Ask Alice is a new 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!
It’s an evergreen debate: which books should be pored over in that vaulted realm, the Australian secondary school classroom?
We hear a lot about the usual suspects — the classics; lauded works of Australian adult literature — but arguably less focus is given to Australian young adult titles that, unlike Looking for Alibrandi and the Tomorrow series, have been published within the past decade.
I’d argue that’s more than a shame — it’s an oversight. Not seeking to disparage the books in question, but having a fifteen-year-old read and unpack a cheerfully brooding book with the desolation of the Australian landscape as a backdrop to every scene, or wade through doorstop-length novels focusing on white colonial Australia, doesn’t necessarily lead to the most engaged students.
So, perhaps instead of looking solely to the Miles Franklin shortlist for inspiration on what to whack under the noses of young people, we could look to recently published texts actually written for a younger readership.
These works engage with the same themes, but are written in a way that reflects adolescents back to themselves. This is incredibly powerful because it means students are far more likely to engage with the text, to find meaning in it, which in turn can cultivate a love (or at least appreciation) of English.
It also has the capacity to sow the seeds of lifelong readership rather than turn them away from books and reading because of experiences where they were compelled to exclusively study texts to which they simply could not connect.
Now, don’t worry. I’m not suggesting that we completely overhaul the English curriculum to exclusively offer Australian Young Adult texts. In fact, I’m more wedded to Shakespeare than a lot of English teachers I know.
But it’s worth considering the question: what Australian young adult titles could sit alongside the classics?
It’s also a question we put directly to the #LoveOzYA community via our #LoveOzYA Syllabus Wishlist survey in August.
We wanted to find out what books had resonated with people as texts which would be valuable to study in school, with a particular emphasis on asking people with a background in education to submit responses.
So — what did the survey find?
Respondents overwhelmingly wanted books that explored and reflected the multicultural, diverse population of contemporary Australian society.
Tellingly, survey respondents also repeatedly emphasised the importance of young Australians studying texts that are relatable, engaging, and written with a young reader in mind.
Nominating their titles, respondents said:
- “They’re relatable to modern Australian teens.”
- “All these books address real issues faced by kids both here and around the world, told in an engaging way with really strong character voice. Kids know what the world is like. They need books like these to help them navigate it.”
- “We need stories for tweens which are fast-paced and exciting, yet evoke empathy and promote having a ‘bigger picture ‘ world view.”
- “Fiction can explore these issues in a non-didactic way, and open up many opportunities for discussion.”
And when they did nominate titles, they were remarkably aligned in their selections. . .
The top local young adult titles our survey respondents want to see being studied in Australian classrooms
A distinct set of #LoveOzYA reads emerged from the survey results. By no means an exhaustive list, the top recommendations were:
- Catching Teller Crow, Ambelin Kwaymullina & Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Following her death, Catching Teller Crow follows Beth Teller as she and her father work to solve a mystery, which uncovers more than Beth ever expected about her small town. . .
- The Gaps, Leanne Hall
Loosely based on similar experiences at Hall’s own school,The Gaps follows a group of teenage girls as they grapple with their fear, guilt and grief following the abduction of a classmate. In her interview with #LoveOzYA’s Alexandra Patrikios, Hall described her driving motivation in writing the novel as portraying “something that lots of young women, and young people, live with — that fear of something happening to them on the streets”.
You can access teacher resources here.
- Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal, Anna Whateley
The story of neurodivergent Peta Lyre as she finds herself on a school ski trip — and falling in love with the new girl.
You can access teacher’s tips here.
- The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, Wai Chim
The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling is the story of Anna Chiu, who looks after her brother and sister and helps out at her dad’s restaurant, all while her mum stays in bed. But when Mum finally gets out of bed, things go from bad to worse. Chim has said the novel was partly born of her desire to “explore/understand the stigma in Chinese culture around mental health”.
You can access teacher resources here.
- This is How We Change the Ending, Vikki Wakefield
Sixteen-year-old Nate McKee is doing his best to be invisible while he worries about a lot of things. But when some of his notebook pages are stolen, and his words are graffitied at the centre, Nate realises he has allies. He might be able to make a difference, change his life, and claim his future. Speaking to #LoveOzYA, Wakefield said, “This Is How We Change the Ending is about being sixteen, that in-between age when you feel as if you have no control over your own life”.
You can access teacher resources here.
- An assortment of Will Kostakis books, including The First Third
Survey respondents praised the way Kostakis “addresses the themes of coming of age while using a brilliant extended metaphor for family” in The First Third.
- An assortment of books by Alison Evans, including Euphoria Kids
Evans’ ability to draw awareness to “understanding gender diversity, [while also exploring] the sorts of themes and layers of complexity common to HS English texts” made their work ripe for inclusion on the secondary school syllabus, according to the survey participants.
Most respondents could remember studying some Australian young adult literature themselves, but not recent or necessarily diverse titles.
As part of the survey, we also asked respondents to specify if they had studied an Australian young adult text at school.
Looking for Alibrandi and Tomorrow When the War Began had the equal highest figures, but all books nominated as having been studied in school were written more than 15 years ago, and mostly by white, male authors.
While we did not collect data on when people graduated high school, I’ve worked across enough schools as an English tutor to know that there isn’t very much Australian YA on any English curriculum, let alone some of the wonderful books which have been published across the last 10 or so years.
Why is it so valuable to study Australian young adult literature?
Young adult literature is still grappling with an undeserved stigma about its ‘seriousness.’ It shouldn’t be that way, and given that this column runs within LoveOzYA, it would be a wild twist if I suddenly start suggesting otherwise. This piece in The Guardian outlines how young adult literature is uniquely placed to unpack “the dysfunctional reality of adult life” and can be a powerful educational tool for young people on the cusp of independence.
“In every way that matters, young adult fiction is the most serious literature in contemporary culture,” Damien Walter writes. “But its serious intent manifests in ways that many critics struggle to comprehend.”
So, while it’s a delicate act, balancing less approachable texts against contemporary literature, it can be an endeavour that’s hugely worthwhile for educators and students alike.
Young people need to learn from seeing themselves in the pages of the books they study as much as they need to learn from looking back to the unsustainable excess and fantasy of late 1920s America in The Great Gatsby.
It’s not a zero sum game, after all.
Alice is an author, English tutor, PhD candidate, Secretary (or resident cat herder) of #LoveOzYA, and chocolate lover. Her love of all things wordy and literary has seen her fall down many a rabbit hole of conversation, reading, or thought. You can find her posting about these subjects on Instagram or Twitter, or go and check out her website.
Tags: Ask Alice, education, syllabus