YA at the SWF: Vikki Wakefield and the Best and Worst Years of our Lives

Vikki WakefieldLast week I spent three days with four top YA writers at the Sydney Writers Festival. We travelled from Roslyn Packer Theatre at the Wharf in the city, to Parramatta Riverside Theatre and our third day was at the Chatswood Concourse. These enormous venues were filled with secondary students from schools in Sydney and further afield.

Our two international author guests were John Boyne (Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boy at the Top of the Mountain) and Michael Grant (Gone, Front Lines) and one of our Australian authors was Claire Zorn whose publication of her new novel One Would Think the Deep was rushed forward in time for the SWF.

Our other Australian writer was Vikki Wakefield.

Vikki Wakefield spoke about how being a teenager can be the best – or worst – years of our life. Vikki spoke honestly and vulnerably about once being voted the girl least likely to succeed, failing high school but learning to discover the extraordinary in life.

She lives in the Adelaide Hills and loved horses when she was growing up. She has written some short film scripts and does party tricks, one of which she demonstrated on stage after a request by the audience.

Her novels are mainly for mature YA readers.

Her first two YA novels All I Ever Wanted and Friday Brown have won awards and Friday Brown was shortlisted for the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award and CBCA award.

One girl in the audience declared that Friday Brown changed her life. Friday Brown

I think that Vikki must be nocturnal and I’m guessing that she always refused to go to the movies at the cinema and would go to the drive-in instead. Drive-ins feature in Vikki’s latest novel Inbetween Days.

Vikki sets this novel in an Australian town, with the thought provoking name of ‘Mobius’.

The main character is 17 year old Jack (nickname for Jacklin) who’s left school and her life seems pretty meaningless but she hopes for a better future.

Jack tries to keep her secret relationship with Luke alive. But she really wants to be loved both privately and openly.

Jeremiah seems to offer love but can he cope with Jack?

Vikki creates Jack as being vulnerable yet tough, knowing yet naïve.

Can Jack summon enough self-esteem, resilience and drive to turn her life around?

Vikki’s writing has an understated tone and style that seems particularly Australian. Her characters act like young Australians do and incidents occur realistically, such as the events in the derelict drive-in theatre and in the nearby forest, which are surprising without hyperbole.

Inbetween Days (Text Publishing) has just been shortlisted for the CBCA awards. Congratulations to Vikki for her vulnerable writing and authentic characters.

All I Ever Wanted

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