Keren David for the Jewish News May 17 2015 by Jenni Frazer
Confession time. It’s really difficult – and really rather odd – to interview someone you have known for years.
But Keren David, the highly regarded Young Adult writer, makes it a painless process, as we sit in her gleaming bright blue kitchen and nurse large mugs of tea.
We met when Keren started her writing life as a messenger girl and then trainee reporter for the Jewish Chronicle. Born and raised in Welwyn Garden City, she has since worked for many national newspapers – particularly the Independent – and has lived and worked in London and Glasgow.
But it was when her family moved to Amsterdam for eight years (where she was in editor-in chief for a photographic agency) that the seeds were sown for Keren’s new career as a different voice in YA fiction. After a course in Writing for Children at City University when the family returned to the UK, Keren published her groundbreaking first book, When I Was Joe, about a teenager in witness protection.
The story of Joe eventually expanded to become a trilogy and now Keren has just published her sixth novel, This Is Not A Love Story, set in her expat home of Amsterdam and featuring, unusually for teen fiction, Jewish characters.
There have been a few examples of British YA books with Jewish themes such as the Holocaust or antisemitism. But Keren, many of whose novels are concerned with questions of identity – the kind of questions which all teenagers deal with as they grow up – wanted to explore Jewish life from a different angle. So we get to know Kitty, who lives with her mother in Palmers Green – deliberately not the heart of north-west London Jewry – and then moves to Amsterdam after her father’s death.
And we meet two troubled young men, Theo and Ethan, each trying to figure out who they are in a complex patchwork of family relationships and emerging sexual identity. The book opens with a near-classic outraged Jewish family scene at which Theo is thoroughly carpeted for – we think, at first – having gone out with a non-Jewish girl. But it turns out his “crime” is more complicated than that and so Theo is bounced off to Amsterdam in the care of his religious relations.
Kitty (incidentally Keren’s grandmother’s name) falls in love for the first time, both with Amsterdam and an enigmatic partner. But it’s not – as any teenager will tell you – a smooth ride.
Despite the length of time since I was a teenager, the language and the slang ring true. For that we may thank Keren David’s own two teens, a daughter of 18 and a son of 15, and her acute ear for dialogue and teen terminology, Who could resist, for example, describing barmitzvahs and batmitzvahs as “barmys” and “battys”, respectively?
But even in the short time since she has been writing, her fiction genre has changed considerably. “When I started in 2008, we didn’t really have Young Adult fiction in this country. We had ‘teen’ fiction, and I was told that my protagonists couldn’t be more than 16 and I had to go through the book scene by scene in terms of sexual content. Literally, for example, saying ‘if he puts his hand on her leg, here, can I say where on her leg it is’?
“Now, it has changed a huge amount and kids are very accepting of that and the so-called ‘gatekeepers’ of YA fiction are more accepting. But there is still some confusion about what is acceptable and what isn’t.
“I don’t do gratuitous sex or violence. If you’re writing about teenage sex, it needs to be authentic and honest, but once it becomes voyeuristic, I think that’s wrong”. Nevertheless, Keren acknowledges that there are things which her own children and their friends joke about which are still difficult to get in to a YA book.
And the YA market itself is beset by disadvantages such as the number of exams forced on Keren’s intended readers, and squeezed between popular children’s fiction and mainstream adult novels. But Keren, whose last book, Salvage, was nominated for the prestigious Carnegie Medal, is still confident. She is adapting one of her books, Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery, into a musical, and has ideas up her sleeve for historical fiction, too.
But she retains great affection for the Jewish protagonists of This Is Not A Love Story, and part of her longs to write a sequel. “After all, there’s going to be a wedding. And who doesn’t want to write about a full-on Jewish wedding?” I can’t wait.
This is Not a Love Story by Keren David is published by Atom Books at £6.99