Column: Books and Writing

The dark divide of YA fiction

by Danielle Binks , 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.

  • suzy vitello

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.


Chris Gordon

The Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown: Chris Gordon defends Last Day in the Dynamite Factory

At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defence of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Readings Events Manager Chris Gordon spoke in praise of Annah Faulkner’s novel Last Day in the Dynamite Factory. Read more »


Michaela McGuire

The Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown: Michaela McGuire defends Hot Little Hands

At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defense of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Writer and Emerging Writers’ Festival Director Michaela McGuire spoke in praise of Abigail Ulman’s short story collection, Hot Little Hands. Read more »


Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their September picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Playing It Straight: On queer actors, queer characters, and ‘bravery’

In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed an unwelcome trend reappearing; one I had hoped was long dead and buried, along with frosted tips. It is the discussion around whether queer actors can play heterosexual characters. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Girl Gang: The value of female friendship

For two years I was the only girl in my class, along with four boys. Perhaps this would have been some kind of fantastic Lynx-filled utopia for a boy-crazy pre-teen girl, but for someone who was just beginning to figure out that she didn’t like boys in the same way other girls seemed to, it wasn’t what you could call ideal. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Written On the Body: Fat women and public shaming

The policing and subsequent shaming of women’s bodies is not unique to famous women. It happens to all women. Feeling entitled to denigrate fat bodies, and fat women’s bodies in particular, is one of the last bastions of socially acceptable discrimination. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Throne Of Blood: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

For more than four centuries, we have found versions of ourselves in Shakespeare’s plays precisely because his characters are so human in their flaws and follies. At the same time, the arc of these characters’ stories unfolds somewhere above and beyond us, in the realm of grand tragedy or grand comedy, or both. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Memorable Chills: Edgerton’s Gift

The Gift is Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut — he also wrote, produced, and stars in it — and it bodes well for Edgerton’s directing career. A psychological thriller, The Gift is efficiently and quite memorably chilling, at least for the first half. Read more »


Joanna Di Mattia

Escaping The Wolfpack: Inside and outside the screen

The Wolfpack introduces us to the six Angulo brothers, who were kept virtual prisoners for 14 years in their Lower East Side apartment. More than a captivity narrative, this is a film about the influence of cameras and screens, and the transfixing, liberating power of cinema. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Jane Hone

How the Golden Age of Television Brought Us Back Together

I recently heard someone say that it used to be that at 6pm, everyone would sit down to watch The Cosby Show. It seemed at once a quaint and almost sci-fi notion ­– millions of people watching the same show at the same time. How things have changed. Read more »

glitch abc tv

Stephanie Van Schilt

A Glitch in the System: The ABC’s undead gamble

In one gasping breath, Glitch shows that the ABC is stumbling towards something beloved by TV audiences the world over, but that regularly eludes the Australian and film and TV industry: genre. And not just any genre, but the ‘return-from-the-dead’ zombie-style genre. Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Straight White Men - Public Theatre - Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Jane Howard

Unbearable Whiteness: Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men

Though I am delighted to see Young Jean Lee gain traction in Australia, a work by playwright who is a woman of colour should not be such a rare occurrence; nor should this only come in the form of a play that blends effortlessly into the fabric of the work that is programmed around it. Read more »


Jane Howard

Putting Words In People’s Mouths: Performing the unseen, speaking the unknown

‘Do you ever get the feeling someone is putting words in your mouth?’ A performer asks an audience member in the front row. ‘Say yes.’
‘Yes,’ comes the reply.
This theme ran through multiple shows at Edinburgh Fringe this year, where occasionally audience members, but more often performers, were asked to perform scripts sight unseen. Read more »


Jane Howard

The Impenetrable City: Getting lost at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I just saw a one-on-one performance piece that ended in my bursting into tears and the artist sitting with me and holding my hands in hers for maybe ten, maybe fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. We had a shared piece of history, and her work was delicate and took me by surprise, and I have a cold, and I am homesick, and I don’t know why I’m in Edinburgh, and I’ve cried a lot, and now I’m in a gallery because I couldn’t face another show. Read more »