There’s an ongoing debate about what is ‘too dark’ for teenagers to read about. Is there too much death in YA? Is ‘sick lit’ damaging teens? I believe it’s really important for dark, difficult subjects to be explored in YA literature. My debut novel, The Year of The Rat, is about Pearl, a teenager grieving for her mum who died suddenly giving birth to Pearl’s baby sister, nicknamed ‘The Rat’ by Pearl. So why did I choose to write about death and grief for a Young Adult readership?
There’s nothing new about the death of parents in books for young people. You only have to look at the number of orphans in children’s books, from Anne of Green Gables to Harry Potter, to see that the death of parents is a strong theme in children’s literature. Often this is a way of leaving kids to fend for themselves and live a life of adventure, but the children’s classic The Secret Garden goes a step further than this. It’s a story that is essentially about the grieving process, showing how Mary Lennox, left an orphan and transplanted into a new life, learns to let re-engage with the world through nature, friendship, and the love and patience of people around her. I love this book and it influenced The Year of The Rat in all sorts of ways.
For most people the teenage years are the time when the comforting certainties of childhood start to be challenged. Teenagers live in a world they know isn’t safe, that doesn’t always give you a happy ending, where good and bad aren’t always clear cut. Information is more readily available now than ever before. So it’s right that books for teenagers reflect this reality. Of course books can be pure fun and escapism and there’s nothing wrong with that. But they can also be a place to confront difficult and dark issues, to try to understand them, to think about them from different perspectives.
When I was writing The Year of The Rat it felt really important to show grief as something that could be ugly, all-consuming, introspective, self-destructive. I didn’t want to sugar-coat it or sentimentalise it. I wanted to show that people who have lost someone they love don’t always act as we think a grieving person ‘should’. We like people to behave in ways we can understand. If they’re really sad they should cry. We know what to do with that. But they might not cry. They might find it difficult to talk. They might push help away, even from the people they love most, their friends and family. And they might not just feel sad. They might feel angry and scared. They might feel guilty. And they might hide those feelings from the world. That was what I wanted to show through my character Pearl. These parts of the book were hard to write. I think as a writer you feel protective towards your character and you want to show them in the best possible light. But I had to force myself not to do that if I wanted to be honest.
I did some research into the grieving process, looking at theory and psychology and also at a lot of personal accounts from young people who’d lost parents. What was clear was that everyone reacted in their own way and expressed their emotions in very different ways. Some people found it easy to talk about their feelings, others didn’t. Some felt angry. Some felt scared. There were often difficulties about being honest about their feelings with other family members. One thing that came across again and again was that people felt isolated because, however hard they tried, no one could understand how they were feeling. After I’d written my first draft I saw an account by one young person who said they couldn’t talk to anyone else so they talked to the mum they’d lost – and this gave me confidence in what I was trying to express in the book.
I also did a bit of reading around the psychology of grieving and the ‘five stages of grief’ – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – but it felt important that the book wasn’t a neat progression through these stages. Nothing about grief is neat. Pearl, my character is essentially in the denial stage for the whole of the book, which takes place over the course of a year. She is shell-shocked – she can’t accept that her mum is gone, and she can’t let her go.
I’ve been asked whether the issues in the book are autobiographical and they’re not, but I certainly drew on my own experiences when writing the book. I went through the death of a friend as a teenager and although my experience was completely different to Pearl’s, some of that feeling of disbelief and the bigger questions it raised for me about life.
But despite all the serious, dark subject matter, I also wanted there to be humour in the book. Even in the darkest times things can be funny, and it’s important for the reader to have the occasional laugh in between all the sad stuff otherwise it’s exhausting! This comes through the character of Pearl’s mum, who appears throughout the book but it’s never totally clear whether she’s really there or whether Pearl’s imagining her – that’s for the reader to decide.
I think if you’re really honest about the dark things as a writer, the hope you offer a reader is more believable too. And for me, while The Year of The Rat is a story about grief, it’s also about hope. It’s about true friendship, which will withstand whatever’s thrown at it. It’s about family. Most of all it’s about love. Ultimately it’s about why, despite all the sad and bad things that can happen, life is worth living.