Ask Alice: Are young people actually reading Australian YA?
Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay under the name A.B Endacott.
Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!
Teenagers are mysterious beings.
The further I get from being one, the more I find myself asking teenagers the exact type of questions that used to make me groan when I was a high school student. Questions like, ‘What is a Tiktok?’, or, for the purposes of this month’s Ask Alice column, ‘Do young people actually read?’
More specifically — do they read young adult fiction? And if so, is it OzYA — aka Australian YA fiction?
It’s an oft-quoted statistic that at least 55% of readers of young adult fiction are not teenagers, but many of the articles that tout this fact are several years old now. It’s an issue that begs for some updated investigation, with additional acknowledgement that YA is not a distinct entity, and has differences across genre, style, and yes, country of origin.
To try and answer that question, I reached out to researchers who are investigating aspects of teen reading, and librarians who work in school libraries, who get a frontline view of what books students borrow.
What local researchers said
Researchers working on the Deakin Teen Reading Project are investigating what makes teen readers decide to read a book.
They told me that, based on their research involving focus groups with Australian teens, their impression is that teens do read YA but, much like adult readers, “they also read other types of books depending on their own personal preferences and interests.”
This observation seems to be supported by Elizabeth Little, a researcher at Deakin University whose work centres on depictions of sexual consent in YA, which I wrote about in one of last year’s Ask Alice columns.
In discussion groups Elizabeth had with teenagers as part of her research, it was clear that “young people are certainly reading young adult books.” However, when it came to introducing teens to Australian YA, the English curriculum was instrumental.
“If an English curriculum includes OzYA, then that introduces those students to those authors,” she said.
This would appear to support the findings of a 2017 survey, ‘Reading the reader: A survey of Australian reading habits,’ which noted “most young people did not consciously choose to read books by Australian authors, with only 12% stating that they liked them.”
What springs to mind is the preliminary findings the Teen Reading project published in 2021, that pointed to the “sizeable role” played by peers, school librarians, teachers and booksellers in drawing the attention of younger readers to the choice of books available to them — including books written by local authors.
So with that in mind, let’s turn to…
What local librarians said
Kate, an experienced school librarian based in Victoria, told me that students do read YA, but are governed largely by their personal interests when it comes to picking out a text, rather than a burning desire to read specifically Australian books.
“I actually had a student who I taught in Year 7, who is now in Year 10, come to see me to say that she wants to get back into reading,” Kate said.
“The discussion we then had on what she wanted to read about — issues, topics, etc — was so important. Because I knew what she wanted to read about, I could suggest books that were about people her age dealing with the same issues.”
What’s particularly interesting about Kate’s insight (and directly proves what a lot of research has found) is that issues and subjects which interest teen readers are often widely represented in YA literature — and Australian YA literature.
However, the lack of awareness about the rich, diverse range of books being produced in this space by Australian authors means these books are only being discovered if attention is explicitly drawn to them, often by knowledgeable librarians like Kate.
It’s therefore no surprise that teens don’t seem to be aware of whether a book is written by an Australian author or not. The observation about this lack of knowledge about OzYA books was echoed by Alida, a librarian with over a decade of experience.
“Yes. Young people are reading. Many of them, but not the majority,” she said. “But they don’t go searching for Australian YA. It needs to be promoted.”
“If students are just browsing, they’re not looking for an author’s nationality. They just want a good story that they can ‘get into’.”
But knowing how to best connect young readers with Australian YA can be tricky, Alida admits:
“It’s a double-edged sword in a school library because: do you shelve by genre and then need to ‘know’ who all the Australian authors are; or do you separate all the Australian authors, and then need to ‘know’ all their genres?”
Why does it even matter if Australian teens are reading Australian YA?
You may be thinking: ‘Great, young people could stand to read more YA written by and for Australians, but is this really that important?’
Well, funny you should ask. Because I can answer that, and I can do it in a convenient list format.
- Yes, OzYA is important because Australian teenagers (any teenagers, really) enjoy reading about things they can relate to.
Elizabeth Little said that during her research with teens, “From observing their discussions, it seemed to me that they enjoyed the relatability of the texts and enjoyed being able to discuss the texts with their peers.”
- Yes, OzYA is important because it can be a powerful mechanism for challenging and replacing damaging colonial assumptions about a variety of historically marginalised groups, not least of which includes First Nations people.
In their research paper, Flourishing in Country: An Examination of Well-Being in Australian YA Fiction (2020), Adrielle Britten and Brooke Collins-Gearing use two Australian YA texts — killing Darcy and Nona and Me to explore how the texts can support inclusivity and empathy within Australian society.
The authors start with a crucial premise that anyone who knows books knows to be true: Fiction can change prejudice by reducing ignorance and promoting caring.”
“When readers engage in a fictional simulation of what it is like to live in Australia as an Indigenous person […and] become better educated about Australia’s violent colonial past, many are likely to form the belief that Indigenous Australians are overcomers, and Australia may become a better place for its First Peoples.”
3. Yes, OzYA is important because queer Australian YA fiction can play a key role in validating and reflecting the experiences of queer Australian teenagers.
In their research paper, ‘Don’t Talk about the Gay Character’: Barriers to Queer Young Adult Fiction and Authors in Schools and Libraries (2018), Emily Booth and Bhuva Narayan examine the barriers authors of queer Australian YA fiction can encounter when trying to get their stories into the hands of young readers.
In doing so, they touch on why overcoming those barriers is so important, noting:
“Where Australian authors of queer fiction encounter gatekeeping upheld by individuals and institutions with influential positions in libraries and schools, young queer readers will have limited chances to see their identity validated in the fiction they read, and heterosexual readers will have fewer opportunities to gain insight into lives different from their own, particularly if they lack visible queer friends and role models.”
Where to next
I think we can boil it down to a simple conclusion: Australian teens do read, and they do read Australian YA which, in turn, can be a powerful tool for education and validation. But — as we’ve known for quite some time — the trick is actually getting the books into their hands.
OzYA is so expansive, filled with such strong and creative voices, but my anecdotal experience suggests people are surprised to learn about the depth and breadth of local authorial talent.
So the takeaway is this: we’ve got to help teen readers find those books. Too many younger readers simply don’t know what’s out there, waiting for them to discover and delight in.
Really, it comes back to something we’ve known for some time, now.
We’ve got to share the #LoveOzYA.
This piece was co-authored with LoveOzYA Communications Co-Director, Alexandra Patrikios. Our sincere thanks to The Deakin Teen Reading Project, Elizabeth Little (https://twitter.com/lizlittlewrites), Kate, and Alida for their generous contributions to this piece.