For those of you who missed our Talking Writing evening on ‘Monsters and Baddies in Kids and YA Fiction’ with writer Matt Finch, author Kate Forsyth and Masters student Nyssa Harness, who studies zombies, here’s a recap from our intern, Jessica Sanford.
Kate kicked off the evening by talking about the dangers of censoring fairytales, saying that this denies them their real power, which is to teach children about darkness. This lead to the central topic of the night: monsters, and the notion of monsters and characterisation. No villain actually believes they’re a villain, agreed the panel. There is always some sort of justification for their actions.
Characterisation was explored further as the discussion moved toward the humanity written into zombies in YA fiction, such as R in Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies. Nyssa said authors could create a thinking undead creature and call it a zombie, which is similar to the way that Dracula still exists but vampires haven’t all been written the same way – authors have changed their powers and capabilities with each iteration.
Speaking of characters that have been around a long time, the panelists and audience discussed monsters we were afraid of in childhood. Kate was constantly reading old books and was drawn to stories “long, long ago and far, far away”. One baddie that scared her the most as a girl was the White Witch in C.S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. Nyssa said she would sneak a scary movie or two when she was young and Beetlejuice was the character that got her heart pumping.
This confession lead to the discussion of unintentional monsters; sometimes characters can be scary even when they’re not intended to be. Like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, clowns and Santa Claus were all nominated as dubious fellows. It was suggested that this mistrust or dislike has a relation to the fact that these characters are in disguise; there is a pretense to them. They are hiding something.
This segued into chair Matt Finch posing the question, “What does it mean to make monsters for young people rather than adults?” Kate said it’s all about depth of depravity. You don’t want children to turn out the light and be rigid with fright: you want to get them to giggle with terror not sweat with terror. Then when it comes to writing YA, you can deepen and darken the story and its monsters accordingly.
The panel also explored children coping with realistic monsters, such as school bullying or trouble at home. Kate commented that, “reading about reality presses very hard on the bruise” for kids who are struggling with these issues. So children that are dealing with real problems will most likely prefer fantasy. Kids who want to read it often need an escape, which Kate said, is why she worries about schools that ban fantasy. She said fantasy offers a stage where kids can face up to fears and come back to their lives feeling empowered. The absent parent is common trope in YA fiction because of this need for empowerment: when a parent is unavailable, the child must make the solution on their own.
The conversation narrowed to Australian villainy. The question was asked, “What do Australian villains look like?” Titles such as Tomorrow When the War Began and Around the Twist were mentioned, as were Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’s Banksia Men. The point was made that fear of abandonment and being lost is universal for children.
The question was asked, “Is it more of a modern trend to have ambiguity with baddies?” Kate said children still like good guys and bad guys. The stories that survive are the ones that appeal to a universal sense of triumph.
As the evening drew to a close, the question was asked, “If today’s younger generation is exposed to more these days (such as violence), do YA monsters need to be more graphic?” Nyssa said that she agreed the modern world is terrifying but Kate said to remember the past (war, famine and death) and that the world has always been terrifying to children.