Darren Groth and Rob Bittner on OzYA in North America
On Saturdays, I bring my wonderful teenage son into downtown Vancouver for speech therapy. While he surrounds himself with words - learning new ones, retrieving old ones - I do the same at the bookstore across the road, Chapters on Granville.
A number of things are on my checklist when I'm there. I look at the new releases and the discounted fiction and, if my gorgeous teen daughter has come along, the 'Daredevil' titles in the comics/graphic novels section. I browse the 'Heather's Picks' table (I don't have the foggiest who Heather is, but she's probably quite nice. She sure reads a lot). I try to telepathically convince random shoppers to buy my books. And always, always, I look for the Oz YA that has made it over the pond.
Alyssa Brugman's Alex as Well. Garth Nix's Frogkisser. Fiona Wood's Wildlife. Simmone Howell's Girl Defective. Erin Gough's Get it Together, Delilah! Ellie Marney's Every series.
Just to name a few.
I get a real kick out of seeing them (and occasionally posting photos of them on Twitter...I should do more of that). I feel a pang of communal pride that these fine works have come so far. Every now and then, I'll robustly recommend one or some or all of them to a slightly fearful stranger.
I feel the LoveOzYA here in the Great White North. But I’m far from alone. Many of the locals do, too.
One such local is Rob Bittner. Rob is not your average enthusiastic YA reader. Rob has a PhD from the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at SFU, a Master's in Children's Literature with a focus on queer sexualities, religion, and literature for young people from UBC, and works with, among others, the International Board on Books for Young People and the Vancouver Children's Literature Roundtable. He's also served on a number of awards committees including the Stonewall Book Award, the TD Canadian Children's Literature Book Prize, the Newbery Medal Committee, the Michael L. Printz Committee, and the Rainbow Booklist.
I recently asked Rob to gauge the penetration and perception of Oz YA here in North America:
Darren: How much exposure and engagement have you had with Australian young adult literature?
Rob: I’ll be honest, the majority of literature that I have read from Australia has been LGBTQ with the exception, of course, of The Book Thief and Jellicoe Road which I read because of their placement on the Printz Award honour lists.
One of the first YA books from Australia that I read (and least realized it) was Lili Wilkinson’s Pink. I was on the Stonewall Book Awards committee of the American Library Association (ALA), and then I started looking for other books from Australia. I found Willby Maria Boyd, a number of works by Justine Larbalestier, Peter by Kate Walker, etc.
After that, I started paying more attention to the original publication location of books that I was reading. The more committees I served on, the more I started to notice YA coming from Australia, and it’s awesome! Working on my dissertation, I came across Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman and Morgan in the Mirror by C.C. Saint-Clair. Now, reading for the 2018 Rainbow List of the ALA, I’m seeing even more: Get it Together Delilah by Erin Gough [published in Australia as Flywheel]; Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde, and others.
And like many around the world now, I am addicted to The Illuminae Files (Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman)! The third one comes out next year and I’m SO EXCITED!
Darren: What impression has Oz YA collectively made on you?
Rob: Overall, Oz YA has made a good impression on me. There are certainly ways of understanding and describing characters that differ between North America and Australia as I see it, particularly due to the history and treatment of sexual and racialized others. I’m not saying there is more racism or sexism or homophobia in one place over the other, but rather that the ways they sometimes manifest themselves in the texts is sometimes different. Oz YA books tend to be a bit more blunt, I feel, in the way homophobia and racism appear on the page (of course I’m only seeing a small portion of what’s available!) But collectively, from what I’ve read, I am impressed with the examples that I’ve come across over the last five or six years since I’ve begun paying more attention to authors and publishing info.
Darren: Do you feel Oz YA has a tone and voice distinctive from North American works?
Rob: Much of the literature I read from Australia tends to be much more rural in focus; small towns, country living, and more working class families seem to be at the forefront. Books like Get It Together Delilah show a life very different from the often affluent teenagers gracing the pages of many YA novels in the USA. I know this is a very sweeping generalization and it may not actually be this way overall (I’m happy to hear more from Oz YA people!), but it’s what I’ve noticed in my own experience at least. It’s possible that this is more in line with the LGBTQ books I’ve been reading and not with other books that focus on hetero and cis characters.
I have also noticed that Oz YA books I’ve come across tend to be a bit more on the quiet side in comparison to so much of the thriller narrative that is so popular in the USA at the moment. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, but even in mysteries or sci-fi fantasy, there’s more thoughtfulness that comes through. I’m a fan!
Darren: Are there certain subjects and themes you feel Oz YA is particularly well equipped to tackle?
Rob: I think there are certainly subjects around immigration and race that Oz YA authors can work with considering the current social and political climate around refugees in Australia. Though this is obviously not just an Aussie situation, academic colleagues from Sydney and Melbourne have noted the fact that immigration and racialized discourse are much more prevalent than in North America (or at least they were until a certain individual was elected in the US last year.)
I also think that Australia, in terms of legal and political discourse, has a much different terrain to navigate where LGBTQ rights are concerned, and I think there are many possibilities for authors of YA to engage with. Another area, of course, is Australia’s particular Indigenous culture and the relationship between the Indigenous people and those who came later. Like Canada, there seems to be a definite tension that exists, but I think there is a unique relationship between these cultures in Australia that is not apparent in other countries.
Darren: What sort of Oz YA works would you hope to see being published in future?
Rob: I want to see more in general. I want to see more Oz YA brought to North America and more Oz YA authors highlighted at American and Canadian literature conferences. As a Canadian, I think there is a possibility for greater collaboration, considering we’re both Commonwealth countries, and I would like to see more transnational engagement. We are, of course, seeing some of that now, but more would definitely be appreciated.
I would also love to see more LGBTQ books from Australia, but ones which are more nuanced where trans representation in particular is concerned. Australia is a country full of talented writers (a colleague, Adele Walsh, keeps me in the loop since she’s part of a number of literary events and awards) and I hope in general to see more of these books come to North America so young readers can have the opportunity to see beyond their own homegrown experiences and ways of thinking.
So, there you have it – the word is out on Oz YA here in Canada and the States. Look out for more photos from Chapters on Granville in your Twitter feed. I’m sure it won’t be just me posting them.
Darren Groth is the author six novels including the acclaimed Are You Seeing Me? His new book, Exchange of Heart, is out now through Penguin Random House.