Advertisement

KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Column: Books and Writing

The dark divide of YA fiction

by Imogen , January 30, 20135 Comments

 

Last month an English teacher took to the The Age opinion page to shake his fist at the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) for including Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera on the Year 12 reading list.

Christopher Bantick’s biggest beef was the fact that the book depicts a sexual relationship between a septuagenarian man and a 14-year-old girl, and Bantick (unsuccessfully) argued against the book being included so shortly after the announcement of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. As Bantick said:

 

The selection panel that chooses the books, has shown gross insensitivity to the potential readers of the book; all the more so at a time when the Catholic Church, rightly, is facing public scrutiny over paedophilic behaviour by priests.

This seemed a huge contradiction to me – on the one hand he was saying it’s good that the investigations into Church abuse are being brought into the public sphere. Yet at the same time, he wanted to hide away a text that included sexual abuse of a minor because he thought it would bring up uncomfortable questions in the classroom.

The discussion about young people and shielding their reading provoked a similar outcry to that of a 2011 article written by Wall Street Journal reviewer, Meghan Cox Gurdon, who bemoaned the increasing darkness of YA books. Gurdon believed there was dishonesty in that darkness, saying: ‘Teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.’

Between Bantick and Gurdon you’d think that young people’s reading habits had to be bubble-wrapped both in the classroom and in their own readership – either because what they’re reading hits too close to home, or is so dishonestly distorted as to send them spiralling into dark reading depressions.

I’ve been thinking on this particularly because of two truly dark and sinister occurrences in the real world – the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the Steubenville rape case.

American author Kathryn Erskine was so affected by the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, that she was driven to understand how communities and families dealt with such a violent event. She wrote the beautiful and heartrending middle-grade fiction book Mockingbird in 2010, which concerns ten-year-old Caitlin desperately hunting for ‘closure’ after her older brother is killed in a school shooting. Erskine’s middle-grade book now reads with awful connections to Sandy Hook, particularly for the young age of the victims. I approached Erskine, asking her how Mockingbird may now feel like life imitating art.

 

I don’t believe it’s a case of life imitating art at all; rather, it’s art expressing what life has already done. There have already been middle school and elementary school shootings as well as high school, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. In such a sensitive area, I would be loathe to make up new situations. Since school shootings at all ages have already occurred, it’s something we need to deal with on a societal as well as an emotional level. In Mockingbird, I made sure that the terrible event had already occurred, and that references to it are introduced gradually so as not to be too frightening for young readers. It’s a book about dealing with the aftermath, the healing process, not the shooting itself. While my books tend to deal with heavy subjects, the point of them is always to give hope because it’s how we deal with horrific events that determines our humanity.

 

While Erskine’s middle-grade book intended to shed hope and healing on tragedy, Australian young adult author, Kirsty Eagar, provoked questions of sexual assault and victimhood in her 2009 debut Raw Blue. The novel is about a young woman called Carly, who has ground her life to a halt by escaping to the seaside town of Manly where she surfs, works a dead-end job and tries to forget the brutal rape that derailed her life two years ago.

 

 

Eagar’s novel is one of the most powerful and honest portrayals of a young woman living in the aftermath of rape. And when I asked Eagar to explain the impetus behind her novel, I was not at all surprised to discover that she wrote Raw Blue in light of disturbing real-life events.

 

Raw Blue was written in response to the high profile sexual assault cases covered by the Australian media in 2005 and 2006. I was struck by the lack of empathy for the girls involved, and I was furious about it. I’ve since received many emails from people who relate to the main character’s situation, but if anything I wrote the book to challenge attitudes. If you read that story there is no way you can dehumanise or objectify Carly, the main character. I didn’t want her to be some kick-arse ‘female role model’, and I didn’t want her to be an unknowable victim. I wanted her to be real. Relatable. She’s funny, quiet, hard-working, she surfs, she’s met a guy she likes, and she’s also trying to come to terms with her history. I understand the concern about ‘darkness’ in YA fiction, but I also feel that saying you can’t talk about certain topics is incredibly dangerous. Raising the difficult subjects, discussing them, helps to provide a context for some of the things that might be happening in readers’ lives, or to their peers. To me, the bigger question is the treatment not the topic.

 

Recent events in the world have made me angry, sad and pitifully sickened at the way human beings can treat one another. I’ve been reminded that there are more horrors in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. But such despair in reality suggests that there is a place for it to be read and tackled in young people’s fiction – where they’ll be encouraged to ask questions, have opinions and be moved to react.

 

Danielle Binks is a Killings columnist and book reviewer on her blog Alpha Reader, with a particular interest in children’s and young adult literature. She is also Digital Editor at Spinifex Press, and is currently working on her first young adult manuscript.




  • http://www.suzyvitello.com suzy vitello

    Danielle,
    Thank you for this post. Both novels mentioned here are important. Like Hals-Anderson’s SPEAK, they unpack the realities kids face in our present day, and give voice to the emotional landscape within.

  • http://teacherintherye.wordpress.com Philip

    An elegant post. Thanks especially for your clear thinking about censorship and its contradictions. I hadn’t crystallised my own thoughts in this way but, yes, it is absurd to propose less thinking about abuse while championing the royal commission.

  • http://www.koralydimitriadis.com Koraly Dimitriadis

    As a mother myself, I can understand people’s trepidation regarding YA but the truth is that they are exposed to a lot worse out there in the real world. At least within the confines of a novel, adult themes can explored and dealt with in a realistic way, so they reader can learn.

  • Pingback: On banning Macbeth | Teacher in the Rye

  • http://www.kamikinard.com kami

    Beautifully written.I am so thankful for the writers who can tackle these subjects and give voice to those terrorized and victimized, the writers whose words soothe and comfort and let readers know they are not alone.

Frances Abbott

David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

money

David Donaldson

When does lobbying become corruption?

Whether it’s Clive Palmer buying his way into parliament, the recent, varied ICAC revelations of dodgy fundraising in the NSW Liberal party, or the refusal or inability of successive governments to effectively tackle powerful corporate interests in industries like gambling, mining, media, and junk food, there is a feeling among many Australians that democracy is up for sale. Read more »

cluster munition

David Donaldson

How to make treaties and influence people

In an era when Russia can annex Ukrainian territory, when the Refugee Convention is regularly flouted, and when nobody seems to be able to do anything to stop the carnage in Syria, it can be tempting to ask: what can international law actually achieve? Read more »

The Fictional Woman

Carody Culver

Learning from semi-charmed lives

When famous public figures take a step further and use their personal experience as a literary vehicle for exploring wider social issues, I can happily check my celebrity memoir prejudice at the bookshop door. Read more »

My Salinger Year

Carody Culver

Searching for Mr Salinger

Joanna Rakoff’s book is ‘the truth, told as best [she] could’, of her year as an assistant at one of New York’s oldest literary agencies, a job for which many an Arts graduate would sell a kidney. Read more »

editing

Carody Culver

Giving voice to a silent profession

The role editors play in the process of ushering new writing into the world is both vitally important and strangely overlooked. Read more »

Mariah Carey

Is she Mariah, the ‘elusive’ chanteuse?

Two weeks ago, Mariah Carey launched her fourteenth studio album, Me. I am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. Yes, that’s the real name, and it’s hilarious not only because the title is so long and happily shameless but because Mariah has long styled herself as one of the least elusive pop stars in the pop music galaxy. Read more »

Douglass books

Julia Tulloh

High fantasy writers who aren’t George RR Martin, and who are also women

‘Tolkien is the greatest burden the modern fantasy author must labour under and eventually escape from if they are to succeed.’ So wrote Australian high fantasy writer, Sara Douglass, a decade and a half ago. Replace Tolkien with George RR Martin, and one might say the same principle applies today. Read more »

Conchita Wurst

Julia Tulloh

Why Eurovision 2014 was a bit disappointing

No one watches Eurovision to discover surprise new talent, or even to hear good singing. I watch it for the kitschy, pop-tastic visual onslaught which rarely fails to assault viewers. Read more »

Happy Christmas

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Joe Swanberg’s Real Women

In Happy Christmas, the female characters are a pleasure to watch, largely because they’re so familiar in life and so rarely depicted on screen. Read more »

Gabrielle

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Beyond tics, limps and prosthetics

Think of a disability – mental or physical – and there’s sure to be a film that features it. What about giving big roles to actors who actually live with the disability they’re depicting? Now that would be authentic. Read more »

Under the Skin

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Size Matters

Bigger isn’t always better, but some films will open themselves up to you and pour themselves out in new ways when you see them on a cinema screen. Read more »

5881861191_90de8b5bc9

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Making trolls eat their words

If we’re not conscious of a troll’s desired response, we risk inadvertently encouraging further trolling by allowing ourselves to be played. Read more »

filter

Reality vs. Instagram

It’s been over three years since Instagram launched, and we’re still not sure whether processing a photograph might be considered akin to doctoring a memory. Read more »

2014 Budget

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Could we crowdfund the dole?

Following the announcement of the 2014 budget, the director of a leading arts organisation posed a question on Facebook: ‘What recourse do the people have to stop these changes? What are next steps? Would be curious to know of any other effective measures to get the message across… apart from complaining on Twitter.’ Read more »

tumblr_inline_n6wz16ohb91r8e10g

Danielle Binks

YA is the New Black

Apparently those of us who do read and enjoy youth literature should be ‘embarrassed’. At least that’s what Ruth Graham said in her recent clickbait article for Slate, ‘Against YA’. Read more »

A Little Pretty Pocket Book

Danielle Binks

Who run the book world? GIRLS!

‘It’s no wonder boys aren’t reading – the children’s book market is run by women.’ So claimed the headline of an April article in The Times.

*Cue Liz Lemon eye-roll* Read more »

The Fault in Our Stars

Danielle Binks

The Fault in the Cult of John Green

I like John Green as much as the next YA-aficionado. I’ve snot-cried through his books, and chuckled over his YouTube videos. But now it’s time to talk about the media-led oversaturation of John Green, and the insulting way he’s been heralded as the saviour of young adult fiction. Read more »

splash

Chad Parkhill

Queering the Power: The Soft Pink Truth’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?

The Soft Pink Truth’s new album ‘Why Do the Heathen Rage’ demonstrates that despite their superficial differences, dance music and black metal have a lot in common. Read more »

The Knife

Chad Parkhill

Never Settled: The Knife’s Shaken-Up Versions

Making live electronic music engaging is a difficult task, and The Knife’s Silent Shout tour shows a band committed to breaking the visual cliché of performers standing still behind banks of electronic equipment. Read more »

Tori Amos

Chad Parkhill

Loving (and hating) Tori Amos

Tori Amos is hardly to blame for the existence of her fans’ expectations, nor for their disappointment when her work does not live up to them – but that doesn’t prevent that disappointment from feeling intensely personal. Read more »

Alg-90210-jpg

Stephanie Van Schilt

Sick-Person TV

The only upside to getting sick was the many afternoons I spent curled up on the couch at home, watching daytime TV. I inhaled the drama of pre-recorded episodes of Beverley Hills 90210 while playing with my Brandon and Dylan sticker collection (interspersed with sporadic vomiting). Read more »

The_Million_Dollar_Drop_logo

Nicholas J Johnson

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Nicholas J Johnson defends Lowbrow TV

I can’t stop looking at Eddie McGuire’s smug, stupid face. It’s not my fault. It’s just I’ve never been this close to the man before, and it’s not until now that I’ve realised how oddly smooth and tanned his skin is. As if someone has stretched the orange bladder from a football over a slab of marble. Read more »

deadwood-03-1024

Zora Sanders

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Zora Sanders defends Highbrow TV

I’m going to be honest with you. I feel a little guilty being gifted highbrow TV as a subject to defend. Highbrow TV doesn’t need a defender! It’s a battle that has been won! Highbrow TV is downright fucking awesome and every single person reading this already knows it. Read more »