Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Writing for Young Readers with Annabel Lyon

At noontime Friday, a sizable crowd composed of the “young and young at heart” gathered at Knox Presbyterian Church to hear Annabel Lyon speak about her latest young adult novel Encore Edie , sequel to All-Season Edie . The novelist is perhaps best known for her 2009 novel The Golden Mean , which was shortlisted for all three major Canadian literature awards: the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award, and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, winning the latter. Those interested in hearing about that novel, however, or its sequel, The Sweet Girl , were laughingly told by the event’s moderator, Meagan Black, a Carleton University student, that they should have attended the previous evening’s event (“ Freedom ”) instead. Not that any attendees were disappointed with Friday’s hour-long event, which covered everything from the perceived didactic nature of children’s literature to the nuts and bolts of the writing process.


Lyon, a relaxed and engaging speaker, began with a reading from Encore Edie . In this latest installment of a confirmed trilogy, the titular “nerdy, bookish” character has recently begun high school. Coupled with the regular stresses of growing up and fitting in, Edie is also trying to dodge parental pressure to hang out with her cousin “Merry” (Meredith), who was born with Down’s syndrome. In an attempt to do both, she tries to put on a musical production of Shakespeare’s King Lear . In the selected reading, Lyon shared a scene in which Edie meets with an older student, Reagan, the costumer of the school’s previous play. The lightness of the scene (Edie ordering a large black coffee; the girl nervously meeting with the army-jacket wearing Reagan; Edie still rattling from the “serious” coffees she consumed hours before) was well presented, with Lyon perfectly mimicking the flat tone of the bored barista, the faster delivery of a nervous Edie, and the cooler demeanor of Reagan.


Following the reading, Black queried Lyon about the differences she has noticed between writing for adults and for children. While conceding that “writing is writing,” Lyon noted that while she can get a little discouraged when writing her adult novels, it was “always a joy to go back to that world, to go back to this character (of Edie).”


Indeed, she wrote much of the first Edie book while working on The Golden Mean , flipping back and forth between the two. Later speaking on the didactic reputation of children’s literature, Lyon reiterated how she cannot tolerate writing that patronizes children, noting that few topics should be off-limits and that “darkness is in the treatment” of subject matter. That being said, in writing her Edie books (and indeed, The Golden Mean ), she has purposely included characters with mental disabilities, a theme influenced by growing up with a brother with Down’s syndrome.


Consequently Lyon noted that she “feels strongly about how people with mental disabilities are treated in arts and culture” and aimed to create in Merry a “rounded character” rather than using her as a mere symbol of Down’s. In this line of discussion, she referenced the movie Dumb and Dumber and spoke about how language to describe mental disabilities persists whereas comparable slurs (relating to race, for example) have been largely been deemed unacceptable in contemporary society. She also discussed how while still resistant of any writing that condescends to audiences she is interested in how ethics can be communicated in fiction, noting that there is an “emotional value-added aspect of fiction that you don’t get in academic texts.”


Much of the talk also focused on the technical and practical aspects of writing, editing, and publishing. Lyon further elaborated on these points during the Q&A session toward the end of the event. Now a professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Lyon discussed how as a would-be student in the same program she first came up with the character of Edie. Although at that point exclusively interested in writing novels for adults, a requirement of the program meant that she had to choose two specializations and opted for children’s literature as her second. She wrote the first chapters for All-Season Edie in 1994, picking the story up again 8 to 10 years later and then finishing it. At that point she had had a collection of short stories published, but admitted that the worlds of adult and children’s publishing are worlds apart. Not only has she learned to rely on her editor’s guidance when it comes to adjusting vocabulary for younger readers, she learned about the “two year rule,” whereby readers will generally read about characters roughly two years older than themselves, so that an 11-year old character is actually written for 9-year old readers. These readers have proven to be a great motivator for Lyon as she shared an anecdote about how she was “stuck about two chapters into the second book” when she read a letter from a child saying how much they loved the first book. This realization of “oh, I have a reader!” acted as a great reinforcement, a kind she suggested you don’t get when writing for adults.


In terms of advice for would-be authors Lyon strongly recommended that writers study their craft just as a carpenter or journalist might, be it through a MFA program, non-credit courses, or similar, arguing that writing doesn’t just happen in a garret somewhere with a muse to guide you. She noted how in her studies she was able to draw on poetry and screenwriting courses to improve her fiction, commenting that all of her longer works are composed in traditional three-act structures. She also warned against writing to trends, saying that the success of books such as Twilight and the like cannot be predicted and wryly commenting that “mermen” are apparently going to be the next big thing in YA publishing.


The event concluded with much applause and a book signing where copies of Lyon's books, for both adults and children, were available. Attendees were also pleased to hear a rumor about a possible stand-alone children’s and YA literature festival that is in the works. Based on Friday’s event, it will likely be a great success.