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Column: Books and Writing

Why children’s and YA literature deserves more media attention

by Danielle Binks , December 17, 20136 Comments

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If you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, then please don’t judge a readership by the coverage it receives in the mainstream media. Earlier this month, Jonathan Myerson blundered his way into a Twitter backlash with his article ‘Children’s fiction is not great literature’ in which he puts forth the argument that only adult literature ‘confronts the range of human experience’. The best *drops mic, walks away* rebuttal to this came from young adult (YA) Carnegie award-winning author Patrick Ness.

Around the same time in Australia, Sue Williams, wrote about ‘sicklit’ in YA (an insulting label in itself) and received similar eye-rolling ire from YA-readers and authors alike. Never mind that the ‘sicklit debate’ is about 11 months old and publications that actually asked young readers what they thought did a better summation. This journalist lost any credibility when it became apparent that she hadn’t even bothered to read the blurbs of the books she was name-checking as ‘sicklit’ examples. Then there was The New York Times Book Review which last month released their list of ‘100 Notable Books of 2013‘. Unfortunately, their ‘Notable Children’s Books of 2013’ only listed 25 titles.

For a long time now children’s and YA literature has received little or sub-par coverage in the mainstream media. But in Australia at least, Nielsen BookScan statistics suggest a media revolution is needed to reflect the increasing importance and stability of children’s and YA book sales.

I’ve long thought that The Age and The Australian books pages should have a section dedicated to children’s/YA reviews and discussions. If the Australian Book Review could dedicate a little extra space or an entire issue to reviews and discussions of young adult and children’s lit, it would be a change welcomed by many publishers, book retailers and readers. Hell, while we’re at it, can the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards give the Prize for Writing for Young Adults the same six-book shortlist as the Prize for Fiction?

Michael Webster is Adjunct Professor of Media and Communication at RMIT University. Last month he was keynote speaker at the Small Press Network’s Independent Publisher’s Conference, discussing Nielsen BookScan findings. Sales reports for children’s and YA literature were particularly hardy — 2013 sales to November 11 showed that the number of children’s & YA books sold were up by 2.8% compared to the same period in 2012, which is impressive, with the category representing 46.4% of all bookshop sales, compared to 28% for non-fiction and 25% for fiction. Australian titles also enjoyed a healthy share of each category, with 47% of the children’s/YA titles sold by bookshops being locally published. Such findings suggest there is a strong argument to be made in favour of more children’s and YA discussion in the arts media. Michael Webster concurs: ‘It always amazes me that the category gets as little coverage as it does.’

Webster acknowledges that a change might be needed in the mainstream media, who seem to believe the ‘myth’ that children are not buying their own books: ‘The success of JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer certainly suggests that’s not the case.’ Webster also notes a strong case for The Age and the Australian to make more room for children’s and YA discussion, because even if their readers are in the 50+ demographic, ‘that’s the grandparent market, buying books for their grandchildren.’

I think it would be truly wonderful if The Age had a separate books section dedicated to commentary and reviews of children’s and YA literature. Literary editor of The Age, Jason Steger admits: ‘Maybe we could do more. But the problem is limited resources, space and budget.’ Ideally, he says, ‘It would be nice to review more. But not many children read newspapers.’

To be clear, Jason Steger has nothing against children’s and YA literature. ‘I have read the Harry Potter series, I read them to my children. And I read Sonya Hartnett, who’s enormously talented, and some others.’ Steger suggests that there could one day be a space for more extensive children’s and YA literature coverage via The Age online, but until then those readers are more likely to turn to local and school librarians for their recommended reading, and as such a dedicated books section for them is unlikely.

Kate Blackwood is editor of Junior Books+PublishingShe agrees that there is a good argument to be made for more coverage of children’s and YA literature: ‘At the celebration of her appointment at the Wheeler Centre last week, new Australian children’s laureate Jackie French said:  “Australian children’s publishing punches far above its weight in the world.” I think that was such a simple and true way of putting it. We need to celebrate this vibrant youth literature industry of ours by making sure we discuss and analyse it as part of our mainstream media coverage.’

Maybe not many children read newspapers, but it’s not just children who read children’s and YA literature either. New York Magazine released a nifty infographic that shows the majority of people purchasing YA books are aged 18-29 and 30-44. It’s further proof that we all read all books. The ‘children’s’ and ‘young adult’ labels are now just that — labels. Superfluous tags to help bring some order to bookstore and library shelves, a useless bit of metadata that signifies nothing.

But until mainstream media and certain arts publications realise the sense in offering more discussion and reviews of children’s and YA literature, can they at least refrain from offering us insulting jargon that only serves to highlight how little they know? Because what’s currently covered in the mainstream media is not a reflection of what the YA-community are discussing or even care about. Those immersed in the readership are thinking critically about ‘whitewashing’ and ‘The disappearance of race and ethnicity from YA covers.’ They’re looking to celebrate more diversity by ‘Making Room for Everyone: Gender Nonconforming and Transgender Characters in Middle Grade Novels’. Or examining how women’s reproductive rights are being explored in sci-fi-dystopias: ‘YA Lit, Roe v. Wade, and the Future of Girls’ Bodies’. Children’s and YA is a wonderful literary world — and these are the types of discussions such powerful books and their readers deserve.

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.  

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  • http://www.beantherereadthat.com Kate O’D

    Great article, Danielle, on a very frustrating topic.

    What baffles me is that the mainstream media doesn’t look to children’s and YA specialists for comment or insight.

    Really intelligent, engaged and eloquent kids lit specialists are not hard to find. At the very least, we have a Centre for Youth Literature there at the ready – and that’s not to mention the plethora of ace folks around on the webs.

    The fact that children don’t read newspapers is the most limp excuse for not reviewing more – their parents will, and what better place for these grown-ups who might not be reading kids and YA books to find more interesting titles for their children than the big blockbuster stuff?

  • http://Www.littlebookroom.com.au Leesa Lambert

    ‘Children don’t read newspapers’! Ergh! If they did they’d be better! We all have limited resources…

  • Stephen Turner

    Agree on all points, but it’s probably just another point in favour of new publications like KYD and others taking over from where the mainstream (and declining) news media refuse to go.

    Really, they’re using the “it’s not you, it’s us” defence, and it’s mostly true! But when most coverage that gets in is a variation on “YA is no good” it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

    • Danielle

      I agree, Stephen. It’s probably a reflection of the relationship between new media and youth that the best place to read and discuss children’s & YA literature is online. There’s a vibrant and thoughtful community of book bloggers, authors embrace communities like Tumblr and indeed, places like KYD are picking up the slack of ‘old media’.

  • Irma Gold

    Fantastic piece, Danielle. Agree with all your points and would like to add one more in response to Jason Steger’s comment (‘It would be nice to review more. But not many children read newspapers.’). Children might not, but their parents and grandparents (aka their book buyers) certainly do. The Canberra Times has a small section dedicated to children’s book reviews. It is limited, but at least it’s something.

    • Danielle

      Thank you, Irma and a very good point indeed!

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