Patrick Ness: In Defence of Teenagers
In 2012, Patrick Ness won the prestigious Carnegie Medal for the second time, for his YA novel A Monster Calls, a heartbreaking story about cancer and loss, told through the metaphor of a yew tree that comes to life outside the bedroom of a boy whose mother is dying.
In his acceptance speech, Ness spoke passionately in defence of teenagers, taking issue with the UK government’s negative treatment and expectations of them.
Though his fans span all ages, and his latest book, The Crane Wife, is for adult readers, he is best known for his books for a young adult audience - especially his worldwide bestselling Chaos Walking trilogy, variously described as a dystopian love story with the atmosphere of a Western and ‘one of the most interesting fantasies ever published’. Ness won his first Carnegie Medal for The Knife of Letting Go, the first in the Chaos Walking series.
Patrick Ness giving his 2012 Carnegie Medal acceptance speech.
Teenagers: ‘interesting, curious, sensitive, smart’
‘The worst thing our current government, and we as a culture, do about teenagers, in my view, is to only discuss them in negative terms - by what they can’t do,’ Ness told the Carnegie audience. ‘What they aren’t achieving, how much they don’t read.’
‘All it takes is to bother to meet a teenager or three and you’ll see that they’re the same interesting, curious, sensitive, smart, compassionate, funny, questioning, brilliant people they’ve always been - and yet we only ever hear about them in negative terms.’
‘I couldn’t have felt more different if I’d had a tail’
He went on to reflect on his own teenage years, and that universal feeling (which always seems utterly unique at the time) of feeling like you don’t fit, that you stand out in the wrong ways.
‘I was a typically atypical teenager - and I think that’s the secret of being a teenager, that there’s no such thing as a typical teenager. Even the popular kids feel different from everyone else. It’s the standard principle of a teenager to feel alone. And I was the gay, preppy, deeply anxious son of American fundamentalist Christians. I couldn’t have felt more different if I’d had a tail.’
‘I felt like nobody understood what I was going through. And I don’t mean that in a self-pitying way, but I literally had no evidence that anyone understood.’
‘I think to be a teenager is to yearn. I yearned for someone to tell me that I was going to be alright.’
‘I’m really writing for the teenage me’
It’s clear that this longing to be understood plays into the books Ness writes for his teenage readers. He outlined his aim to make sure each teenage character is ‘a complex creation who doesn’t always get things right but importantly, doesn’t always get things wrong’. He now receives letters from kids who, for many different reasons, are grateful to have discovered his books.
‘I’ve always said that I don’t write book for other people - that’s always a disaster. I only write them for myself, because paradoxically, that’s the only time people want to read them. So when I write for teenagers and young people, I’m really writing for the teenage me. The me that needed to be taken seriously, at least once in a while.’