Category Archives: Currently reading

In which I come out as a YA SF reader…

I’m an adult fan of young adult (YA) fiction, in particular YA fantasy and science fiction. To those who would suggest I’m enjoying a prolonged adolescence, indulging in nostalgia or yearning to return to my teenage years I will simply point you towards the famous words of one Cher Horowitz.


In the words of Cher Horowitz…

There’s been quite a bit written about the reasons adults read YA fiction and paegns to the rising quality of genre. I just like it. I love the intensity and urgency of YA fiction. The slow emergence of moral grey from a sea of black and white. The understanding that good people can do bad things. That your family shapes but does not define who you are. That sex and attraction and romance can be both scary and wonderful, sometimes simultaneously. That choices have consequences, sometimes large, life-changing ones. That bad things can happen. That life is complicated and messy and glorious and filled with great things, just waiting for you.

But one of the main reasons I like YA fiction is that it deals with identity formation in a way that more ‘adult’ books often do not. An adult novel can rely on job descriptions for cultural short hand (perky NYC publicist, West Coast computer programmer, etc). In contrast, YA novels have high school, a physical location that almost everyone attends, where the major differences are social.  Because of this ‘blank slate’, there may be cross-cultural friendships and relationships that are skipped in works targeted at older readers or Taken Very Seriously. In YA, the tension and challenges faced by first generation migrants, emerging awareness of gender discrimination, teens struggling to reconcile bicultural identities and unconventional sexualities are fair game for discussion (although some characters are only granted minority feisty status).

Sadly, incorporating diversity not universally done well. Crimes range from using using ‘almond shaped eyes’ as a ‘subtle’ code for Asian ethnicity, (read this hilarious take down on the practice) to the horrific and lazy practice of describing skin colour in ‘Starbucks’ terms (read another awesome take down on why describing people as chocolate/mocha/caramel/cinnamon/nutmeg is a really bad idea). But sometimes it is done astoundingly well, in ways that challenge and enrich the reader.

Even though I have some major problems with current approaches to diversity in YA literature as a whole, I have never forgotten the jolt that Ursula Le Guin gave me around age 11 when I realized that Ged, the wizard of Earthsea was not white. From memory, the realisation hit around book 3 or 4. I felt mad. That wasn’t how Ged was supposed to be. She tricked me. But she hadn’t. Tracing back, I was confronted by the fact that despite the clear description of Ged’s red-brown skin, I had assigned whiteness to Ged. Because… why exactly? Because that way he was more like me. Because that’s the default in our culture. Because he was the hero and heroes are white, aren’t they? (The fact that my edition had been whitewashed by putting Ged in silhouette on the cover did not help). I had read at least two books from the perspective an ‘other’, without noticing, because it that world, it wasn’t a big deal. Probably because we’re all human in a world filled with wizards and demons. But realizing that you carry some racial baggage  is an uncomfortable moment. And one that I’m glad I got to have in the privacy of my home as an kid. Because good YA fiction helps you grow and confront your prejudices, without having to hurt anyone in the process (or look like a dumb-ass).

I think my fascination with identity is why I also enjoy supernatural and fantasy themes. My theory is that the rise in popularity of supernatural themes can be traced back  to two underlying reasons.

Firstly, emerging supernatural identities act as a coded way of exploring the tension of multiple-identity formation and maintenance that so many people experience through external social pressure (ie anyone who has a prefix or hyphen in front of an aspect of their identity eg Arab-Australian, female architect, Australian-born Chinese) . The vampire/werewolf/witch both knows our ways and yet is inexplicably alien. The newly “doubled” identity gives them the alternatives of ‘passing as human’ or completely withdrawal into a smaller social circle. The supernatural society is frequently presented as one in which the initiate must be groomed to understand new rules, rituals and norms, often by a romantic partner or social group. This group will often become a ‘family of choice‘. This echoes the experience of enculturation in a new identity as well as paralleling the teenage experience of faux pas through incomplete understanding and the gradual supplementing or replacing of family of origin through new peer and romantic relationships.

Secondly, fantasy allows us to deal with socially institutionalised fears. In particular, the current penchant for creatures of conversion (vampires, werewolves) clearly act as a stand in fears relating to sleeper agents/terrorists/religious converts. Spec fiction allowing us to explore the anxiety that someone who was one of us, who looks like us and knows what we value could turn out to be  unalterably, inexplicably, potentially voluntarily otherIn writing these social anxieties into a supernatural (and therefore fictional and controllable) world, there is the chance for every individual vampire/werewolf/terrorist etc to be redeemed by choosing to respect the sanctity of human life and love. This serves a double purpose: subduing fear of the other while simultaneously championing the cultural myths of individual exceptionalism, self-determination and free will.

Taken together, these underlying principles allow the reader to simultaneously transgress cultural norms (you are not wholly human/one of us) while reinforcing individual agency as the path to acceptance (but through making the ‘right’ choices we may accept you anyway).

[Incidentally, the appeal of teen dystopian fiction is much less complicated. Taken objectively, most teenage lives are dystopian: school is represented by arbitrary rules imposed by authority figures, parents  either condone or are complicit in the control apparatus of the society, there are limited forms of democratic representation, the protagonist is forced to reliance on an external agent for basic food and shelter, dissent can be punished ruthlessly. The much more interesting part of dystopian fiction is the history of them. Are they based on scientific advances, resource scarcity, political chaos, population explosion, alien invasion, artificial intelligence gone wild, intelligence services out of control, corporate takeover of the functions of government, natural disasters, post-war apocalypse, ruthless militarisation of a society… What each of these look like and the unique challenges they present are awesome.]


Books for small children

Being read to was a daily event in my life from in utero until well after I achieved independent literacy. As I got older, roles switched and I would practice reading aloud. I suspect my dyslexic tendencies and spelling would be much worse had I not been immersed in a reading culture so thoroughly. Shared reading is also a subtle  way in which written and visual culture is taught – without exposure to reading, it’s entirely possible for children to enter kindergarten lacking knowledge in how to hold a book, which direction words are read from and the difference between upper and lower case letters.  Aside from the educational benefits, reading aloud is a lovely ritual and a nice way to wind down.

I’m a proud PANK (Professional Aunt, No Kids) and one of my favorite gifts for the dear nephews are books. Here’s a list of some favourites for the under threes.

Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins.  The hen Rosie goes for a walk. Especially fun to read aloud without commenting on the hilarious fox being foiled in the background of all the illustrations. Expect disbelieving looks if using this approach.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr. A tiger with an insatiable appetite comes to tea, leaving nothing for dinner – so a trip to a restaurant is required.

The Mog series by Judith Kerr (including Mog the Forgetful Cat, Mog and the V.E.T, Mog in the Dark, Mog’s Christmas). Mog is a slightly dimwitted cat who is well-loved by her people all the same.

Hairy Maclairy series by Lynley Dodd. A series of stories a range of dogs (and one cat, Slinky Malinki) told in rhyme. Funny and fun to read aloud.

Burgler Bill by Allan Ahlberg. Burgler Bill gets more than he bargains for when he accidentally burgles a baby, and he decides to reform, returning the helmets and cakes he has stolen. It’s a bit longer than others in the list, but there’s lots to talk about in the illustrations.

Dogger by Shirley Hughes: A much beloved toy dog goes missing, and an older sister saves the day. A nice one if there’s a favourite soft toy in the family.

The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson. A rat with a sweet tooth is foiled by a clever scheme and his own greed. Great rhythm and rhymes for reading aloud.