Posts tagged 'young adult'

Nicole Hayes is a freelance writer, editor and teacher based in Melbourne. She teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne and Phoenix Park Neighbourhood House. Nicole’s first novel, The Whole of My World, has been shortlisted in the 2014 Young Australian Best Book Awards and longlisted for the 2014 Golden Inky Award.

We spoke to Nicole about why there’s never been a better time to be a writer in Melbourne, how it took 14-plus years to get her novel, The Whole of My World, published, and why you should ‘write what you love’ rather than ‘write what you know’.


What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Does my primary school magazine count? Actually, I remember my first ‘real’ published piece was in the Age, as a letter to the editor, written when I was about 14. I used a nom de plume – ‘Tezza’, after Terry Wallace, one of my favourite footballers at the time. I wrote about how boring it was to live in Glen Waverley. It was the early eighties, and every house was L-shaped cream brick veneer with the occasional weatherboard thrown in for aesthetic relief. The Glen Shopping Centre looked like a faded Lego construction, its only cultural offerings were a craft shop and a Chinese takeaway. No bookshop or cinema. But it was surrounded by footy ovals.

What’s the best part of your job?

Meeting readers and other writers, particularly at schools and festivals, where everyone seems to want to talk books, writing, and reading. I love hearing what people are reading, particularly young people. The cultural conversation in Melbourne is so vibrant right now, and – gradually – becoming more inclusive. Literary culture has never been richer. It’s a great time to be a writer in this city.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The money. I’m probably not meant to say that, but it’s really challenging to prioritise writing over better-paid work when the mortgage is due, or Christmas is approaching. Other than that, honestly? There’s no bad part. Even when I’m frustrated and hitting a wall creatively, or on deadline and stressed, I always make myself remember those years in unpublished hell. There is no comparison. I’ve also had some really crappy jobs in the past – overseas and in Australia. Brutal jobs. Teaching about writing, talking about writing – and the writing itself when I get to do it – is a delight, even when it’s not. I bet that makes me really annoying to be around.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Getting the call from my agent saying that Random House wanted to publish The Whole of My World. After 14-plus years of hearing nothing but rejection for this novel, as well as several others and a couple of film scripts, finally getting an offer felt other worldly. I will remember it forever.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best is also a play on the worst. It’s a variation of that annoying writing aphorism to write what you know. What’s the fun in that? What are you going to learn? Instead, I subscribe to the ‘write what you love’ piece of wisdom. It takes a really long time to write a book, and even longer to rewrite it. And after it’s published, you’ll be expected to talk about it. A lot. Forever, if you’re lucky. It had want to be something you care about.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Until several reviewers mentioned it, I didn’t realise that The Whole of My World was the first novel about AFL that featured a female character, or a female fan. Not a groupie, but a girl who loved footy. It was also the first novel about AFL written by a woman. I guess on some level I knew it was breaking new ground, but I didn’t realise just how new. I was stunned no one had done it before, given how many women and girls love football across the country.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Define ‘making a living’.

Let’s pretend that I do, actually, make enough money to live. If I couldn’t do this, I’d probably work in radio. I used to do a lot of community radio, and really loved the studio, the interview process, the editing and producing of a radio show. I’d definitely head toward that field. Having said that, I’d still be writing after hours – even without the money. (Just don’t tell my publisher.)

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Disclaimer – I teach creative writing and get paid for it. But I wouldn’t if I didn’t think it could make a difference. Writing absolutely can be taught. Which is not to say there isn’t an aspect of writing that is innate. There is. Some people just get words. They can move them and shape them to do what they want, without training or instruction beyond an understanding of basic grammar. But not many people fit this mould. And I’d argue that even the ‘natural’ writer can improve with guidance and attention to craft. A really good creative writing program – and I accept that not all would qualify – can nurture and expand on natural ability over time. I also think that people who struggle to write can learn how to write well. You can’t teach brilliance, but you can definitely teach storytelling.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Write a lot, for sure, but also make sure you read a lot. I’m amazed at how many aspiring writers tell me they don’t read. That defies logic.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I try to buy locally, whether online or in bookshops, as long as the books are available. I love the experience of being in a bookshop. I have a rule that I won’t leave an indie bookshop without buying at least one book. I’m okay walking out of the corporates empty-handed, but not the indies. (This is not something we should mention to my husband.)

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

I would love to have dinner with Johnny Wheelwright, the author-narrator of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I spent most of my teen years besotted with all things Irving, largely due to his acerbic observations and delicious descriptions. Johnny epitomised this. I felt incredibly sophisticated when he told me that the only way to get an American’s attention was ‘to tax them or draft them or kill them’. And I was slayed by his depiction of Owen’s ‘wrecked voice’ in ALL CAPS. He was so rebellious and witty and, I was convinced, handsome. Besides, who can resist a man whose ‘life is a reading list’?

The first thing I’d ask Johnny is if he’s still a Christian. I’m betting now he’d say no.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. After I read that novel I briefly stopped writing. I felt so overwhelmed by its power. Its simplicity. I remember getting to the end the first time, my heart pounding, too drained to even cry, and thinking to myself, what the hell do you think you’re doing pretending you’re a writer? I’d just read the perfect book. Why even bother when I knew I couldn’t write anything as powerful as The Road?

The problem is, I couldn’t just stop writing, even if I wanted to. It’s not a choice for me. I quickly found myself back at my desk, choosing, instead, to aim higher, work harder, and be better. My books, I decided, had to matter. At least to me, but hopefully to my readers too.

Nicole Hayes' first novel, The Whole of my World (Random House) is available now.



27 November 2014


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Children’s and youth literature expert Judith Ridge has had enough of under-informed and ‘insulting’ critiques of children’s and YA books. Responding to Helen Razer’s recent anti-YA argument in Crikey’s Daily Review, she’s come up with ten tips for writing about books for children and teenagers.


Image by Enokson, Flickr.

I came late to this week’s brouhaha over Helen Razer’s anti-YA diatribe in Crikey’s Daily Review because when it hit the interwebs, I was actually spending the day with children’s author Stephen Measday and twelve 9-13 year olds at a writers’ camp we delivered this week at the day job. That’s what I do. I work with kids and teens who love to read, and who love to write. I’ve been doing it for nearly 30 years, one way or another, and in the course of that time, I have read thousands of children’s and young adult books, and I’ve written about them quite a lot, too. Books by writers from all around the world, everything from wordless picture books through the simplest series fiction for reluctant readers to challenging literary fiction for older children and teenagers. It’s a huge field, and a broad church, which includes books for young people of all ages, from pre-literate pre-schoolers through to sophisticated older teenagers. And it’s one that attracts some of the most rigorous literary study from academics all around the world.

But there’s one thing it has – or ought to have – in common with any other art form, literary, visual, performing, whatever. And that is, you don’t get to, with any credibility, write about it unless you’ve read it.

So I’m not going to critique Ms Razer’s article on that very basis – I haven’t read it. Because, seriously, why would I. (Plenty of other people have, though, and I will link to their responses at the end of this post.) Because I’ve read maybe dozens of similar uninformed and insulting arguments about children’s and youth literature, and the people who read it – including its primary audience, kids and teens. So I feel like I’m in a position to offer would-be commentators on the topic a few words of advice. So here they are:

Top Ten Tips for Writing about Books for Children and Teenagers

  1. Read the books. No, not just The Fault in our Stars or Hunger Games or whatever happens to be on the bestseller lists at the time. Read widely, read historically. The first books published specifically for children emerged in the 18th century, so you’ve got some catching up to do. Start now, and maybe in a few years time you’ll have the basis for some informed commentary on The Latest Big Thing.

  2. Children’s and YA are not interchangeable terms. Children’s Literature and Young Adult Literature have well-examined and defining tropes, themes and forms. Yes, there are grey areas, but you won’t be able to write authoritatively about them until you know the parameters. Start with some of the excellent introductory academic texts on the subject: Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer’s The Pleasures of Children’s Literature or Michael Cart’s From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature.

  3. Do not patronise the readership. Young readers can be remarkably acute, astute and critical in their reading. And if you don’t actually like children and teenagers, then you won’t be sympathetic to their literature, so find something else to write about.

  4. Don’t assume they read the same way adults do – they don’t. And don’t generalise about what all young people do or do not like.

  5. Try and find some points of reference beyond Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Same goes for writing as if J.K. Rowling invented the ‘witches at boarding school’ genre. You are simply demonstrating the limits of your research and reading. In other words, see Point 1.

  6. Be aware of the implicit sexism in your dismissive attitudes towards children’s and young adult literature. Despite the public profile of a handful of male writers, the field has long been dominated by women at every level; writers, publishers, teachers, librarians. This is not always reflected in awards or magazine feature profiles, but it’s the truth, and like all female-dominated professions, it attracts a lack of respect at best and out-and-out contempt at worst.

  7. If you know your stuff, you may well be in a position to make some actually important and well-founded criticism of literature for young people, such as: the lack of cultural diversity in books for young readers, the heavy gendering of books, fat-shaming in kids’ and YA books, the lack of representation of characters with disability, and shamefully, in this country, the lack of LGBTQ characters and stories. Deduct points, however, if you ever entertain using the phrase ‘political correctness’ in your review/opinion piece/brain fart.

  8. Remember that reading is a democratic pastime and stop being a fascist about what people can or should read. The truth of the matter is, there are more books now for readers of all ages, abilities and interests, and that is something to be celebrated, not condemned.

  9. None of this is to say that children’s or YA books should be above thoughtful, critical analysis and discussion. On the contrary, those of us who have made children’s and YA literature our life’s work wish above all else that the books were treated with the same critical respect and rigour of any other form of literature. Honestly. Why else do we bang on about the lack of review space for them? We’re not masochists. We’d rather be reading.

Which brings me to:

  1. Read the damn books. Thanks.

Look. I get it. We’ve all been guilty of bluffing at some point in our careers, but the truth is, you never get away with it, and when you’re taking someone’s good money to do so and trashing the status of a whole artistic and professional field you know nothing of and care less about? Shame on you.

Here are other people’s takes on Razer’s piece:

Danielle Binks in Kill Your Darlings.

Ellie Marney at her blog hick chick click

This is an edited extract of a piece that ran on Judith Ridge’s blog, Misrule, yesterday. You can read the piece in full there.

Judith Ridge has written about children’s and youth literature for journals such as Viewpoint and Magpies, Australian Book Review, Publishers Weekly (US), Australian Bookseller and Publisher, The Horn Book (US) and The Age. Since 2007, she has been Project Officer on WestWords: the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature Project.



03 October 2014


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Melbourne author Kirsty Murray writes fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. She has published over a dozen books. Her latest is The Year It All Ended, a work of historical fiction based at the juncture of World War I and the birth of the Jazz Age.

We spoke to her about working with difficult material, the unique pleasures of writing for younger readers – and checking in with Balzac from time to time.


What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I was a nerdy, bookish kid who read the dictionary for pleasure and constantly thrust my writing beneath the nose of anyone who would give me the time of day. I gravitated toward every publishing avenue I could find from the school magazine in primary school to co-editing my high school year book just so that I could see my bad poetry in print.

But by the time I was in my twenties I’d lost confidence in my trajectory as a writer. I had three kids by the time I was twenty-six and though I scribbled story ideas in secret, I was overwhelmed by adult life had no idea of how to break into publishing. Occasionally I submitted badly formed short stories to magazines which were duly rejected.

Then, when I was starting to feel pretty desperate about ever being seriously published, I enrolled in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing course and from there I stumbled into editing work fairly quickly. I began to freelance and had articles published in newspapers and magazines but none of that felt particularly satisfying and I couldn’t say I felt ‘published’.

KMurray_manEaters In 1997, I signed my first publishing contract for a junior non-fiction title with Allen & Unwin in their True Stories series. Although the book, Man-eaters & Bloodsuckers, wasn’t exactly what I’d envisioned as being my big break into publishing, I learned a lot from the project and it provided a springboard into seriously writing for younger readers.

A year later, Rosalind Price, the commissioning publisher of Allen & Unwin’s children’s and young adult list, goaded me into submitting the synopsis for a novel (Zarconi’s Magic Flying Fish). On the strength of the outline and the first chapter, she gave me a contract and an advance. I can still remember the euphoria I felt when I stepped out of Allen & Unwin’s office in Rathdowne Street, Carlton. I almost levitated into the blue winter sky.

What’s the best part of your job?

Simply writing. Being inside the story and on the page with my characters is like an out-of-body experience where nothing else exists but the words. I love that feeling.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Sitting for long stretches at a time. It wreaks a terrible toll on the body. I try to vary my work environment and have experimented with standing at a raised desk and working on a couch propped up with pillows but essentially being still for long stretches at a time is extremely unnatural and bad for your health.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?

I think I’d find a different answer to that question on any given day of the week. In 2007 I spent several months in India as an Asialink Literature Resident at the University of Madras. It was the beginning of an enduring connection with India which has influenced my understanding of Australian literature and our place in Asia.

Writing The Year it All Ended also felt deeply important. It was an incredibly grueling book to write because it involved filtering a lot of grief and trying to make sense of the lives of a generation of young women who lived through very traumatic times. I feel like I broke through to a new level of understanding of how to work with painful material and yet make it (hopefully) cathartic and uplifting for the reader.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing or editing?

In the early 1990s I did a masterclass with a Booker Prize winning author, Bernice Rubens, at the Hay-on-Wye festival in Wales. Rubens offered much sound advice but the single piece of wisdom that she imparted that has been most important to me was that every writer should consider reading as much a part of their job as writing. She recommended putting aside a couple of hours of every day to read. Serious writers take reading seriously.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

I am often surprised and also very humbled by the impact my stories have on younger readers. Recently I received an email from a girl who had lost her father and she wrote about how she wept when she read The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie. She wanted me to know me how important the novel was to her.

Other kids have written to tell me they’re in love with a character I created, that they love my characters like their own brothers and sisters, or that they’d never finished reading a novel until they came across one of mine. It doesn’t get much better than being told you are a kid’s ‘author hero’. I don’t know any authors of fiction for adults that receive fan mail that’s quite as emotional as the kind of responses that authors of fiction for children and teenagers receive.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Starving. I’m neither qualified nor capable of doing much else.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Every art form can be taught. Writing is no different to any other human endeavour. In many respects, it’s among the easiest arts to teach. Humans are hard-wired to appreciate stories. There are no physical restrictions (unlike most of the performing arts) other than the ability to sit for extended periods.

But you can’t teach temperament and success in any artistic pursuit requires a degree of pig-headedness that not everyone possesses. You have to like your own company and have the stamina to persist when the work becomes arduous. Writing can be lonely and isolating, despite the fact it’s a form of communication. In every sphere of the arts, there are people who have a natural facility that speeds their progress. But having a natural gift doesn’t guarantee success if you aren’t committed to serving the very long apprenticeship that is required of all writers and artists.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or editor?

Read. Read widely and deeply. Buy books, borrow books and share books. Try to understand what it is that makes a story appeal to you. Unpick the occasional story but make sure you don’t kill the pleasure that books yield. Be self-critical of your reading and keep a reading journal.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

One of my deepest pleasures is browsing in physical bookshops. Reading is not just an intellectual activity but a tactile delight. Browsing online can never replace the excitement of feeling the weight of a book in your hands, inhaling its scent and cherry picking juicy passages of prose. I also value the advice that accomplished independent booksellers can provide.

That said, I buy books online occasionally, though I try and source them locally first. I have a policy of buying all my Australian books from local booksellers and I believe it’s important to support Australian booksellers, writers and publishers. It’s a great time to be a reader.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

Is it self-absorbed to name a character I invented? Tiney Flynn from my latest book, The Year it All Ended, is seventeen years old in the novel but I’d like to meet her again when she’s a more mature woman. She was born in 1901 so by the time she reached her fifties she would have lived through two world wars that shaped the 20th Century.

KMurray_TheYearItAllEnded Tiney is loosely based on one of my great-aunts and my grandmothers. I wish I’d asked more questions of the women of that generation. It’s only now, after living half a century myself, that I have an understanding of what I’d like to ask them. I imagine Tiney’s political and life perspective would be epic by the time she reached middle-age.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

There isn’t a single book, but there are many writers. I don’t discriminate against genres nor whether the writing is pitched to a child or an adult. When I like a book, I tend to read as much of the author’s work as I can lay my hands on.

I’ve always been fascinated by writers who produce a large body of work such as Balzac. I adored all his novels when I was a teenager, though I didn’t fully understood them at the time. These days I make a point of re-reading Cousin Bette and Old Father Goriot every ten years to check my latest benchmark of emotional development.



25 September 2014


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Rebecca Lim is a writer and illustrator based in Melbourne, Australia. She worked as a commercial lawyer for several years before leaving to write full-time. Rebecca is the author of 15 books for children and young adult readers. The latest is The Astrologer’s Daughter (Text). Rebecca was a guest at this week’s The Next Big Thing.

We spoke to her about ‘channeling voices’ when you write, creating ‘strong, quick-witted female protagonists who aren’t necessarily nice, likeable, tractable or pretty’, and why her best writing advice comes from Kate Bush.


What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I was lucky enough to win the Mattara Junior Poetry Prize in 1983? 1984? Back in the days when I used to fancy myself a bit of a poet (until I realised how impossibly hard it is to write truly great poetry!). I think the poem made it into the anthology for that year.

What’s the best part of your job?

I call it: ‘channeling voices’. When the writing is just flying and you’ve gone completely off-road from what you intended to do that day – but it’s working – it’s the best feeling. Nothing really compares.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I’m more of a people-watcher and stealth eavesdropper, so the publicity aspect of writing I’ve sometimes found challenging (to the extent that I should probably pop a few beta blockers before I get behind a microphone but, somehow, I usually muddle through and the world does not end).

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

I’m grateful to every publisher and every editor who has taken me in and worked with me. Each working relationship I’ve established with some of the best publishing/writing/editing minds in this country has been significant and educational and greatly cherished. In the age we live in (does that make me sound dinosauric?), having any one want to even read or publish your work at all is a fist-pump moment.

But if I had to name the most significant moment? I’d have to say that as a three-time reject entrant of the Vogel Awards, getting a letter out of the blue one year from Allen & Unwin extracting part of the judges’ analysis of one of my manuscripts was like being hit by lightning. These lovely people had taken the time to write to me and tell me ‘You can actually write’ – you’ve got … something – and it actually gave me the guts to quit my day job to see if I could work something decent up. I’ve never gone back to my old job (sorry old job).

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

My parents can’t understand where any of this has come from so they don’t dish out writing advice other than to tell me I should go back to being a lawyer (!) My publishers and editors have largely been kind and generally leave me to my own devices, only mildly but firmly pointing out sentences where I’ve repeated myself with words of emphasis or gone sick with the italics.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

astrologers_daughterJust recently, I stumbled across a New Zealand critic taking me to task for my sarcastic teen female protagonist in The Astrologer’s Daughter using words like ‘boobs’ and ‘rack’ to describe her own body. She said language like that would feed into girls having ‘poor body image’ issues. And I have to say, I was utterly gobsmacked. The character – Avicenna Crowe – is the world’s biggest cynic and realist and she is using them in a humorous and ironic sense to describe a part of her anatomy she finds, in all honesty, a bit of a nuisance.

Now, people who are familiar with my books – from toddlers (the Ladybird book Bravest Princess Ever) to young adults (the Mercy series) – will know that I am a fierce champion for strong, quick-witted female protagonists who aren’t necessarily nice, likeable, tractable or pretty. To say I’m promoting ‘poor body image’ issues is to say you’ve completely missed the point of my books, frankly.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Writing prospectuses; two words which speak for themselves. I realise that would still be ‘working with words’ but the words would need legal, marketing and financial sign-off, and have no inherent beauty to them when taken as a whole.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Things like writing to deadline, grammar and the art of self-editing can definitely be taught. Having a fresh ‘non-you’ pair of eyes looking at your work is absolutely invaluable, in my view. Things that make perfect sense to you because you’ve read them 50 times and have every character’s back story in your head will not necessarily make sense to a third party. Having someone say: ‘I think you need to make the connection between A and B stronger because I just don’t see it’ is a gift.

That being said, however, you need to be a little bit mad to be a writer. And I use that term with the greatest affection and with no pejorative intent toward anyone. To live in this world but hold all these others in your head, peopled with fantastic beings? Not everybody wants to do that.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

In the immortal words of Kate Bush, ‘Don’t give up’.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. (I’m sorry, I’m sorry).

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

It wouldn’t make for comfortable eating, in all likelihood, but I’d love to sit at supper with Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon and Kim Harrison’s witch/bounty-hunter, Rachel Morgan. There would probably be instant disagreement about ‘people of action’ versus ‘persons of cool intellect’ and I’d probably have to stop them all from literally killing each other and the food would go cold, but it wouldn’t be a dull evening.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

In terms of children’s books, Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story was breathtaking to me as a child in terms of its scope, language and visual beauty (both the imagery in the story and the book itself. The hardback edition I own is like a mass-market Book of Kells with multi-coloured font and pictures).

Books I’ve returned to often include: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Other Stories, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride and anything by Peter Temple for the language, the ideas, the ability to inject beauty and humour and clear-eyed truth into situations that aren’t inherently beautiful at all.

The next edition of The Next Big Thing, an event that introduces you to some of the writers we think are ones to watch, is our Hot Desk Edition, where the writers currently occupying the Wheeler Centre Hot Desks will share from their works in progress. Join us on Monday 15 September.



11 September 2014


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Justine Larbalestier is sick of reading reviews that assess books based on the ‘likeability’ of their characters. As someone who enjoys reading books about vile people she wouldn’t actually want to spend time with in real life, she explains why ‘likeability’ is not a requirement for good fiction. (And why it’s subjective.)


(Justine Larbalestier: ‘I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters.’

Since my first novel was published in 2005 I have seen more and more reviews, both professional and not, that discuss the likeability of characters in novels.

Here’s what I have noticed:

I. Many writers rail at the very idea that their main characters must be ‘likeable’.

II. No one agrees on which characters are ‘likeable’ and which aren’t.

III. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres. (Though that could just be because I’m in the YA field and thus that’s what I hear the most about.)

IV. Whenever one of us authors writes about how irritated we are by the ‘likeability’ shenanigans there’s always someone who’ll go off on a But-Why-Would-I-Read-About-Characters-I-Don’t-Like rant.


‘Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?’

I. Why do our characters have to be likeable?

I want my characters to evoke strong reactions. Love them? Awesome. But I’m perfectly happy with hatred too. As long as they don’t put readers to sleep. (Which sadly they always will: every book bores someone somewhere.) But the idea that a character’s likeability is the most important thing about them drives me spare. The lack of likeability of Patricia Highsmith’s characters hasn’t dented her sales, or literary reputation, and her protags are all psychopaths.

Or as Claire Messud put it recently when asked by an interviewer at Publisher’s Weekly if Messud would want to be friends with one of her own characters:

Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? … Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.

Whether readers are going to like my characters is basically the last thing I’m thinking about when I write them. When I say ‘last’, I mean I don’t think about it at all. What matters to me is, as Claire Messud goes on to say, whether they come alive on the page. (Not literally. That would be terrifying.) Can I lull readers into believing my characters are real?

I care about every character I write. Even the villains. I know every character’s motivations and desires and fantasies and foibles. I can’t know all of that without caring, and conversely, if I don’t care about a character, I can’t write them.

As a writer, I could not agree with Messud more strongly.

As a reader, well, I do occasionally wish some of my favourite literary characters were my friends. Not as much as when I was a kid and desperately wished Anne of Green Gables and I were besties but, well, as I read Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah I started to feel like I was friends with Ifemelu. When I finished the book I was bummed we weren’t hanging out anymore.


‘There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.’

II. No one agrees on which characters are ‘likeable’ and which aren’t.

So much of this debate assumes that we’re all on the same page about who is likeable and who isn’t. What a ludicrous assumption. There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.

No matter who your favourite character is someone somewhere hates them.

Rochester from Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights are held up as romantic heroes. I can’t stand them. I don’t see what is the slightest bit romantic about them. Rochester locked up his first wife and I’m sure he was violent towards her. Meanwhile he’s wooing an employee and proposes marriage even though he’s already married. Violent, immoral and a bigamist. Where’s the romance? Do not get me started on Heathcliff.

I hear many people talking about a character from that recent YA mega hit and how everyone loves them. I didn’t. I wanted that character to die. Yes, I am a very bad person.

On the other hand, everyone seems to really hate another character from a recent YA mega hit and I kinda love them. I don’t understand how anyone could wish harm upon them.


III. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.

I have no conclusive evidence to prove this, it’s more of a feeling. But one I’m not alone in having. We YA authors are often asked to write morally uplifting work. Many of us are resistant to that. As Malinda Lo said when we were discussing the idea of likeability on Twitter:

I think a lot of YA and kidlit is also expected to have likable protags. Sometimes for annoying lesson teaching reasons.

I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters. Which annoys me because many of the characters I’ve written are perfectly lovely. Any parent should be proud to have them as their teenagers.

I don’t buy the whole you-can’t-write-an-interesting-book-about-a-nice-character argument. However, writing a character, who makes all the right decisions, and never make mistakes is really hard and does not generate much plot. Troubled characters who make bad decisions are easier to write about because they generate conflict and conflict makes plot. In the novels I write, plot is good.

As a writer and as a human being, I am uninterested in perfection. Part of why I write about teenagers is that they’re still open to learning and changing and figuring out who they are in the world. They make many mistakes. Mistakes generate plot.

The idea that the more perfect a character is, the more likeable they are, is ridiculous. If you were to propose a list of the most liked characters in literature I doubt you’d find much perfection on that list.


‘I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters. They would probably kill me.’

IV. Why Would I Read About Characters I Don’t Like?

See II: No One Agrees On What’s Likeable. You might find the characters unpleasant and vile and have no desire to read about sulky Anne and her irritating uncle and aunt in their stupid green-gabled house. Or her dolt of an admirer Gilbert. But some of us love them dearly.

I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters. They would probably kill me. I want to live.

Many of the books I love are about vile people. Nabokov’s Lolita really is a brilliant book. I’ve read it many times and learned something more about writing with each reading. But is Humbert Humbert likeable? No, he is not.

Sometimes I enjoy reading about bad people doing bad things. Sometimes I do not. I’m not about to judge anyone else’s reading habits. You don’t want to read about characters you deem unlikeable? I support your decision.

Justine Larbalestier’s latest novel is Razorhurst (Allen & Unwin).



22 July 2014


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Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer and illustrator; she has published both picture books and a YA dystopian series, The Tribe. In this engrossing essay, which doubles as a call to arms, she describes what it’s like to be an Indigenous writer, the importance of ‘laughter-stories’ even (or especially) about terrible things, and why writing for young people demands an ‘impossibly high’ standard.

She argues for the importance of diverse books for young people: so that all young people can access stories that are written by and about someone like them. ‘Be aware,’ she urges – we should all ask that bookshops and libraries, writers festivals and events, stock books and program writers that allow children and teenagers to find themselves in the faces on the covers and the names of the authors.


I come from generations of storytellers who told tales in words, painted them in art, and sung and danced them in rhythm with the seasons and the sun and the stars. The people were one with the stories and the stories one with the people, and every tale both embodied and sustained the whole. The Indigenous peoples of the globe have always understood the universe to be a continually enfolding and unfolding place where everything holds everything else. We had no fractured stories, until the colonisers arrived, bringing with them tales that divided people from people and people from the earth. Indigenous peoples learned to navigate these stories too; we had to if we wanted to survive. And today, I am merely one of the many millions of Indigenous people who walk in many worlds.

My perspective is shaped by the culture and Country of the Palyku people from whom I come; by individual and collective Indigenous experiences of colonisation; and by my family and my ancestors. But I speak only for myself. The many Aboriginal nations of Australia, and Indigenous peoples elsewhere, are diverse peoples with diverse perspectives. We share much in common, but we are also different individuals from different nations, and our cultures are and always have been pluralist in nature. As such, we do not hold a single, static view between us all.

The worlds in which I walk are sometimes disparate but not disconnected. Each one is shaped by stories, including the worlds of the things that have been and those of the things that are yet to be. As Cherokee author Thomas King writes: ‘Most of us think history is the past. It’s not. History is the stories we tell about the past.’ (1) And Indigenous people are well aware of the many ways in which stories of the past continue to shape our future. We deal daily with the ongoing and intergenerational consequences of colonialism; with the negative stereotypes; and with the mistaken assumptions about us upon which law and policy is so often based.

I often think of a tale told by Yuin elder Eileen Morgan in her memoir The Calling of the Spirits. She writes of a hidden valley of Aboriginal people who live naked as our ancestors did, and have a single set of clothes to be worn if ever one of them ventures out of the valley. It seems to me that Indigenous people send out our stories in much the same way. We clothe them in forms which non-Indigenous hearts and minds will recognise so that they might understand us. Except we use those forms differently, and Indigenous work is sometimes criticised for failing to comply with genre expectations or scholarly conventions that were never ours to begin with. We are aware also of the dangers of becoming too comfortable in Eurocentric forms and writing ourselves out of our own stories. In the words of Plains Cree Metis poet and author Dr Emma LaRocque, reflecting on the academic world:

I’ve walked these hallways

For a long time now

Hallways without windows

No way to feel the wind

No way to touch the earth

No way to see

I do my footnotes so well

Nobody knows where I come from (2)

Indigenous peoples are unlikely to ever use the written word in the same way as those to whom the English language belongs; we reinterpret and subvert to make someone else’s form communicate our substance. In the end, we are not writing. We are speaking, singing, laughing, crying. And we know it is desperately important to be heard. We know because we are ones who bear the cost of the silence that causes us to vanish from national consciousness and allows harmful distortions of our cultures and histories to pass unchallenged. Beyond that, this planet has always needed a diversity of voices to sustain its diversity of environments (and therefore life on earth). In the words of Arrente elder Margaret Kemarre Turner: ‘The Land must have people through whom it can talk.’ (3)

One commonality shared by many Indigenous peoples of the globe is our use of humour. We sometimes laugh at terrible things; it is an aspect of Indigenous storytelling that is often misconstrued. It does not in any way mean the terrible things were not terrible, or that we take them lightly. But our ancestors taught us that making light of them can make them a little easier to bear. Laughter is a gift; and anyone who has ever survived something terrible knows its value and its grace.

asher_wolf Laughter-stories are much needed now, along with all the other stories, and they are most especially needed by those to whom my books speak. Because I write novels for young adults and picture books for children. And of all the worlds in which I walk, it is the world of the young which is closest to my heart.

I am aware, of course, that there are those who believe that writing for children or teenagers is not as difficult or as worthy as writing for adults. It’s becoming a semi-regular event for someone to make the allegation that YA/children’s literature is not ‘real literature’. This does not bother me so much on my own behalf – in fact, if anyone ever did think my books were ‘real literature’ I’d just as soon they never said so, at least not where any child or teenager likely to read my books could hear them. It’s perilously close to saying my books are educational, and the only people who think that’s an attractive quality in a YA/children’s books are adults. But such allegations do bother me on behalf of the people I write for, because it implies that (a) the standard is lower and (b) the young won’t notice. I think the opposite is true. I think the standard is and should be impossibly high; children and teenagers deserve and demand more. And of course they notice when a story is not well told. Failing to perceive the blindingly obvious is an ability we only develop as we grow older.

The world of the young is a place that abounds with infinite possibilities and infinite terrors. Every horror that can be visited on the grown ups of this world exists too in the lives of the young, only they must cope with their realities with less experience and less resources. And the stories that shape and inspire and comfort the diverse children and teenagers of this world are not the stories they’ll read when they’re all grown up. It’s the stories that speak to who they are now. That is why it is so important to ensure not only that the young have access to stories, but that at least some of those stories are written by and about someone like them.

There is a campaign in the United States called ‘We need diverse books’; as part of it, people posted pictures of signs that finished the sentence ‘we need diverse books because…’ One of the images that has stayed with me is a sign sitting in front of Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian author Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. The sign reads: ‘We need diverse books because everyone’s story deserves to be told’.

I am often asked if there are any limits on what I would write for the young. I accept at least one limit, and it is this: I will never tell a story without hope. It is perhaps why I enjoy YA literature so much; I want to see good triumph over evil and it generally does in my genre, although not without hardship and sacrifice. Good triumphs because that is exactly what should happen in a world of infinite possibility (including the possibility of justice). And if some adults are inclined to think that narratives of unremitting bleakness are more realistic, then that is surely an indictment on the world we create for the young and not the one they would create for themselves, were they ever given the choice.

The first story I ever published and illustrated is a book called Crow and the Waterhole. That story came to me in a dream. I saw a crow who gazes down at her reflection in the waterhole below her tree. She believes she is seeing another crow, one far more wonderful than she is. So she goes out in the world to seek her destiny, but she keeps seeing other crows – in a river, a lake, and a puddle. Each new Crow is more wonderful than the last, and Crow despairs. Finally, a clever kookaburra explains that she is staring at her own image. So Crow flies back to her tree, and from that time on, whenever she meets someone seeking their destiny, she says to them: ‘Your destiny lies within you. All you have to do is learn how to see it.’

I believe the tale was a gift given to me by my ancestors. They knew I was at a stage in my life when I needed to hear that story. And it is still my dream, but no longer for myself. It is what I want for all the children and all the teenagers of this earth – to be able to find their own image in the world around them and recognise their own value. That value then multiples ten-thousandfold because those who have travelled through doubt and fear to be able to nurture themselves are also the ones who will be the most nurturing of others. The reverse is also true; we all understand that a lack of self-worth leads to destructive cycles of behavior. The effects of our actions are always exponential, which means we can be more powerful than we know.

cover-ember-crow I am going to assume that anyone who loves stories thinks that more stories (and more perspectives) are better than less. So to all the book lovers, I say this: be aware.

When you go into a bookstore or shop online, start paying attention to the faces on the covers and the names of authors. Are you seeing the complexity and diversity of the world looking back at you? This is important for adult readers, of course, but it is more important for the young. Where are the stories in which they are the heroes, the ones written by and about people like them? And if these books are not present, don’t let anyone tell you they don’t exist, at least, not without investigating that claim.

Certainly in Australia there is a wealth of Indigenous narratives across all genres, largely (but not exclusively) due to the amazing work of Aboriginal publishers – IAD Press, Aboriginal Studies Press, and Magabala Books. Many non-Indigenous publishing houses are also producing stories written and/or illustrated by Indigenous people (including Allen & Unwin, Little Hare Books, Random House, Penguin, Omnibus Books, Fremantle Press, Spinifex Press, University of Queensland Press, Giramondo Publishing, Walker Books and many others).

If you find a lack of stories, ask that bookstores and libraries stock the books that allow children and teenagers to find themselves in the faces on the covers and the names of the authors. Ask that writers’ festivals and events do too. And if there is a lack of monetary resources, make some noise about that as well. The likelihood is that the critically under-resourced schools and libraries will be those located in disadvantaged areas (in other words, the very places where the young need stories the most).

So let’s do what we can to help create the world the young would choose for themselves, the one where they are valued. And then watch as different cultures and perspectives interact in narrative space, affirming their understanding of themselves and gaining a better understanding of each other.

The world of the young is one of limitless possibilities – give them enough support, and they will expand the boundaries of all worlds into infinity.

Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer, illustrator and law academic. She comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She has published a number of picture books as well as a dystopian series – The Tribe – for young adults. Find out more about Ambelin at her website:


(1) Thomas King, An Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2012, p3

(2) Emma LaRocque, ‘Long Way From Home’ in Socialist Studies, Vol 9(1) Spring 2013 pp22 – 26 at 23

(3) Margaret Kemarre Turner, Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What it means to be an Aboriginal person, IAD Press, Alice Springs, 2010, p33



30 June 2014


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highlight Ellie Marney is a teacher and young adult author who specialises in crime (writing it, not committing it). Her highly awarded adult short stories have been published in Australia and the UK, and her latest YA crime thriller Every Word (June 2014), the second in a trilogy, has just been published. The first in the series was Every Breath. Ellie will be appearing at The Next Big Thing next Monday 23 June.

We talked to her about bringing her daydreams to life on the page, why being a writer is a bit like being a stand-up comedian or a tightrope-walker, and the value of Bum Glue.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

You mean, physically in print? Um, I wrote a prize-winning essay in Grade 8, I think, about the natural environment on Fraser Island – I believe it may have made the local paper up in Brisbane somewhere! I remember I won a book about Fraser Island – that was the prize. Non-fiction, so not really my scene, I’m afraid. I don’t think I ever read it (please don’t tell the organisers!)

What’s the best part of your job?

Making shit up. No, really, that’s the best part! Being given permission – nay, being encouraged! – to bring my daydreams to life on the page. Developing a relationship with a character, so you know them like you know your own breath. Like their heartbeat is matched with your own. Incredible.

I mean, you have to do it anyway, or you go a bit crazy. But being allowed to do that as a job? – that is a unique and priceless gift.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Balancing writing work, domestic life and online engagement. I find that really hard. The writing is pervasive. It’s like a constant background hum all around you: in bed, on family holidays, while you’re parenting … It’s distracting. You can’t switch it off. I guess you wouldn’t want to. The online stuff is very busy. I actually enjoy the social media engagement, but oh my god, sometimes I feel like my phone is permanently glued to my hand. My partner has threatened to throw it in the dam, on a number of occasions.

I share the domestic load with my partner, but I know he often carries the can – that’s hard, and unfair. There’s just never enough hours in the day. I mean, I don’t exercise, or garden, or go out, or watch TV right now – I don’t know where I’m supposed to fit everything in. I’m still trying to work out a balance. I’m hoping it will come with time – I’m still pretty new to all this.

I guess the other thing I’ve found hard to manage is my own constant sense of mild panic about it all – it’s like being a stand-up comedian or a tight-rope walker or something, you really feel like you’re living by your wits. Again, I hope to find a balance…one day.


What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Winning the Scarlet Stiletto Award in 2010 was a big thing. I had a good feeling about it, that something was going to happen. But in terms of profound moments, I guess it was signing with Allen & Unwin for my first book, Every Breath, and getting the call from my agent, Catherine Drayton, all in one week. In the space of a few days, I had a New York agent and a two-book deal – it was a bit overwhelming. I called my partner at work to tell him, and he was, like, ‘So can I just walk out of work right now and quit?’ and I laughed and said ‘Whoah, hold on there, tiger…’ I think his expectations were a bit less realistic than mine!

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best advice was from Stephen King. When I read what he said about having Bum Glue in his book/memoir On Writing, that really resonated with me. I thought, ‘Yep, that’s what it is.’ Good old Bum Glue: just sitting there and thumping away at the keyboard until you’ve got it done. Treating it like a job, being professional about it, like a plumber or a bricklayer. Because writing is work. And it doesn’t become real work until you make it a job in your head. Not just the writing part, the rest of it too – you have deadlines, you have to have a professional approach.

I don’t know if I’ve had any bad advice about writing. Everybody is different, so what works for me may not work for someone else. ‘Waiting for the muse to strike’ always sounds a bit like bullshit to me, though. You live with your muse, sure, you get inspiration all the time. But in my experience, waiting around for inspiration to arrive before you write, like waiting for some divine bolt from heaven, is just a great excuse for not doing anything. Like I said, though, that’s me. I have a big family – if I’m not using this time to work, right now, then I may as well be packing school lunches or something.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

That my writing is good! Seriously, I find every positive review of my work kind of astonishing. Because I’m never completely happy with it, not really. In my head, it’s never quite the right word, or exactly the right phrase. It’s just … what comes out. And I use as much craft as I can to make it into something better, something more approximating what I’d like it to be – I just craft it all to hell. Sometimes I’m happy with a phrase or two, but I often look at a piece as a whole and think ‘Yeah, it’s still not exact’. I’m learning as I go. I think we’re all learning, aren’t we?

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Probably teaching! I like teaching quite a lot. Not as much as writing. But who knows, I might still end up teaching – another author I know has just gone back to nursing. Ask me in a few years time! We’ll see where all this goes.

I was just about to resign myself to going back to teaching part-time when I got the call about the book. That was the year, you know? I was really on a knife-edge that year – all our children (we have four boys) were ready to enter school, the time for me to go back to teaching work was looming up fast, there was financial pressure … It was the year of ‘fish or cut bait’. I felt like if I didn’t achieve something with my writing at that stage, it would be my last year of yearning, my last year of wishing for the dream…

I consider myself incredibly lucky, I have to say. That was the year I needed some good luck, and my god, it came through.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

That’s a hard question. Because yeah, like I said, I still feel like I’m being taught. I tend to learn through reading, though. I’ve never studied. I have gotten something out of writing courses, but the bulk of my learning is through reading, and an ongoing writing practice.

I think you have to have something inside you that begs to be let out. Something that drives you a little insane if you don’t write. I have seen students in creative writing classes – the kids with talent, their work has this glow. So yes, I believe in talent. That’s not to say that a promising student can’t be made better by being taught craft. I would still class myself as ‘a promising student trying to be better’.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Keep working – I mean, both jobs. The paying one and the writing one. Keep writing. Don’t stop. Just write and write and write. Enter competitions, set yourself deadlines, find reasons to keep going. Learn craft. And read as much as you can.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both, but primarily in bookshops. I love touching covers, admiring them, I love seeing the displays, I love the feel of the pages. I buy books for my e-reader, and then go and buy hardcopies of the same books. I’m incorrigible. I desperately need more shelves.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

My god, what a question! I’m tempted to say Hannibal Lecter, but he would scare me to death. And I’d have to eat vegetarian.

You know, I think I would like to go out with Don Tillman and his wife, Rosie. Don is a bit of a gourmand, so the food would be good. I would bring my partner along, and we’d all have a few drinks and get a bit tipsy, and sit around and talk about, oh, a huge range of things, and have a bit of a laugh. I think we’d all have a pretty good time, actually.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

The Bible, probably, because I was brought up religious. Not so much now, though! I discovered Shakespeare in high school, and I thought ‘This – yes, this is how words work’.

I read The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris about once a year. I keep going back to it, I’m not sure why. Every element of that book – the characters, the dialogue, the detail – has a tone that contributes to an entire menacing symphony. It’s a masterful piece of writing. The police procedures have dated a bit, so it’s like an historical record, but the writing is as startling and clear as a new-struck bell.

Ellie Marney will be appearing at The Next Big Thing next Monday 23 June at 6.15pm, with Liam Pieper, Diana Sweeney and Tom O'Byrne.



19 June 2014


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A.M. Homes on motherhood and ‘running away to Australia’

We’re excited to be welcoming the marvellous A.M. Homes, author of the bestseller (and Women’s Prize for Fiction winner) May We Be Forgiven, to the Wheeler Centre next Monday night. Just before ‘running away to Australia’, as she puts it, she’s written an affecting blog for Penguin US on motherhood and what it means to her – as a mother and a daughter.

‘Mothers are the one soup to nuts relationship in your life; you’ve got them from beginning to end, and so I am all about celebrating it. There are things about the mother/child relationship that should not be unique to that intimate bond but in fact should be part of our culture, the way we live–think about compassion, acceptance, the idea that you matter, your needs, desires and dreams have a place here. Wouldn’t it be nice if the world could be a little more like a “good-enough” mother?’


Sam Twyford Moore in defence of the dole as a safety net

Emerging Writers Festival director Sam Twyford Moore had a terrific piece in the Guardian yesterday in passionate defence of the dole as a safety net for young people, while they figure out what they want to do with their lives, and in times when they’re between jobs as they start their careers. He speaks from personal experience, explaining how the dole helped him to find his feet and his career.

‘We need to fail to find out what we are good at. To carve the right path, you need to head down many. And without a safety net of unemployment benefits during periods of uncertainty – when you’ve found one path is a dead end, before taking the next – well, you’re creating an unimaginative workforce, fearful of taking risks, right at the stage when they should be doing exactly that.’

Wes Anderson chats with Stefan Zweig’s biographer

Wes Anderson’s latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was inspired by the writing of Stefan Zweig, particularly his books The Post Office Girl and The World of Yesterday (his memoir). In a fascinating interview at the Telegraph, he chats to Zweig’s biographer, George Prochnik, about his passion for the author and how Zweig’s life and work inspired the film, from its content to its storytelling structure.

‘Vienna was a place where there was this great deep culture, but it was the equivalent of rock stars — it was the coolest thing of the moment. It was completely popular, and that was Vienna. Zweig was living in the dead centre, ground zero place for this. And he was living there up to the point that it came to an end. ’


John Green: The YA author who’s bigger than a movie star

The Wall Street Journal looks for the moment when John ‘The Fault in our Stars’ Green went from being internet famous to just plain famous. Two weeks ago, at the first screening of the film, the author attracted cries of ‘I love you!’ that he had to quiet in order to speak, finding himself more the centre of attention than the film’s stars, also in attendance. Despite this, Green says he’s better known for his internet persona than his novels – and he spends most days making his ‘Crash Course’ YouTube videos.


Why Mean Girls is a classic

It was the tenth anniversary of Mean Girls last week, and a spate of articles about its classic status, most of them proving that its snappy dialogue is key, as they revel in quoting it. At the New Yorker, Richard Brody does all that, but also takes a thoughtful and insightful look at the mechanics of the movie, and why it works so well. It’s a nice mix of personal engagement and professional knowhow.

‘When I mentioned to my daughters that it’s the tenth anniversary of the release of Mean Girls, it was no news to them: the firstborn, now twenty-one, is wearing her “You can’t sit with us” T-shirt, and her sister, sixteen, is dressed in pink (it’s Wednesday). ’




16 May 2014


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nyc The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case recently attended an event at the NYC Teen Authors Festival in New York, which looked at the blurry line between writing for teens and adults – chaired by publisher and author David Levithan. On the panel were Rainbow Rowell, Jennifer E. Smith, Patrick Flannery and Eliot Schrefer.

They talked about what makes a book for teenage readers, how writing for teens affects the way a book is written, the much-derided category of ‘new adult’, and why it can be limiting to think too much about audiences when writing a book.


Photo above courtesy of Novel Sounds. Pictured: Patrick Flanery, Rainbow Rowell, Eliot Schrefer, Jennifer E. Smith, David Levithan.

David Levithan asked the panel – many of whom have written books for both teen and adult audiences – about how they know when they’re writing a book for teenage readers. ‘I try hard not to categorise my books as I’m writing them,’ said Rainbow Rowell, author of the bestselling ‘crossover’ YA book Eleanor and Park, and most recently, Fangirl. ‘Eleanor and Park wasn’t written as a YA book.’ She said that when she’s writing, she’s thinking about the characters and how their stories should be told, not who she’s writing for.

Focus on character and story

‘With YA books, I’m focusing much more on character and the story I’m telling,’ said Eliot Schrefer, author of the National Book Award nominated Endangered, about a girl who is swept up in a Congolese political rebellion and ends up living in a bonobo colony, and Threatened, about an orphan boy who finds refuge with chimpanzees. ‘I’m not indulging myself as a writer,’ he said. Meditations on sunsets and reflective passages are the kinds of passages he cuts in YA, because they get in the way of the story. He feels that writing YA has made him a better writer as a result of this approach. ‘It forced me to pare back my vanity. I’m grateful for that.’

Schrefer wrote his first YA book, School for Dangerous Girls, after David Levitahn took him to lunch and suggested he’d be a good writer for teenagers – and gave him the brief to write the book. He’s already published two adult books.


Image from Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.

Nostalgia for teen years = adult book

Rainbow Rowell had written one novel for adults (Attachments) before Eleanor and Park, and her next novel (Landline) is for an adult audience. She said that when she first encountered her YA readership, she felt like she’d ‘found my people’. YA readers are a community in a way that readers in general aren’t, she explained. ‘Adults who read and love YA are openhearted and enthusiastic – they’re very passionate and supportive. It’s more fun for me to have a YA book.’

Jennifer E. Smith writes YA and works as an editor at Ballantine, working on adult books. ‘As an editor, I’m often in a position where I fall in love with a book I want to acquire and have to argue why a book with a 14 year old narrator should be published on the adult side,’ she says. The panellists agreed that a key difference in a book for adults with a teen narrator, and a book for teens, is perspective. David Levithan says that when the teenage years are written about with a sense of nostalgia, it’s for adult readers. ‘You don’t feel as in the story when you read.’


Photo above courtesy of Novel Sounds.

‘New adult’ category ‘a failure’

Levithan was scathing about the ‘new adult’ category, for readers in their early twenties. ‘It’s the first category of fiction I’ve ever seen that is purely created by marketers,’ he said. ‘It’s adult publishers trying to get a piece of the pie. It’s been a failure. It doesn’t serve anyone’s interests.’ Smith agreed, from the perspective of an adult publisher. Rowell said, as an author, the idea of a whole new possible category for her books was ‘exhausting’.

‘There aren’t 25-year-olds walking around saying where is my literature?’ said Levithan. ‘YA serves a purpose. Even though the books are very different, they have certain things in common – like an exploration of identity, sympathy for the characters.’


Photo above courtesy of Novel Sounds.

Don’t think about the marketing

Rowell’s latest book, Fangirl, could be said to fit the ‘new adult’ category – the narrator, Cath (who writes fan fiction about a Harry Potter-like character) is in her first years of college, and is figuring out where she fits in, and how much of herself to change. ‘My agent told me not to write it,’ Rowell said. ‘He said you can’t touch fan fiction and you can’t write about college students, because college students don’t read; they’re too busy studying. And no one wants to read about college students.’

‘We have this idea in popular culture that all the big things happen in high school. That everyone arrives in college having already had lots of sex, they’re drinking a lot. That’s not true. That wasn’t true of me and my friends. You’re becoming an adult and deciding what from childhood you’re taking with you.’

Rowell said she can’t think about who her books are marketed to, or who the audience is, or it would paralyse her.

‘As long as a book is entertaining, a general audience will read YA,’ said Levithan.



02 April 2014


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Next Tuesday, the winners of the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards will be announced, in five categories: fiction, poetry, non-fiction, writing for young adults and drama.

Each day this week, we’ll focus on one category, sharing excerpts of our reviewers' responses to the shortlisted titles.

Today, it’s writing for young adults.

Friday Brown, Vikki Wakefield

Reviewed by Billie Tumarkin

highlight If there is one inescapable truth high school teaches you, it’s that, for the most part, books aimed at teenagers aren’t good books. YA literature is flooded with cliches, dodgy grammar, blatant emotional manipulation and an unhealthy dose of fantasy-oriented smut. Vikki Wakefield’s Friday Brown is a reminder that this genre – a genre so fatally aimed at people who have read little other than a textbook all year – can be so much more.

Filled with detailed, delicate prose, Friday Brown explores a community of teenagers who have fled from their home lives and are trying to forge a new home with each other. But there is always a cost to running away.

Read the review in full.

Wildlife, Fiona Wood

Reviewed by Penni Russon

Wildlife_Hi-res_Size4 Australians (and New Zealanders) write the best Young Adult fiction and have done so for years. America can keep its Hunger Games. We’ve got a proud tradition of realist YA literature that seers with authenticity and isn’t afraid of plain language around still bizarrely taboo subjects like teen sex and masturbation.

From the moment I started reading Wildlife I knew Wood was carrying on this proud tradition. The story switches between two narrative perspectives. There’s ‘ugly duckling’ long, lanky Sibylla who may or may not be ugly/beautiful, but who has just emerged into public interest after appearing on a billboard in a perfume ad. Interspersed in Sibylla’s first person narrative are journal entries written by a recently bereaved Lou, a character whose backstory follows on from Wood’s previous novel Six Impossible Things, though Wildlife is not strictly a sequel and stands alone.

Read the review in full.

My Life as an Alphabet, Barry Jonsberg

Reviewed by Thuy On

my_life_alphabet As part of her school assignment, 12-year-old Candice Phee is requested to write a paragraph about herself using each letter of the alphabet, only she’s decided to write several paragraphs – well – entire chapters really, on her life, which together form the structure of this charming YA book.

… As a narrator, Candice is matter-of-fact, engaging and funny – even when she doesn’t mean to be. She is in some ways an earnest, precocious child and yet still naive when it comes to understanding the strange ways of adults, given to talking indirectly in metaphors and allusions instead of the simple truth. Her unpitying, selfless regard and helpful generosity towards others is refreshing as well. Unlike a lot of neurotic characters in YA books who are obsessed with gazing at their own navels, Candice does not wallow in angsty, melodramatic dramas. Her imagination and her quirky lines of thought are endearing; her consideration for others admirable.

Read the review in full.



23 January 2014


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Toni Jordan reflects on her own days of teenage unemployment, as she looks at The House that Was Eureka, Nadia Wheatley’s classic novel of workers rights and human relationships in 1930s and 1980s Sydney – during the Great Depression and the economic recession. As we live through precarious economic times again, it’s especially timely.


In 1985, the year Nadia Wheatley’s extraordinary The House that Was Eureka was first published, I was eighteen, unemployed and desperate, and sleeping on the floor of my boyfriend’s brother’s flat. I would wake early on a Saturday morning and circle job ads: those few that said ‘no experience required’. For a while, the only work I could get was selling aluminium siding door-to-door. My ‘job’ was to convince people who lived in broken-down houses in the western suburbs and were home during the day (so probably not working either), and who answered the door to clueless teenagers, that they needed to buy cladding. On credit.

The work was commission only. My two-week stint of walking miles every day earned me, oh, roughly: nothing. After that, I was interviewed and missed out on a job as a receptionist in an office- furniture showroom. I’ve never sobbed so hard, before or since, than when I received the ‘regret to inform you’ letter. I thought I was good for nothing. I thought my life was over before it had begun.

I was sometimes hungry in those early years, yes. And frustrated. I was surrounded by people who cared about me, though, and was never in any real danger of homelessness or starvation. My sense of desolation was not based on practical considerations. I’d been brought up to believe I should have two simple goals: to get a job and then, if you work hard and live a stable life, a mortgage. A mortgage, that shimmering Holy Grail, was the only thing that could save you from being at the mercy of a landlady.

highlight This is the world Wheatley shows us. The House that Was Eureka is about two families in two different times: in 1931, in the middle of the Great Depression, and in 1981, during the economic downturn of the early 80s. These families live fifty years apart, but there is a great deal that’s similar: jobs are the source of freedom, of economic strength, of the ability to care for your family.

But there were also significant differences. In 1931, as opposed to the 80s, the dole was given as food or coupons. That’s why evictions were commonplace, and why communities sometimes banded together to prevent them. There was simply no cash for rent. Families would find themselves on the street, their belongings dumped beside them. Some families, especially those with young children, took desperate measures to prevent losing their homes.

In The House that Was Eureka, Lizzie’s father and brothers and supporters were determined not to let unemployment lead to homelessness. They make the fateful decision to defend their home against the police coming to evict them. They barricade themselves in, as if Sydney is a war zone. They are preparing for a riot.

Lizzie peered through the spy crack and saw Pa’s face on the other side. Heard him grunting. ‘Heave-ho!’ she heard, and Pa’s face and the spy crack disappeared. They must be building the sandbags higher. Five foot high they were already at the door, and six feet thick. No way the cops could get in the front. For the window to the loungeroom was boarded up too, with sandbags six feet thick behind it… Not that the cops would even get to the front door, for the front fence and gate and the little front yard were criss-crossed back and forth with roll upon roll of barbed wire, going up about six foot high.

The House that Was Eureka is gritty and realistic in its accounts of everyday life in a depression and a recession. Part of the thrill of the novel is the confident way that Wheatley balances the personal and the political, like the message that Lizzie writes in whitewash on the footpath in front of the landlady’s house:


In Wheatley’s hands, it’s not just a cheap slogan. We can feel Lizzie’s fear and anger. We understand what’s brought her to that point.

The House that Was Eureka was commended in the Children’s Book Council of Australia awards in 1986, and it won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary award for young people’s literature—yet despite writing for a young audience, Wheatley never backs away from the politics of real life. By meticulously weaving actual events and people and newspaper clippings with her imagined ones, she creates a novel that speaks for people rarely shown in fiction. She changes the way her readers see the world.

Intellect and theme and politics are well and good. In the end, though, what matters is what’s at the heart of a novel. At the heart of The House that Was Eureka are four young people: Lizzie and Nobby, in 1931, and Evie and Noel, in 1981. The thing that connects them is the house itself, where both families live: it’s a rambling Newtown terrace with a balcony and a scullery. It has changed little in fifty years. Wheatley possess great technical skill in showing us the similarities and differences in their times and lives and in gently weaving her characters’ stories together, but, when reading this book for the first time, I didn’t notice any of it. My notepad was on the table beside me but I didn’t make a jot. I was too involved in the story and the people; I was turning pages, busting to see what happened next. The later stages of the novel have a dream-like quality, as the shifting realities of Evie and Lizzie and Noel and Nobby intersect and collide. My heart was pounding for the final fifty pages.

History is never really past. We all live with our memories, every day, and stories and traditions are passed down to us. In 1931, when Lizzie was dealing with her father’s unemployment and the family’s eviction, my grandmother was fourteen and beginning her working life in domestic service. My childhood was filled with memories that are actually hers: her love of fresh bread and dripping, her fear of being caught in the outside loo when the dunny men came, her gratitude to the nuns for teaching her to read, her enduring distrust of green vegetables. The past lives on. It is always a part of our lives. To me, this is the central idea of the novel. There are ghosts everywhere around us, if only we could see them.

The ending of The House that Was Eureka especially pleased me. Wheatley treats all her characters with compassion, even the landlady, ‘the despot’. Many of the characters pay a dreadful price for the riot and hers is among the heaviest to bear, though Wheatley’s subtle lessons left me wondering what it was about the despot’s own past that led her to those fateful decisions.

My period of teenage unemployment was brief. Just a few weeks after the shocking loss of my potential career in office-furniture administration, I was finally hired: my job was in a mailroom in the Department of Physiology, at the University of Queensland. From there, I was even luckier. After a while, my supportive bosses allowed me to work back at night to make up time spent at lectures during the day.

My experience of unemployment did not define me. When I finished the final page of The House that Was Eureka, I hoped for the same for Evie. I hoped her years of teenage despondency left her with nothing more than an appreciation for work, and an empathy for people down on their luck. Right now, as the world struggles through the global economic collapse, kindness is more important than ever.

This is the introduction to the Text Classics edition of The House that Was Eureka by Nadia Wheatley, which is available now.

Toni Jordan’s latest book is Nine Days (Text).



27 November 2013


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mel While author and critic Mel Campbell can admit that her preoccupations are literary ones, her reading habits sometimes beg to differ.

She interrogates the feelings of guilt and embarrassment that have accompanied her binges on ‘junk food fiction’ – and finds good reasons to savour her encounters with the clunky or unselfconscious expression of books untroubled by a sense of their own importance.

You’re really hungry. You stand in your kitchen staring at all the perfectly good food in your fridge and cupboards, but you don’t feel like eating any of it. What you crave is a nice takeaway. Something quick, comforting and tasty, that doesn’t require much effort.

I had that aimless malaise last week in front of my bookshelves, trying to decide what to read next. Questions of Travel is my current book club title. I knew I should read it, and I even leafed through the first few chapters hoping to be ‘hooked’, but it was just too … literary. I’m sorry, Michelle de Kretser: I couldn’t get into your multi-award-winning novel.

mobydick Nor did I feel like resuming any of the three other books I’m partway through. I’m still only on page 65 of Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick; I’m finding its language drearily ponderous and digressive. At this stage it seems I’ll be halfway through the book by the time Ishmael sets foot on the damn boat.

I’m also resisting Gentry: Six Hundred Years of a Peculiarly English Class by Adam Nicolson, a history book I’m about halfway through and was quite enjoying before I put it down. Reading about the values that animated England’s well-born families at crucial times of political, geographic and economic transition has illuminated my understanding of English literature from another angle. But now it’s as if that light has been switched off in my brain.

Am I getting stupid? If so, it’s worrying that I can’t even return to the dumbest of my current reads: crypto-archaeological romp The Sign and the Seal by Graham Hancock. I was up for a rollicking, Indiana Jones-style quest for the lost Ark of the Covenant, but Hancock’s travelogue wrings tedium from exotic locales, and his Dan Brown-level amateur scholarship manages to be both stodgy and preposterous. I suffered through his theory that Moses was actually an Egyptian sorcerer, but laid the book aside when Hancock mentioned Atlantis.

What’s scaring me is my concomitant hunger for trashy, clunkily written young-adult paranormal romance novels. I’ve just devoured the first three Mortal Instruments books by Cassandra Clare, the first of which was recently adapted to film. I told myself it was research for a feature story I wrote about young-adult film adaptations.

highlight But I haven’t stopped reading now the article’s finished – I’ve just embarked on the fourth, City of Fallen Angels. Last night found myself unironically enjoying a cheesy scene in which star-crossed teenage protagonists Jace and Clary make out in an alleyway during a rainstorm. (Jace makes lots of growling noises ‘deep in his throat’.)

Have these books irreversibly ruined my appetite for a ‘better’ class of literature? Has my brain actually regressed to a high-school level? I don’t know what’s wrong with me; last week I was walking down the street and, in some kind of awful adolescent fugue, I found myself in Dangerfield. (As I write, I’m wearing a Dangerfield hoodie with little stars on it.) Much as Clary learns to see through supernatural glamours and understand the language of runes, the overwrought lyrics of ridiculous emo bands are beginning to make sense to me. Yesterday I had a house inspection and, as I showed off my freshly tidied bedroom, I felt like shouting at my real estate agent, ‘YOU’RE NOT MY REAL MUM!’

Because reading is such an interior pursuit – a silent dialogue with one’s own experiences and feelings – my first instinct has been to worry that this is the result of some intellectual weakness unique to me. Surely any ‘proper’ author and critic wouldn’t slump like a teenager, devouring prose such as, ‘Between his teeth he hissed, “So be it. The Forsaken will take you all.”’

I sent an anguished cry into the Twittersphere – did anyone else struggle with not feeling ‘into’ literary fiction? The results were encouraging.

‘Oh god yes,’ Richard replied. ‘Most capital-L literature bores me shitless.’

‘Life is too short to worry about that,’ added Peter. ‘I will put any book down 100 pages in if I’m not entertained.’

‘I want it all!’ said Jess. ‘But I never feel bad about the trashy stuff. Life is too short to deny yourself pleasure.’

‘I decided years ago to just own it,’ said Lisa. ‘I don’t always want to read prize winners and I don’t always want to be challenged.’

There’s a nasty misogynist tang to our suspicions surrounding the readership of novels for pure narrative pleasure. While women dominated the authorship of fiction between the 15th and 18th centuries, and have long been the most voracious readers of romances and novels, 19th-century literary critics mansplained that this was because women were frivolous, emotional creatures dominated by imagination rather than intellect.

twilight-book-cover Today’s snide jokes and moral panics over the low literary value of cult fiction franchises such as Twilight and Fifty Shades have their origins in the 19th-century press’s intense, paternalistic worries about the deleterious effect of novels on women and tender, impressionable children, both in England and the United States.

‘Paranormal romance’ is especially low-hanging fruit for critics – hell, I’ve mocked it roundly myself. Yet what draws me to it as a reader is its artless energy: its power to seek out and amplify our most atavistic feelings, without seeming to require an intellectual agenda. These books aren’t formally or stylistically ambitious, and don’t necessarily set out to ‘say’ anything beyond the demands of their own universes… although if they become wildly popular we often retrospectively dissect their zeitgeisty appeal.

I guess what I admire best about junk food fiction is that, while I’m ashamed of myself for reading, the author never betrays any similar self-consciousness or uncertainty. On more than one occasion, I’ve thought to myself, “I could write better than this… while drunk, and without any research or planning!”

But when I interrogate myself further, I realise my compulsion is not simply to write a satisfying fantasy, but also an elegantly written one that innovates within its genre and is packed with witty subtext. A book that snobs would be happy to be seen reading, basically. I must admit to myself that my preoccupations are literary ones.

Merry-Gentry-Book-Cover-laurell-k-hamilton-530453_316_472 Perhaps the best way to look at my current YA jag is in the cyclical context of my past reading habits. I’ve had similar obsessions, and have bounced back to enjoy complex, challenging writing. I’ve stuck with Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books to this year’s bitter end. Then there was my heady excursion into Faerie Pr0n, that is, Laurell K Hamilton’s Merry Gentry novels.

Such binges actually sharpen my critical faculties, helping me distinguish between mere shameless corniness and truly reprehensible literary badness. On Friday night, I picked up Austenland by Shannon Hale, thinking it would be a fun, effervescent riff on the cultural obsession with Pride and Prejudice. But it left me hollow and depressed, the way you might from eating only crisps for dinner. And rather than resorting to the knee-jerk ridicule that dominates scathing reviews of ‘bad fiction’, I was able to articulate my reasons for disliking Austenland, and show that it is bad in its own way, rather than self-evidently because of its topic, theme or genre.

As well as the emotional pleasure junk-food fiction offers, perhaps it also challenges us to read as adventurously and omnivorously as possible, disregarding ideologically fraught questions of literary merit. As Haruki Murakami wrote in Norwegian Wood (which I haven’t read, although I saw the film, which was awful), ‘If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’

Mel Campbell (@incrediblemelk) is the founding editor of online pop-culture magazine The Enthusiast, and the national film editor of the Thousands network of city guides. Her first book, Out of Shape, was published by Affirm Press this year.



25 September 2013


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BillieT_headshot_Size4 When teenage internet sensation Tavi Gevinson hit Melbourne recently, many book lovers older than their twenties were somewhat bemused by the breathless excitement that greeted her visit. They wondered: who is she, what exactly is Rookie (her online magazine), and why are young women so into it?

We sent 16-year-old writer Billie Tumarkin along to Tavi’s MWF events to report back on her appeal – and explain why Rookie Mag ‘stands at the front of an online revolution about how the media talks to, or rather with, teens’.

Tavi Gevinson, the 17-year-old Teen-Queen of creative youths, is about to enter the room. A hundred teens have become asthmatics; breathing is for wimps.

We are waiting.


Like a cult of some sort we become captivated by the possibility of the presence of a 17-year-old girl the size of a porcelain doll. Dear e.e. cummings, I’m sure you weren’t lying when you wrote ‘nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands’, but have you met Tavi?

We are waiting.

And there she is.

The room gasps. We all collectively sway beneath a paralysis induced by her appearance, partially knowing our response is ridiculous, partially trying not to faint.

I scribble on my notepad ‘she’s just a girl in a floral dress … I think.’


An 11-year-old Tavi Gevinson started an online fashion blog called The Style Rookie, and it got huge. On the back of this success she started Rookie Magazine in 2011, an online magazine aimed at teenage girls (and read by many outside the demographic). The website – weird and wonderful looking – holds within its pages poetry, fiction, articles, compilations, videos, art and all other form of creative mayhem about what it is, isn’t and could be like being a teenage girl.

Tavi, who has just started her last year of school, is its editor-in-chief.

Tavi was invited by the Melbourne Writers Festival to spread herself like fresh butter on our cultural bread. Tavi is a new flavour, the new flavour; she is poster girl for a type of teenager who may be a statistical minority but will jump atop of trees to be seen above the crowd. I heard Tavi speak twice – once at her MWF keynote, the second time at a three-hour creative-fest called Rookie Day.

Waiting in the queue (a very long, young, fashion-hyper-conscious, gender-imbalanced queue) outside the Athenaeum Theatre for Tavi’s keynote, there is a young girl, about 10, dancing in an enormous Mexican skirt on the benches on Collins St. Like your average drunk A Current Affair stalwart, she flings her skirt over her head; this is a place of abandon. A father delivers his daughter, and after being told to leave, ponders aloud whether he should have gotten a ticket for himself too. And though on this cold Friday Collins Street is flooded with, reportedly, the most self-absorbed and internally preoccupied generation of them all, accidental diplomacy wins the day and the queue curves and squishes to shelter as many people as possible from the rain.

The keynote is called ‘Tavi’s World’. Tavi – it’s funny that everyone calls her that, as if her age instantaneously makes her our friend or our lesser; etiquette says we should refer to her as Gevinson, and yet … She says that ‘a teenager is a caricature of a real person’. Teenagers (and I say this while jailed inside the exhibit) have a habit of doing what normal human beings do, just with amplifying adverbs tacked on: overly emotional, ridiculously sensitive, unnervingly distant, too loud, too real, too alive. In a way, Tavi has created in Rookie an amalgamation and an archive of things that reflects the enormous scope of everything that gives us a ‘much’ to have too much of. Tavi’s keynote is all about herself – about what makes her dream, tick, hope, collapse – yet it doesn’t feel self-indulgent or boring. It feels like a hand (a very small hand) reaching out to us, whoever we may be, a voice saying hello, I get you.

It’s inevitable that there is something peculiar about Tavi. She is instantly likable, she reeks of kindness and familiarity, but she also manages to be – to quote a friend of mine – ‘like a benevolent ruler, kindly allowing us lesser humans to engage with her’. During her keynote, in which she speaks with an intelligence seasoned by American gal filler words (yeah, you know), Tavi laments that she could never seem like Bjork or Joanna Newsom, like a strange woodland creature that came out of nowhere, with a lantern. With the internet we find that not only do great artists steal, all artists steal. Every idea can be quickly traced back to its origins, its evolutions and mutations. It’s easy to believe that originality is dead and we swim in a sea of clichés and recycled ideas. But the endless references that build up the internet give way to a different type of creativity, and in that we too can find originality.

ROOKIE1.cover_ Rookie Mag stands at the front of an online revolution about how the media talks to, or rather with, teens. There has been a movement away from the ‘how to get guys to like you’ overtly photoshopped magazines normally marketed to teenage girls. There is no ‘sealed section’ where girls are given permission to indulge in questions about the shameful and titillating topic of sex. It’s a slow process, and most of the media an average procrastination-prone teen consumes is still overwhelmingly based around squashing ourselves into boxes of expectations (skinny is good, gender is binary, sex and love have to be synonymous), but Rookie, a platform for others’ stories, not a how-to manual, is a glimpse of what media might become.

Tavi is in the State Library on an oddly nice Saturday making collages with us. We sit around tables cutting up new Frankies and old Woman’s Days. Our job is to create our dreams in A3. I tear out a photo of an elegant girl, ballgown and all, and paste on top of her a cut-out of the word groping. The cut-out comes with hands. On one side of me a girl pastes models – a little too skinny, a little too pale – in the sky with diamonds; on the other side of me there’s a cut-out dog in a jumper.

Later we turn off all the lights. Tavi and the Teens, who strain their necks to find her amongst our unnervingly taller heads, prepare to dance.

I remember when we broke up the first time

Saying, ‘This is it, I’ve had enough,’ ‘cause like

We hadn’t seen each other in a month

When you said you needed space. (What?)

So Taylor Swift, Tavi and the Teens scream along.


For a moment there we are never getting back together with the feeling that we can’t do it.

These are instant, rose-tinted memories of that Saturday. Surely it’s dangerous to remember only glitter-sprinkled moments − not, say, the fact that for the most part we were white girls in expensive clothes. I look back on these moments now like I imagine an adult looks back on their youth. Forgive the 16-year-old and her nostalgia. I’m sure every generation has its particular way of breeding dreams. Tavi, Rookie and all the instagram-filtered realities that come with them is our way – a magazine run with the thought, ‘What would I want to see?’

This is a tale of meeting Tavi Gevinson: a tiny girl in a floral dress … I think.

Billie Tumarkin regularly writes for Birdee and the Wheeler Centre and is a member of the team behind The Under Age.



17 September 2013


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highlightFor bookish women of a certain age, nothing evokes childhood so sharply as the name Judy Blume. Iconic books like Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, Deenie, Blubber and Superfudge are still in print – and being discovered by new generations of readers – today.

And this month, the first film version of a Judy Blume book has hit US cinemas. Tiger Eyes (published in 1981) is directed by Lawrence Blume – Judy’s son – and she co-wrote and co-produced the film.

‘I don’t think I have many books that would make good movies,’ the 75-year-old author told Vanity Fair – though much surprise has been expressed about the fact that this is her first story to be told on the screen. Blume and Lawrence (who she calls Larry) have been talking about this project for years.

‘It’s cinematic. That northern–New Mexico landscape where we lived – we knew it intimately. It’s a big part of the movie.’

Tiger Eyes is the story of seventeen-year-old Davey, who moves with her grieving mother and little brother from New Jersey, after her father was murdered in a robbery. They stay with her aunt and uncle in Los Alamos, home of the atomic bomb; while her mother takes to her bed with prescription pills, Davey befriends a burgeoning alcoholic at her high school, and a Native American boy known as Wolf at a hospital where she volunteers. His father is dying of cancer; they bond over their grief.

‘People didn’t realise it was us doing the casting’

Blume says that making the film was ‘so much fun’. She’s proud of the movie, and full of praise for the cast, especially star Willa Cather (Gossip Girl, The O.C.) as Davey, who is in every scene. Rolling Stone calls Cather ‘exceptional’ and praises the film’s ‘grit and grace’.

‘It’s a movie. It can’t be exactly the same. But you try to stay true to the characters, their emotional lives, and the spirit of the book itself,’ says Blume. ‘People didn’t realize it was us—we were doing the casting; we were making these choices—but “they.” “They better not ruin it.” “They better not have Taylor Lautner playing Wolf.”’

Staying true to the book is one reason that Cather is in every scene: Lawrence wanted the film to have the feel of a first-person book, for everything to be told from Davey’s point of view.


Judy Blume: Suggests mothers wanting their teens to read her books should casually ‘leave it around the house, and say, “Oh, I don’t think you’re ready for that … yet.’

‘Judy Blume … was judging my parenting skills’

Reading the interviews with Blume for the film, it seems many of the journalists grew up reading her books. One wrote in the LA Times about her conflicted feelings about bringing her nine-year-old daughter to the film’s premiere: her daughter was dying to meet Blume, their rare shared idol, yet Blume had cautioned her that nine is too young for the film. She brought her anyway; Blume gritted her teeth and asked Willa Cather for support: ‘Don’t you think she’s too young to see this?’ The journalist cringed in shame; ‘Blume – whom I had admired since “Blubber” entered my consciousness in the early 1980s – was judging my parenting skills.’

Blume says she is often approached by mothers who urge her books on their daughters, wanting to impart their passion. Her advice? Be cool.

‘There comes a time when you say, “Oh, you have to read this book,” or “Oh, I loved this book!” and your kid will look at you and think, “Ew. She’s so uncool. I am not reading what she likes.” So I say, if you can possibly afford to, get one with a new cover, leave it around the house, and say, “Oh, I don’t think you’re ready for that … yet.’



13 June 2013


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Last year, Patrick Ness won the prestigious Carnegie Medal for the second time, for his YA novel A Monster Calls, a heartbreaking story about cancer and loss, told through the metaphor of a yew tree that comes to life outside the bedroom of a boy whose mother is dying.

In his acceptance speech, Ness spoke passionately in defence of teenagers, taking issue with the UK government’s negative treatment and expectations of them.

Though his fans span all ages, and his latest book, The Crane Wife, is for adult readers, he is best known for his books for a young adult audience – especially his worldwide bestselling Chaos Walking trilogy, variously described as a dystopian love story with the atmosphere of a Western and ‘one of the most interesting fantasies ever published’. Ness won his first Carnegie Medal for The Knife of Letting Go, the first in the Chaos Walking series.

Patrick Ness giving his 2012 Carnegie Medal acceptance speech.

Teenagers: ‘interesting, curious, sensitive, smart’

‘The worst thing our current government, and we as a culture, do about teenagers, in my view, is to only discuss them in negative terms – by what they can’t do,’ Ness told the Carnegie audience. ‘What they aren’t achieving, how much they don’t read.’

‘All it takes is to bother to meet a teenager or three and you’ll see that they’re the same interesting, curious, sensitive, smart, compassionate, funny, questioning, brilliant people they’ve always been – and yet we only ever hear about them in negative terms.’

‘I couldn’t have felt more different if I’d had a tail’

He went on to reflect on his own teenage years, and that universal feeling (which always seems utterly unique at the time) of feeling like you don’t fit, that you stand out in the wrong ways.

‘I was a typically atypical teenager – and I think that’s the secret of being a teenager, that there’s no such thing as a typical teenager. Even the popular kids feel different from everyone else. It’s the standard principle of a teenager to feel alone. And I was the gay, preppy, deeply anxious son of American fundamentalist Christians. I couldn’t have felt more different if I’d had a tail.’

‘I felt like nobody understood what I was going through. And I don’t mean that in a self-pitying way, but I literally had no evidence that anyone understood.’

‘I think to be a teenager is to yearn. I yearned for someone to tell me that I was going to be alright.’

‘I’m really writing for the teenage me’

It’s clear that this longing to be understood plays into the books Ness writes for his teenage readers. He outlined his aim to make sure each teenage character is ‘a complex creation who doesn’t always get things right but importantly, doesn’t always get things wrong’. He now receives letters from kids who, for many different reasons, are grateful to have discovered his books.

‘I’ve always said that I don’t write book for other people – that’s always a disaster. I only write them for myself, because paradoxically, that’s the only time people want to read them. So when I write for teenagers and young people, I’m really writing for the teenage me. The me that needed to be taken seriously, at least once in a while.’

Patrick Ness will be in conversation with Lili Wilkinson at the Athenaeum Theatre at 6.45pm next Monday 20 May. Tickets are $20, or $12 concession. You can book now.



13 May 2013


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highlight Simmone Howell spent her teen years writing love odes to eighties pop stars and English essays for her friends. Her novel Notes from the Teenage Underground was awarded the 2007 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Young Adult Fiction. Her second novel Everything Beautiful was shortlisted for the Melbourne Prize for Best Writing. Her latest novel, Girl Defective, was released this month.

We spoke to Simmone about her alternative career of being a bookshop person or a hobo, why a person who wishes to write should ‘do some livin’ as well', and the fabulous lies she’d hear over dinner with Dill from To Kill a Mockingbird.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first poem I had published was co-written with my friend. We were 13. It was a (rhyming) poem, an ode to the drummer of 1980s pop band The Hooters and it was published in their International newsletter!

What’s the worst part of your job?

The waiting and the general anxiety.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

A long ago phone call from my agent. She asked me if I was sitting down and then told me that Notes from the Teenage Underground was being fought over. There were exciting follow-up emails and then champagne. It was a nice, nice time.

What’s the worst advice you’ve received about writing?

People in bookshops love it when you go in and offer to sign your own books. Best advice? Plod on.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

When I was 34 and had been trying to write ‘professionally’ since I was in my teens, and I finally had a little success, an interviewer asked me if I was worried about ‘peaking too soon’.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I would probably be a librarian or a bookshop person. Or a hobo.

girl_defective There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I think it can help. Sometimes people have raw talent and don’t know how to control it.

Sometimes people don’t know what they should be reading … and how what they read can guide what they write. What I write now is a thousand times better than what I wrote when I was 20.

But I am also of the opinion that if a person wishes to write they should do some livin’ as well… so that there’s something to write about.

My favourite writers were self-taught and would rather bomb a university than attend one.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Keep a notebook. Read everything. Don’t despair.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I love bookshops (especially second-hand) but sometimes I can’t wait and use Book Depository. I also love my local library.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Argh! These questions are hard. I am wary of meeting my heroes and these include fictional heroes … But maybe Dill from To Kill a Mockingbird because he would tell me all sorts of fabulous lies …

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

It might be Lace by Shirley Conran. I might never get over the idea of three teenage girls at a Swiss finishing school eating eclairs and painting each other’s toenails …

Simmone Howell’s latest book is Girl Defective (Pan Macmillan).



21 March 2013


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highlight Lili Wilkinson is a reader and writer of young adult literature; she has written five books for teenagers. The most recent is Love Shy (Allen & Unwin). Lili worked at the State Library of Victoria’s Centre for Youth Literature for seven years, where her tasks included creating and managing the Inside a Dog blog.

We talked to her about why it’s nonsense that you need a miserable childhood to be truly creative, the honour of her work being compared to Playing Beatie Bow, and why she’d like to eat dinner with the BFG (no snozzcumbers allowed!)

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The very first was a very short letter in the Age – I was about seven, I think. It was about the environment. But the first creative piece I had published was a poem in Voiceworks magazine. I was thirteen. You can read it in the Words We Found anthology, but it’s pretty dreadful.

What’s the worst part of your job?

There aren’t many bad parts. Tax time is pretty boring – part of being a writer is also running a small business, which my creative brain struggles with a bit. Also I’ve just finished the final proofread of my upcoming novel. Generally by the time you get to proofing, you’ve read the book so many times that you’re utterly sick of it.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

How to choose! Speaking at the Edinburgh Festival was pretty amazing. And winning the Ena Noel IBBY Award for Scatterheart. Ooh, and Pink being honored in the American Library Association’s Stonewall Prize, which is an award for books about LGBT teens.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

My Year 9 English teacher started her first class by writing the word ‘succinct’ on the whiteboard. That definitely stuck with me. The worst advice I got was from an author who will go unnamed, who said to be truly creative, you have to have had a miserable childhood. What nonsense.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

I went to a school recently where I kept getting introduced as a poet – surprising as I haven’t written poetry since the aforementioned Voiceworks days. The best surprising thing was a review that compared Scatterheart to Playing Beatie Bow – the greatest honour.

If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Either teaching, or back at my old job at the State Library, working with amazing people to bring YA literature to teens, teachers and librarians.

love_shy There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

All of the creative arts are crafts – maybe there is a certain amount of natural talent, but that talent has to be honed and shaped. Nobody writes in isolation, we are all part of a long tradition of storytelling, and to fully participate you have to know what’s come before, and how your work exists in relation to others. Like drawing, learning to play an instrument or dance, you look at how other people have done it, and then you practice until you find your own style.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Read. As much and as often as possible. Then write. Get really, really good at it. Show it to a trusted friend and learn how to take criticism. Your first draft is not perfect. Ever. And don’t get too hung up on the idea that your first published work will be this amazing novel that speaks directly from your soul. My first book was commissioned – a non-fiction book about Joan of Arc, a topic that I (initially) knew nothing about. Everyone’s path to publication is different, so say ‘yes’ to as many opportunities as you can.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I do a lot of reading on my iPad, so e-books are bought online. Australian stuff I get from a local bookseller, and then more obscure titles or US books that aren’t available I get online.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

The BFG. No snozzcumbers allowed! We’d talk about our dreams.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock. It’s a children’s novel about a girl called Polly who likes to make stuff up – but her imaginings become real in ways she didn’t expect. I read it every year and am always astonished by the depth and complexity of it. The ending means something different to me every time I read it. It’s a good reminder that books for young people don’t have to be compromised or simplified – kids and teens are probably more able to grapple at big ideas than many adults are.



31 January 2013


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What’s the next big thing in YA fiction?

According to tabloid UK publication The Daily Mail, it’s ‘sick-lit’ – ‘a raft of morbid novels, which all too often inadvertently glamorise shocking life-and-death issues’.

highlight The newspaper has targeted a number of YA titles as ‘exploitative’ and ‘mawkish’. John Green’s bestseller The Fault in Our Stars (a Wheeler Centre best book of 2012), about two teens dying of cancer who fall in love, heads the list.

‘Parents should be vigilant if a child is reading a lot of these books,’ says a child psychologist quoted by the paper. ‘The next time your teen is curled up with a book, ask them what it’s about.’

The Times children’s book critic Amanda Craig says that she has been sent 12 of these ‘sick-lit’ books over the past year, but refuses to review them. ‘When you write for children, you have a moral and social responsibility,’ she says. ‘I think there is a cavalier attitude towards this in the publishing industry, especially as children as young as 11 are likely to be reading these books.’

Michelle Pauli, editor of the Guardian’s children’s site (which currently features The Fault in Our Stars as its teen book club pick of the month) has published a passionate riposte.

‘Illness, depression, sexuality – these are all issues that teens are going to bump up against in their lives, whether directly or at one remove, through family members, friends or representations in other media such as TV, films, and the internet. The Daily Mail seems to be suggesting that it is inappropriate for these issues to be looked at in the one place where difficult subjects have traditionally been most sensitively explored for teens: fiction written specifically for them.’

She also points out that writers and publishers of books for teens ‘think long and carefully’ about the impact on their readers – and that the ‘gatekeepers’ (booksellers, book groups, librarians, bookshop buyers) who stand between them provide added insurance.

Children’s publisher Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow says that seriously ill or dying children in books for children are nothing new, citing the death of Beth in Good Wives and two characters in the Harry Potter series as examples. (For a classic Australian example, think Judy in Seven Little Australians.)

Cover__The_Shadow_Girl_John_Larkin_Size4 In contemporary Australia, too, dark and challenging books for teens are popular with readers and critics alike. The three titles shortlisted for the Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Young Adults last year were Vikki Wakefield’s All I Ever Wanted, about a girl from a family of criminals, living in a depressed neighbourhood, who strives for a ‘normal’ life; Doug MacLeod’s The Shiny Guys, set in a mental institution and told through the eyes of a deeply depressed narrator who believes himself responsible for the abduction and murder of his younger sister; and John Larkin’s The Shadow Girl (the winner), about a homeless girl on the run from an abusive uncle, for whom school is a refuge.

Is it exploitative to publish books about dark or taboo issues for teenage readers – or is literature a safe place to explore such subjects? Are books for teenagers getting darker, or are we simply paying more attention to them as YA literature gains a higher profile (and higher sales)? And why are teen readers drawn to dark material?



07 January 2013


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There was a suitably festive atmosphere at the Regent Ballroom for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards dinner last night, as writers swapped their standard work wear of tracksuit pants and pyjamas for cocktail frocks and dapper suits.

Premier Ted Baillieu was in a jocular mood, beginning by pointing to the ‘Premier’s 21’ banner on stage and thanking the crowd for attending his 21st birthday, then joking that he would try to match MC Casey Bennetto, who introduces the awards categories in song, with interpretive dance. (For the record, there was no interpretive dance.)


MC Casey Bennetto, front; with left-to-right award winners John Kinsella, Bill Gammage, Graeme Simsion, Lally Katz, John Larkin and Aidan Fennessy, with Premier Ted Baillieu – middle.

In marked contrast to his colleague in Queensland, who removed all government funding for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards this year, Baillieu remarked warmly on the ‘strong bipartisan support’ the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards have always enjoyed. He said the awards are ‘a core characteristic of this state – and long may it be’.

In a refreshing display of that non-partisanship, he personally thanked former premier John Cain (who was in attendance, at Baillieu’s table) for starting the awards in 1985, and name-checked him frequently throughout the night.

Baillieu began by mentioning two biannual awards that were given out earlier this year, congratulating Anita Heiss on winning the Prize for Indigenous Writing for Am I Black Enough For You? and Graeme Simsion for winning the Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript.

Simsion’s novel, The Rosie Project, will be published by Text Publishing in 2013 and had earned him ‘comfortably more than $1 million in advances’ from 12 countries when the Age profiled him in September.

Baillieu reported that at last week’s Frankfurt Book Fair, that number of countries buying rights to The Rosie Project, reached 30. Baillieu said that the Unpublished Manuscript Prize is important because it ‘helps build careers’.

He concluded his introduction by saying that the Victorian Prize for Literature, worth $100,000, was ‘deliberately’ conceived as the richest literary prize in Australia.

‘It’s a statement about the value we place on writers and books in our city.’


Singing MC Casey Bennetto: Inspired Ted Baillieu to consider interpretative dance.

Aidan Fennessy: Thanks, Mum

The first award of the night was the one voted by the Victorian public – the People’s Choice Award. It went to Aidan Fennessy for his intensely personal, deeply political play National Interest.

‘This means my mum has been hard at work on her computer,’ he said.

John Larkin: Inspired by a school visit

One of Casey Bennetto’s best lines was in the first general award category, young adult, where he sang, ‘I don’t understand how the best in the land can have no vampires at all. Don’t they understand how fiction works?’

John Larkin won for his (fang-free) novel The Shadow Girl, and gave a moving speech.

‘This is the second literary prize I’ve won,’ he said. ‘I won one in 1971, the Sydney Morning Herald Young Poets’ Award. That was two dollars. This is better.’

He thanked the Premier for keeping the awards alive ‘when some states have none’ and bemoaned the idea of state coffers being held by ‘faceless accountants’.


John Larkin

Larkin spoke about the inspiration for his book, which tells the story of a homeless girl on the run from an abusive uncle, a girl who loves books and sees school as a refuge. In the novel, the girl meets an author at a school talk, who agrees to tell her story.

In real life, John Larkin did meet a smart, engaged homeless Year Eight girl while doing a school talk. At the end of his visit, he announced her as the student who’d had the most impact on him; the girl threw herself at him and ‘wrapped herself around me like a limpet’, he reported. He asked the teachers what he should do and they told him to just hug her. ‘So, I just hugged her,’ Larkin told the awards crowd, ‘my tears falling on her head’.

Baillieu told Larkin that his daughter is reading his book right now.

Lally Katz: Researched golems

‘Thank you Mr Premier, for saving me from financial devastation,’ said Lally Katz, as she accepted her Award for Drama for her play A Golem Story.


Lally Katz

She acknowledged the writers of the other ‘brilliant’ shortlisted plays – Aidan Fenessy’s [National Interest] and Daniel Keene’s Boxman – as ‘great mentors to me’.

Katz told the story of being approached to write A Golem Story by Michael Kantor and Stephen Armstrong of the Malthouse Theatre, partly because of her half-Jewish heritage.

‘They said, You know what a golem is? And I said, Yeah, it’s that creature from Lord of the Rings. They told me, You’d better go away and do some research.’

Her research was helped by John Safran, who lent her ‘all his books on golems’.

John Kinsella: ‘A poem is an activist thing’

John Kinsella won the Award for Poetry for Armour. He plans to donate part of his prize money to an indigenous community in WA who are confronting a ‘rapacious mining company’.


John Kinsella

‘For me, a poem is an activist thing, and every poem is an act of responsibility,’ he said.

Bill Gammage: ‘Set to change the history of this country’

Ted Baillieu called Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth, winner of the Award for Non-Fiction, ‘A book set to change the history of this country.’

Gammage won over the crowd from the start, with the self-deprecating remark, ‘Well after three very good talkers, it’s fair enough you get a wanker now’.

He said the stars of his book are ‘the people of 1788’.

‘They gave us a great gift in this country they had taken from them. And they still have much to teach us today.’


Bill Gammage

Gammage said that the terrible bushfires of February 2009 – and the waves of bushfires that preceded them (like the Black Friday fires of 1939 and the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983) – did not occur when the original Aboriginal inhabitants were taking care of the land.

‘If Aboriginal people had been in the midst of those fires they couldn’t possibly have survived them. Those fires didn’t occur. They had ways of preventing it.’

He also commented on the original inhabitants’ methods for managing wetlands, salination and ‘so many other things’.

‘I hope this country becomes a better country by being willing to learn from them.’

Gillian Mears: ‘A novel as round and lovely as a showman’s ring’

Introducing the Prize for Fiction, Casey Bennetto sang, ‘They’re all top shelf, you should read them yourself’. Indeed.

Gillian Mears won for Foal’s Bread, her first novel in 16 years. She was unable to attend the ceremony due to her ongoing battle with MS, and so asked two friends, photographer Vincent Long and writer Jessica Huon, to accept the award on her behalf.


Gillian Mears

Huon spoke of Mears’ ‘acute perception and borderless sensuality’ and the way she writes ‘on the edge’. She called her friend ‘a true artist’.

She also shared Mears’ original vision for Foal’s Bread: she expressed ‘a wild hope of writing a novel as round and as lovely as a showman’s ring’.

‘It has been a determination of hers to write this book,’ said Huon.

Victorian Prize for Literature: ‘Life-changing’

Bill Gammage won the final prize for the night – the Victorian Prize for Literature, worth $100,000 – to resounding applause.

He seemed surprised and overwhelmed, but was as quick-witted as when he won the Award for Non-Fiction.


Bill Gammage and Premier Ted Baillieu

‘It’s the third time tonight I’ve shaken your hand,’ he said to Baillieu. ‘Maybe I should enter your electorate.’ Then he paused. ‘I don’t know what to do with this prize. It’s not enough to get into your electorate.’

He said that the prize was ‘life-changing’.



17 October 2012


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The Hunger Games is the film – and the book series – of the moment.

Everyone’s talking about it, from comparing how the screen version measures up to the beloved books (verdict: pretty well), to comparing independent, kick-ass heroine Katniss Aberdeen with Bella Swan, Twilight’s damsel in distress.

And now there’s a parody (discovered via Mamamia) that will tickle the fancy of literary types everywhere: The Hipster Games.

In this clever little mock-trailer, heroine Lochness Evergreen volunteers as tribute after her sister’s name is drawn to compete in the ‘semi-annual Hipster Games’.

‘No!’ she cries. ‘She’s not ready! Her clothes aren’t even vegan!’

Let’s just say it involves battles over vinyl records, a talismanic brooch of the Mockingjays, ‘a rad post-punk band from the late seventies’ – and the line, ‘I just really miss brunch, you know’.

If Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like made you giggle (or cringe in semi-recognition), this parody is for you …

May the Trends Be Ever in Your Favour.



11 April 2012


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Murakami pie

Fans and sceptics alike will enjoy this chuckle-worthy breakdown of a typical Murakami novel. there’s cats, classical music, bizarre dream sequences and jazz. It’s all there; the only thing to disagree about is the percentages. Personally, we think 25% cats may be overstating it a bit.


Lolita’s dark heart

Three years ago, architect and blogger John Bertram ran a competition asking designers to come up a better cover for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel that has been often misinterpreted as portraying a teenage sexpot and seducer. ‘We are talking about a novel which has child rape at its core,’ says Bertram, who challenged the designers to do justice to its dark complexities. The competition has spawned its own book, with 60 new designs. A Salon article shares a few of them.


Four different cover designs for Lolita. From left to right: Barbara deWilde, Kelly Blair, Alkesander Bak, Jamie Kennan

The Hunger Games

We all know that The Hunger Games is the new Twilight, which was the new Harry Potter. When books strike such a chord with such a broad and populous fan base, they usually says as much about our culture – and the fears, desires, fantasies or questions it’s tapping into – as it does about the book or its author. On the eve of The Hunger Games movie, Salon’s Andrew O'Heihr takes a deeper look.

The Hunger Games taps into a vibrant current of pop culture and indeed of Western civilization in general, one that never really runs dry. It’s the idea that our species remains cruel and barbarous at heart, that the strong will always rule the weak by whatever means necessary, and that our collective obsession with sports and games and other forms of manufactured entertainment is a flimsy mask for sadism and voyeurism.’


The Hunger Games movie: the studio ‘eagerly awaits an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars from teens, tweens and young adults all over the globe.’

Still a fast food nation

Ten years after Fast Food Nation was published, Eric Schlosser reflects on what’s changed and what hasn’t. It’s sobering. He reports that the annual revenues of America’s fast-food industry have risen by about 20 per cent since 2001. The annual cost of the nation’s obesity epidemic (‘about $168 billion’) is, alarmingly, the same as the amount Americans spent on fast food in 2011. And in 2008, 143 million pounds of meat (one fourth of it purchased for federal school lunch and nutrition programs) had to be recalled.

On the other hand, there is a significant growth in those who are embracing a new food culture, championed by the likes of Alice Waters and recent Wheeler Centre guest Jamie Oliver, involving farmers' markets, organic food and school gardens. ‘The contrast between the thin, fit, and well-to-do and the illness-ridden, poor and obese has no historical precent,’ writes Schlosser, in a piece published by The Daily Beast.


35 years of Tales

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is now officially middle-aged: the series celebrates its 35th birthday this year. To mark the occasion, Maupin – whose life was so entwined with his stories that he used Michael Tolliver’s coming-out letter to his parents to come out to his own – has written a gorgeous reflective piece for the Guardian. He was often at odds with his editors over his insistence that ‘gay folks’ were part of the human landscape and deserved equal billing in his chronicle of modern life. ‘One of them even kept an elaborate chart in his office to insure that the homo characters in Tales didn’t suddenly outnumber the hetero ones and thereby undermine the natural order of civilisation.’


Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City started as a newspaper series. ‘There were times when he was barely two days ahead of his readers.’



16 March 2012


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As 2011 ends and 2012 begins, we’ve invited our resident organisations to consider the year gone by and to share their plans for the year to come.

2011 was another exciting year for Express Media, as we continued to provide support and development opportunities for young people in writing and media.

The year kicked off with the now annual NEWS Conference, which saw student editors from around Australia descend on the Wheeler Centre to learn what it takes to keep a publication ticking all year long.

In early 2011 we also launched two new online publications written by high school aged students, The Under Age and The Signal Express, as well as the inaugural National Young Writers' Month project in June: a month of online and offline activities for young writers around Australia to set and complete their writing goals.

The final year of the Write in Your Face grants program saw 12 recipients provided $50,000 in funding for projects which supported young writers using language innovatively across a range of forms and genres.

Our existing programs continued to shine, with Voiceworks magazine branching out into ebooks as we dipped our toes into the heady waters of digital publishing. Voiceworks also went international in late 2011, with new distribution arrangements taking it into selected South-East Asian countries for the first time.

Buzzcuts entered its 15th year in style, clocking up dozens of event reviews for the Adelaide and Melbourne Fringe Festivals, all written by writers under 25.

Annual competitions Write Across Victoria and the John Marsden Prize once again drew hundreds of entries from across Australia, and again revealed more outstanding work from young writers.

These competition entries were among thousands of submissions from young writers which Express Media received in 2011, a number of which were recognised at the 2011 Express Media Awards Extravaganza in December.

2012 will be another huge year for Express Media, and we look forward to seeing more of what young writers have to offer in the coming year.

Joe Toohey
General Manager




04 January 2012


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This week has been a veritable hotbed of controversy. Here’s our wrap.

Amina Arraf, a lesbian Syrian blogger, was abducted by Syrian authorities during the week, prompting howls of protest around the world – at least until it emerged that she may be the figment of someone’s imagination. If that’s the case, it would be a distasteful distraction from the life-and-death struggle many Syrians are engaged in – even 13-year-old boys.

Linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky has won this year’s Sydney Peace Prize amid controversy surrounding his reaction to the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Less controversially, Canadian troubadour Leonard Cohen has been awarded a major Spanish literary prize for “a literary work which has influenced three generations around the world by creating a sentimental imagery in which poetry and music are melded into an unchanging worth.” Cohen’s lyrics are deeply influenced by Andalucian poet Federico García Lorca.

But many bookish Spaniards have been outraged by a controversy of their own, concerning the historical legacy of General Francisco Franco, the country’s far-right dictator from 1936 to 1975. A new state-subsidised national dictionary of biography has portrayed Franco’s reign as “authoritarian, but not totalitarian”. The Franco entry was penned by Professor Luis Suárez, an 86-year-old medieval historian known to be a Franco apologist.

There seems to be something inherently dark about the human appetite for storytelling – even among children. After all, Jack and Jill might well have gone up the hill, but Jack broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after. But when is the darkness too dark? An article in the Wall Street Journal last weekend about the darkness of much young adult fiction has sparked a fascinating debate. Here’s an overview of the reaction.

Even the Smurfs have weighed in with a controversy of their own. They have, according to one French academic, done the impossible and merged Stalinism and Nazism. Antoine Bueno created headlines this week when he labelled the cartoon characters, created by Peyo in 1958, as deeply racist, thus deeply offending all across the world lovers of the blue characters known variously as Schtroumpfs in France, Pitufos in Spain, Torpikek in Hungary, Sumafu in Japan and, in China, lan jing ling.

And finally David Nichols has just published The Bogan Delusion through Affirm Press. In this essay in The Conversation, he asks, do bogans actually exist?



10 June 2011


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A new online publishing venture is helping aspiring writers, journalists and publishers under the age of 18 learn the ropes on the job. The Under Age is the initiative of The Age and Express Media. It’s staffed by a team of 12 high school students and aims to publish submissions from students across the state. The team will meet at Media House – The Age’s HQ – every fortnight to discuss forthcoming content among themselves and with more experienced professionals. The website, launched this week, publishes a range of content, from hard news through to arts reviews and sports features.



29 April 2011


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And the books shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards YA Prize are:

  • Raw Blue by Kirsty Eagar

  • Swerve by Phillip Gwynne

  • Beatle Meets Destiny by Gabrielle Williams

Phew. I don’t have to keep my mouth shut any more! Except about the winner, of course, but that’s easier somehow. It’s just a cosy little one-book secret, rather than a big rambling three-book secret. I think my secret limit is two books.

Big congratulations to all the shortlisted authors – I’m extremely proud and excited about our shortlist. And also congrats to the authors we longlisted: Kirsty Murray for Vulture’s Gate, Richard Harland for Worldshaker and Bill Condon for Confessions of a Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God. You can also read the full judges' reports.

Judging this year was a completely different experience to the 2007 VPLA – which makes sense I suppose, given that you have a completely different set of entries for the year, and a completely different set of judges. (Except me. I am not completely different.) One important difference was that we didn’t have to write a judge bio for the website, or provide a photo. Which absolved me from the photo-choosing despair that I encountered last time! I was going to go with this one, in case you’re interested:

Myself and my fellow judges (Pam Macintyre from Viewpoint Magazine and Leesa Lambert from The Little Bookroom) used the same judging process as the last time I was a judge – once the entries were received we all squirrelled ourselves away and read like the blazes, and we each created our own personal longlists for our next meeting. We kept our longlists a secret from each other until the meeting, to see if there would be any overlap.

In 2008, when I judged the award with lovely authors Kirsty Murray and Simmone Howell, our initial personal longlists had very little overlap, which I found fascinating. So there was lots of re-reading and re-evaluating done after our initial read-through. Our final shortlist and winner were arrived at through a lot of analysis, a lot of brain-wracking, a few more meetings, and a bit of voting.

I expected pretty much the same turn of events this year – when you give three different people a pile of 75 different books and ask them to pick the best ones, you’d assume you’d get some different answers.

So Pam and I turned up at the Little Bookroom on Longlist Meeting Day with our little piles of novels hidden in our bags.

I produced my longlist first. Then Pam produced hers. Then Leesa pulled out hers.

Each of our 4-book longlists overlapped by at least 3 books. Wow.

“So,” Pam said, “Which one do we think is the winner?”

And we all held up the same book.

Then we kind of got the giggles, because it was so unexpected, and so exciting! We were unanimous before we’d even opened our mouths!

Narrowing down the rest of the shortlist took a bit longer – a bit of re-reading and discussing and voting, but given that we already had a three-book overlap in our longlists it didn’t take too long.

So: a different year, a different set of entries and judges, a completely different judging experience. Last time I was pregnant, this time I have an 18mth old. Both years it has been exciting, confusing, and brain-tearingly full on. So has the judging.

I can’t imagine what will happen if I judge this award again in the future. Probably I’ll just have given birth to triplets, we judges will have a shortlist of twenty books that we CANNOT cut down any further, our heads will explode and someone else will have to judge the award for us.

Oh, and did I forget to tell you this year’s winner? How terribly remiss of me.

This is a crosspost from Anna Ryan-Punch’s Reading Your Favourites. She is a YA/Children’s lit reviewer, poet, alpha-librarian and mother.



07 September 2010


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