Earlier this year I was thrilled to be asked to be one of the guest judges for the Victorian Clayton’s Awards, which you can read more about here.
Unfortunately I ended up not being able to attend the actual evening (due to only just having had a baby!), but from all accounts it was a huge success. For those interested, who also didn’t attend the evening, my speech and choices are posted verbatim below. (I’m also sneakily thrilled that 3 of my 6 choices were the same as those on the official shortlist). The winner of these will be announced next week in Book Week and I can’t wait to find out what that is.
Clayton’s Awards 2013
What a great year it was for YA in Australia in 2012. Our talented community of authors just keep putting out books of higher and higher standards, and it’s reassuring (particularly in the current uncertain times) to see new authors appearing on the scene and with such a variety of great work. It made choosing the six books that I’d speak about tonight particularly difficult, and really, credit should go to all of those authors (and their editors and publishers) who play such an integral part in creating such a vibrant, thriving book community, that is evident in the burgeoning number of readers.
So, out of the extraordinary books that I’ve visited and re-visited over the past few months, I’ve managed to narrow it down to the following six titles, keeping in mind the criteria for the CBCA awards and looking for work that I believe will be both challenging and intensely appealing to all readers, but particularly those in their secondary years.
The Shiny Guys – Doug MacLeod
The Shiny Guys was extraordinary for many reasons. It was (to me at least) a bit of a departure from Doug’s earlier work – although it still had plenty of his dry, trademark humour, the subject matter was quite dark and surreal, with a lot of personal insight into the world of psychiatric illness and Australian mental health.
For older readers, the issue of mental health is one that is sadly, probably all too familiar. Nearly everyone knows someone (or is themselves) experiencing some kind of mental illness, and it’s a topic trending more and more in YA fiction these days. What made ‘The Shiny Guys’ stand out was the characters, and the surreal nature of the shiny guys themselves. Who are these cockroach-like creatures who visit Colin Lapsley and who won’t leave him alone, even upon his admittance to Ward 44? Are we expected to believe that they are real – in which case the book would be more speculative fiction, or a figment of his illness and/or imagination? This constant tug of war between who we should believe is what is gripping as a reader, and also what constantly draws our attention to the subject at hand – should we write off the thoughts of the mentally ill just because of their illness? Doug MacLeod cleverly plays with truth and illusion in a way that pushes at the boundaries of genre and digs into the key themes of this book in an utterly unique way. His dry wit is a perfect match for this kind of writing, and he knows exactly when to add lightness to the writing or the characters (my favourite example of this is Mango, who is so strange and wonderful, it’s impossible not to immediately love him, and his relationship with Colin).
While lovers of books like ‘Siggy and Amber’ and ‘Life of a Teenage Body Snatcher’ will still find that trademark humour, I would expect that ‘The Shiny Guys’ will appeal to an even broader audience, and certainly to readers wanting more of a challenge.
Night Beach – Kirsty Eager
If you boiled down Kirsty Eager’s books so far to their simplest essences, she may be overlooked as the ‘type’ of book that we generally see in the prize categories. Books so far include ‘Raw Blue’ with the key themes of sexual assault and surfing, ‘Saltwater Vampires’ about vampires and, well, surfing, and ‘Night Beach’, the most recent offering, an engrossing dark fantasy about possession and of course surfing.
Having read each of her books though, I wouldn’t hesitate to put any one of them into the category of prize worthy, although Night Beach is most certainly my favourite yet. Kirsty Eager is a fine writer with an incredible imagination – one that sees her writing books which defy genre, despite all having a single common theme. When written well, books about possession have the uncanny ability to make the reader feel as though just by reading it, they too have unleashed something dark and furious, that will continue to haunt their waking (and perhaps sleeping moments) long after they’ve closed the pages. In Night Beach, Abbie is obsessed with three things – art, the ocean and Kane. But he’s just come home from an extended surfing vacation, and something strange is riding along with him. The kind of something strange that you might not notice unless you were looking closely, which Abbie most certainly is.
Horror is a genre that was hugely popular when I was in high school, but dwindled off for a time there. Recently there’s been a resurgence though, and more students are asking for books that will give them a good scare. For older readers though (and for writers in this genre), a good scare isn’t as easy as it sounds. A lot of horror lovers want something more than gore, they want something that will worm its way into their brain, scaring them when they least expect it, and revisiting them just when they think they’ve escaped. Too often we see horror being confused with crime, or gore, and books and films trying to outdo each other in the ongoing competition for most shocking. But a good horror or thriller (which this most certainly is), doesn’t need shock value to plant a seed of deep unease in the heart of its readers. Good horror, takes a character like Kane, no stranger to darkness and violence already, and turns him into the creature that lurks in the shadows. And a character like Abbie, who like most of the potential audience has a massive crush on the bad boy, becomes the character we identify with, despite wanting to run as far away from her and from Kane as possible.
Night Beach is an intensely clever book from a wonderful writer that deserves any accolades it’s given. I hope that it’s a sign of a resurgence of quality, clever writing in a genre that has been (in my opinion) forgotten for too long.
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf – Ambelin Kwaymullina
A challenging fantasy is no easy thing to create, because in my mind at least, part of that challenge comes with surprising readers in a genre that is both widely read and written, and it is hard to write well and uniquely within it.
From the get-go ‘Ashala Wolf’ was surprising. Readers are launched straight into Ashala being dragged into a terrifying interrogation where she knows that she will be pushed past her limits, questioned about her powers until she gives up herself and the location of her tribe. Her tribe, the misfits that mainstream society is so afraid of, is relying on her to save them. Seems straightforward? Nope. At every turn this story has an unexpected twist – twists that are clever and necessary, not just thrown in to try to trap the reader. Loyalties are questioned, characters change sides, and our own understanding of Ashala and her situation is thrown to the wind as each new piece of information comes to light.
Even the premise – a band of misfits with abilities that set them apart from the rest of society, despite sounding familiar, is done in a way that cleverly blends cultures with myth and fantasy to create something new and strange. Ambellin Kwaymullina is by no means a new author, but this is her first YA and I’m very glad that it won’t be her last. It’s an outstanding piece of Australian work, of indigenous work (the links in the text are subtle but there), and of fantasy, that has really found a voice to call its own amongst so many others.
City – James Roy
I’m constantly told that it’s a struggle to get young adults reading short stories. As much as I hate to admit it (because I think short stories are a seriously undervalued genre), it’s all too true. Maybe it’s the lack of a cohesive storyline, maybe it’s not getting to know the characters on the same level that you do in a novel – whatever it is, no matter how many times you recommend short stories, the number of readers just doesn’t seem to pick up that much.
‘City’, the sequel to ‘Town’ is the kind of book that I hope will start paving the way to changing that. City is the big brother to Town, a book that uses short stories to explore a town and its inhabitants from a variety of angles. City is a bit colder at first, like the feeling you get when you’ve just moved out of home, finished school and starting that new, unfamiliar stage of life. It’s the finding your feet in a strange place, the foreign signs that start to become familiar, and the people that gradually bind together to make a place. Although it’s short stories, hopefully readers will be pulled in by those clues that link the pieces within the book together, and older readers especially will relate to the all to impending feeling of leaving the comfort of their town (school) and taking those first unfamiliar steps into a world similar to that found in city.
Friday Brown – Vikki Wakefield
Friday Brown is perhaps my pick out of this already great bunch of books. It reminds me a lot of the suburban Australia seen in the YA of writers like Robin Klein and John Marsden. The characters are slightly dangerous – the teenagers that you definitely want to read about, and think you might even want to know, but in reality would probably be a little bit wary of if you stumbled across them on the street.
Friday is the product of storytelling, fear and her mother’s paranoias. She’s spent her life being dragged from town to town, from home to home as her mother tries to escape the family curse of death by water, and in many ways, herself. When her mother dies, it’s Friday’s turn to flee. She thinks she’s looking for her father, but what she finds is a different family, runaway teens banded together in an abandoned house trying to escape their realities. And in this family, Friday finds Silence, a boy who will change her life (and the readers) in unimaginable ways.
It’s not often that characters present themselves as so real that you would swear that you’d just seen them yesterday, but each of the beautifully crafted characters in this book does just that. For me, Friday Brown ticks all of the boxes – a magically woven story, breathtakingly real characters living in an Australia that will be real and recongnisable to all readers.
The Ink Bridge – Neil Grant
This is the kind of book that teachers are bound to love – a journey across countries, across cultures, insight into the lives of others and a myriad of other phrases (all true in this case) that tick all the right learning boxes. But what about a read that’s just as rewarding for the readers? One that will perhaps stay with them beyond the confines of an exam and deserve a space on their shelves outside of ‘school book’?
The Ink Bridge is all of the things that a teacher looks for and will love, but it’s more than that too. Neil Grant undertook his own journey through Afghanistan in preparation for writing this book, and it shows in the sincerity of the words, and the effort to capture the truth of another culture, particularly one that is so heavily portrayed in the media and other fiction.
There are certainly challenges in the reading, for readers of any age. Challenges in the subject matter – a boy escaping his country after watching the senseless and brutal deaths of too many family and friends, and another refusing to speak after the death of his mother. Challenges in the writing, which rather than being patronising and overtly simplistic, gives its readers credit for a level of understanding that will match the depth of the story being told. These challenges are worth it though for readers willing to meet them, and the book is one that will hopefully stay with many beyond their school years.