The Middle Years: Keeping Kids Reading by Danielle Binks
Struggling to keep middle-grade kids reading? Danielle Binks shares her tips to keep pages turning!
I write books for children and young adults. Sometimes I write short stories for grown-ups.
If you’d like to commission me for an article, or reach me for reproduction/permission or comment – email me
Struggling to keep middle-grade kids reading? Danielle Binks shares her tips to keep pages turning!
‘We read to know we are not alone,’ – the character of C.S. Lewis says this line in William Nicholson’s play, Shadowlands. To know that someone else shares our embarrassments, fears, doubts, longings … or if not shares them, has at least had the thought flitter across their mind – that is everything. But what if you don’t ever find that connection?
We’re apparently experiencing a new renaissance in YA literature, heralded by the mega-star-power of books like Twilight, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and The Fault in Our Stars. In fact, the popular HarperCollins Epic Reads blog earlier this year released a video chronicling ‘A Brief History of Young Adult Books’, and declared the early 2000s the Second Golden Age of YA (the first, they claimed, came in the 1970s, with the likes of Robert Cormier and Judy Blume).
Australian Children’s Laureate and bestselling children’s author Jackie French was named Senior Australian of the Year in January, and in her speech she had one important message: ‘If you want an intelligent child, give them books. If you want a more intelligent child, give them more books.’
The Agent Carter television series has been described ‘a Triumph for Women, Marvel and TV,’ and heralded as an important new chapter in comics culture. But why is this supposedly groundbreaking new show struggling to find an audience? And if Agent Carter fails, does it spell doom for the future of female-led superhero franchises?
YA is not a genre – it is a readership. I’d like to talk about the reason for the frequent confusion between the two.
It may seem like pedantic nitpicking to focus on this distinction, but so pervasive is the mistake, amongst even established literary channels (according to the New York Times, ‘the genre’s appeal has spread beyond teenage readers…’), that explaining the difference has become increasingly important, and indeed, necessary.
In September this year, American author and illustrator Cece Bell released a graphic memoir, El Deafo, about losing her hearing at the age of four. El Deafo details Bell’s middle-grade life and deaf experiences: she wears a clunky hearing aid, ‘The Phonic Ear’; struggles to learn to lip read; and is embarrassed by her need to use sign language (‘Some people put on a real show when they start signing – like mimes!’).
I love The Amazing Race franchise, and I adore Anne of Green Gables. So when The Amazing Race Canada made a pit stop at Prince Edward Island this season, I was thrilled, and my bucket list grew. From the cliffs of Cavendish, to rolling green pastures as far as the eye can see – I want to go there. But it also got me thinking about this strange phenomenon of literary tourism – the settings, characters and their creators that draw us like lodestones to otherwise obscure locations.
Following on from the release in October of their first young adult title, Clare Atkins’ Nona and Me, Black Inc. this month released their second, Alice Pung’s Laurinda.
Iris Murdoch said, ‘A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.’
American young adult author Kathleen Hale may want to take heed of Murdoch’s wise words, or those of Stacia Kane (‘Authors, reviews are not for you!’), or any one of the many authors out there who warn their peers not to read bad reviews, and especially never to respond to them. It invariably does not end well: just ask Anne Rice.
This month, Black Inc. published Clare Atkins’ debut novel Nona and Me. Atkins’ novel is the prestigious publishing house’s first foray into young adult literature, and with it they have set the bar high.
Another month, another critic who doesn’t read young adult (YA) literature but still feels superior enough to dictate to those who do. And with this latest instalment of ‘YA bashing’ comes critique of the critics – as many start pointing to a patriarchal undercurrent that runs beneath such articles that claim young adult and children’s fiction is unworthy.
Youth literature has the ability to shape our attitudes to subcultures, and been proven to create empathy by reducing prejudice… So, if the genre has such potential for inclusivity, ‘why are so many of these characters white, straight, able-bodied and middle-class?’ (as YA author James Dawson put it recently in the Guardian).
In August, Hollywood’s annual Teen Choice Awards felt the sting of backlash when it was revealed they were excluding the event’s most vital element: teens. The annual awards show honours achievements in pop culture – from film and TV to music and sport – as voted for by teens (aged 13 to 19). But backlash came (along with a Twitter hashtag: #teensdonthaveachoiceawards) when it was revealed that the Fox Network had ignored the votes of viewers and prematurely chosen winners days before public voting polls closed.
Yossi is seventeen years old and lives in Melbourne’s biggest Jewish suburb of Caulfield. He attends Beth Dovid high school and is among their most spiritual and dedicated students. His mother died of bowel cancer when he was very young, and now there’s just Yossi, his father and older sister, Talya – a close family, and Yossi is especially preoccupied with making his father proud of him.
‘Excuse me, where are the boys’ books? I’m looking to buy for a 16-year-old.’
I overheard this question while browsing in a bookshop recently. I felt insta-rage, and wanted to explode into a rant about gender-specific books and how there’s no such thing as “girl” books and “boy” books because books don’t have sex organs, for cryin’ out loud! But I reined in my uproar, and seeing as I was browsing in the same section, I offered to help this woman who was looking to buy a young adult book for her grandson.
The testosterone-fuelled BIFF! BANG! KAPOW! of classic comics can seem uninviting, filled with spandex-clad men and swooning damsels who hold limited appeal outside the stereotypical 18-35 year-old male demographic. But things are changing in the world of comics, with the widespread introduction of more diverse characters and female-friendly storylines than ever before. For young, female readers in particular, there are plenty of comics to fan-girl over.
Back in May a group of American authors began the ‘We Need Diverse Books’ campaign – a call to action for more minority representation in youth literature. Their mission statement reads: ‘We recognize many kinds of diversity, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, those impacted by their gender, those with disabilities, ethnic/cultural/religious minorities, etc. Our mission is to promote or amplify diversification efforts and increase visibility for diverse books and authors, with a goal of empowering a wide range of readers in the process.’
Back in 2012, Daniel Radcliffe hosted Saturday Night Live (SNL) and began his opening monologue thusly: ‘To the children who love Harry Potter, I want to say your enthusiasm was the real magic. I so enjoyed being on the journey with you. And to the adults who bought the Harry Potter books and devoured them, I just want to say… those books were for children. You were reading children’s books!’ And it was funny, because it was true. A whole slew of adult readers who perhaps hadn’t picked up a children’s book since they themselves were children, read J.K. Rowling’s series with as much enthusiasm as the young readership it was intended for. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series drew a similarly voracious adult fanbase.
‘It’s no wonder boys aren’t reading – the children’s book market is run by women.’ So claimed the headline of an April article in The Times.
*Cue Liz Lemon eye-roll*
I like John Green as much as the next YA-aficionado. I’ve snot-cried through his books, and chuckled over his YouTube videos. But now it’s time to talk about the media-led oversaturation of John Green, and the insulting way he’s been heralded as the saviour of young adult fiction.
The box office is once again dominated by movie adaptations of young adult novels: there’s John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Mockingjay – Part 1, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy and Lois Lowry’s The Giver – to name a few of the YA adaptations coming in 2014. But it’s a British small-screen adaptation of a young adult series which has really captured my attention, and demonstrates that YA can be adapted for TV to great effect.
In 2012 I wrote my first column for Kill Your Darlings: ‘You are not alone: Why we need more Indigenous writers and characters in Australian YA.’
Two years later and it’s still mainly specialist and independent publishers representing Indigenous authors and characters. But if you do want to read Aussie young adult (YA) books in which these characters and authors are celebrated and given voice, look to Magabala Books.
In March, Penguin Books Australia rereleased Melina Marchetta’s first novel as part of its Australian Children’s Classics series. Looking for Alibrandi was first published in 1992; the first print run sold out in two months, and Marchetta’s debut went on to win the Children’s Book Council of Australia Children’s Book of the Year Award. Marchetta also wrote the screenplay for the book’s film adaptation, which won her a Film Critics Circle of Australia Best Screenplay award in 2000, as well as an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Earlier this year, Readings Bookstore announced the creation of The Readings Children’s Book Prize. The eligibility criteria for the 2014 Prize was specified as ‘a work of published fiction, written for children aged 5–12’.
American author John Green’s young adult (YA) novel The Fault in Our Stars has been a bestselling juggernaut since its release in 2012. Green’s book was somewhat inspired by his friendship with Esther Earl, whose posthumous memoir This Star Won’t Go Out was released in January this year.
Last year the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) added the first graphic novel to its VCE English text list. Maus by Art Spiegelman is about a Jewish cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story of surviving Hitler’s Europe. It’s wonderful that Maus has been added, but considering Spiegelman won the Pulitzer for Maus back in 1992, was it really such a bold move by the VCAA – or just long overdue?
I want to leave, transfer, warp myself to another galaxy. I want to confess everything, hand over the guilt and mistake and anger to someone else. There is a beast in my gut, I can hear it scraping away at the inside of my ribs. Even if I dump the memory, it will stay with me, staining me — Excerpt from ‘Speak’
It continually amazes me that there are people out there (let’s call them literary snobs) who absolutely refuse to read young adult (YA) books. Now, I often say that I’m not a big fan of memoirs and biographies – but that’s me disliking a specific genre. People who point-blank refuse to read anything with a whiff of teen appeal are dismissing an entire readership – not just a single niche genre, but every book in a vast and wonderful literary world. That absolutely boggles the mind – especially because children and young adults don’t have nearly the same qualms and prejudices against adult books.
If you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, then please don’t judge a readership by the coverage it receives in the mainstream media. Earlier this month, Jonathan Myerson blundered his way into a Twitter backlash with his article ‘Children’s fiction is not great literature’ in which he puts forth the argument that only adult literature ‘confronts the range of human experience’. The best *drops mic, walks away* rebuttal to this came from young adult (YA) Carnegie award-winning author Patrick Ness.
Across the road from Flinders Street Station there is a little street called Degraves. At one end there’s a splash of street art adorning walls and dumpsters, while the other end remains Parisian: all black umbrellas, quaint cafés, tucked-away restaurants and the world’s oldest bookshop for children and young adults–The Little Bookroom.
Last year young adult (YA) author, Dianne Touchell, released her contemporary debut Creepy & Maud. It’s a suburban love story about a girl with Trichotillomania (a compulsive urge to pull out one’s own hair), and the unnamed next-door-neighbor boy with a slight case of Haphephobia (a fear of touching and being touched), who watches and woos her with literary quotes he holds up in his bedroom window. The two fall in love amidst their parents’ neighbouring warfare.
There’s been much debate in the world of young adult literature after children’s author/illustrator Shoo Rayner posted a blog questioning the decision to award author Patrick Ness the Carnegie Medal (the British Children’s Book Award). The post was ‘Can children have their prize back please?’ and it caused a mild (but dignified) Twitter storm between Ness and Rayner, which everyone has since weighed in on.
It seems fitting that in Australia there are two publishing initiatives searching for new voices in the Young Adult (YA) readership; after all, YA is all about discovery and firsts. Both Text Publishing Company’s Text Prize and Hardie Grant Egmont’s Ampersand Project are finding new authors and remarkable books to feed this forever popular readership.
Not too long ago, I stumbled upon a particularly heinous form of bookish torture, when a friend confessed to me that she wouldn’t let here 10-year-old daughter read beyond Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
‘They’re too dark,’ she said, ‘book two was already keeping her up at night.’
‘B-b-but! The Triwizard Tournament! Dumbledore’s Army! Ron and Hermione!’ I exclaimed.
There is a new readership amongst us: they’re no longer young adult, but not quite adult – they are ‘new adult’ – a term coined by St. Martin’s Press back in 2009, for books featuring characters in their ‘college years’ and originally targeted at readers just out of high school. These are books that contrast the impotence of teenage youth with the aimless uncertainty of early adulthood; illustrating that getting older doesn’t necessarily mean ‘getting it together.’
Dear Ms Byrne,
Did you know that if the manuscripts of To Kill A Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye were pitched today, they would most likely be marketed to the young adult readership? Now, imagine if that were the case and you didn’t review either book on your wonderful program, simply because it had a ‘young adult’ label attached. Think if you never met Holden Caulfield or Scout Finch, and only because they were young people telling their coming-of-age stories.
Here’s the latest news straight from the teenage underground, concerning a movie adaptation of a rather sacred young adult novel from one of Australia’s most beloved authors: Melina Marchetta.
Last month an English teacher took to the The Age opinion page to shake his fist at the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) for including Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera on the Year 12 reading list.
This year I read two wonderful Australian young adult (YA) books, written by Indigenous authors and featuring Aboriginal protagonists. Grace Beside Me (Magabala Books, 2012) by Sue McPherson is set in 2008, the year of Kevin Rudd’s ‘Sorry’; it’s a coming-of-age story about Fuzzy Mac, her Nan and Pop and their small town of Laurie. The second was a twisting Eco-Dystopian with Dreamtime themes; The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (Walker Books, 2012) by Ambelin Kwaymullina is the first in a new series called The Tribe.
The last 12 months have seen some seriously great Indigenous teen stories across several mediums…
Amid the hand-wringing over who does and doesn’t deserve a platform at the Melbourne Writers Festival, the perennially overlooked teen and genre communities are seemingly being forgotten once again – and are creating alternative festivals of their own.
State Library Victoria’s recent decision to retire its Centre for Youth Literature brand has been met with dismay and anger from youth literature advocates. The Library emphasises that its youth programming will not change – so what is being lost?
Danielle surveys the YA literary landscape in Australia and calls for librarians to rally behind young readers, revolutionise their YA collections, and embrace Australian authors! Sounds like our kind of movement!
Between December 2002 and February 2009, Danielle Binks wrote 391, 522 words of FanFic. This is her story (and the story of FanFiction more generally)
Danielle Binks – A Review of ‘The Intervention: An Anthology’
What happens when you write a romance novel by committee? In the case of Shannon Curtis and ‘Alice Campion’, the answer is: major publication deals and an avid readership. Danielle Binks explores the rise of collaborative fiction … and wonders whether we might be reading much more of it very soon.
Why do so many romance writers choose pen-names? Danielle Binks looks into what happens when authors’ covers are blown.
“We’ve got a boner to pick with you!”
So began a College Humor video last year, HBO Should Show Dongs. This CH short made the social media rounds both because it was freakin’ hilarious, and painfully true.
There’s a famous quote that goes: “There are three types of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics”. It’s also an apt summary of politics, and Tony Abbott’s latest political back-flip in particular.
“… the feminists always have a talent for enraging me,” wrote Marc Lépine in his suicide note, along with the names of 19 women he wanted to kill.
In 2014 alone, there were enough cringeworthy celebrity social media faux pas to keep tabloids in print. From Bill Cosby tweeting “Go ahead. Meme me!” right when he’s been accused of raping 13 women to musician Diplo’s sexist campaign to “Get Taylor Swift a booty”, social media stupidity among celebs has become inevitable and ‘worst social media blunders’ now part of the end-of-year media roundup.
Colleen McCullough sadly died last week, but instead of celebrating her career as a neurophysiologist and bestselling author, The Australian newspaper turned the tide of conversation with a misogynistic obituary.
My aunt and uncle got married in December last year.
My aunt Helga is 62, my uncle Don 65 and they’d been in a defacto relationship for 31 years and have one daughter together.
Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was a documentary released in 2010, to mark the novel’s 50th anniversary. During an interview, author Anna Quindlen asked “Can you imagine the pressure on Harper Lee to write a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird? I mean, once the movie came out, and you could see that it kept selling every year – they must just have thrown rose petals and chocolates and millions of dollars at her feet, and I don’t know whether she couldn’t do it – but I prefer to think that she wouldn’t do it.”
Picture a typical romance-reader, somebody who enjoys Harlequin or Mills & Boon titles. Have you got an image of them in your head? Chances are it’s of the bored housewife or lonely cat lady persuasion.
Do reading challenges designed to promote female authors really help in changing gendered reading habits?
After three weeks of sustained pressure, Bronwyn Bishop finally apologised to tax payers on Thursday for her $5000 chopper trip.
Stella Prize Schools Coordinator Bec Kavanagh once told me that the Schools Program is all about the inclusion of voices, not the exclusion of any.
Discussions about gender-flipping have occurred with some regularity over recent years in the American film industry, the source of so much of Australia’s cultural consumption.
Like vampires, zombies, and ‘sick-lit’ before it, dystopian fiction has been subject to a lot of ‘trend’ talk lately. This sci-fi sub-genre has been crowding bookshelves and film adaptations have been ruling the box office – particularly in the young adult (YA) area. As is inherent in labelling dystopia a trend, people are inevitably wondering when it will end and what the next big thing will be.
In recent years the likes of the Stella Prize and VIDA: Women in Literary Arts have illuminated some of the ways men still dominate the literary world, publishing irrefutable evidence of disparities in review coverage of male and female authors.
Writer and reviewer Danielle Binks discusses sex and taboos in YA. How far have we come since the release of Judy Blume’s Forever in 1975?
For her fourth Stella Schools Blog guest post, writer and reviewer Danielle Binks speaks with YA authors about the representation of women characters in fantasy YA, and how they approach the issue in their own work.
In her latest Stella Schools Blog guest post, writer and reviewer Danielle Binks asks us to take another look at the role of mothers in YA.
Why are there so few YA books with Indigenous characters?
A US-led campaign to address the lack of diversity in children’s literature has sparked long-overdue conversations in Australia.
A number of high-profile vloggers have recently announced book deals. An investigation into whether or not this trend is taking off in Australia
Why is there so little translated YA fiction published in Australia?
Middle-grade children’s fiction is underrepresented— and often misunderstood — in Australian publishing.
In the four years since Danielle Binks wrote about the under-representation of middle-grade literature, the genre has exploded. Now a middle-grade author herself, Binks follows up with a look at the subsequent Australian middle-grade boom.
Dissecting the New Adult genre.
A look at The Stella Prize three years on.