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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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