17 March 2016

A student and a teacher – Curtis Brown Creative on the YA Book Prize shortlist

by Eli Keren

We’re thrilled to see not one but two familiar names involved in our creative writing courses on the Young Adult Book Prize shortlist. Catherine Johnson, who teaches our children’s writing courses, made it to the shortlist with her novel The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo. Alongside her sits The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson, a former student on our novel-writing course. This year’s list is populated by ten challenging, original and emotional novels. The standard is exceedingly high, and we couldn’t be happier to see two members of the extended Curtis Brown Creative family among their pages.

The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo is based on the amazing true story of Mary Wilcocks, a cobbler’s daughter from Devon who successfully convinced an entire village that she was a princess from an exotic land for many months in 1817. Catherine Johnson’s novel is fraught with tension; as Mary’s lies expand, the reader is left to continously fret that ‘Lady Caraboo’s’ secret may be discovered at any moment. Yet this tension does not detract from the magic. Mary’s lies are so wonderfully told, the reader cannot help but will them to be true, while characters who would normally be unlikable – most notably the privileged Worrall children Fred and Cassandra – are charming and endearing. Though not always a cheerful or easy read (the novel opens with an account of a brutal attack, triggering Mary’s transformation into Princess Caraboo), The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo is a beautifully woven tale, well deserving of its place in this shortlist.

The Art of Being Normal is a powerfully difficult read for all the right reasons. David Piper’s parents think that their child is a boy, and that he’s gay. They’re wrong. She’s a girl. She just doesn’t know how to tell them yet. The Art of Being Normal treads the thinnest line, exploring the lives of two young people who feel trapped in incommunicable ways. The book is at once sensitive and raw, dealing with gender, sexuality, bullying, poverty and abandonment without ever weighing the reader down or losing its YA charm.

The world of Young Adult fiction is moving towards a new and challenging frontier. Looking down this shortlist, The Art of Being Normal is not the only novel to bring complicated and nuanced issues to its teenage audience. Holly Bourne’s Am I Normal Yet? addresses issues facing young people with severe mental health issues; Asking for It by Louise O’Neill deals with consent and sexual assault; One by Sarah Crossan details an account of two girls living as conjoined twins. The shortlist is packed with brave authors who aren’t afraid to bring issues to the people to whom they are often most relevant. This is particularly evident in The Art of Being Normal. We’ve all heard the tired put-down to conversations about gender and sexuality: ‘I’m fine with it, I just don’t want my children to see. What would I tell them?’ offered repeatedly, as though gender and sexuality were issues that exclusively affected those over the age of 35. In truth, it is often young people whom these issues affect the most, and young adults who are most in need of being told ‘It’s not just you.’ The fact that the world of publishing is backing these ideas so proudly is encouraging to see.

The Curtis Brown Creative team is wishing all ten shortlisted novelists the best of luck on June 2nd when the results will be announced (though we may be slightly biased towards two of them in particular). No matter what happens in June, as far as we’re concerned, this is a huge success.

For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:

Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Wed 17 January).

Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Wed 24 January).

For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for: 

Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 28 Jan).

We are offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:

Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).

Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).

Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).

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