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Young Love: championing Australian Young Adult fiction

Read Thursday, 27 Aug 2015

Young adults, more than any other group of readers, are choosing blockbuster American fiction over work from local writers. Considering that Australian YA fiction is otherwise in great shape, is the problem a lack of awareness? Ellie Marney – one of Australia’s best-selling YA authors – explores grassroots initiatives, like #LoveOzYA, designed to encourage teen readers to value and champion Australian writing.

Illustration: Connor O'Brien
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In May, when the Australian Library Information Association released its ‘most-borrowed books’ list, it threw light on what young Australians are reading – but the findings weren’t encouraging for local writers and publishers. Of the top ten most-borrowed Young Adult titles in Australian libraries, only two were works by local writers. Overwhelmingly, it seems, local teenagers are reading internationally-based – and predominantly American – authors. The fact that the statistics came from libraries was even more revealing, because public libraries are environments where teenagers have relative autonomy over their reading choices. Even if you remove factors like cost, Australian teenagers are still choosing stories from elsewhere.

Maybe, one argument runs, it’s a good thing that Australian teenagers are looking beyond their own shores. Or maybe it’s only to be expected that teens seek out stories far removed from their own experience. Isn’t the desire to roam, after all, one of the hallmarks of youth? Isn’t it natural for teen readers to seek out stories set in far-flung realms, or on other planets, or in the back streets of busy cosmopolitan cities, or with characters who live large as space marines, or dancers, or detectives – roles that teenagers can only aspire to?

The truth, though, is that Australian YA authors write all these stories and more. Australian YA is not parochial or limited in scope, but multi-faceted and wide-ranging. Apparently, though, even if you poured books on top of their heads, Australian teenagers would still reach for overseas literature to hear those stories told.

Which is a quandary.

Despite all their great work, what are local authors and publishers doing wrong?  If you look at the issue closely … nothing. Australian YA fiction is some of the best in the world, by all reports – but because Australian books compete in our market with overseas titles, the odds could be stacked as high as nine-to-one against, in terms of the sheer quantity of books on shelves. That’s pretty solid competition. It’s not great for the health of local publishing, and as YA author Emily Gale ominously points out, ‘if Australia can’t look after its nice things, it won’t get to keep them’.

It also means that local teenagers are passing over quality YA literature because the sheer volume of publicity for overseas fiction, with movie tie-ins and posters on buses, makes less well-publicised local voices hard to hear. As Pip Harry (author of Head of the River) suggests, ‘Ultimately, if we feed our young adults only a diet of big name international YA books, they miss out on experiencing the equally thrilling literary worlds that are right on their doorstep.’ 

Probably the most significant issue is, if Australian teenagers are primarily reading overseas YA, they are rarely seeing themselves reflected in the literature they read. When a number of the authors longlisted for the teen-judged Inky awards were asked why it’s important that Australian teenagers have access to locally-produced YA fiction, the answers were largely unanimous.

‘There’s nowhere remotely like Australia in the entire world,’ points out Rebecca Lim, author of The Astrologer’s Daughter. ‘It’s not just our contested history… Our population has literally battled the elements and crossed cultures to get here and make a life. So it’s vital that Australian teens see themselves – whatever their background and “baggage” – represented in their own bookshops and libraries.  To see your own life reflected back at you through the lens of Australian fiction means that you are not invisible. You are valued.’

Of equal importance, Nona & Me’s Clare Atkins explains, is the impact this will have on our long-term cultural future: ‘It’s vital for Australian teenagers to be able to read Australian stories and see an image of how things currently are, because the teenagers of today will decide what the Australia of tomorrow looks like.’

Perhaps if we throw some energy into supporting the YA literature that’s being written in this country, the next time we ask teenagers what they like to read, the answer will be ‘something local’.

Right now, the Australia of tomorrow – as seen through the eyes of local teenage readers – looks predominantly … American. But things are changing. Grassroots campaigns like #LoveOzYA are working to increase the visibility of Australian-produced books for teenagers, while organisations like the Centre for Youth Literature are doing their utmost to promote a local vision. CYL advocates for youth literature on boards and committees, as well as coordinating the biannual national YA conference, Reading Matters. They also run the Inky Awards, which highlight the best YA releases of the year as decided by teens for teens, and the Inside A Dog youth literature website. The emphasis, points out CYL coordinator Adele Walsh, is on championing Australian YA, and making sure that teenagers have their say: ‘Teens aren’t a passive audience, they want to be involved.  Presuming what teens want or how they think is a mistake but it is easily avoided – ask them.’

Perhaps if we throw some energy into supporting the YA literature that’s being written in this country, the next time we ask teenagers what they like to read, the answer will be ‘something local’.

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