Building up young adult lit

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A report from Trinidad’s Guardian.

YA (young adult) lit is meant to help teens understand themselves.

To deny acknowledgement of teens’ culture in YA lit is to deny acknowledgement of themselves and their right to understand themselves.

Erline Andrews The annual OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature draws attention to the best published writers in the region. The Henry Swanzy Award honours the publishers, book dealers and others who help get these books in the hands of readers. But in some ways the Code Burt Award—the third prize conferred at the annual Bocas Lit Fest in T&T—may have an even more important function: it gives birth to excellent books that may not have otherwise seen the light of day and shapes and grows writing that targets children and teens, the future of reading and writing in the region.

“For me, it is the capturing of a vulnerable mind in transition,” said Puerto Rican Viviana Prado-Nuñez, who took the top prize in this year’s Burt Award, talking about the importance of writing for young people during one of the first events put on for the winners to communicate with the public.

It was a Twitter chat in part organised by Code, the Canadian organisation that administers the awards, which are given to aspiring authors in the Caribbean and Africa and from First People communities in Canada. The awards were founded in 2008 by philanthropist William Burt to give young readers from these communities more opportunities to read books about young people like themselves.

Prado-Nuñez herself is 18 and wrote her winning novel, The Art of White Roses, while she was still in high school. Writing and self-publishing a book was part of a programme at the school she attended in Baltimore.

“As a kid,” Prado-Nuñez tweeted, “I rarely saw myself in the literature I read. I don’t think it was till I read The House on Mango Street that I realised Spanish could be used legitimately within a text.” The House on Mango Street by Mexican-American Sandra Cisneros, Prado-Nuñez said, was one of the influences on her book.

“YA (young adult) lit is meant to help teens understand themselves,” said Prado-Nuñez. “To deny acknowledgement of teens’ culture in YA lit is to deny acknowledgement of themselves and their right to understand themselves.”

The Art of White Roses is about a 13-year-old girl experiencing turmoil in 1950s Cuba. “I’d love if more people knew who José Martí was and how much the US was involved in Cuba before the revolution,” said Prado-Nuñez.

In a recent interview with the Sunday Arts Section, T&T writer Kevin Jared Hosein, who took second place in the award, said that his book, a mystery novel called The Beast of Kukuyo, came about through imagining what popular American teen sleuths Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys would be like in a Trinidadian setting.

“I was like, what if somebody pull a Nancy Drew in Trinidad? That will have so much mess in it,” he said with a laugh. “That idea was so interesting to me. How much mess this would actually turn into if a child was to go around and try to solve a mystery in Trinidad?”

Sunday Arts editor Lisa Allen-Agostini said that with her third-place book, Waiting for the Bus, she wanted to highlight two issues that weren’t often addressed in young adult writing, particularly in the Caribbean:

“Depression and anxiety are extremely common among young people,” she said. “In general, Caribbean people don’t like to acknowledge these illnesses exist, like if ignoring them will make them go away. Treatment can save lives. And there aren’t a lot of Caribbean kids’ books on LGBT themes. One more couldn’t hurt.”

In the Twitter chat, the authors agreed nothing should be off limits to young readers.

“Life hits everybody hard, including young people. There’s no point in censoring it,” Prado-Nuñez said.

“Be human, be vulnerable,” she said of young adult writing. “Let them know the insides of their heads are valid. Also just tell the truth. Don’t tell them what life is like, show it, let them draw their own conclusions.”

Prado-Nuñez’s age was a surprise to Allen-Agostini and Hosein. But they were impressed by both her and her writing.

“As someone who founded an NGO for young people who write, I consider this a real demonstration of the capacity of teen writers,” said Allen-Agostini, who is 43. “At the same time, I’m a bit taken aback to have been beaten by an 18 year old. It’s not envy so much as just sheer shock at her talent and level of accomplishment at such a young age; she would have written the novel at 16.”

“I was glad someone that age won,” said Hosein. “There’s a lot of kids interested in writing. Having a young winner is always an encouraging story to tell them.”

Both Hosein’s and Allen-Agostini’s book were manuscripts they wrote years before that almost certainly would not have been published if not for the Burt Award. Prado-Nuñez’s self-published book would have had a limited audience.

Code would help with the books’ publishing by offering to purchase from publishers in the region a guaranteed number of each book. The organisation would then make sure the books are distributed throughout the region in schools, libraries and bookstores.

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