I used to seethe with envy at my middle class friends, wishing that I could be one of them, wanting above all else to have my own bedroom and Castle Grayskull playset. Yes, I measured wealth and happiness through the amount of toys my friends had in their toy boxes. I had toys too, but they were mostly dolls from my sisters. I put them to good use by recreating the Hammer House of Horror using tomato ketchup and bingo pens. Poor Rainbow Brite ended up dead quite a lot, a victim of the Daleks who kept breaking into the doll’s house through the ceiling on their Hoverbouts – in reality a chipped saucer.
My favourite things as a child were Doctor Who, The Three Investigators, He-Man/She-Ra, Batman, Madonna and punk rock. My parents split when I was seven, thank goodness, and I’ve never seen my father since…but his replacement, my dad to this day (nicknamed Davy Death, due to his obsession with dead celebrities, still phones me whenever news breaks of a dead celebrity) introduced me to his favourite bands. They all had weird names but they appealed to me so much, their gloomy faces staring out from record sleeves matched perfectly their music. Bands such as The Smiths, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Stranglers, David Bowie, Sex Pistols and so much more. But my older sisters introduced me to pop music and acid house. I can stick on a Madonna album and follow it up with The Slits and it all makes sense to me.
My mother couldn’t afford a babysitter so it was either the library or a day in front of the TV. I shared my imagination with both, splitting it between wonderful books and cartoons I would run home from school to watch upstairs on a battered old television. I watched Doctor Who on that TV set too. Remembrance of the Daleks, actually. The library, however, became my second house. I spent my entire childhood and teenage years in that library. I eventually got a job there too. It was colourful with posters stuck to walls and handwritten stories pinned to windows. The entrance to the library was a gateway to another dimension. I read Roald Dahl voraciously, finding new friends like Matilda. I adored Matilda, I still do, because she used her wit and intelligence to fight against horrible people. I felt like that sometimes. I would escape into books when the fighting started downstairs, and soon I wouldn’t hear anything other than my own breathing.
Shelves of neatly arranged books brought me to Nancy Drew. Nancy had everything; a middle class detective with a lawyer for a dad and…oh my goodness…a car! I became the first boy at Langlands Primary School to pick up a Nancy Drew book. Doctor Who books with the name Terrance Dicks on each spine let me ‘see’ the episodes my parents couldn’t afford to buy on video. The Three Investigators investigated anything and they confounded all sorts of crooks and swindlers. I fell headfirst into these stories and I knew this what what I wanted to do, it was ALL I wanted to do with my life.
I soon discovered ‘juvenile’ books. Theresa Breslin’s Whispers In The Graveyard and A Time To Reap caught my eye. Authors such as Robert Cormier and Lois Duncan found me just as much as I found them. I read these books obsessively. I used to cover my wall in pictures of authors, sheets of paper that I got from the library. I vowed that if I ever became an author, I’d make sure people got actual posters of me they could pin to their walls alongside their favourite popstars. The YA audience is the best audience, because I was – and still am to this day – one of them. I love the sensitivity, loyalty, abd enthusiasm of YA readers. What initally struck me about the ‘Juvenile’ section (now YA or Teenage depending on which shop or library you visit) is that they had every genre under that banner. They have everything and anything from romance to horror to adventure and more, and though I never read romantic YA, I knew many girls who read them insatiably.
John Hughes was a big deal for me as a teenager too. The David Bowie quote at the start of the Breakfast Club made me take notice, because I knew all about Bowie. I was probably the only one at that age, because Bowie by that time had become a parody. And the music of these movies…bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain/The Smiths/OMD and more became my soundtrack, because life is better with incidental music. These bands formed my identity as much as the books/television/video games. John Greene has brought a John Hughes sensibility back into YA books with teen melodrama, which I appreciate, even if it isn’t what I write. During the middle of the nineties, the official soundtrack to a teen movie became an essential thing for me and my friends. We would have parties to swap YA books, our currency, and listen to the Romeo & Juliet soundtrack full of brilliant bands like The Cardigans, Radiohead and Garbage. The Craft soundtrack was wonderful too and introduced me to Juliana Hatfield, a life long obsession. Whenever I write a book, I always listen to music and think of who would be on the soundtrack if my book became a movie. I’m sure most YA authors think about that sort of thing every now and again.
I’m always bothered by a certain question I always get asked during interviews:
“Are you going to write for adults at some point?”
I find that question slightly troubling because it assumes that what I do sn’t important, that YA is a stepping stone for authors into ‘better things’ but…the truth is I adore YA and the life changing power it had over me. I could never agree with that sentiment, and I will celebrate YA and what it did for me. Those books, those authors, their work IS important and it always will be because people read and develop as readers. You can’t just jump from Roald Dahl to Hilary Mantel, though you can read both when you reach that place in your reading. I’ll aways read and write YA. Funnily enough I now know some of the authors I grew up reading. I meet them and we have lunch. I would never say, “I read you growing up,” but I’m a product of their imagination and talent. Without which I wouldn’t be doing what I consider to be the best job in the world. I would like to think disaffected teens will read my books and find my posters and embrace my weird world of killer unicorns, murderous teen warlocks, handbag wielding freak teenagers and everything else I’ll offer in books yet unwritten.
Adults read YA and should continue to read YA. I’ve always said that if adults can’t read my books, then I’m doing something wrong. The YA genre is very healthy right now. There’s so much more to read, and to this day I still feel that wonderful thrill that I felt all those years ago when I went into the library to find new authors and stare at beautiful cover art. I don’t ever want to lose that feeling.