How was YA presented at the 2024 Writers Festivals?

Ask Alice is an online column written by our former Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay under the pen 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!


Around this time last year, I took a look at the way YA was represented in our major writers festivals. This year, as my Instagram was flooded with people going to Adelaide Writers Week, Melbourne Writers Festival, and Sydney Writers Festival (with Brisbane Writers Festival still to come), I wondered how the 2024 Australian Writers Festivals compared against last year in their programming and representation of YA

To provide an overview of last year: 

  • Melbourne Writers Festival had a secondary schools program with no YA authors or events as part of their main programming (meaning individuals, be they adult or teenaged readers had no access to YA authors as part of the main program). 
  • Sydney Writers Festival also had a secondary schools program and All Day YA, which ran on one of the weekend days at their Carriageworks venue. 
  • Adelaide Writers Week had a Middle Grade and YA Day. 
  • Brisbane Writers Festival had a Love YA Day and YA authors in panels across its general program. 

Given I’m considering making this theme a yearly staple, I thought I’d get a bit fancy and put my observations on this year into a table (don’t be too impressed with me, now). My findings are as follows: 

To break down the above: 

I added the ‘easy to find on main website’ criterion after battling to find anything YA-related on the Melbourne Writers Festival main page. I actually went back to Google and typed in “Melbourne Writers Festival Schools program.” The first hit returned a dedicated page within the website, but it was not something I could find from the website landing page. Similarly, when searching through artists and events on the website and in the program, there is a filter for ‘Childrens Authors,’ but this is a broad term and I did not find it particularly helpful. 

By contrast, I found the Sydney Writers Festival website quite intuitive to navigate; they also have a dedicated filter for YA authors in the search function. Across this experience, I realised how important navigability of a website actually is, and how forcing your audience to hunt for things signals not only how you perceive that content, but likely lowers demand for and attendance at such events. 

In terms of changes in amount of programming, Adelaide seemed to downgrade the amount of YA content they featured; in 2023, there was an entire day dedicated to YA. However, I reached out to the ever-wonderful Margot McGovern (LoveOzYA Committee alum, author of Neverland and forthcoming Between Us Girls), who moderated one of Adelaide’s two YA events. She noted their audience for the free event was “mostly teens, in part because the evening began with the DreamYard International Poetry Exchange Program where young poets from Australia, South Korea and the US shared their work, so they were included in the event.” In her opinion, making it free, “helped make it more accessible.” 

With this in mind, I feel the Adelaide Writers Week organisers might have been trying something new in terms of their programming to try and ensure their events were set up so as to encourage teenagers – the nominal audience of YA – were in attendance. This is in line with Margot’s observation, “their approach this year of including teen writers as part of their YA programming was a fantastic way to welcome young people and help them feel that they belonged in the space.”

Brisbane continues to kick absolute goals in my heart through the free Love YA Day, its dedicated schools program (wordplay – which, admittedly, was a bit confusing to locate) as well as the inclusion of YA events and authors in their main program. Moreover, Brisbane’s website deserves special mention: when I clicked on the tab for Love YA Day in the website, down the bottom of the page were suggestions of ‘other events for fans of YA,’ which directed me to events within the regular program which featured YA authors. 

With this in mind, it was interesting to reread last year’s column (not least because I realised not everything I turn in is as polished as I would like!). Many of the key points I made in it are still relevant when reflecting on the way writers festivals approached YA this year. 

For a start, the inclusion – or exclusion – of YA authors is not simply down to the whims of programmers. Last year, I spoke with the current LoveOzYA Chair and former CEO and Festival Director of Brisbane Writers Festival, Kate Eltham. She pointed out 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 matches something Margot shared with me. Although she was invited to moderate Lynette Noni’s event by the children’s programmer, in part because the festival was keen to include local authors, she emphasised, “in my experience, it generally pays to be proactive. Authors who are comfortable with public speaking and keen to be included in festival lineups should let their agents and publishers know, and ask what events they’re being put forward for in the lead-up to a book’s release. Authors can also pitch themselves and their ideas for panels directly to festivals.” 

Moreover, it’s worth bearing in mind that festivals which do have dedicated YA days or programs often physically or temporally separate them from the rest of the program. This was an issue voiced last year by Nathan Luff, the YA and Children’s Manager for the Sydney Writers’ Festival: “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.” With this being said, I acknowledge this is a tricky line to walk. If you want to attract teenagers, you need to have a critical mass of events which are interesting to them, and to create a space where teenages feel welcome. As Margot pointed out, “attending Writers’ Week as teen, I was always a bit intimidated by the mostly adult crowd.” However, because All Day YA was held in the Carriageworks venue for Sydney Writers Festival, people who might want to see a YA panel but also see another event couldn’t do so. 

Some may claim this could be resolved through a dedicated schools program. However, as I also noted last year, schools programs are at the mercy of schools literally buying in. This prioritises schools with the resources and willingness to mount such excursions. It also excludes individual younger readers who might want to attend these events even if their school can’t – or won’t – field a group. 

I’ll conclude by acknowledging you can’t force an entire genre of writing onto a program that also has to cater to an audience who reads various other genres. It’s a delicate balancing act, one I certainly don’t envy the programmers for having to negotiate. However, I will put forward the same food for thought with which I concluded last year’s column: there is an implicit signal in programs which don’t include the authors of YA – and children’s – literature within their main program. This doesn’t even have to take the form of a dedicated YA panel; it could manifest in the inclusion of a YA author on a panel whose theme relates to their own field of writing (eg autobiographical texts, own/diverse voices, romance, the list goes on…). The exclusion of YA authors suggests they and their books are somehow less ‘literary’, but also that YA authors do not have the knowledge of their craft or the broader themes into which their writing connects possessed by other authors. It also sidelines and maligns YA – and the people at whom YA texts are primarily aimed: teenagers. 

I obviously don’t think YA should dominate festival programming. However, I do think there’s some space for greater inclusion, especially in some festivals more than others.

hashtag

Comments

Leave a Reply