Friday 20 May 2016

Guest Post: Alison Rattle on the representation of working class in Young Adult fiction

TITLE: V for Violet
AUTHOR: Alison Rattle
PUBLISHER: Hot Key Books


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Battersea, 1961.

London is just beginning to enter the swinging sixties. The world is changing - but not for sixteen-year-old Violet. She was born at the exact moment Winston Churchill announced Victory in Europe - an auspicious start, but now she's just stuck in her family's fish and chip shop dreaming of greatness. And it doesn't look like fame and fortune are going to come calling anytime soon.

Then she meets Beau. Beau's a Rocker - a motorcycle boy who arrives in an explosion of passion and rebellion. He blows up Violet's grey little life, and she can't believe her luck. But things don't go her way for long. Joseph, her long-lost brother, comes home. Then young girls start going missing, and turning up murdered. And then Violet's best friend disappears too. Suddenly life is horrifyingly much more interesting.

Violet can't believe its coincidence that Joseph turns up just as girls start getting murdered. He's weird, and she feels sure he's hiding something. He's got a secret, and Violet's got a dreadful feeling it might be the worst kind of secret of all ...

Guest Post: Alison Rattle on the representation of working class in Young Adult fiction

Tinned Fruit is not the Only Fruit

When I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s there wasn’t really such a thing as YA fiction. I went straight from gobbling up Enid Blyton (The Famous Five, The Secret Seven), Alf Proysen (Mrs Pepperpot) and Louisa May Alcott (Little Women) straight into devouring The Hobbit, Watership Down and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. There didn’t seem to be anything in between. Perhaps there were more suitable teen novels out there, but as we couldn’t afford to buy books I was limited to whatever my local library had to offer.

We were poor you see. We didn’t own a car. We didn’t go on holidays. We had no central heating (I regularly woke up to ice on the inside of my bedroom window). Our carpets were threadbare. We had tinned fruit for tea on Sundays and a jar of instant coffee was the height of luxury. My mum worked numerous jobs to keep us fed after my dad left us. She was far too proud to claim benefits. When she remarried a few years later it was to a coal miner. We were proper working class.

I was quite clever at school and absolutely loved reading. Anything I could get my hands on. My childhood books featured characters who all came from comfortable backgrounds or at least had rich relatives, access to islands to holiday on, always plenty of food to eat and the financial freedom to go off on fantastic adventures and solve all their problems. My first forays into adulthood fiction featured much the same privileged characters. Jackie Collins for instance (who I read for the sexy bits obviously) wrote about a world I could only dream about. Chateaus and diamonds, fast cars and fabulous clothes. I read crime novels, horrors, romances. I read Fay Weldon, Marilynne Robinson, Margaret Atwood. I read astounding, shocking, fabulous, wonderful, beautiful books but none of them featured any characters like me. Or like my mum.

Two books that really stand out in my memory from my teen reading years are Porky (by Deborah Moggach) and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (by Jeanette Winterson). They are among a handful of books that I’ve read and re-read over the years. Because they spoke to me. For the first time I could truly identify with the characters I was reading about. Heather (the protagonist in Porky) lived in a run-down bungalow near Heathrow airport with a backyard full of broken machinery and pigs. Jeanette (the protagonist in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit) was brought up on an ordinary street in a grim Northern town. I didn’t identify with their situations – Heather was struggling to cope with an incestuous relationship with her father and Jeanette was struggling with her God-fearing mother and her own emerging sexuality - I identified with the characters themselves. Ordinary working class girls trying to cope with life under extraordinary circumstances.

Diversity is the buzz-word of the moment and some wonderful strides have been made by writers reaching out and tackling important topics such as gender, race, sexuality and mental health. Which is all brilliant of course. But there are still not enough YA novels that feature ordinary working class characters. The ones who can’t afford mobile phones or to go on holidays with their mates. The ones who have to work after school to help with the family expenses. The ones who can’t afford to buy books and still rely on their local library.

In my latest book, V for Violet, the character of Violet is a nod to my working class roots. (Roots? I’m still working class through and through. Three jobs on the go to pay the bills and I still have tinned mandarin segments for tea on Sundays). Violet is ordinary. She looks ordinary. Her family is ordinary. She works in a fish and chip shop. She has no special talents apart from her love of reading. But she embraces her ordinary life and faces some extraordinary circumstances with strength and humour and daring. She’s the girl I wanted to be growing up. The girl I wanted to read about. The girl who doesn’t reject her working class roots in striving for something supposedly better, but who embraces them instead. Because if someone like Violet can survive what life throws at her, then anyone can.

V for Violet by Alison Rattle is out now, published by Hot Key Books

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