2018 CBCA Shortlisted Books for Older Readers: ‘Ballad for a Mad Girl’ & ‘Mallee Boys’

The fact that all of this year’s CBCA shortlisted Older Reader novels are written by women reflects who is currently writing Australian YA. As a consequence, many of the novels have female protagonists, including Vikki Wakefield’s Ballad for a Mad Girl. However, debut novelist Charlie Archbold (who is female) has written Mallee Boys, a novel that epitomises masculinity.

-about the books and some ideas on sharing them with young readers –

 Ballad for a Mad Girl by Vikki Wakefield (Text Publishing)

Ballad for a Mad Girl has been longlisted for a Gold Inky Award—(Australian titles) and shortlisted for the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature: Young Adult category and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards: The Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature in 2018.

I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian.

It is Vikki Wakefield’s fourth novel, a gothic Australian thriller, a murder ballad and lament in prose. It explores the effect of grief and loss on Grace, who is trying to mask her vulnerability.  

It walks a tightrope – literally and psychologically as it balances the genres of contemporary realism with elements from the supernatural ghost tale.

Grace is the “mad girl” of the title but her madness springs perhaps from her struggle with anger and grief rather than mental illness; although the barriers may be permeable.

At times the writing is crystalline to show the shattered mirror-pricks of Grace’s rage; as well as sharp images of birds: living swallows butted against tiny bird sketches. Grace’s elusive childhood “dandelion” dreams as well as echoes from a past generation are sculpted into an aching ballad of melancholy and terror. The past and present also ultimately lay the path to a “bright and unbreakable” future with some signs of hope and grace. 

Film An early scene where extreme prankster, Grace Foley, freezes at the pipe challenge crossing over the quarry at night is a pivotal scene in Ballad of a Mad Girl. It sets the confronting, haunting tone.

In small groups, students film a re-enactment of Noah, private school poster boy, breaking Grace’s record as he crosses the pipe over the quarry and then Grace crossing after him and freezing when she is distracted by thoughts of Hannah Holt – rumoured to have been killed by William Dean and buried in the gully below. Headlights are dimmed and stones are thrown.

Film Grace’s friends and the onlookers in their private and public-school factions.

Use different camera angles, particularly to give the illusion of the pipe over a height. NB don’t use a pipe high above the ground.

Film an establishing shot; the camera can scan characters and show close-ups of their facial expressions.

Use filters to create a night-time setting and lights to emulate the headlights. Show them dimming when Grace crosses. Include sound effects.

Ballad Students could write a ballad or murder ballad (lyrics that tell the story of a murder).

Read other novels by Vikki Wakefield.

Mallee Boys by Charlie Archbold (Wakefield Press)

Not many readers seemed to be aware of this book until it was CBCA shortlisted. Feedback has since been very favourable.

It is set in the Murray Mallee area of South Australia and told by two brothers. Sandy is fifteen and a good student although dreamy. In an early scene, slapstick and terror merge when he’s almost drowned by a swollen dead cow. His older brother Red has left school and seems suited to life on the farm with his dog, Ringer. He is suffering from guilt, believing he contributed to the death of their mother.

Masculinity is explored with sensitivity and credibility, particularly relationships between father and sons. The author writes with warmth and humour and shows that rural men can be gentle and compassionate.

Mallee men/Mallee wood Mallee men are described as mallee wood. They are ‘men from any time … like stumpy mallee trees: nuggetty and resilient. A heritage of hard work’ (page 100)

Rhopalic Verse After reading about Mallee males, students write rhopalic verse to explore their characteristics of strength and endurance with mallee wood. In rhopalic verse, each word in a line has 1 more syllable than in the prior word e.g. ‘to avert dangerous situations’. The poem could be quite short, perhaps 5 lines, each with 4 words per line. (This is guide only.)

Country & City podcast Differences between life in the country and city are mentioned in the novel: e.g. in the country old and young mix. In the city ‘people stick to their age bracket’, page 119; in the country – people make inventions, page 124.

Students could use a microphone and smart phone to make a 1-episode podcast about the differences between country and city.

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