The way forward for #LoveOzYA

Earlier this week we hosted a lively discussion about the current state of Australian young adult fiction (or, OzYA) at our Hawthorn shop.

Panellists included editor Marisa Pintado (commissioning YA editor for Hardie Grant Egmont), author Melissa Keil (inaugural Ampersand Project-winning author of Life in Outer Space), librarian Susan La Marca (Head of Library and Information Services at Genazzano FCJ College) and blogger Danielle Binks (reviewer and blogger at Alpha Reader). The discussion was chaired by bookseller Isobel Moore (Children’s Specialist at our St Kilda shop).

Here’s a recap of the night.


KEY TAKEAWAYS


International YA vs. Oz YA

Marisa had some interesting insights. She said:

  • Australia YA fiction is very strong with stand-alone, literary works – the kind that win prizes. But it would be good to see more commercial fiction with heart coming out of our marketplace.
  • Australian publishers need to have an eye on whether a book will sell in the international market, because it’s hard to sustain a career in the Australian market alone.
  • The Australian YA market is crowded with 9 international buy-ins for every 1 Australian YA book published.
  • Cracking the US market is very challenging as they can be less open to receiving our homegrown stories. A great deal of editing typically goes on behind-the-scenes when Australian books are published in the US.

Danielle pointed out that Australian YA has a good reputation and is often seen overseas as one of the big three for YA fiction, along with the US and UK.

What do teenagers actually want?

Susan spoke about how the teenagers she works with (at an all girls school) want to be taken seriously. She said: they want a good story (genre is irrelevant); they want to be romanced but not condescended to; they expect strength of language and storytelling. The general consensus by all panellists was more – more diversity, more complexity. But, as was mentioned frequently, these savvy young readers want to see diversity represented as part of life, not as the entire hook of the story.

Diversity

This call for ‘more diversity’ was an important and complicated part of the discussion. Melissa talked about the need to encourage more diverse writers and editors to enter the industry. While she gives plenty of author talks, they’re usually to wealthy schools who can afford the time and expense of an author visit and she wondered who spoke to those children at schools without these resources. She feels that in order to inspire kids to be writers, authors need to be giving talks at the right schools – schools with diverse populations.

One audience member asked if the Australian marketplace was too small to tackle diversity and the general response was that it’s challenging but size is not a good enough excuse. As Danielle explained, the US YA marketplace also has trouble with diversity and they’re enormous.

Adults reading YA

While Melissa said she never writes for an adult audience as a YA author and Marisa said she doesn’t think about adults as a YA publisher, everyone on the panel agreed that nobody should buy into Helen Razor’s line that reading YA as an adult is childish. As Susan pointed out, there are picture books that everyone should be reading, let alone YA.

Despite this warm welcoming for adult YA fans, Danielle talked passionately about the need for teens to have their own spaces for engaging with YA, that aren’t crowded by adults. A space just for them to get excited and interact with each other, and maybe even their favourite authors. Here are some of the spaces and organisations (digital and physical) she recommended:

Censorship

Marisa spoke about how there is occasional resistance to her titles – for example, Erin Gough’s The Flywheel missed out on inclusion in one retailer’s catalogue because it features a romance between two girls. One of our favourite moments of the panel was when Marisa mentioned she was hesitating about using the ‘f-word’ in a YA book she was editing. ‘A man dies,’ Marisa explained, ‘and we’re worried about saying f**k’. Susan, our librarian representative, jumped in and said ‘oh use it!’.

Gatekeepers and discoverability

Susan said she dislikes the term ‘gatekeeper’. She explained her position as a school librarian: “There’s nothing I will not buy, however, every book is not for every student.‘ The panel also suggested you could view the term 'gatekeeper’ in a most positive light, in terms of discoverability. Librarians, reviewers, bloggers and booksellers are very important in terms of recommending new books to teen readers.

A few last-minute thoughts

  • Danielle said that YA fiction could do without neat, saccharine endings but that a sense of hope was a vital component.
  • Teens often gather reading recommendations from other teens so grassroots, word-of mouth movements (like #LoveOzYA) are extremely important.
  • When asked about writing advice, every single panellist said a version of: "Your first job is to tell a good story!”
  • #LoveOzYA was trending on twitter during the event and immediately following. You can find a twitter recap here!

RECOMMENDED #LOVEOZYA READS


We invited our five speakers to share one (or three) OzYA books that were significant to them, and why.

Susan chose Black Juice by Margo Lanagan. She said: ‘Lanagan plays with language in a way that blew me away. She’s inventive. She makes words up. I thought only Lewis Carroll could do this.’ She also described the first story in the collection, ‘Singing my Sister Down’, as one of the most amazing things she’d ever read.

Danielle chose Grace Beside Me by Sue McPherson, The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta. Grace Beside Me made her be critical of the industry she loves and ask herself: ‘When was the last time before this I read a book by an Indigenous author?’ And The Piper’s Son was another kind of story she sees rarely in OzYA and would like more of – good realist fiction with a male protagonist in a harrowing situation.

Marisa chose Tomorrow when the War Began by John Marsden and All I Ever Wanted by Vikki Wakefield. Tomorrow when the War Began was the first time she’d read a YA series set in Australia and All I Ever Wanted was a ‘complete revelation’ for her.

(Danielle and Marisa also both chose the ‘wonderfully weird’ Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park as their third picks.)

Melissa chose Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody. This novel was set for her English class and it was her first experience of everyone being excited about a book. She was also excited that the series was going to be finished soon…

Isobel chose Feeling Sorry For Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty. She said: ‘a perfect read for a perfect time in my life’.


OUTCOMES


Here are some outcomes from this event we’d like to implement here at Readings.

  • We plan to schedule more OzYA focussed events in our calendar.
  • We want to develop new ways of displaying OzYA books in our shops.
  • We would like to create opportunities for teen readers to voice their opinions on our blog.
  • We hope to launch a teen book club to be co-led by a teen and Readings staff.
  • We plan to feature a series of articles about OzYA in the Readings Monthly and on our blog.

READ MORE


Our co-collaborators for this event, Melbourne literary journal Kill Your Darlings , have some great articles for further reading.

And don’t forget to follow along with the ongoing #LoveOzYA discussion and campaign here.