The voice, ethics and audience of young adult fiction

Susannah Chambers, Sally Rippin, Penni Russon and Anna Burkey

Susannah Chambers, Sally Rippin, Penni Russon and Anna Burkey

Last night I attended an Editors Victoria dinner meeting, ‘Dark fantasy: Symposium on the future of young adult fiction’. Anna Burkey, ‘Literary Ninja’ and Centre for Youth Literature Manager, chatted with Susannah Chambers, Commissioning Editor of books for children and young adults, Sally Rippin, author and illustrator, and Penni Russon, author and creative writing teacher, about all things YA. The aim of the session was to explore who reads it, who writes it, who edits it and who decides what gets published. Here are a few highlights from the event.

Why Young Adult?

Winner of the 2012 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for her novel, Only Ever Always, Penni Russon never grew out of reading young adult fiction. She was drawn to what she describes as ‘the body, politics and poetry’ of young adult fiction.  Penni writes the books she feels she needs to write.

Author of over fifty children’s books, Sally Rippin loves the ‘heightened experience of adolescence’. She believes the life of a child or young adult is experienced ‘in a more severe way’. She recalls when her publisher gave her a copy of Looking for Allibrandi by Melina Marchetta and Sleeping Dogs by Sonya Hartnett to showcase some of the best of Australian YA.

Recipient of the 2014 Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship, Susannah Chambers started working in YA completely by accident. After completing her Bachelor of Arts Degree at the University of Melbourne, Susannah became the office manager at the Allen & Unwin Melbourne office. She has never stopped reading Young Adult fiction. She loves the intensity of YA voices, and believes YA offers closer focus on story than adult fiction. Susannah points out that YA is not a genre, but a marketing signpost to show where any given title belongs on the bookshelf.

Would the Australian industry benefit from not going down the blockbuster path?

Susannah travelled to New York as part of the 2014 Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship to see how the Australian YA market differed in the US. She believes the downside to the blockbuster success of Twilight and The Hunger Games is that authors will think they have failed if their work doesn’t reach the same heights.

Penni believes the Australian Young Adult market experienced blockbuster YA success prior to the US, citing  Looking for Allibrandi by Melina Marchetta. She finds that books seem to be getting lost in the current market. However, she also feels that blockbusters do get kids reading. Penni urged authors against writing for mainstream, or trying to write for a mass-market, as ‘it’s not a reader-maker’.

Sally says literary awards help to draw attention to complex, accomplished works. Awards are increasingly important, as publishers have been taking less risks with YA titles since the fervour of the Harry Potter series subsided.

Do gatekeepers help or hinder young adult fiction?

Penni believes teachers and librarians get a bad rap as gatekeepers. As a parent, she is wary of being a ‘nostalgic threat’ to her children. Penni has to resist the urge to force her childhood favourites onto her children – while certain books were influential during her childhood, her children may find them to be outdated.

Is there room for more research on the kinds of things young adults want to read?

Penni is writing a website for teenagers with psychosis and depression as part of her involvement with a mental health research project for Orygen Youth Health. She believes anyone involved in the creation or publication of YA titles need to consider the ethics, by asking what is healthy for young adult readers, and what is important to them.

Sally has found the voice of young adults is more present because of the internet. Young adults are visibly more active in the online writing community.

Susannah believes the best stories come from authors telling stories they want to tell.

How do you achieve an authentic young adult voice?

Sally started writing when she was 19 years old. She has written for young adult, but finds that lower/upper primary is the most natural space for her.

Penni said ‘I’m 39, and I don’t know what it’s like to be 39’. She has insight into the adolescent experience.

What responsibility do young adult authors/publishers/gatekeepers have to young adult readers?

Sally feels responsible to the readership. She notes that ‘children will only bring their own comprehension to their reading’.

Susannah believes you cannot work closely with a book without feeling a sense of responsibility. She says 50% of young adult novels are purchased by adults for adults. She points out that YA is marketing category, not a genre. Older people are drawn to YA for the voice, character and because story is given preference. Jasper Jones ,by Craig Silvey, and Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan, have been published under different categories in different countries.

Penni never has what she describes as an ‘enjoy it while it lasts’ sentiment in her YA titles. She is a hope-filled optimist.

Audience question: What is ‘New Young Adult’?

Susannah says the term was coined by an American publisher, St. Martin’s Press, as part of a competition (click here for more info). Young adult and new young adult are not fixed categories. Holier than Thou,  by Laura Buzo was published as YA, but described as new young adult. She quips that the term new young adult ‘has come to mean soft-core porn’.

Penni believes the term has failed because St Martin’s Press created it to try and target a demographic.

Audience question: Is there still a murky space between YA and adult?

Susannah says there is a murky space, but it’s okay.

Penni suggests that genre fiction can help transition from YA to adult fiction.

Sally believes gatekeepers can help break down the barrier between YA and adult.

Audience question: What advice do you have for YA authors?

Penni asks authors to ‘find that authentic voice’. You can edit out bad grammar or spelling, but ‘you can’t edit in the voice’. She says authors need to ‘write a story that’s true to you’.

Sally says authors should ask themselves what part of your life gives you the most detailed memories.