I was fortunate to be part of the children’s and YA literature panel at the inaugural ‘Share the Vision: Teachers and Librarians Symposium 2019’ at the State Library of Queensland this week. The program and presenters are on the website.
The wonderful @RhiannaPatrick from ABC Radio chaired our panel.
Here are Rhianna’s questions and some of my responses:
1)What’s been your involvement in the YA space?
My vocation is to promote quality children’s and young adult literature – particularly Australian books – to its target readers, and also to the wider community so these excellent books have further exposure and so that the community will see and recognise their value.
To achieve this I have worked as consultant for independent bookstores in Queensland and NSW and judged a number of awards including the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and Queensland Literary Awards (current). I interview authors at writers’ festivals, Magpies magazine and for this blog, PaperbarkWords; present at national and international conferences and other forums; and review for Magpies, specialist journals and my YA lit column at the Weekend Australian newspaper.
2)How do you approach finding those books that you review? (why do you pick what you pick)
I read an enormous amount – hundreds of books each year – to find the best. I prioritise Australian books but read and review from overseas as well.
I’m looking for freshness, something different e.g. different voices, including debut voices, and possibly some experimentation.
The books I select must be engaging for their target readership, including humorous books. I don’t promote books that are dull.
I do look for quality and also literary merit. I love sensory, lyrical, poetic writing.
Contemporary realism is widespread in YA so I select books with heart and soul from this genre.
I also read widely across, and enjoy, genre fiction, ranging from YA thrillers to speculative and historical fiction.
The writing is very important to me so I look for a great writing style – often for something different and interesting – and writing that is sustained to the end of the book. The ending must work and not be a letdown.
Finally, I look for authentic characterisation.
3)You’re quite passionate about books which explore refugees and displaced children – in terms of books in this space, what do you recommend?
I’ve written about this in Megan Daley’s excellent Raising Readers.
I was perhaps first dragged into awareness about this issue by Morris Gleitzman’s Boy Overboard. Rather than a written report or a news feature, the story here enabled me to develop greater insight, understanding and empathy.
I recommend the following new and recent books (among many other high quality Australian titles):
Books set in detention centres:
Detention by Tristan Bancks
Wisp by Zana Fraillon and Grahame Baker-Smith
The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
(Zana has also written The Ones That Disappeared about displaced children and child trafficking)
Between Us by Clare Atkins
Books set in Australia:
Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai
Songbird by Ingrid Laguna
The Wilder trilogy by Mark Smith
Blossom by Tamsin Janu
On the Way to Australia:
Peapod Lullaby by Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King
Waves by Donna Rawlins, Mark Jackson and Heather Potter
Set in Pakistan:
Novels by Rosanne Hawke about displaced children, including trafficked children
Out of the Box:
Cicada by Shaun Tan (open-ended and could be about any displaced child or adult)
4) Where does YA sit in Australia at the moment? (what are you observing? Trends? Thoughts?)
Sales in YA are decreasing at the moment.
Some YA authors are moving down age groups and writing middle fiction or for children. These include:
Pip Harry with The Little Wave
YA thriller writer Fleur Ferris with Nallaboo Hallabaloo
Claire Zorn, one of our finest YA authors has a picture book on the way, No Place for an Octopus.
Other authors are writing up for the adult market. These include:
Marcus Zusak who began his career writing YA, then wrote The Book Thief, a crossover YA/adult. His latest novel, Bridge of Clay is literary fiction.
Perhaps our most iconic YA author is Melina Marchetta. Her two most recent novels are for adults.
On the US fantasy front, Leigh Bardugo’s upcoming novel is for adults, and mega-sellers Sarah J. Maas and Cassandra Clare’s first novels for adults are on the way.
The YA market is also impacted by lack of male protagonists, so our young male readers are being lost.
I am assuming and hoping that this current decline is cyclic, perhaps in the way that Australian picture books slumped a few years ago but are now very strong, and world class, again.
5)What are the challenges for YA? What are the challenges for Australian YA?
Internationally, YA sales have also dropped, with UK sales falling before ours.
This is partly because there is a dedicated band of YA readers who are now in their early twenties and, while they are still reading YA, they are looking for other reads that match their current life experience.
This is causing a gap in the buying market.
Teens who read YA are school students and the readers are usually frantically busy with study. In their downtime, they are often choosing screens over books.
Now and in the future, I believe that authors need to keep writing great YA. They need to stay true to themselves.
They could also try exploring and breaking boundaries.
Hybrid genres Blend genres, e.g. contemporary realism and speculative fiction; incorporate some magic realism or verse into contemporary realism
Experimental writing Brontide by Sue McPherson is a good example of recent experimental fiction. She has written fictional interviews as though they are real, with herself as the intrusive interviewer.
Play with structure and literary techniques e.g. framing stories (story inside a story); metafiction or dramatic irony.
Play with characters e.g. unreliable narrators; more characters from diverse backgrounds and experience
Play with language e.g. Shaun Tan employs a stilted voice to match the character of cicada in Cicada. Try this with other characters, where appropriate.
Verse novels and graphic novels can be perfect reads for the time-poor.
6) What own voices/diversity reads you’d suggest/recommend?
I’ve been a big promoter of books published by Magabala Books (Australia’s leading Indigenous publisher) for many years and favourite authors and illustrators from there include Dub Leffler and Bruce Pascoe. Dub illustrated one of my all-time favourite picture books, Once There Was a Boy and is currently CBCA shortlisted for Sorry Day. He also did the amazing illustrations for the shortlisted Black Cockatoo.
Amongst other own voices, I’ve promoted Asian-Australian writing for many years, often from the first book published by creators such as Wai Chim, Oliver Phommavanh, Gabrielle Wang, Leanne Hall, Remy Lai, Alice Pung and Shaun Tan.
In the US, African-American writer Angie Thomas is trail-blazing with The Hate U Give and On the Come Up and Dominican-American Elizabeth Acevedo is the first writer of “colour” to win the prestigious Carnegie Medal for The Poet X. Her new work is With the Fire on High.
15 second book pitch
I pitched My Father’s Shadow by debut author, Jannali Jones (Magabala Books).