Tuesday, July 10, 2012

YA Around the World: Australia

Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Location: Australia
Hello! My name is Danielle and I head a little blog called ALPHA reader. Today I have the great, nerve-racking honour of writing about the books of my home – Australia.

Now my homeland has produced some truly incredible things over the years, like: the Hills Hoist. Tim-Tams. Black box flight recorder. Ryan Kwanten’s abs . . . but I’m definitely, hands down and without a doubt proudest of our brilliant authors and impressive book lists.  

It was incredibly kind of Sara to invite me onto her blog to discuss a bookish topic that’s very close to my patriotic heart . . . I’m still not entirely convinced that I’m the right person for the job, but I can promise that below is a little bit of honest writing about some books and authors that are very dear to me. And if I inspire any of you to go forth and read an Australian YA book, then I’ll consider this a job well done!

In keeping with the Australiana theme, you’ll find that my subject-headers are all Paul Kelly song titles (a great Aussie song-writer and musician- seriously, look him up!). I use a few specific Aussie YA books as examples throughout this post, but I couldn’t detail ALL of my favourite titles. So I have also provided book suggestions from a few of the major Australian publishing houses – sorry if these break your TBR piles, but they’re seriously all worth checking out and I have probably unintentionally skipped a few gems (sorry in advance!).

Now, without further ado I give you my thoughts on what makes Australian young adult literature unique and internationally respected. As our anthem goes, ‘Australians all let us rejoice / For we are young and free!’ (I’m pretty sure that line is about our young adult books – but I could be wrong)  
Be Careful What You Pray For  
The Young Adult genre, on the whole, is the ‘trendiest’ of all the literary genres. It’s probably because YA birthed many a bestseller and some of the biggest movie-adaptation blockbusters of the last few years (Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight to name a few). For that reason, there definitely seems to be a bandwagon that follows after a book’s huge success – and a slew of similarly-themed novels, all with the tagline ‘If you liked ____ then you’ll love this!’ Except you don’t really see that happening with Australian YA. This could be for a number of reasons, and I’m sure some people would even debate with me that lots of Aussie books have followed literary trends set by overseas counterparts. But on the whole, I would say Australian YA publishers refrain from ‘going with the flow’, perhaps because we have a smaller market that simply can’t keep up with the rapidly changing US/UK bestseller scene (one day it’s boy wizards, the next it’s sparkly vampires!) so they simply choose what works over what’s hot. And I think that has made all the difference… 

When Stephenie Meyer resurrected vampires in 2005, I was one of (I’m sure) many paranormal fans who was desperately hoping that an Australian YA author would likewise tackle the fang-gang. Oh, sure, Aussie teen readers embraced the likes of Richelle Mead, Rachel Caine and Heather Brewer, but I think we really wanted a vampire tale to call our home-grown own. But when Kirsty Eagar’s ‘Saltwater Vampires’ came out in 2010, I think there was a collective shout of “Ahaaaaa!” This was why we waited so long – this book wasn’t just another churned-out vampire novel. It was a fantastic Gothically-Aussie ode to bloodsuckers that transformed the iconic Australian beach into a horror setting, and turned surf-bum teenagers into reluctant heroes. Instead of following the procession of sparkly vampires in 2005, we waited for an incredible and truly Australian vampiric tale, and it was definitely worth the wait.

The same can be said of the growing ‘Dystopia’ trend. Australian YA readers have a  great love for Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Ally Condie’s Matched and Veronica Roth’s Divergent, to name a few. But Katniss came along in 2008, and it wasn’t until 2011 that Australia got our own little slice of the dystopian pie with Alison Stewart’s Days Like This. And, as with Eagar, I definitely think that it was worth the wait. Rather than following trends straight out of the gate, we got Stewart’s complex and brilliant story, which saw Sydney turned into a fountain-of-youth war zone and had over-arching themes and undercurrents of communist Berlin and South African apartheid.  

I would definitely debate that our smaller publishing market means editors and readers look for value over what’s in literary vogue, and I think our impressive booklists reflect the wisdom of that approach.
The Oldest Story in the Book 
I’m really quite proud of the way that Australian publishers don’t pigeonhole their children's and young adult authors. I say *publishers*, because I think that readers aren’t always so open-minded (at least at first – they really just need a bit of coaxing) but our publishers really do let authors break away from their genre/readership/backlist and take risks. 

Markus Zusak is a perfect example. Those who are fans of his incredible novel, The Book Thief may not know this, but Zusak actually started out writing young adult contemporary novels. His first three books, Underdogs, Fighting Ruben Wolfe and When Dogs Cry, released between 1999 and 2001, were all young adult books which received much critical acclaim. In 2002, Zusak wrote I am the Messenger, another YA novel which won the Australian Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Award in 2003. And then in 2005, The Book Thief was released. So completely different from his previous novels, it is set during World War II in Nazi Germany and absolutely took the publishing world by storm. Zusak had incredible success with all of his previous contemporary books, so it was great that when he came out with a harrowing novel set during WWII, that was so completely different to his backlist, his new creative direction was embraced and paid off (ten-fold!).

Then there’s Melina Marchetta. Her first novel Looking for Alibrandi was published in 1992, and kick-started her career as one of Australia’s most beloved YA authors. She followed-up the success of ‘Alibrandi’ with ‘Saving Francesca’, an equally beloved novel which also found great success overseas. Marchetta writes incredible contemporary YA novels that are about messy lives, first loves and fractured families. She really speaks to an entire generation of Australian teenagers, particularly because she taps into Australia’s melting-pot culture, with many of her characters being third-generation Australian’s who deal with being part of two cultures while sometimes feeling ostracized from one or both. In 2006, though, Marchetta wrong On the Jellicoe Road, which was a real departure from her previous novels in that it was a backwards-and-forwards narrative about school turf wars with a slowly unfolding mystery at its center . . . Initially I think readers who went into Jellicoe hoping for another Alibrandi or Francesca were disappointed and resisted Marchetta’s very different third novel. But Jellicoe Road is now arguably Marchetta’s most popular book – especially after it received wide critical and popular acclaim in America and in 2009 won the prestigious Printz award. By Jellicoe there was no doubt that Marchetta was the queen of contemporary YA. That’s probably why many readers and faithful fans raised their eyebrows when, in 2008, Marchetta released Finnikin of the Rock – the first in her epic fantasy trilogy, Lumatere Chronicles. Yes, that’s right – the queen of contemporary wrote a high-fantasy series about the displaced Lumatere kingdom . . .  again, I would say that her publishers embraced Marchetta’s genre-change, while readers took a little while to get on board. But, just as she proved with Jellicoe, Marchetta’s core themes of family, displacement and home carried through beautifully to the fantasy world, and now the third and final book in the series, Quintana of Charyn is arguably one of 2012’s most anticipated novels.

I think it’s wonderful that Australian publishers encourage their authors to break out of the boxes they have written themselves into. Our publishers don’t seem to demand that authors stick to their established winning genre or readership. I’m forever grateful that they see the wisdom of taking each new manuscript based on its own merit, as opposed to how it fits into an authors backlist.
How to Make Gravy 
Pssssst! Do you really want to know why Australia has such highly-acclaimed, popular young adult authors? I’ll tell you. It’s a secret, and I might lose my citizenship, but I think you have a right to know . . .  we start them writing young.

No, really, it’s true.

Isobelle Carmody, author of the Obernewtyn Chronicles published her first novel in 1987 – when she was still in high school.

Sonya Hartnett, author of About a Boy and The Midnight Zoo was a child prodigy author – publishing her first novel in 1994, at the tender age of thirteen.

Alexandra Adornetto, author of the best-selling Halo and Strangest Adventures books decided to write her first novel when she was thirteen, as something to do over the school holidays (as you do). It took Harper Collins just twenty-four weeks to get back to her, asking to publish her first book. The Shadow Thief was published in 2007, when Adornetto was fifteen.

And then there’s Steph Bowe, whose debut 2010 novel Girl Saves Boy was published when she was just sixteen-years-old.

(Editors Note: Does anyone else feel really unaccomplished? Anyone?)

Yes. Australia is practically brimming with child author prodigies. Look out for an upcoming picture-book whose author was still in the womb when they wrote the first draft . . . I’m kidding! (or am I?)

I personally think it’s wonderful that there doesn’t appear to be any sort of ‘ageism’ in Australian publishing – again, our publishers seem to take on authors based on the merit of the work, as opposed to their age and qualifications.
Everybody Loves You Baby
So, all of the above discussions are just my own personal musings about what I think makes Aussie YA so darn great . . . I might be ridiculously wrong and I welcome people’s alternative opinions or out-right criticisms. But there’s one point I'd like to make that I don’t think can be disputed. And I defy anyone who refutes me when I say one of the absolutely certain reasons why Aussie YA is so bloody brilliant is simply that . . . it’s Australian. 

I truly believe that the young adult literature of any country is vital, because it’s meant to reflect the stories of a generation. It's about holding a mirror up, finding a spark and a connection, recognizing a little of yourself in the stories and setting. It's that 'aha!' moment, when you're sure the author is writing about you and yours, the possibility that this story could be set in your hometown and you recognize a character from your own group of friends. So I am incredibly grateful that so many Australian authors understand the vital importance of writing about this sunburnt country . . .    

When Australian books are sold overseas there’s usually an editing process in which the ‘Aussie-ness’ is taken out and the story is edited for more universality. Melina Marchetta actually wrote something funny about this for the Penguin Teen Australia blog last year (http://penguinbtl.blogspot.com.au/2011/09/melina-marchetta-on-saving-francesca.html), when she said that after she did a reading of Saving Francesca in the US, a reader approached her and said how odd it was to hear Francesca with an Aussie accent, protesting, "Oh no, Francesca’s a Chicago girl."

But, honestly, I have friends from overseas who have read original Australian YA books, and they have enjoyed them even more for all the little Aussie quirks that arise in the reading. I've had to school some US reader friends on what a ‘wog’ is (FYI: depending on context, sometimes derogatory; the term is a pejorative for migrants from the Mediterranean) and what exactly it means to ‘go walkabout’ (originally referred to a rite of passage during which male Australian Aborigines would undergo a journey during adolescence. It has also been adopted in a modernized context – often in describing young adults who take a year abroad after finishing high school to go backpacking etc). 

Yes, I understand that for marketing and readability reasons Australian books sold overseas are edited for less-Aussie, more universality. But, by gosh, I do love that our authors know the importance of writing about home.
So you’ll find yourself reading Aussie books in which . . .
·         a bunch of teenagers road-trip with a very special package to Lavender Bay in New South Wales (Gabrielle Williams’s The Reluctant Hallelujah),
·         a young liberal and his hippy grandfather take an epic drive from Sydney to Uluru (Phillip Gwyne’s Swerve),
·         a group of teens spend a night in Melbourne looking at masterpiece-graffiti and figuring out who they are, and who they’re not (Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon),
·         a group of friends sing a rendition of Paul Kelly’s ‘How To Make Gravy’ at Sydney’s Union Hotel (Melina Marchetta’s The Piper’s Son)
·         and at a Northern Beach, a boy with synaesthesia tells a broken girl that he sees her true colours (Kirsty Eagar’s Raw Blue).

Thank you so much, Danielle, for this fantastic post! 
I think it's great that Aussie publishers choose quality over trendiness. What do you guys think? Should American publishers do more of that? Or do you feel they don't follow enough trends?

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