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.

9781925266115

S.A. Jones

Light and Shade: Myfanwy Jones’ Leap

Grief, like depression, is potentially difficult material for a novelist to handle. To feel real, the reader has to be close enough to feel the raw, howling pain. But the reader needs reprieve too. It’s a balance of light and shade that Myfanwy Jones pulls off in her second novel, Leap. Read more »

the-story-of-the-lost-child

Kill Your Darlings

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

Looking for a book recommendation? After a busy month dominated by the Melbourne Writers Festival’s huge range of events, staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading. Read more »

daniel-handler

Kate Harper

‘I think about terrible things happening’: An interview with Daniel Handler

Given the current age of acute media-fuelled panic over childhood trauma and accidentally fucking them up, Daniel Handler’s (aka Lemony Snicket) dastardly depictions of children fighting to survive can be read as tales of wonder. Kate Harper chats to Handler ahead of his upcoming Melbourne appearances. Read more »

One-Direction

Rebecca Shaw

Right Direction: The value of fandom

I have a pop-culture confession to make to you, Internet. It isn’t something I’ve been trying to keep hidden for fear of seeming uncool, because that ship sailed long ago. But it is something I haven’t opened up about until this point. I, Rebecca Shaw, have become a One Direction fan. Read more »

abortion

Rebecca Shaw

Choice Without Stigma: Dismantling the abortion taboo

Abortion is still illegal in the criminal code in Queensland – even in this, the Year of Our Beyoncé 2015. While women are unlikely to face practical obstacles to abortion due to the law, it can still cause isolation and unnecessary fear, and creates a stigma around the act. Read more »

17177200132_2383e88c36_k

Rebecca Shaw

Rage Against the Marriage: The inanity of same sex marriage debate in Australia

I am someone who is completely comfortable in my sexuality, and who classifies myself as the genus Lesbionisos. I am 100% certain that I am not abnormal, an abomination, or in any way inferior to heterosexual people. Sometimes I even secretly think non-heterosexuals might be superior. But I haven’t always been this assured. Read more »

The_Gift_2015_Film_Poster1

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 »

wolfpack-1024

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 »

f9a2809e-97eb-400d-b491-b4b6a6f09930-2060x1236

Clem Bastow

Telling Stories: Women screenwriters and the obligation to represent

There is something in the recent call to arms for female writers and directors to ‘tell your story’ that leaves me feeling bereft, not vindicated. The idea that As A Woman I must write about women first and foremost is a special kind of hell. Read more »

actf_rtt2_hero

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 »

golden-age-of-television

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 »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

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 »

Edinburgh

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 »

Resized__863

Jane Howard

A Mess of a Brain: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

In some ways it seems like an impossible task to take Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and translate it to any other art form. How to find a life for a book that is so internal, so unrelenting, in anything other than the pure words of its narrator as they appear on the page? Read more »

Keith - photo Shane Reid

Jane Howard

Local Courage, Global Reach: The National Play Festival

There is something to be gained from observing any collection of works in close proximity, and in these readings you could see the way Australian playwrights are reaching out into the world. Together, these works show the minds of our playwrights in robust health, with works that are itching to find their audience. Read more »