Advertisement

KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

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.




  • 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.

  • 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.

22454066

Jacinta Halloran

Medicine as Art: An interview with Terrence Holt

Internal Medicine turns on its head the commonly-held wisdom of power and control in the doctor-patient relationship. Holt’s doctor-narrator is conflicted and questioning, often exhausted and confused. His writing aims for something less slick than the sanitised television offerings of medical melodramas, where ‘what entertains usually falsifies.’ Read more »

2303400407_d25f8d8b8a_o

James Tierney

What Australian Literary Conversation?

I am concerned about the absence of a performative aspect of criticism in the public domain, which doesn’t necessarily assume specialised knowledge or recognised allegiances, but is prepared to discuss what criticism is. Read more »

9781847086273

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their picks

Is your to-read pile looking particularly uninspiring at the moment? Or maybe you’ve just finished a novel and aren’t quite sure what to read next. Never fear! The staff from Readings bookshop have your back. Here they share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »

gbbo

Rebecca Shaw

Crumbling the Great Wall of Heteronormative Assumption

You are just there to see a doctor, or have a haircut, when all of a sudden you are reminded that you are different. You are forced to come out to strangers over and over again. You are required to either refute their assumptions and risk having an awkward or unpleasant discussion with a stranger about your personal life, or you are forced to lie. Read more »

6314976-3x2-940x627

Rebecca Shaw

Out of Alignment: Religion, politics and priorities

Throughout your (hopefully long) life, you will often be forced to prioritise one thing over another thing.
Because we make these decisions based on what we personally think is important or morally right, the things other people choose to prioritise can be confusing or upsetting to us. I find this happens regularly when bearing witness to what some religious people or religious groups choose to place importance on. Read more »

Rebecca Shaw

TERF War: Transphobia in the LGBTQI community

I started to realise that I was ‘not like other girls’ about the time I hit puberty. From that point on I underwent an extensive and daunting process to emerge from my closeted cocoon into the beautiful lesbian butterfly I am today. An important part of that development was realising – mostly via the Internet (or very occasionally through people I met in real life) – that there were people like me all over the world. Read more »

anne-dorval-and-antoine-olivier-pilon-in-xavier-dolans-mommy

Joanna Di Mattia

All About His Mother: Xavier Dolan’s fierce women

Xavier Dolan has created an exuberant body of cinema that privileges women (and others on the margins) as complex, chaotic beings. Dolan’s fierce mothers are cleaved from the pedestal that so much of cinema places them on, so that they may dig around in the dirt that is life. Read more »

every-day-2012-005_cmyk

Anwen Crawford

Being Boring: Passing time with the films of Michael Winterbottom

What does it mean to film the same performers over the course of years, to have them age in front of the camera? Everyday pays careful attention to boredom, and at moments it manages to capture a sense of time that is both elusive and profound. Read more »

flock_roof

Anwen Crawford

Don’t be Sheepish: Why Ewe Should See Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep Movie is the latest feature-length production from Aardman Animations (the folk who brought us Chicken Run), and it is a delight. Borrow a young relative for cover if you must, but believe me, you are not too cool for a kid’s movie when it’s this much fun. Read more »

TheSlap_Show

Genevieve Wood

The Slap: What’s lost when a cricket bat becomes a baseball bat?

‘A cricket bat wouldn’t make sense in an American context’, says Tony Ayres, executive producer of the US adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s right, of course – it wouldn’t. But when, in US playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s version, the eponymous slap occurs as the result of a swinging baseball bat, something’s not quite right. Read more »

empire-tv-review-fox

Anwen Crawford

Rise of an Empire

Watching Empire, I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. Read more »

video-undefined-22D54AFA00000578-784_636x358

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Insufferable assholes and grown up Girls

Yes, our girls are growing, learning, discovering. But all they’re really discovering is how toxic and unheroic they are, and how to use that to their advantage. They’re not going to grow out of their asshole tendencies, because they are actually assholes. Read more »

DUKMRUTRHLU31425064919799

Katie Williams

The Currency of Games: The real world cost of in-game purchases

A new item introduced in World of Warcraft lets players purchase a month of playing time for the real-life price of $20, which they can then sell to other players in-game in exchange for virtual currency. It’s an exchange of real money for a virtual currency that has in-game value but none in the physical, ‘real’ world – and it makes me incredibly uneasy. Read more »

2011 Jesse Knish Photography

Katie Williams

Pilgrimage to San Francisco: Power and Privilege at the Game Developers Conference

Attendees talk about the annual pilgrimage to the Game Developer’s Conference with the same reverence as a child’s first trip to Disney World. It’s the Magic Kingdom for adult nerds. The weeks leading up to the conference are full of discussion about which parties to attend, and how best to make an impression on people who could be useful in furthering your game development career. Read more »

jakobson0052

Katie Williams

Storytelling vs. interactivity: What makes a highbrow game?

What makes a game ‘highbrow’? We don’t have solid criteria for deciding conclusively which games are masterpieces, and which are just dumb, explosive fun. Read more »

2909252617_1f456d0c81_b

Jane Howard

A Working-Class Mythology: Ironing boards at the theatre

In theatre, there is perhaps no prop piece more mythologised than the ironing board, which came to signify the birth of contemporary British theatre. Read more »

ForceM6609

Jane Howard

Witness and Connection at Melbourne’s Dance Massive

In a city where it feels not a day goes by without an arts festival, or three, happening, Melbourne’s Dance Massive is resolutely unique. Australia’s largest dance festival is by necessity heavily reliant on Melbourne-based companies and shows that will go on to tour independently of the festival. The festival is undeniably of, and for, the dance sector in Melbourne. Read more »

16475519129_bb489cf4ce_o

Jane Howard

Creative Space: The secret power of community theatres

Theatre is inextricably tied to space, and the best theatre spaces become more than buildings. They become communities of like-minded people: of artists and of audience members, intermingling their ideas and their lives. Read more »