Event Highlight: #LoveOzYA panel at Melbourne Writers’ Festival

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Danielle Binks, Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil, Ellie Marney and Alice Pung address a full house at the MWF #LoveOzYA panel

With a stomach full of Butterbeer and cheeks sore from smiling at all the wizards running around as part of Harry Potter day at MWF17, I serenely strolled to The Cube room at ACMI for the #LoveOzYA Panel. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the epic line of people waiting to get let in – the #LoveOzYA anthology, Begin, End, Begin, is an extension of the increasingly vocal #loveOzYA online movement, which is a celebration of Australian Young Adult literature. The session was chaired by Danielle Binks, who was both editor and writer for the anthology, and champions Australian YA via Twitter and an extensive list of articles for Kill Your Darlings. Danielle commanded attention through her passion for the YA readership. Danielle revealed that she has a YA novel in the works, although she gave no hint to its genre (had I been feeling less zombie-like from sleep deprivation, I would have asked her to divulge more during the audience Q&A). While Danielle lamented that no Australian works made it into the latest top 10 of Australian Library and Information Association ‘Most borrowed books for young adults (13-18)’, it was clear that the #LoveOzYA panel had assembled to celebrate the diversity and success of Australian YA, which Danielle kicked off by announcing that the Begin, End, Begin is into its second print run.

This was to be the first all-female #LoveOzYA panel, featuring Danielle, Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil, Ellie Marney and Alice Pung. Danielle introduced each of the writers by reading an excerpt from their short story, before asking each writer about what motivated them to write their story. Ellie said she decided to write a prequel of sorts of her Every series because readers of the Every series kept asking for it, and also as a way of saying thank you to her loyal readers. Melissa Keil approached ‘Sundays’ like a bottle episode, where she wanted to explore characters in one location. Alice Pung spoke of how minority characters are often portrayed in a positive light, in order to avoid politics. This positive portrayal comes at the expense of multifaceted characters, so minorities are frequently presented as tropes. A key motivator for ‘In a Heartbeat’ was to depict multidimensional diverse characters. Before allowing Amie to speak of the motivation behind ‘One Small Step’, Danielle pointed out that Amie submitted her story six hours late because she was getting it fact-checked by NASA! Amie went on to say she was fascinated by the media coverage of the first IVF baby, where community pride was bordering on ownership. Amie also spoke of being on the train and overhearing teenagers talking about planning their university selections and how they were going to navigate their choices with the expectation of their parents.

Danielle invited the panel to speak about why Australian-centric stories are important, before commenting herself on the importance of Australian youth seeing themselves on the page, so they know that they matter and are represented. Danielle also joked about buying cappuccinos as a 16-year old because that’s what Josie Alibrandi from Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta did. Amie joked that she grew up planning her escape, courtesy of John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began series. Melissa received numerous letters from readers who, until reading her work, hadn’t seen Melbourne streets in a book before, or had not seen Australian terms used.  Ellie commented that, as a teacher, she has noticed common use language in high school has become Americanised, citing “canteen” and “litter” as examples. Ellie later went on to say that if the US titles are the default literary culture in Australia, then we will lose our language, our Australianness. Alice added that we will lose our irreverence, our irreverent sense of humour. US editors complimented Amie on her use of futuristic slang in Illuminae, despite it being Australian slang. Amie added that Illuminae is very Australian-centric, as it is told by refugees.

Discussion moved to the future of Australian YA publishing, with all panellists conveying a sense of hope and excitement about its future, despite the obstacles. Ellie spoke about how ‘Missing Persons’ explores the cultural shift from rural to urban. Danielle noted that displacement is a common theme across YA, with Amie predicting that, in the future, we will see a lot more Australian YA exploring a more diverse outlook of what it means to be Australian. Being on the panel at numerous YA events gave Danielle the opportunity to ask teens what they want to see more of in YA, and the majority of the feedback has been for more representation of the LGBTQI community (this was met with a loud applause from the #loveozya audience). Amie added that while we need more “coming out” stories, we also need to have stories where queerness is not a plot point. A number of the stories in Begin, End, Begin feature LGBTQI characters without the representation being a key plot point, which has meant that some schools have been more willing to include discussion on the texts (although some did request for LGBTQI discussion to be avoided). All panellists were in agreement that the future looks bright, as teens are infinitely more open-minded and accepting than the previous generation, which can only result in an increase of representation of diversity.

Given it was Harry Potter day at MWF (and I spied quite a few Potter-clad people in the audience, which made me very jealous about my lack of Potter merch, tbh), Danielle asked the panel for their thoughts on blockbuster books. She noted that Simone Howell was able to get published by Bloomsbury because of the “mad money” Bloomsbury generated from Harry Potter. Amie argued that reading a blockbuster series doesn’t mean a reader won’t expand their horizons, as ‘this generation went to Hogwarts together and came back looking for more adventures’. Ellie Marney commented on how J.K Rowling’s series was arguably the first to be marketed as a YA cross-over, as the books were published with “adult” covers. While teens are the targeted readership of YA, adults are also reading YA and therefore also contributing financially, which increases the size of the market and opportunity for new voices.

With the session nearly at its close, Danielle invited audience questions. An audience member asked the panellists what advice they would give to writers. Ellie recommended reading across the YA readership, rather than sticking to a particular genre. She also urged writers to write what you want to read, as any attempts to write what you think will please a readership will only fall flat. Danielle added that writers should read everything, not just YA, and not just fiction. She also urged writers not to look down on any readership or genre (as so often happens to YA!). Amie got into a tongue-twister as she said you have to write (not just write about writing, or tweet about writing, or blog about …). Melissa recommended writers seek out competitions and opportunities, as everything you write will make you a better writer. Alice echoed Amie’s sentiment as she urged writers to get the words down on paper, and to not worry about spelling or grammar at the expense of the story. I got tangled up in tweets for a bit, so I missed one of the audience questions, but Danielle spoke about diversity representation in fiction and how there is no monolith experience, as not everybody experiences disability in the same way. Ellie spoke of how far self-publishing has come in terms of technology and user-friendly access, which is giving unprecedented access to new and diverse voices. The final question asked by an audience member was how the panellists stay motivated. Alice said sometimes you don’t have motivation, but you write anyway. Melissa plays with characters by writing scenes that won’t end up in her novel. Danielle offered that day-dreaming is just as much a part of the process as the actual writing, and Ellie mentioned that Cath Crowley has word-free breaks to nurture herself.

The #loveozya panel came to an end and the crowd hurried out to head to the book signing. I would have happily sat for another hour or two to listen to the panellists discuss YA, such was level of their passion and insight. It was equally invigorating to sit amongst the audience, as YA readers have proved time and time again how passionate they are about the readership. This was a great MWF panel, and I hope there are many more like it at MWF18… or a whole festival devoted to YA.

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Event highlight: Melbourne Writers’ Festival – ‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’

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‘Today I am here to beg you to change the world’

It’s hard to believe Angie Thomas’ keynote, the first YA keynote Melbourne Writers’ Festival has ever had, was not a sell-out. Angie’s debut novel, The Hate U Give, has been sitting at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for 26 consecutive weeks. It has been published in over 20 countries and is currently in its 16th reprint. Angie was mesmerising, as she delivered a passionate speech that was equal parts moving, hilarious and inspiring. She often broke from her speech to joke about what her mother would think; she pondered what would her mother say if she saw her daughter addressing a crowd wearing a Gryffindor jumper (I’m pretty sure everyone in the room not only approved, but wanted to ask where one could be purchased), or how her mother would react if she heard her swear (Angie sought permission from the audience before doing so).  ‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’ was chaired by Beverley Wang, a journalist, radio producer and host of the popular ABC podcast It’s Not a Race. Wang introduced Thomas by praising The Hate U Give as ‘a Young Adult book that all adults need to read as well’.

‘Today I am here to beg you to change the world’. Angie commanded attention with her opening statement, and held that attention throughout her address. She clearly conveyed her passion for writing Young Adult fiction, as she expressed her belief that young adults have an awareness, passion, and belief that they can change the world. Angie believes adults do not share that same belief as teens, as ‘once we become adults we realise how big the world is’. Acknowledging many of the adults in the audience were Young Adult fiction writers, Angie noted that ‘as writers, you have the power to do just that’ (change the world).

While Angie said ‘books showed me that there was more to the world’, as a teen she struggled to see herself in published Young Adult fiction. Twilight was considered THE Young Adult book, but she didn’t recognise herself on the page, and joked about how her mother would never let her talk to a man that old. Angie joked about how if her name had been called out during The Hunger Games, her mother would have marched right up to the organisers and stopped it from happening. Angie lamented that ‘usually kids like me were the sassy sidekicks … or the wisdom giver’. Angie loves the Harry Potter series, as she identified strongly with Hermione Granger, and viewed Voldemort as a drug dealer and Hogwarts was her community. Angie was thrilled when Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Because of the absence of representation in YA, she said ‘I didn’t think my life mattered, or lives like mine mattered’. Angie saw herself in hip-hop, a movement, she noted, that was founded by teens. It was a way for teens to have a voice – about their lives, about what mattered. Angie’s heroes were rappers, as it felt like ‘somebody saw me, and they said it mattered’. ‘Hip-hop scared people because it was so raw’. There is a truth to hip-hop that can be confronting. Angie later went on to say ‘true change comes with discomfort’ and ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fear … it’s what you do with it’.

While The Hate U Give has been interpreted by some as a distinctive Black Lives Matter political novel, Angie wrote The Hate U Give as a short story, well before she was aware of the Black Lives Matter movement. She wrote the story in response to a shooting in her town. Writing was the only way Angie knew how to get her frustration out, and eventually turned the story into a novel because, she said, ‘I need people outside of my neighbourhood to see’. She noted that when young victims are placed on the news, they are always made to seem older than they are. Angie wanted her book to be personal, not political, to humanise and show truth behind the headline. ‘Starr is a child. They were children’, she said, and later added ‘why is it that we make them antagonists in their own deaths?’ When Beverley asked Angie about her reaction to having Trump as President, Angie responded by saying ‘I have more hope now than I did before the election … people are speaking up now.’ She reminded the audience that racism is not new, it is just becoming more visible due to social media. The sense of hope and love Angie conveyed was incredibly moving, as she said ‘I know where the power lies, and it’s with the people’.

Angie implored the audience to ‘examine why you do it. Why do you write for young adults?’ This question was framed around an acknowledgment that ‘Young Adult books catch a lot of flak’, and while she jokingly referenced the Handbook for Mortals saga by saying ‘apparently some people see it (YA) as a way to get movies made’, her frustration that ‘people downplay (YA)’ was clear. Angie argued that teens today are ‘more aware, more conscious of things’, particularly due to social media. So, while she acknowledged that many YA writers write for younger versions of themselves, Angie believes we should ‘take ourselves out of it, and focus on who we’re writing for.’

There’s so much more that was talked about during the keynote, as well as the question time afterwards. I feel like I’ve barely scraped the surface. I was focused on Angie for the duration of the event, so I wasn’t aware whether the session was filmed or not. I hope it was. The only lowlight of the event came from an audience member, who asked, in what I interpreted to be a rather aggressive tone, what is worse, to write from your own experience or to write outside your own experience? The frustration in the audience member’s voice made me cringe. Angie was gracious in her reply, as she politely challenged the crowd to ask themselves why they want to write it, and why they would be the best possible person to tell that story. She urged writers to put in the work (do research, consult with relevant groups), to be prepared for criticism, and to LISTEN to and learn from any criticism.

‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’ was inspiring, moving, hilarious and full of heart. I’ve been to many MWF sessions over the years. This event will stay with me for the longest time.

 

I finished reading (and loved) The Hate U Give. My review is still to come. I only have the opportunity to attend one other MWF event this year, which will be #loveozya 

Review: ‘Coming of Age’ at Melbourne Writers Festival

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It was great to be back at Melbourne Writers Festival this year, particularly given there was a series of panels devoted to YA. The panels were grouped under the umbrella of ‘Eye on YA’. I attended ‘YA Superstars’, ‘Coming of Age’ and ‘Fantasy Fiction’. The standout event for me was ‘Coming of Age’.

inbetweendays.jpg‘Coming of Age’, chaired by the champion of Australian YA (and interim chair of the LoveOzYA movement), Danielle Binks, featured Australian authors Claire Zorn and Vikki Wakefield. Danielle began by asking the authors what they were like at 17. Vikki said she failed school, and found she was living an adult life in her teens. It wasn’t until Vikki was in her 20’s that she started to live out her teen years. Claire read an excerpt from a journal she wrote when she was 17. It was both laugh out loud funny and all-too relatable, as her 17 year old self lamented “I just wish someone would love me besides my bloody family”.

Vikki became hyper conscious of her audience when writing her second book, Friday Brown. When she approached her third book, Inbetween Days, she focused hard on what the story was about, rather than the audience. During audience question time, I asked Vikki how she overcame her paralysis while writing Friday Brown. Vikki said she knew if she finished a draft she would have something to work with. Vikki also mentioned during the session that while she had a massive pit of paralysis for a long time, the floodgates are now open and she is working on a horror novel. I was surprised to hear Claire say she wrote The Protected before The Sky So Heavy. At the author signing, I asked her about it and she said she started writing The Protected, but took a break during rewrites to work on The Sky So Heavy. It took Claire 9 years to write The Protected, and 2 years to write The Sky So Heavy.

OneWouldThink.jpgDanielle highlighted that both protagonists in Inbetween Days and One Would Think the Deep feature underdogs, and asked the authors what intrigued them about underdogs. Claire revealed she had a hard time in high school, and felt like a freak show. Vikki said she felt like a chameleon for the longest time, and had no sense of her own identity. She writes about underdogs because she needs to find something in common with her characters. Vikki later said she wasn’t allowed to like the guys who she was attracted to in high school, as her friends determined who she chose. There was one guy in high school who she never told she liked, because her friends wouldn’t allow it.

Danielle asked Claire why she set One Would Think the Deep in 1997. All of Claire’s books are inspired by songs. Claire said she wanted to write about what it was like to lose your idol. She didn’t cope well at school, and felt no one understood her except for Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder. Claire didn’t want to write about the death of Kurt Cobain, because he is still such a prominent figure. She was drawn to Jeff Buckley, as his vulnerable, effeminate persona sat at odds with the hyper-masculine grunge era.

Danielle asked the authors what books they wished they had read as teens. Vikki listed Judy Blume and Robyn Klein. Vikki added that she read The Outsiders by S.E. Hilton as a teen, which was the book she needed. Claire said she wished she read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.

Given Vikki didn’t have journal entry to share like Claire, she instead read to the audience a letter she wrote to her 17 year old self. This letter was immensely moving. It included beautiful and empowering words of encouragement, including “every mistake you’ve made will be nose-rubbing material, but you’re used to the smell” and “finally you’ll say things you could never say out loud”. I hope she publishes this letter somewhere.

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival. I was disappointed when I saw that the ‘Writing Diverse Characters’ and ‘David Levithan: Queer YA’ panels were on at the same time. I was even more frustrated once I realised both panels ran for an hour, and overlapped with ‘Fantasy Fiction’ (the latter I had booked a ticket for). I didn’t want to be disruptive/disrespectful and leave halfway through ‘Writing Diverse Characters’ or ‘David Levithan: Queer YA’ panels, so I missed out. Still, the sessions I attended to were inspiring, not just because of the authors and the way Danielle structured the sessions, but for the passion conveyed by the audience through their questions (I am also immensely relieved that there weren’t any up-and-coming authors in the audience who used question time as an opportunity to promote their work. I’ve seen this happen during question time at so many literature events, and every time I get a whiff of self-promotion guised as a question I slink down into my chair and will myself to dissolve). Danielle Binks opened the YA Superstars panel by declaring ‘we are all living in the second golden age of YA’. The number of panels devoted to YA at this year’s MWF attests to the popularity and importance of YA. I hope there continues to be an increase of YA panels at future Melbourne Writers Festivals in years to come. Or, perhaps, a whole festival for YA.

Event Highlights: The Year Ahead in Youth Literature

Last night the Centre for Youth Literature hosted ‘The Year Ahead in Youth Literature’ (aka YA speed-dating) at the State Library of Victoria. With over 70 titles from 15 publishing houses to be presented in 2 hours, each publisher was allotted 5 minutes to promote and celebrate just a slice of their 2016 YA lists. The sold-out event was heavily tweeted (The Centre for Youth Literature have created a Storify of all the Tweets). Exciting times ahead in YAland, with such a diverse array of titles, featuring ghosts, witches, asylum seekers, mental illness, grief, love and a celebration of Australian YA.

Here are just a few of my favourites from the night.

When We Collided by Emery Lord

WhenWeCollided
Pub: Bloomsbury
Pub date: May 2016
Grief, love and bipolar. 17 year-old Jonah is struggling with his family life – his father died suddenly, and his mother has fallen into a deep depression. Vivi is the new girl in town – unabashed and unfiltered. What Jonah doesn’t know, is Vivi recently stopped taking her bi-polar medication.

The Leaving by Tara Altebrando

TheLeavingPub: Bloomsbury
Pub date: June 2016
Six children disappear from a small town without a trace. 11 years later, five of them return.

Promising Azra by Helen Thurloe

Azra
Pub: Allen & Unwin
Pub date: September 2016
Arranged marriage in Sydney. The impact forced marriages have on both the young men and women.

Between Us by Clare Atkins

Pub: Black Inc
Pub date: 2016
Love. Crossed Wires. Set in Northern Territory, two teenagers fall in love. One doesn’t know the other is otherwise incarcerated in a detention centre.

Untitled #LoveOZYA anthology edited by Danielle Binks

Pub: HarperCollins
Pub date: 2016
An anthology celebrating the talents of 10 Australian YA authors, spearheaded by Danielle Binks. This project was announced at The Year Ahead in Youth Literature. You can read more about the anthology, and what inspired its creation, here.

Book of Lies by Teri Terry

Bookoflies
Pub: Hachette
Pub date: 22 March, 2016
Good witch. Bad witch. One is the hunter. One is the hunted.

Untitled Ampersand Prize winning novel by Calanthe Black

Pub: Hardie Grant Egmont
Pub date: September 2016
a 15 year-old stowaway is kidnapped by an alien race and forced to act as their translator.

The Other Side of Summer by Emily Gale

Pub: Random House
Pub date: 01 June 2016
Loved and lost. Magic and realism. The impossible becomes possible.

The Road to Winter by Mark Smith

Pub: Text Publishing
Pub date: 22 June 2016
Set in the near future, where asylum seekers bought and sold at auction. Explores issues of identity and conflict

One Would Think the Deep by Claire Zorn

Pub: UQP
Pub date: May 2016
17 year-old mourning the sudden death of his mother. Set in 1997. 90’s nostalgia paired with contemporary issues.

Frankie by Shivaun Plozza

Frankie
Pub: Penguin
Pub date: 28 March 2016
Frankie is angry. Then a kid shows up, claiming to be her half brother and opens up a past she would rather forget. Then, he goes missing.

The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis

sidekicks
Pub: Penguin
Pub date: 2016
What happens when 3 boys realise they’re not friends, but have to deal with the death of a mutual friend.

The Things I Didn’t Say by Kylie Fornasier

ThingsIdidnt
Pub: Penguin
Pub date: 27 April 2016
Anxiety. Selective Mutism. Love.

Inclinations, limitations, gatekeepers and censors – marketing YA

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Writing a novel and getting it published is just the beginning. Hosted by Annie Collins (a final year student in the RMIT Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing), the YA Marketing Panel at RMIT University involved Susannah Chambers (Commissioning Editor for Children and YA at Allen & Unwin), Susan La Marca (Head of Library and Information Services at Genazzano FCJ College in Melbourne and Associate Editor of Viewpoint, a journal devoted to YA reviews) and Fay Helfenbaum (Bookseller at Avenue Bookstore and Committee Member at Children’s Book Council of Australia, Victoria) chatting about promotion in schools and bookshops, as well as marketing to, and attempts at censorship by, gatekeepers (including addressing the mind-blowing audience question about what authors should avoid putting in their work, in order to ensure their books make it to the shelves). Here are a few highlights from the session.

Questions for Susannah:
What is the difference between marketing YA and marketing adult works?

When marketing for YA, you are also marketing for the gate-keepers: the librarians, parents and school teachers.

Do authors take the marketing reins at some point?

The level of marketing is determined by the type of book. There is usually a 3-month campaign prior to publication. Marketing is a collaboration, which sees the publisher and author working together.

Would you re-market earlier lesser-received novels, if subsequent novels are successful?

Yes. This may involve a new jacket, or a new pitch. Movie tie-ins are examples of re-marketing.

Are literary agents involved in marketing?

Literary agents stay connected to the authors, but it is not part of their job to market to the public (their job is to market to the publisher).

Do you use the author as the brand, or the book?

Publishers try to build author brands, rather than a single book brand, as they hope to achieve longevity with an author. There are challenges with the author brand, which include a long time between books (2 years), changing age group or genres.

Question for Nicole:

Can you talk about your experience with marketing your novel?

Nicole received a 12-page document which contained general expectations about her involvement in the marketing process. She met with her publicist 3 months before her book came out, which gave her publicist the opportunity to sound Nicole out regarding what contacts she had in the media (she had none), time limitations and what she felt comfortable doing. The information pack Nicole received was helpful, but other things came up along the way, including the importance of finding a marketing hook (her work came out in the middle of the football season, but Nicole pushed for publicity during the finals and the women’s round).

Susannah mentioned that Allen & Unwin have a marketing guide freely available via the author resources page of their site.

Can you talk about your experience at school events?

Nicole found the process tricky at first, as it was hard for her to get into an agency. Nicole has a background teaching workshops, so her favourite part of marketing is taking part in interactive events. She is passionate about discussions on building and developing strong female YA characters. Nicole recommended that authors should be prepared to listen to what the students talk about, to make their presentation interactive, and to get the students to do something in order to make them feel more engaged.

Questions for Fay:

Do you encourage authors to host book launches and author signings at your store?

An independent store, Avenue Bookstore supports local authors. Author signings and book launches can have a positive impact on the author, as the store staff may be more inclined to recommend the author’s book to customers.

Do authors or agents approach you for in-store launches?

Both. It depends on the size of the book. Well-known authors are usually represented by the publicist, but lesser-known authors tend to approach directly. Lesser-known authors also tend to be more flexible with time.

Questions for Susan:
How effective are school library author visits?

An author visit to a library won’t result in hundreds of sales, but it will gain interest. Genazzano FCJ College author visits are usually structured around an event (a literary festival or a book club event).

How would an author secure a school event?

Securing an event at Genazzano FCJ College is difficult, because Susan normally sources authors through speaker agencies. She does not have time to research authors, so she contacts people and organisations she trusts. If a book has become popular, she will seek out the author. Generally, she won’t put a new speaker at a large event until they’ve done a smaller group, such as a book club. Susan looks for authors who do more than just talk and promote their book.

How can authors get their books on the shelf?

Write a good one. Genazzano FCJ College aims to have a collection with a broad representation. Susan reads reviews and talks to people in the industry to gain recommendations.

How can authors get their book on the school reading list?

This is dependent on the needs of the year level. The selected books are usually ‘meaty’ literary texts that can be heavily dissected. Often a book is selected to maintain balance with other books across year levels, to ensure there is balance between Australian/international titles, history, or sad/uplifting titles. Teachers do have a say with what goes on the booklist, but the head of the curriculum can override any decisions. As part of her role, Susan makes booklist recommendations.

Faye remarked that some schools, particularly public schools with low budgets, often call the bookstore to ask for recommendations for their booklists.

Audience questions

What is the role of parents in marketing?

Nicole’s readership is primarily 13-15 year olds. As they don’t have their own discretionary money, Nicole is primarily marketing towards the parents. Nicole pointed out that marketing was not on her mind when she wrote the book.

Susan said that parents don’t influence the choices made at the beginning of book selections, but they have, on occasion had books challenged by parents. The spectrum of conservative to liberal parents is broad.

Are authors paid for school appearances?

Nicole makes more money from school appearances than she has so far from the publication of her book. Promoting her book has been hard work. She has donated her time to lower-end schools.

Can Susan give an example of a challenged text, so I know what to avoid including in my own work?

Susan described a recent example of a parent who protested the portrayal of a homosexual relationship in a positive light (the parent had said they wouldn’t have had a problem with the text if the relationship was portrayed negatively). Susan is amazed that parents don’t complain about violence, but will complain about sex or bad language. Susan said if it is a good book, then she will stand up for it and fight for it.
Susannah urged authors not to self-sensor, as you’ll never be able to please everyone, and you’ll make your book worse.
Nicole said you have to be free to write the book you want to write.

‘Men Overboard: Blokes, Wimps and Mates’ at The Wheeler Centre

Clementine Ford, Benjamin Law, Jennifer Granger and Ben Birchall discuss masculinity.

Clementine Ford, Benjamin Law, Jennifer Granger and Ben Birchall discuss masculinity

Last night I went to ‘Men Overboard: Blokes, Wimps and Mates’ at The Wheeler Centre. The focus of the panel was to ask what it means to be a male in the 21st century. Clementine Ford chaired the panel. She opened the evening by suggesting that masculinity in today’s society equates once again with physical strength. She invited her fellow panellists to discuss what they perceive to be the current ideals of masculinity and whether today’s society has taken a step forwards or backwards. Clementine ended her brief introduction by quipping about her position as emcee by paraphrasing Tony Abbot – ‘there are at least three men in my family so I am qualified to lead them’.

BLawBenjamin Law referred to his collection of personal essays, The Family Law, to discuss his experience of masculinity anxieties he had growing up, which he said were primarily about his physicality. He jokingly referred to himself as an ‘Asian hybrid man-child thingy’, as he has full lips and developed a deep voice and a complete lack of forearm hair. Benjamin commented that ‘Gay Australia’ is ‘incredibly white and ‘people would never suspect you could be a racial minority and gay’. He argued that the problem with any questions of masculinity is that ‘how we present as masculine or feminine is always someone else’s business’.

Granger

Jennifer Granger referred to her book Feminine Lost – Why Most Women are Male to argue that men and women are made up of both masculine and feminine qualities, and the combination of masculine and feminine features determines how we interact with the world. She believes what happens to women will have a corresponding effect on men, and vice versa. She described the emergence of what she sees as a ‘highly feminine man’, who doesn’t enjoy confrontation, has difficulty facing decisions and is receptive (but does not initiate). Jennifer believes there is a masculine and feminine role in every heterosexual relationship and a ‘butch’ and ‘feminine’ role in every homosexual relationship.  She also categorised the ‘macho man’ as ‘almost Neanderthal’, and the ‘pseudo-masculine’ as a man nursing wounds from unfairness of loss of privilege after the rise of the powerful woman.

Ben Birchall used a slideshow in his presentation, which he titled ‘masculinity 2.0’.

Ben's slide show featured a photograph of his son wearing a dress, which he used to illustrate the need for children to be free to explore their own identity

Ben’s slide show featured a photograph of his son wearing a dress, which he used to illustrate the need for children to be free to explore their own identity

He quipped that he is part of the problem, as he identifies as ‘a masculine man’. Ben believes there currently is a nostalgic view of masculinity, of 1970’s moustached, beer-swigging Dennis Lilly to compensate for the previously idealised super-buffed and preened David Beckham world. Mateship is paramount in this nostalgic masculinity, which involves sport and a ‘fetishism’ of ‘male time’ away from women.  Ben suggests this type of masculinity is just as rigid as its predecessor. Fatherhood ‘allows you to play a masculine role’, prompting Ben to explore what masculinity means to him and to ask himself how he can raise a good son. Ben believes masculinity is an impossible archetype. He said 1 in 8 men suffer depression, men are twice as likely to self-medicate, and 80 percent of suicides are men. Ben believes ‘manhood is too hard to define’, and if men were ‘concentrating less on being better men, it might free them to be better people’.

PEggyClementine suggested the unforeseen side effects of feminism is the perceived sense of emasculation and resulting blame on women. Referring to School Girls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap by Peggy Orenstein as a reference point, Clementine argued that some men perceive equality as a loss, as legislation that empowered men and restricted women has been removed. Ben Birchall acknowledged the many inequalities that women still face, but also argued that men are disadvantaged in health services. Jennifer commented that we have lived in a patriarchy for over 4,000 years, so any change will be gradual.

Clementine questioned Jennifer’s binaries of masculine and feminine. Clementine argued that notions of masculine and feminine are socially created, saying ‘I don’t think those things are gendered’. Jennifer argued that masculine and feminine are internal in all of us. Ben Birchall commented that masculine and feminine binaries are alive and well on social media (and sell products to consumers). He later commented that Unilever owns Dove (who have the highly successful ‘Real Beauty’ campaign) and Lynx (with campaigns where masses of scantily clad women are drawn to a male after he sprays the deodorant). Also countering Jennifer’s belief that men possess both masculine and feminine qualities, Benjamin Law argued that grizzly, macho guys resent being told they can’t be what they are. An audience member later asked Jennifer what research methodology she used to support her masculine/feminine theory, particularly in relation to the butch/feminine in homosexuality, and Jennifer responded by referencing biblical archetypes.

Raising concerns about the nostalgic masculine man of Ben Birchall’s presentation, Clementine said celebrating ideals of masculinity with the mythology of mateship between men only, freezes women out. Benjamin Law commented on his upbringing in Queensland, which he described as a ‘concentrated version of Australia’. He said growing up ‘you have to decide what sort of man you want to be’, and he was fortunate enough to know he was gay at a young age (he came out at 17). Benjamin Law argued that Jennifer’s categorisations of ‘butch’ and ‘feminine’ homosexuals is heteronormative, and that any notions of feminine or masculine roles are constantly negotiated and changing internally, regardless of sexuality.

An audience member commented that there are numerous campaigns on raising young girls to challenge stereotypes (the Always #LikeAGirl campaign is a brilliant example).

She asked whether there are similar campaigns for men. Clementine mentioned an up-coming documentary, The Mask You Live In, which explores how the phrase “man up” is the worst two words you can say to a male, as it asks them to sacrifice their emotional side. More info on the documentary can be found here.

 

Event: John Marsden at The Wheeler Centre

DSC04739‘To be honest is a revolutionary act.’ – John Marsden

One of my all-time favourite formidable female protagonists is Ellie Linton from Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden. She’s loyal, proactive, proud, brave and, importantly, fallible. The more I think about the Tomorrow series, the more I’m tempted to reach over to my bookshelf and start re-reading the first book, but that would make for a slightly non-existent blog post, so the book will stay on the shelf … for now.

Last night I went to The Wheeler Centre to see John and Lefa Singleton-Norton, the Creative Producer of Express Media, launch the 2014 John Marsden/Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers (writers under the age of 25 are eligible to enter. You can read more about the prize here while I lament about my age). Lefa introduced John as an author who has sold over 3 million books and has been short-listed for every children’s and young adult prize in Australia. The Patron of Express Media, John has shown his passion for young writers through his involvement with the organisation, as well as personally funding the prize. This year Hachette Australia are also sponsoring the prize, along with support from Arts Victoria, Australia Council and The Wheeler Centre. Here are a few highlights from the session.

When you wrote the Tomorrow series did you have a sense of the enduring readership?

John originally planned to only write one book, but when he came close to finishing the manuscript he realised there was still a lot more to tell. He started writing the second book the day after he finished the first. He felt a sense of momentum when writing the books, saying ‘it all took a life of its own’. The readership grew beyond young adult – a 78-year old woman came to North Rockhampton Library after he had written the fourth book and told him she wanted to him to finish the series so she could read the whole story before she died.

Are parallels between the political climate when you wrote the series, and now?

While writing the Tomorrow series, John felt Australians gave no thought to national security. Since then, he says there has been an ‘artificial frenzy’ of people depersonalised, de-classed and marketed as a threat to Australia. John ‘lost any feeling of pride’ after the Tampa incident. Now, when he sees an Australian flag flying, he wonders what crime is being committed.

John rejects nationalism, pointing out that Australia is rarely mentioned in the series. He did not want Tomorrow, When the War Began to be a book about Australians resisting foreigners, he wanted it to be a book about young people being tested.

The appeal of the Tomorrow series lies in how teenagers deal with being put in exceptional circumstances

John says war is a really powerful vehicle in literature. It gives ‘licence to add extra intensity to every interchange’. The Tomorrow series was the first time he had put characters through a test of physical courage. He enjoyed writing the action scenes – he wrote them quickly, but felt exhausted afterwards.

John is most proud of Checkers and So Much to Tell You, as while ‘not much happens’, the characters reflect on past events.

How did your collaboration with Shaun Tan, The Rabbits, come about?

John came up with the concept of The Rabbits while he was driving home from the airport and looking out at the landscape. He thought about vast spaces of land getting overrun by humans. ‘It’s kind of like a skin disease, in a way,’ he says. John says ‘rabbits are a good metaphor for how humans have invaded and contaminated Australia’.

The Australian bush is a constant presence/character in your work

John says there are ‘tiny, delightful discourses to be made in the bush’. He is currently writing an adult book, which is due for release later this year. It tells the story of a 12-year old street kid from London who decides to commit a crime so he can become a convict and be sent to Australia. Writing from the perspective of a foreigner allows John to look at the Australian landscape from a different perspective.

Your first book, So Much to Tell You, was released to a very narrow young adult market—

John believes Judy Blume opened up the young adult market in the United States. He enjoys writing from the perspective of a teenager because teenagers allow for a more radical and colloquial voice. John initially found it hard trying to write for adults, as he found it ‘hard to break free from the sense of being judged for every word’. He eventually came to the realisation that ‘we all have poetic licence, if we care to use it’.

There is an ongoing battle about writing the way teenagers talk—

Some of the language John used in So Much to Tell You was censored by his publisher. He was told he wasn’t allowed to have a character say ‘fucking homework’, and despite arguments back and forth with his publisher about it, he eventually conceded. He didn’t realise until after the book was published, that the publisher, rather than just deleting the expletive, replaced it, so the dialogue read ‘damned homework’, which made the dialogue sound more artificial.

The young adult market is huge now—

John has stopped reading young adult for himself. He does, however, read novels to his children. He says the Percy Jackson series is the first series since Harry Potter that his children have been engaged in. John found Harry Potter to be ‘one of the most sublime reading experiences of my life’ and his kids lived and breathed every moment of the series. The best children’s books are the ones that adults can love as much as kids.

Why are adults drawn to young adult fiction?

John believes adults are drawn to young adult fiction for ‘the worst possible reasons’. He says there is too much immaturity in our society, and too many adults haven’t grown up. Towards the end of the session, John clarified his point by saying he doesn’t believe adults shouldn’t enjoy reading young adult fiction, but they need to make sure they don’t try to appropriate the young adult experience.

The majority of your novels are written from first perspective. What do you find so compelling about writing this way?

Writing from first person allows John to get to the essence of the character. He says ‘voice is everything to me … If I’ve got the voice, then I’ve got the book’. Writing in first person also allows John to step away from his own life and write from their experience.

Selectively mute characters are motifs that appear throughout many of your books. Was this a conscious decision?

John didn’t pick up on this until a few books in. He says he grew up in a conservative family and society that had no room for differing opinions. He ended up in a psychiatric ward when he was 19, due to emotional repression. John describes it as ‘a transformative experience’, as he was given a licence to express his feelings. He was asked how he felt. ‘It was like this language I had to learn’. He also met a 14-year old patient who didn’t speak when they entered the ward, but by the time they left they were speaking again.

Why do you write from the female perspective?

John feels he has ‘licence to express emotion quite openly’ from the perspective of a female protagonist.

Do your ideas come from students?

Conversations are people swapping stories. If someone tells you something, it prompts a memory of your own experience. John says ‘we all have our own personal library of stories’. We all have significant and powerful stories that stay with us forever. Dementia and alzheimer’s patients lose themselves because they lose their stories.

You have a strong affinity with young people—

John quips ‘there are some kids I don’t like at all’, before saying ‘I respect young people, I think (I hope)’. He feels in today’s society it’s perceived as heresy to suggest that not all young people are beautiful and perfect, but the reality is some young people can be damaged from an early age. ‘How would it sound if you said, “I love 40-year olds?”

What is it that you find exciting about young writers?

Young writers are using language in a richer and more sophisticated way than ever before. Their writing is energised, distinctive and idealistic.

What advice to you have for young writers who are struggling with motivation?

John pours it all out on the page, then goes back and edits. He says ‘the more I write, the less fixing I have to do’. He believes a writer who is confident with language will use it almost effortlessly. He urges writers to ‘walk the language tightrope with their eyes shut’.

What advice to you have for writers looking for stories?

‘Everyone has at least one book in them’. Your own story will be interesting, as long as you are honest about it. Honesty is so compelling in writing because it is so rare in our culture. ‘To be honest is a revolutionary act’.

Audience question: have you ever felt like not writing?

John used to panic when he couldn’t write. Candlebark School has been all-consuming for the past 9 years. He wrote The Year My Life Broke after a lengthy break. His adult fiction manuscript is 117,000 words. John says ‘sometimes we have to recharge’.

Audience question: Dear Miffy was a controversial inclusion in school libraries at the time of its release. If you had written the book today, would you have written it differently?

John believes there were two main issues with the book – swearing and the bleak outlook. He believes the expletives wouldn’t be an issue today, but the protagonist with the bleak outlook would still be problematic. John was motivated to write the book after hearing about a boy who was disfigured after a failed suicide attempt. ‘We shouldn’t shy away from (writing about) people who have no hope’, because that would be ignoring the experiences of these individuals.

 Audience question: what is the mission and philosophy behind Candlebark School?

He believes schools weren’t doing enough to engage boys who are restless, physical and don’t want to sit at a desk for more than 2 minutes a day. ‘The idea that children can be resourceful and look after themselves seems to be an idea that’s lost all credibility’.

Audience question: do you have advice for writers dealing with editorial feedback?

John finds editors less intrusive than they used to be. His editor only made around 3,000 suggestions for his 117,000 word manuscript, and he agreed with 95% of the suggestions. He believes writers need to have confidence in their editor.

Audience question: who are your literary heroes? Do your heroic writers influence your own work?

John can see traces of writers he admires in his own work. He has come to recognise that originality is meaningless and it’s a dangerous concept. As a young adult, he was inspired by J.D Salinger’s ‘contemporary voice that breaks all the rules’. He says Charles Dickens has a rich gallery of minor characters. J.K Rowling has created characters that will be memorable for generations to come (Snape is his favourite). Melina Marchetta is another favourite. John credits Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman and Andy Griffiths with reviving the novel for young Australian readers.