Australian and US YA: I’ll Be There – Inbetween Days

Inbetween DaysSeventeen-year-old girls and their circumstances are portrayed very differently in Vikki Wakefield’s Inbetween Days (Text Publishing) and Holly Goldberg Sloan’s I’ll Be There (Scholastic). Could the authors’ nationalities – Australian and American – and writing style be part of the reason?

Vikki Wakefield uses an Australian regional town setting (provokingly named ‘Mobius’) to forecast the dead-end of Jack’s (Jacklin) hopes for a better future. She has left school to work in a general store but is manoeuvered out of even that lowly job. Her sister Trudy has returned from Europe after leaving home in frosty conditions and Jack moves in with her but that situation is also under pressure.

Jack uses sex to keep her unacknowledged relationship with Luke alive. But she really wants to be privately and openly adored. Jeremiah seems to offer love but can he withstand Jack’s careless treatment?

Wakefield’s rendering of Jack as vulnerable yet tough, knowing yet naive, seems to point to a lacklustre future but can she summon enough self-esteem, resilience and drive to change her prospects?

Vikki Wakefield’s writing style seems particularly Australian in its understated tone. Characters act in particular ways and incidents occur realistically, without gilding but still with interest and engagement. The events in the forest and derelict drive-in theatre offer surprise without hyperbole.

I'll be thereIn contrast American film writer and director Holly Goldberg Sloan’s debut novel (but second to be published in Australia after the wonderful Counting by 7s), I’ll Be There (Scholastic Australia) is written in a heightened style and abounds in idealism and coincidences. Like Inbetween Days it is an affecting read.

Seventeen-year-old Emily is quite protected. She is empathetic and loving. When her father makes her sing the pop song I’ll Be There as a solo at church even though she doesn’t have a good voice, she seems to be singing to Sam, who has walked in off the street. His father is a thief who has kept Sam and his younger brother Riddle out of school and drifting from place to place for years.

Sam is an enigma but is accepted into Emily’s family because of his untrained musical ability. Riddle is  talented at art but is quite damaged, almost mute and with undiagnosed asthma. Emily’s mother develops a bond with him but neither boy can be pinned down because of their strange, antisocial upbringing and the control and vagaries of their dangerous father.

Despite suffering extreme physical trauma, Sam learns that ‘making a connection to a person can be the scariest thing that ever happens to you’. Emily learns that ‘while the world around you obsesses over all the wrong things, you know the secret. You know that there are things that matter, and then there is everything else.’ The words of the title song become even more moving as the book nears its end.

Even though the characters, pacing of events and writing style of these two novels are very different, both stories speak powerfully to their readers. Both ultimately have hope.Counting by 7s

Zac & Mia & Willow – YA for your soul

Here in SE Queensland, just before Christmas, an unusual thing happened. It began to rain. I’d almost forgotten the scent of a wet garden and the sensation of damp. It was perfect cosy reading weather.

Alas, the week before Christmas with a house full of family and several menus and trips away to plan for proved anything but conducive to curling up with a good book. Thus, I’ve had a short sabbatical from children’s texts over the holidays. However, one or two did manage to sneak in under the radar and just like Santa, they really delivered.

Counting by 7sCounting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

I saved this read, as I save my favourite parts of a roast dinner (the spuds) till last; knowing once I’d tasted it, it would be gobbled down fast. And it was. Counting by 7s is the story of twelve-year old Willow Chance who lives in Bakersfield, California and comes home from school one day to the news that her parents have been killed in a car accident.

This slap-in-the-face realisation is based on a real life occurrence of American author Holly Goldberg Sloan, as are many of the references in this novel. Willow’s loss is tragic but it is merely one of the inspired background colours used by Sloan to paint her story.

What follows is a journey of soul searching and discovery, not always by Willow; she is too pragmatic for that sort of thing. It’s a story about accepting different viewpoints, of moving on and allowing unexpected change to help you find ‘connectedness’ in life.

Holly Goldsberg SloanWillow could read as a prickly, hard to love character. Conversely, it could be easy to over sympathise with her plight. However, Sloan’s intelligent narrative is completely free of mawkishness. Her characters shine with pristine clarity and likeability.

I cannot fault this sophisticated tween / teen novel. Artful, moving, witty, and intensely humble. Sure, I cried in parts, but do not expect to be swept away by sentimentality. Willow, the higher thinking, twice-orphaned ‘problem’ everyone grows to cherish simply doesn’t allow it. Instead, she becomes the unexpected catalyst that sparks relationships and lives back to life. An astoundingly clarifying look at the complicated world of human relationships and emotions. Uplifting indeed and possibly better than roast potatoes.

Scholastic Australia May 2014

Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts

This is another YA read I’ve been hording. Once you read it, you will understand why. It’s almost too good to consume; over within minutes of starting. In other words, unputdownable.

Zac & MiaZac and Mia is not just a novel for young readers although A. J. Betts does a magnificent job of harnessing teenage nuances. With such broad appeal, Betts confidently tackles the despairingly familiar topic of cancer in young people. Zac and Mia however is not a maudlin account of people affected by cancer. It is a marvellous tapestry of conflicting emotions, characters fuelled by fear and love, confronting moments of self-discovery, and above all hope. Love and despair parry with equally matched determination between teenagers Zac and Mia with a rawness that makes you weep and humour that maintains a smile on your face as the tears fall.

A J BettsSimilar to John Green’s, A Fault in our Stars which I’ve yet to read so cannot make a direct comparison to, Zac and Mia is too splendid for words and a marvellous example of pure undiluted Aussie talent with one of the most endearing endings I’ve read, ever. Eloquent, ballsy, poignant, and beautifully told. A must read.

Text Publishing Australia July 2013

True, YA novels take on the tough stuff, unashamedly ramming readers head on into topics and themes often fraught with complicated innuendo, evolving emotions, damaged personalities and questionable social situations, but with writers like these doling out these tales with such sensitivity and sincerity, one can’t help but feel beautifully satisfied.