Unforgettable YA tales that stick

Live throws up some questionable situations at times, which, for young people especially can result in unforgettable experiences. I love young adult novels that encapsulate such experiences in stories with unreserved candour and humour. Here are some unforgettable examples.

Forgetting Foster by Dianne Touchell

Touchell’s ability to reach deep into the grey sticky bits of both adults and seven-year-old boys and extract meaning from them for us in ways both poetical and moving is awe-inspirForgetting Fostering. This is a powerful and intelligent fiction for young readers written with precision and heart. As Foster’s world of stories and thus reality recedes into a place he can’t identify, he is forced to farewell the other most important thing in his life, his father.

Foster may inhabit a seven-year-old’s body and possess a sweet naivety and omnipresent reverence for his father still, but when his father begins to forget everything including Foster, Foster’s outlook on life, school and relationships is sent akimbo. For the first time in his life, he is adrift in a place where his father can no longer accompany him. To make matters worse, his mother is barely able to cope with their unexpected and irreversible demise let alone Foster’s feelings.

Losing a parent to (early onset), Alzheimer’s disease is no straightforward matter as Foster discovers. How it affects his position in his family is the question Touchell throws at us again and again with poignant force. At times brutally honest and real and at others stoically proud and witty, Forgetting Foster focuses on surviving battles we were not meant to fight.

Forgetting Foster is a sort of grown up version of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice; it is no less intelligent and revealing however translates the angst and ludicrous frustrations and realties of Alzheimer’s from the carers’ point of view instead of the sufferer’s. How Foster comes to deal with these realisations is the resolution for a story that has no real happy ending.

Focusing on a younger character but with buckets of lower secondary school reader appeal.

Allen & Unwin June 2016

Another Night in Mullet Town by Steven Herrick

Poetic, raw and real, I savoured every syllable of this verse-coming-of-age novel by Herrick. Mullet Town is an intelligent narrative about surviving on the peripheral of lAnother Night in Mullet Townife, both emotionally and materialistically.

Mates Jonah and Manx exist in a one mullet town, content to throw a line in the lake every now and then and wade through the treacherous bog of teenage parties and relationships. For Manx, who may aspire to more but is also driven to defend his simple existence from the ‘wealthy blow-ins’ who want to sell the town out, life suddenly becomes more complicated. How he manages to keep his head about water and remain supportive for Jonah plays out in an emotional journey Herrick cleverly wallpapers with gentle, lyrical wit.

The end petered out a little too matter-of-factly for me but life is not always full of neat and tidy endings. As long as the mullet continue to swim, there remains a glimmer of hope for the residents of Mullet Town – this is the departing assurance, which is in itself enough.

Gritty and extremely readable, a highly recommended verse novel for older readers.

UQP June 2016

My Australian Story: Black Sunday by Evan McHugh

Black Sunday is riveting and tactful. I thoroughly enjoyed McHugh’s account of one of the most unexpected and largest mass (beach) rescues in Australia in the late 30s. Ironically, I had come across old newspaper reports about this day in February 1938 whilst researching another topic. I was astounded and shocked by what I uncovered. Black Sunday

McHugh’s use of simple diary entries by 12 year-old David McCutcheon aka Nipper to detail the events leading up to Black Sunday, entreats intimacy and candour whilst painting a vivid picture of Bondi and its surrounds on the eve of WW II. Even those who have never swam in Bondi’s ever changing waters or basked on her golden beaches will gain a strong sense of place and time thanks to McHugh’s thoughtful epistolic prose.

The actual event itself is not over dramatized rather occurring naturally after a nine-month relationship with Nipper whose life ambition is to be a surf lifesaver like his grandpa, his diary, and the colourful cast of characters that people his life. There is a beautiful balance of emotion, history, and humanity in this Australian Story, which pays homage to heroes in every guise not least of which those that serve Surf Lifesaving Australia. Respect in the highest. Well suited for primary and lower secondary readers, Black Sunday is a fitting and vivid unforgettable tribute to Australia’s not so distant past.

Omnibus Books August 2016

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Stepping into Oz Children’s Literature on the Global Stage

I’ve just been presenting about Australian children’s and YA literature at the international IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Congress in Auckland, New Zealand. This is the first time the conference has been held so far south, it’s usually a preserve of the northern hemisphere. NZ did an excellent job as host.

ColoursAustralian authors and illustrators such as our Children’s Laureate Leigh Hobbs (Mr Chicken, Old Tom), as well as Ursula Dubosarsky (The Golden Day), Bronwyn Bancroft (Colours of Australia), Nadia Wheatley (Papunya, My Place, illustrated by Donna Rawlins) and Marcus Zusak (The Book Thief) were recognised at the conference, alongside international creators.

Legendary NZ author Joy Cowley spoke after a warm traditional Maori welcome by adult and children’s groups. I reviewed Joy’s Speed of Light for the Weekend Australian and one of her famous characters, Mrs Wishy Washy was brought exuberantly to life throughout the conference. Joy’s 80th birthday was also celebrated. Other keynote and major speakers included Whale Rider’s Witi Ihimaera, Ghana’s Meshack Asare and Kate de Goldi (The 10pm Question) whose most recent children’s novel From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle just won the Esther Glen Junior Fiction Book Award (NZ Book Awards for Children & Young Adults 2016). Kate was also on a panel with the incredible Katherine Paterson and Ursula Dubosarsky, chaired by UK children’s book critic Julia Eccleshare. This session was a highlight.

Sir Richard Taylor and Martin Bayton from Weta Workshop, which was responsible for the animations and effects in movies such as Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Avatar and The Chronicles of Narnia also presented some stunning visuals.  Sir Richard had a useful quote, ‘The art of innovation is to throw yourself at failure and simply miss.’

FlightThe CBCA winners and honour awards were announced just after my presentation, which was chaired by Nadia Wheatley, so it was a privilege to be able to congratulate Nadia on her winning picture book (illustrated by Armin Greder), Flight.

 I presented after speakers from Norway and Sweden and was followed by a Canadian speaker. Exciting to be a part of such diversity. I was thrilled to share books by some of our iconic and talented authors and illustrators including How the Sun Got to Coco’s House by Bob Graham, Fog a Dox by Bruce Pascoe, One Would Think the Deep by Claire Zorn, A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood (which was announced as CBCA winner for Older Readers), The Other Christie by Oliver Phommavanh, MaralingaMaralinga’s Long Shadow by Christobel Mattingley, some verse novels – Another Night in Mullet Town and The Spangled Drongo by Stephen Herrick and Sister Heart by Sally Morgan (announced as a CBCA Honour book), plus a number of other picture books, novels and graphic novels.

We were fortunate that table places weren’t set at the Gala Dinner. People could select where they sat and we had the pleasure of the company of delegates from countries as diverse as Haiti, Japan, South Korea, Norway and Samoa. As a proud Australian I was able to answer the quiz question about which country won the Hans Christian Andersen award (administered by IBBY) in the same year for both author and illustrator.

NargunPatricia Wrightson and Robert Ingpen both won in 1986, the only Australians to have ever won this most prestigious international award.

The final highlight was another coincidental one. We spoke to a distinguished lady before dinner and shared information about where we lived and why we were at the conference. This lady informed us that she is an author. Imagine my shock after asking her name to discover we had been speaking (without realising it) to children’s book royalty, Lynley Dodd, creator of Hairy Maclary!  

Hairy Maclary