Older Readers Judges’ Report
Older Reader novels are important because they reflect the transitional and sometimes chaotic nature of young adulthood. The protagonists are usually young adults who are facing many diverse challenges in their lives. A good novel will invite the reader to experience those challenges with the protagonist, allowing the reader to embark on a journey of empathy and contemplation. Older Reader fiction will often be quite intense because the protagonist is experiencing these challenges for the first time, and this period of discovery brings with it an intensity of emotion.
The books in this category often feature more mature themes than those explored in texts suited to younger readers – themes involving sex, drugs and alcohol for example – to be responsive to the current issues and concerns faced by young people. Not to include these topics in books for young adults is to be ignorant of the issues that many may deal with on a regular basis.
This year books that are both engaging and of high literary quality emerged across a wide range of genres, therefore the Notable list is likely to appeal to a diverse range of reader preferences.
There is however a common thread in the coming-of-age theme. Many the books explore self-discovery, growing up and survival of adversity in this context. Issues of social justice are also explored at a social and individual level, with powerful and responsive works bringing to the fore the importance of acceptance, tolerance and understanding of difference. The injustices still experienced in our country are explored through the innocent eyes of the young, with this innocence highlighting the callousness inherent in some current social positions currently popular in Western society.
Many of the books are led by strong characters who are not always likeable but always very relatable. They are characters that will be appreciated regardless of their gender. There are also strong supporting characters within the books: the fact that the books don’t solely rely on the strength of the protagonist allows the protagonist to be realistically flawed.
There is a lot to like about this year’s selection of books. The books are moving, sad, honest and funny, exploring issues such as friendship, grief, racism, bullying, refugees, conflict, relationships and love, on Earth and elsewhere! Humour is often used to tackle challenging content and to enable characters to be well-rounded, displaying both strength and vulnerability.
As well as many well-known names, debut authors feature prominently in the Notable list – seven out of the 18 listed titles are by first-time authors. It is encouraging to see so many new voices in this category.
Although production values are generally of a commendably high standard, many of the books are flawed by the inclusion of the kinds of grammatical errors that are in common oral currency, particularly the subject form “I” used where the object form “me” is required (“He gave the prizes to John and I”) and the incorrect use of the intransitive “lay” where the transitive “laid” is required (as in “The hen lay an egg”). There are also occasional misuses of words – “limpid” for example, where the sense requires “limp” – all solecisms that could have been eliminated with more attentive editing.
While most of the books selected in this category will appeal most strongly to readers in their last couple of years of high school, the judges note that Darrell Pitt’s A Toaster on Mars, one of very few comedies among this year’s entries, is very accessible to the younger end of the OR age range, as is Meg Caddy’s fantasy Waer. On the other hand, while Dianne Touchell’s main character in Forgetting Foster is a seven-year-old, his situation as the only child of a father suffering early-onset Alzheimer’s disease places the book well in the Older Reader range. The Bone Sparrow, by Zana Fraillon also features children of primary school age, but its poetic language and confronting and topical refugee theme mean that it can appeal to a very wide readership from upper primary to adult.
At the other end of the scale, is Summer Skin, a book that older teens should read for its honest discussion of sex and relationships and its willingness to challenge gender stereotypes in Australia. The lead character is in her second year at university and living in a residential college dealing with issues that are important, but may be too advanced for the readership of the older reader category. This book has a strong protagonist and a wonderful cast of characters who are both flawed and likeable. Due to the graphic and frequent nature of the sex scenes this is probably not a book that would sit comfortably on high school shelves, though the judges would strongly recommend it to new adult readers.
It is also worth noting an unusual hybrid. The Invisible War, subtitled A War on Two Scales is a magazine-size graphic novel which is not immediately attractive but on closer examination turns out to be fascinating: an unlikely and possibly unique marriage of two “scales” of very different factual subjects, pictorially combining a personalised history of World War 1 with the (equally “personalised”) internal battle between the shigella virus that causes dysentery and the heroic baceriophages that fight against them.
The above exceptions aside, the age of a character is important in this category, as the character’s age must suit the audience. The readership of this category will often read up, but generally will not read down.
Authors should avoid being overly didactic in their approach. Allow the reader to form their own opinion, following the old “show don’t tell” adage. Raise questions but don’t force opinions on readers. It is important that the adult perspective and voice don’t come through, as it can make the book inauthentic to the reader. There were books entered that contained pertinent issues for young people, but often the characters, and particularly their dialogue, came across as false and implausibly mature.
In addition, some books attempting to present contemporary youth relied on very outdated colloquialisms. Authors should familiarise themselves with the language and speech-patterns of contemporary youth if attempting to set a book in the current time. Furthermore, a few novels that were otherwise excellent lost their place on the Notables list through flaws in their internal logic and character consistency; these issues should be attended to by close editing, as young people do notice this.
That said, the judges have been delighted to find a range of 18 Notable titles, well-written and generally well-produced, that will entertain, affirm, enthuse, instruct and encourage readers from 13 to 18 years – as they have the judges who have had the pleasure and adventure of selecting them.
One Would Think the Deep – Claire Zorn (University of Queensland Press)
The setting is a small coastal town in 1997 and seventeen-year-old Sam is grieving the sudden loss of his mother. Zorn perfectly captures Sam’s grief and anger, expressing with painful brilliance the inarticulacy of shock and grief, of a time when it is so much easier to hit out than to speak or explain a turmoil of feelings. She skilfully captures the gradual healing of the unjudging sea, of friendship and of learning the truth about oneself, however unexpected and difficult that truth might be. It would be easy to dislike Sam and his tendencies towards violence, until Zorn shows another side of him through his connection to the surf and his girlfriend, Gretchen. Zorn has created some complex and challenging characters in this book. All the secondary characters contribute significantly to the novel. Every character is important and adds to the story. Zorn has crafted an intricately beautiful novel about love, family, friendship, grief and moving on. Zorn’s lyrical writing of surfing is breathtaking. The reader will be able to ride every wave. One Would Think the Deep will linger long after the final page.
Words in Deep Blue is a book that loves books: a love letter to books and bookshops. Not unlike Clare Zorn, Cath Crowley is concerned with the inarticulacy of grief and the difficulty of admitting loss to those who will also be deeply affected by it. In this case solace comes through the mediation of beloved books as well as the support of friends and the natural passage of time. Crowley has created some amazing characters in this novel. The secondary cast is just as captivating as the main characters. The story centres on Henry Jones and Rachel Sweetie and their delightful families and friends. Words in Deep Blue will become a part of you. For someone who loves books, this book will speak to them and linger long after the reading is finished. It is set largely within Howling Books, a second-hand bookshop that is a character and a literary retreat that book lovers dream about. Cath Crowley has a beautiful writing style, and she takes a book about love, grief and death and makes it both funny and heart-wrenching.
The Bone Sparrow – Zana Fraillon (Lothian Books, Hachette Australia)
The Bone Sparrow is a powerful novel that has been written with great care. It carries a transformative message about the power of the imagination to ameliorate the most depressing circumstances, the value of empathy and the inspiration of story in providing role models and shoring up courage and self-belief. It is a story that weaves together the similarities and differences between Jimmie, a young girl living just outside the fence of a permanent detention centre in Australia and Subhi, a Rohingya refugee born inside the fence. Zana Fraillon is using her position as a writer to confront injustice: a difficult subject and one that makes many of the scenes in the novel quite confronting. This is by no means a depressing read however, at times, you will laugh out loud, and the reader will find themselves charmed by many of the characters. Although, The Bone Sparrow can at times be both challenging and quite harrowing, it is a book that should be read by all Australians. It will linger with you long after you finish it, particularly the story of Subhi who knows nothing of life beyond the wire fence that borders his barren world.
Other Shortlisted Books
Waer – Meg Caddy (Text Publishing)
This debut novel from young writer Meg Caddy sees the arrival of an exciting talent. Waer is set in an imagined land of waerwolves, thieves and magic. Caddy creates strong, captivating and evolving characters. The main character, Lycaea, is compelling but not always likeable. At the beginning of the novel she appears bad-mannered and rude, but as the story goes on, she reveals more of herself, and the reader understands why she is so prickly at the beginning. What is particularly noticeable about Waer is the ease with which it can be read: the reader is immediately caught up with the interesting characters and the world in which the characters reside. While other fantasy books can drag because of excessive detail, Waer moves at a fast pace with many twists and turns: an impressive debut that is a stand out in the fantasy genre.
Yellow is an engrossing debut novel by Megan Jacobson. Powerful and engaging, it invites readers to readily identify with the fourteen-year-old protagonist, Kirra, as she struggles to assert herself within a vicious friendship group and an insecure family life. The plot development is vigorous and enhanced by an intriguing supernatural element. Jacobson’s novel wonderfully evokes a small Australian beachside town. She combines family, friends, school, bullying, mystery and the supernatural into a poignant and original story grounded by the reader’s attachment to Kirra. Yellow is fast paced and thoroughly entertaining. It’s an excellent debut novel, and we look forward to Megan Jacobson’s next project.
Shivaun Plozza has created a protagonist whose energy, humour and quirkiness cast a magnetic presence over the whole book. Melina Marchetta has endorsed the title character as ‘gutsy’ on the front cover, and that’s exactly what Frankie is. She is angry at the world and rightly so, for her seventeen years have been anything but smooth sailing. Frankie is a character that readers will fall in love with because she is flawed and because she is a fighter. Plozza’s writing is powerful. She manages to take a story that is at times dark and emotional and still make it hopeful and uplifting. She constantly employs humour to break up challenging scenes, so the reader does not become bogged down in negative emotion. Dealing with issues including homelessness, self-belief and what constitutes self-belief, Frankie is a brilliant young adult novel from a debut author who has a huge future ahead of her.
- Meet the Judges of the Older Reader category at https://readingtime.com.au/judges-views/