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.