audience, where there were undoubtedly many people I know online. As I explained recently, I’ve been in poor spirits lately and I wasn’t quite ready to be sociable yet. This makes me a little sad, but alas. Next time!

I'll leave you with some more general Film and Comic Con pictures:

Cosplayers at London Film and Comic Con

Chewbacca cosplayers at London Film and Comic Con

Nerdy cupcakes at London Film and Comic Con
A selection of nerdy cupcakes.

Studio Ghibli plush toys at London Film and Comic Con
Had to exercise self-control and remind myself that food is a thing I need in order not to buy ALL the Studio Ghibli plush toys.

Stitch plush toys at London Film and Comic Con
...or all the Stitches.

LonCon stand at London Film and Comic Con
LonCon Stand.

Free books at the LonCon stand at London Film and Comic Con
...where they were giving away free books.

The Graveyard Book shoes at London Ya Lit Con (YALC)
Someone sitting next to me had the coolest shoes ever.

Death Eater cosplayer at London Ya Lit Con (YALC)
A Death Eater with a question.

My Little Pony cosplayers at London Film and Comic Con
My Little Pony cosplayers!

Poison Ivy cosplayer at London Film and Comic Con
Also, no picture because it was super quick, but I saw Giles! Oh, my heart.


  1. Oh how I love these posts!!!! And despite the glitches of a first year event, it really does sound like you had an awesome time! So. Much. Awesomeness.

  2. This looks like such a well-run event! I love too that people came in costumes! And the nerdy cupcakes - how great is that?

  3. Debi: It was fun if a bit overwhelming, and certainly a good way to take my mind off things to the extent that's possible :)

    Jill: Yeah, I was probably harsher on the running side of it than I intended - it's just that I've been to lots of crowded events (including gigs at that same venue) where these issues were handled better. But the book side of it was certainly marvelous, and the line up of authors could hardly have been any stronger. Enthusiastic thumbs up overall!

  4. Sounds amazing, apart from the crappy organizing. I am unsurprised that Patrick Ness was wonderful, as he is always wonderful. And I am tentatively thrilled to hear that Rainbow Rowell has a book coming out next fall. I have gotten so fond of her as a non-fantasy author I'm not sure about what her fantasy writing will be. Although I liked the Simon Snow bits in Fangirl so it's probably okay?

  5. This looks like so much fun, organizational issues aside! Posts like this give me the convention bug, even though I know I'm not tempermentally suited to the things. Still, something larger like this could be fun, since there's tons to do without actually having to jump into other peoples' conversations (which was a big problem for me at the one [small] con I attended.)

  6. Jenny: She also mentioned she'd like to write more about Baz and Simon some day, though I got the impression that this was unrelated to the upcoming fantasy novel because it sounded like a plan for the far off future rather than something that's about to happen. Anyway, I love her contemporary stuff too, but at the moment I think of her as an author who can do no wrong (rightly or wrongly), so I'd go yay over basically any news :P Also, we have her graphic novel with Faith Erin Hicks next year to satisfy our contemporary Rainbow Rowell cravings, so hooray!

    Memory: I suspect the same might be true of me, as I get overwhelmed quite easily. And yet here I am considering Nine Worlds :P There was definitely plenty to do at this one without any scary talking-to-people being involved, so yay for that. I'd have loved to have met other YA people, but it would have been really awkward to lurk around without quite knowing how to strike a conversation.

  7. This looks like so much fun. I've not been to one of these cons, but I really should get down to the one in Southern California sometime. I might even be able to come up with a costume.

  8. James, do it and take pictures :D You know we'd all love to see that.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.