As a YA author attending a trade-facing conference, I dipped into Futurebook 2016 with curiosity, not sure quite what I would take home from the experience. What I encountered there was an event with a real buzz to it, packed with engaged, purposeful attendees genuinely excited about the technological challenges – and opportunities – facing the book community.
Eva Appelbaum spoke about a ‘digital revolution’, arguing that publishers, agents, booksellers (and hence surely writers) need to wake up to the fact that we are in the future already. We have "one leg in industrial, and one reaching forward to digital". But this is also a time of uncertainty – "we don’t know what the ground we’re stepping into is going to look like".
So if the future is already here, what does that look like for YA publishing, in 2017 and beyond?
At John Kampfner’s cross-industry panel ‘Waving, not Drowning’, Diana Gerald of the Booktrust, Emma Southworth (Royal Opera House), Martin Haines (Kudos) and Chris Auty from the National Film and TV School spoke about how their industries are embracing the digital. Children are reading from e-readers and iPads, as much as books, for different reasons. Digital is informing production in dance, opera and drama. TV audiences are watching on demand and with Catch up. It is worth noting too, that the applause during the Audiobooks panels was audible (!) rooms away, reflecting the success of yet another new, digitally accessed route into story (and revenue streams). But across media, it’s still long-form storytelling, the novel, the drama series, that people want to consume.
In film and TV, the creative content is also grappling with the pressing themes of the digital age: automaton, AI, the fusing of the imagined (fake!) and the real, as seen in popular series like Humans and Westworld, and the burgeoning of science fiction in TV for children and teens (Class, Eve). These series envision the possible technological realities of the near-future, in a layered, ambiguous, and thought-provoking way that is not classically 'utopian' or 'dystopian', addressing questions intrinsic to the world we live in that are not going to go away. This suggests to me that moving forwards in YA fiction, too, we may do well to think beyond the outdated category of ‘dystopian’, when we imagine how the technology that more and more defines our lives at practical, social, and political levels is going to evolve.
There were several great, innovative examples of engaging with the digital at the interactive storytelling panel chaired by Molly Flatt. These ranged from Bobby Thandi’s interactive Bob the Builder: Build City, to Kate Pullinger’s haunting and compelling Inanimate Alice, eleven years old and still enduring – which uses digital to mingle text with image and sound, and features a child growing up in a world that does not feel entirely safe. Catherine Allen from the BBC described a virtual reality short on the Easter Rising that enticed new viewers to the medium. Guy Gadney talked about how he’s used chatbots in story building and how at To Play For he’s developing an interactive virtual reality experience from my own long-form Fallow trilogy.
In this immersive, digital and fast-evolving context, the panellists very much agreed with Guy’s contention that "experimentation is a success metric" in its own right. They spoke about how creators need to stick to their vision, in a spirit of openness and play, being ready for surprises and the unexpected, too. For example, the audience for gaming and interactive has turned out to include people of all ages, not just the young – a psychographic as much as a demographic effect. This is of course something we’ve seen in YA, which some argue has become a genre, as well as an age bracket.
At the same time, Astrid Lindgren award-winning author Meg Rosoff, interviewed in the current Mslexia, cautioned that she believes YA authors need to be careful not to write to narrow political agendas, which can be akin to a form of "telling not showing". Instead she talked about a more general, and, perhaps, mysterious existential struggle to understand what it means to be human. Rosoff defines adolescence as "the transition from childhood to being a responsible person who has to live in the world and make something of his or herself" and furthermore contends that this is "the trajectory of life". No wonder then that the ‘bildungsroman’ or coming of age novel appeals across the generations, and always has.
When we think about today’s children and adolescents, we are already identifying a new Generation Z. These young people are born into a digital and connected world, more politically aware, but more anxious than previous generations, too. Today’s teenagers are coming of age not just amid the digital revolution Appelbaum identifies, but in an ‘anthropocene era’ of unprecedented human-induced geological change, and in the age of Trump and Brexit. Adolescence (coming of age) is a time of anxiety. It’s also a time of seeking and finding inspiration, of bravery, freshness and forward momentum. We can take inspiration from that, but we could also involve young people, too, in our writing and publishing projects, as the new Bletchley Park sixth form will engage them in digital security and coding solutions.
Futurebook 2016 showed me, as a writer, a parent and a publisher, that we need more fiction, and publishing endeavour in general, that explores and engages with the ‘digital revolution’. In YA in 2017, and beyond, it is our responsibility not to retreat from, but to embrace, the challenges and opportunities of this digital age.