Ask Alice: Should YA be more present in writers’ festivals?
Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.
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!
If you pay any attention to goings-on in the literary world, which every now and again I do, you will have noticed that the Australian Literary Festival season is nearly concluded. As I perused the various programs, I began to feel a certain curiosity which signalled that I’d found the topic for this month’s Ask Alice.
I’m the first to acknowledge that YA sits in an odd space. It spans a variety of genres, while itself arguably being a genre due to the common thread in all YA books of personal growth and a learning on how to navigate the world as a not-quite adult. Although it features protagonists aged roughly between 13 and 18, and is theoretically written with readers who are themselves aged 13-18, estimates suggest that at least half of all readers of YA are older than the ‘target’ age bracket. Yet because the texts are nominally written for younger readers, in the same way that a lot of genre fiction is relegated to being somehow less literary, so too are YA texts. This comes despite some of the most acute minds I know, who have the most exquisite grasp on literary theory and construct their texts with the most technical precision, are the minds behind YA texts. You might be able to sense where I’m going with this.
Most literary festivals in Australia have a dedicated children’s – and yes YA component. Melbourne Writers’ Festival has a secondary schools program, Sydney Writers’ Festival also has a secondary schools program, as well as the All Day YA, and Adelaide Writers’ Week has Middle Grade and YA Day. In WA, there is the Scribblers’ festival, but that’s dedicated entirely to children’s literature, and is aimed at younger audiences. By contrast, as far as I could tell from the Emerging Writers’ Festival, there did not seem to be a single artist who write YA on any of the panels or events – at most, it seems they have a couple of New Adult authors. The standout, in my books (ha), is Brisbane Writers’ Festival. In addition to its Love YA day, it had panels as part of its general program which featured YA authors (‘BookTok Breakout’ and ‘Everybody Loves a Rom-Com’). Overall, though, here’s the thing that my perusal of the programs (which I absolutely acknowledge was done in my own time as I am not paid to write this column, meaning I might have missed something) turned up:
In most festivals, YA authors were almost totally siloed into children’s or YA specific events or days.
So, after that extraordinarily long preamble, this month I’m asking why that might be the case, and whether it should be the case.
To answer this question, I went hunting to discover a bit more about the process by which festival programs are assembled. My starting point was our fabulous Chair at LoveOzYA, Kate Eltham, who is also – fortuitously – a former Festival Director and CEO of the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. I must confess to being surprised when she said that one of the big determining factors in the program is “what titles publishers present to Festival curators for their consideration. Not all of them put up their YA lists.” This courting can take the form of sending festival programmers “free copies to festivals to consider, provid[ing] them with pre-release information up to 18 months in advance and attend[ing] meetings where titles and authors are sort of pitched.”
However, she added “if Festivals don’t signal to publishers that they have room in their program for YA (beyond the schools program which is very much curriculum-tied) then publishers won’t bother pushing YA titles their way.” At this stage, I’d like to note I reached out to several in-house publicists at publishers, none of whom responded, so I can’t offer insight into the experience for the publishing side of things. However, from Kate’s comments, it’s clear that there is the capacity for publishers to push for their authors to appear in festivals, as well as for festivals to signal how they might want to use certain authors.
Before I slide into the land of politely defensive outrage at how YA authors might be relegated as part of the above, it’s important to note YA authors do often feature in the dedicated schools programs. Moreover, those school programs are often very well attended. Indeed, Nathan Luff, the current YA and Children’s Manager for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, emphsised to me, “I’d be sad, however, to see dedicated youth programs disappear. With regards to the SWF, the program is HUGE and it can be overwhelming. Not all YA readers are adults, and so a YA program helps younger readers to find sessions that might be relevant to them. I also think it’s extremely important to attract young people to writers’ festivals and engage them with reading.”
However, Luff went on to say something I found really interesting: “I think there is a problem when we sideline the YA program—it’s not unusual to see it taking place in separate venues and at a different time.”
As a result, YA authors are often not considered for other panels, even if they have expertise and knowledge relevant to that panel’s topic. Yet a quick glance at some of the festival programs, and for many of the panel topics, many YA authors’ knowledge and expertise would offer a rich and interesting dimension to discussion.
Just to name a few: the Melbourne Writers’ Festival panels the Labours of Love panel, which focused on ‘themes of family, love, duty and identity,’ or Sentimental Journeys which discussed ‘the purpose and pleasure of travel [and how it helps] us cultivate connection in the world’ (the LoveOzYA roadtrip book poster feels pertinent, here). Luff did point out that in the Sydney Writers’ Festival, “Leanne Yong, Shirley Le and Jason Reynolds [were] shared across our programming streams.” However, he also noted, “there is certainly scope to do more.” Panel topics for the SWF such as Life in the Landscape in which three authors discussed their work in relation to the backdrop of the distinctly Australian settings, or In Praise of Difficult Women, which looked at the ‘difficult’ female characters in their books would both have been easily addressed by writers of YA books. Similarly, Brisbane Writers’ Festival’s ‘Everyone Loves a Rom-Com would be beautifully spoken to by several YA authors. And at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, the Lunch Break: writing for children and parents panel, while featuring some fabulous individuals only has one author, Anna Zobel, whose books are for younger readers. Yet, several of the other event topics at the EWF could easily have been spoken to by a YA author, such as Club Critique, which looks at the experience of receiving criticism, or any of the writers toolbox sessions. I’ll stop listing now. Even my eyes are starting to cross, and I think you get the idea.
Anecdotally, from those who were at the All Day YA at SWF, it was indeed well attended. However, most of the attendees were adults with a smattering of teenagers. Clearly, then, while it is important to have programming that is accessible to younger readers by being pitched toward their interests, there is scope for a more tightly woven integration of YA authors and the ‘mainstream’ programming of writers’ festivals.
Of course, I realise there are complexities that go into the programming of festivals. However, there is an implicit signal in programs which don’t include the authors of YA – and frankly, children’s – literature from panels on themes to which they would be well positioned to speak.
That signal suggests that the authors of such texts are not as literary, do not have the knowledge of their craft or of the broader themes into which their writing connects, and cannot speak at that level. While I’m sure this isn’t deliberate, it also suggests that the books we write for our young people learning to navigate the world don’t have complexity or depth as more ‘literary’ works for adults. Of course, that’s not true (gosh one would hope so, given as noted, these are texts young people often use to help them understand the world around them). And of course, the rebuttal to this is that authors who write for younger audiences should be, and often are, in the programs specifically aimed at younger audiences.
However, there are three issues with that.
First, programs for younger readers are largely at the mercy of schools literally buying in. While there are many fabulous schools which are willing to spend the money and effort to get their students to those kinds of festival programs, there are many that won’t or can’t.
Second, YA authors often straddle an awkward line of writing for ‘too old’ a demographic, leading to them being at risk of being squeezed out of programs for younger readers (and fairly, so; students in years 10 and up often feel they cannot miss school if they are doing year 11 or 12 units). Moreover, through this very delineated separation, it continues a stigma that adults who read YA books somehow have more ‘pedestrian’ tastes.
Third – and most concerningly to me – it removes voices from broader conversations about themes and experiences that have the perspective of writing for a younger audience and of capturing the flux of personhood that is fundamentally part of the character development and narrative arc of YA texts. Not to hop up on my soapbox, but maybe to pop just a toe on it, there is such a finesse required to not speak down to younger readers. That finesse is doubly manifested when exploring themes like grief and love and familial relationships in a way that rings true to an audience who are often the most critical because their packed lives mean they will put a book down if it does not engage them. Laura Motherway, the Festival Program Lead of Scribbler’s Festival, emphasised this to me: “Young adults are among the most discerning readers, as they are consistently consuming media on mass throughout their day and are exposed to an enormous spectrum of diverse stories, voices and issues. The authors of quality YA literature are highly skilled, evocative and captivating, with the ability to pique the interest of and maintain the attention of these readers.”
The exclusion of YA authors from mainstream panel programming at Writers Festivals not only robs festivals of an added layer of insight and conversation, but risks perpetuating a certain stigma against YA authors – and readers. I thought Motherway eloquently pointed out the benefits when she noted, “more widespread inclusion of YA authors in mainstream literature panels and conversations not only provides attendees access to some of the most talented contemporary writers, but also with invaluable insight into the issues that really matter for young people today.” I do have to wonder what kind of signal we send to those young people when the authors of books they read as they approach the cusp of adulthood are placed exclusively into the ‘children’ section of a program. How does this encourage them to attend future festivals? How does it make them aware of the other kinds of books they can read? What does it say about how we regard their voices, experiences, and opinions?
I feel I’m concluding this month’s Ask Alice with more questions than answers. However, I hope I’ve given some food for thought that can help ensure the panels at our literary festivals have the deepest and broadest possible knowledge and discussion. That might not include YA authors. But maybe it does.
My thanks to this month’s contributors for their insight:
Nathan Luff is the author of The Nerd Herd and Family Disasters series and the middle grade novels Chicken Stu and Bad Grammar. In addition to writing children’s books, Nathan writes plays for young audiences and works part time as a primary school teacher specialising in creative writing and the performing arts. He is currently the YA and Children’s Manager for the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
The FORM Building a State of Creativity’s Scribblers Festival which is an annual festival of literature and arts for young people in Western Australia, is running FRONT through June. FRONT is a free youth project staging a creative takeover of an empty shopfront in the heart of Perth’s CBD in which groups of 12 to 26 year olds collaborate with sculptors, poets, muralists and multidisciplinary artists on installations and activations aimed at helping foster a sense of wellbeing and connection to the urban environment.