Venice, Lille and JJ

Booking for the Turning Point conference closes on Monday, November 22nd. Much more below.

It’s been a full eight days. A week ago, I was in Venice, celebrating a romantic anniversary. We’d spent the sunny day wandering round, visiting the fish market by the Rialto (after negotiating a route there that wasn’t flooded), visiting the Guggenheim, where I had Magritte’s magnificient ‘Empire Of Light’ to myself for several minutes. When it began to rain, we went back to our hotel for a rest before the traditional tourist visit to Harry’s Bar. At first, we mistook the noise outside for street cleaning, but it was too loud, and too persistent. When we opened the window, it was clearly a helicopter, hovering directly overhead. Then there was the sound of rapid, heavy footsteps on cobbles.

We looked down to see at least thirty armed riot police, many carrying riot shields, charging down the alley into the square beyond. We dressed and went down to the lobby, where the man at the desk told us that the police were there to deal with people protesting about the NATO summit on Lido. Outside, we found that our square was the base for the police, who I cheekily photographed. On our walk to Harry’s bar, we passed small gaggles of protestors who were heavily outnumbered by the armed police at every bridge. Waiters cleared the bar early to make extra restaurant space for visiting dignitaries (you wouldn’t want more than one drink there anyway – it costs too much). When we got near the restaurant we’d booked, our way was completely blocked by a dozen riot police on the small bridge that was our only route. Some carried machine guns. I grinned and said ‘restaurant’. They let us through.

Three nights ago, I took the Eurostar to Lille for a conference called ‘La Lecture Des Adolescents’. I was knackered, but had a pleasant meal with the Kent librarians who’d invited me along and got a good night’s sleep for once, with no conference details to sort in the morning. Next afternoon, the French YA novelist Olivier Adam and I gave brief readings (I read from Denial, which was published that very day and which Veronique Milot gamely translated). Then Olivier and I were questioned about our work and our views on Young Adult Fiction. It was an interesting couple of hours. My French is pretty poor (though I did manage to get a laugh for one three word quip) but I had a hand held device with a simultaneous translator. The guy responsible for those translations also had to keep up and translate what I had to say in front of the whole lecture theatre. It was an interesting discipline, stopping every paragraph, working out what to say next and how to keep it concise.

Many of the things Olivier said about the French YAF scene rang true of the way the UK situation was when I started out, fifteen years ago. Nobody knows where to put the books in shops and he wanted them mixed in with adult fiction. There was censorship and a general unwillingness to take risks. A lot of people failed to recognise that the genre even existed. When I talked about some of the changes that the UK scene had seen this century he got very enthusiastic. That said, I think we still have a long way to go. It’s what the conference next week is about.

On the five hour journey home, I read Anne Cassidy’s ‘Looking For JJ’, which I’ve been saving up. It’s a brilliant, gripping novel, superbly structured, full of contemporary resonances, and a deserved winner of the Booktrust Teenage book award. It must be in with a strong chance at the Whitbread, too, where it’s on the children’s shortlist. But it’s not a children’s book and it transcends any limitations the powers that be might want to place upon the genre that is Young Adult Fiction. I’ve known Anne for ten years and nobody deserves this kind of success more. If you want to find out how good Young Adult Fiction can be, try reading Looking for JJ.

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