KYDYAC – Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

by Stephanie Van Schilt , August 10, 201210 Comments

As the KYD YA Championship continues, YA expert Agnes Nieuwenhuizen argues her case for the influential teen text with heart, Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi.

One highlight of the upcoming 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival will be author Melina Marchetta introducing the movie of her novel Looking for Alibrandi. Given the increasingly brief shelf life of books, it is remarkable that a debut novel published in 1992 and its 2000 movie version are still being read, watched and celebrated – but above all, loved.

The first print run of Alibrandi, all those years ago, sold out in two months. It has been published in sixteen countries and translated into a dozen languages. It won the 1993 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) award for Older Readers. Of course, the film-of-the-book has only added to the novel’s life and popularity. The film won five AFI awards, and Marchetta won a NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the IF award for Best Screenplay, plus the Film Critics Circle of Australia Award. However, it is the novel’s enduring appeal that is most remarkable.

That Melina Marchetta, at the time a 28-year-old teacher who had originally left school at 15, delighted so many readers with a first novel is a feat. Let’s not forget, though, that while many authors and books benefit from editorial advice and close editing, few would receive the three years of nurturing offered to Marchetta by the then publisher at Penguin, Julie Watts, and her skilled, attentive  – and patient – editor, Erica Wagner (now at Allen & Unwin). Clearly both saw Looking for Alibrandi’s great potential. How many Alibrandis might we now lose because of a lack of time or resources in today’s tough world of publishing?

So what is Looking for Alibrandi’s secret? ‘Melannie’, a US teenage reviewer, wrote: ‘It’s a breath of fresh air to read about important stuff and not only about the boy on the football team or the hot guy next door.’ At the heart of many successful YA works that absorb teenagers are characters they can identify with; notions of change and transformation; the realisation that authors seem to ‘know’ how readers think and feel, and know what matters to them (the ‘important stuff’). Great YA authors also always take their readers seriously and never patronise them.

Josephine Alibrandi is a sassy final-year student somewhat out of place at her privileged Catholic girls’ school. Her life has been unusual and she has much to grapple with. She observes in her usual wry, sharp tone: ‘It’s an embarrassing contradiction when your mother gets pregnant out of wedlock because her Catholic upbringing prohibits contraception.’ She is very aware of her outsider status, being illegitimate and brought up by a single mother. Outsiders are another hallmark of YA works; remember S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, another stayer?

Alibrandi is a school story, a love story, a story of reconnecting with family (Josie meets her father sixteen years on), a story of intense and fraught friendships – with one encompassing a tragedy. It was – and remains – significant for its vivid portrayal of living within and between Australian and Italian cultures. The book sweeps readers along because of this rich content, but above all because of its fine, vibrant, direct storytelling and Josephine’s strong, engaging voice. What more could we want?

Few books survive the carnage of classroom dissection. Few readers remember with affection (or at all) a book they have had to ‘study’ and chew over for weeks or even months. Yet many students emerge from this experience still loving Alibrandi (To Kill a Mockingbird also seems to survive the classroom – so it’s in good company!). They walk away from this book talking and arguing about the characters as if they really knew them. Even more amazing is that their mothers, and even their fathers and other adults, devour the book too, which is why Penguin cleverly republished it showing the same cover girl in more sombre colours. Now new generations embrace and share the book. If you haven’t read it – do!

Agnes Nieuwenhuizen is a noted champion of books and reading for teenagers. After many years as a teacher, she founded the Youth Literature Program which metamorphosed into the Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria. Her last book, Right Book, Right Time (Allen & Unwin), contains over 500 lively recommendations for every taste and mood. Now officially retired, Agnes continues to review books for adults and teenagers and contribute to various publications.

If you want Looking for Alibrandi to win the KYD YA Championship, you can cast your vote for it here! Vote now and you can also go into the draw to win some amazing prizes.

  • Sean Condon

    It depresses the hell out of me that my YA book, Michael Sweeney’s Method, has utterly disappeared from the shelves and the cultural radar, despite being better than any other book of its genre published in the last decade or so. (If no-one else is gonna champion it – and clearly no-one is – I may as well step up myself.)

  • Danielle Binks

    “How many ‘Alibrandis’ might we now lose because of a lack of time or resources in today’s tough world of publishing?” – 100% agree.

    I love this championing of one of my all-time favourite books by a beloved author. I remember ‘Alibrandi’ as being one of the very first transitional books I read, moving away from middle-grade books towards young adult. And I remember feeling a visceral connection to Josie – I too was attending a private all girl’s school, and was third-generation Australian with a matriarch a lot like Josie’s grandmother. And I remember loving that I found so much of myself in this book – it’s probably what set me off looking for more YA books, for a similar connections.

    • Jordi

      Indeed, Danielle. Agnes hits on a very scary truth!

      Looking for Alibrandi always stuck with me for its beautiful touch in dealing with the timeless and turbulent emotions of being an outsider, in any sense of the word.
      What more could we want, indeed :)

  • Julia T

    I first read LFA as an 11 year old – I sneakily borrowed it from the “Grade 6 only” shelf in the school library, even though I was only in Grade 5. Of course, much of it was over my head at that age…though I felt such a connection that when I re-read it multiple times as a teenager, I absolutely loved it. Even now, my guts clench (in a good way) just thinking about this novel!

  • Fay

    I think I’ve read LFA at least once a year since I was 14 (ten years worth now!) It’s moving, passionate, funny, poignant and perfectly captures what it’s like to be a teenager. It’s the young adult book I compare all others to.

  • Judith Ridge

    I date my career in children’s and YA books more or less to the publication of Alibrandi. (It technically predates it slightly, but emotionally, this is Year Zero for me.) I did one of my first author interviews with Melina—one of her first, too!—and it was published in the first edition of Viewpoint.

    I can still recall how excited I was to read Alibrandi—it was such a breath of fresh air—and we must never forget what a rare phenomena it has been in this country, with the speed and passion it was taken up by readers of all ages (a cross-over novel before there was such a thing) and the way its succes opened up the YA publishing industry for so many others.

    So while there may be better written books—including all of Melina’s subsequent work—there may never be a better loved Australian YA book. Onya, Josie—yu’re a top chick and it’s a top book.

  • Adele

    As I have often said, Looking for Alibrandi is the novel that officially sucked me into the Australian YA orbit and fostered a love of Australian voice.

    Melina is truly impressive as she is an author who continues to challenge herself within the YA form whether it be the various time lines of On the Jellicoe Road, the various perspectives in The Piper’s Son or even tackling fantasy. Regardless of what Melina writes, you know her characters will burrow themselves into your heart.

  • lisa dempster

    I never had to read Alibrandi at school, as I read it when it first came out, before it was on the curriculum. I would have loved to though. I loved, loved, loved this book – a feeling lots of people obviously share. I went from kid’s books to grown up books and Alibrandi was one of first YA books I really read, opening up a new world, where the writing was just complex enough and the issues so, so real to me. I read this book so much and I loved its characters so deeply, I felt like I was a good friend of Josie’s, which is an amazing achievement for an author.

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