The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Joy Lawn

WHO is read­ing young adult lit­er­a­ture? Teens, young adults or adults? YA fic­tion is gen­er­ally fast paced, al­lur­ing and of­ten ground­break­ing across gen­res, in­clud­ing con­tem­po­rary re­al­ism, spec­u­la­tive and his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, ro­mance and hu­mour. There’s also a pro­lif­er­a­tion of sub-gen­res within th­ese, such as dystopian and para­nor­mal. YA fic­tion aimed at older read­ers is a growth mar­ket: books that deal in adult themes and is­sues, although usu­ally fea­tur­ing young adult characters. Th­ese can be writ­ten with as much so­phis­ti­ca­tion as adult lit­er­ary fic­tion (and fre­quently with bet­ter sto­ry­telling), so it’s no won­der many older adults love read­ing YA.

This leads to a cou­ple of ques­tions, though. Can the 18-plus read­ers who have grown up read­ing through YA’s lev­els be tempted into main­stream adult lit­er­a­ture? And, at the other end, where should younger teens be di­rected? Their books of­ten fall into the ‘‘ mid­dle years’’ cat­e­gory, works that also may be suit­able for older pri­mary school read­ers.

Two well writ­ten and en­gag­ing mid­dle years books are Re­becca Stead’s Liar & Spy (Text Pub­lish­ing, 208pp, $16.99) and Steven Her­rick’s Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend (UQP, 228pp, $16.95).

Stead has won the pres­ti­gious New­bery Medal and is no­table for cre­at­ing in­no­va­tive nov­els for chil­dren and young adults, such as When You Reach Me and First Light. Liar & Spy is set in Stead’s na­tive New York. Se­crets and lies are crafted and planted adeptly, although the main char­ac­ter, Ge­orges — named af­ter pointil­list artist Ge­orges Seu­rat — feels un­com­fort­able ly­ing. He is in Grade 7 and is stressed be­cause his fa­ther has lost his job, the fam­ily has moved from their house to an apart­ment and his mother has to work dou­ble shifts at the hospi­tal. To top things off, his friend has joined the cool group. Ge­orges makes a new friend, Safer, who trains him as a spy. They are in­ter­ested in Mr X, who al­ways wears black and is up to some­thing ne­far­i­ous. It is sur­pris­ing to reach the end of the novel and re­alise some things al­ready men­tioned in this re­view are de­cep­tions. Th­ese false­hoods are skil­fully em­bed­ded, but the mys­tery can’t be re­vealed here. This orig­i­nal story re­sem­bles the dots in a pointil­list paint­ing, where place­ment of colours tricks the eye into see­ing other colours, and a true pic­ture can be seen only from far­ther away. The per­spec­tive and in­sight of time and space is needed to join the dots.

Dif­fer­ent ways of look­ing at things also can be shown in lit­er­a­ture by mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tors. Per­spec­tive and point of view is shared among a cast of nar­ra­tors in Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend, which is a verse novel. A class of stu­dents’ re­sponses to the hap­pen­ings in their school and homes, and the emo­tions wrought by th­ese, is refracted by the mag­ni­fy­ing and tele­scop­ing of the characters’ fo­cus. Laura is cop­ing with her lack of friends by shar­ing a se­cret with Mr Korsky, the grounds­man. When she hears him laugh in ap­pre­ci­a­tion of her gift, she feels as over­whelmed as by the size of the sky in sum­mer. Later, the stu­dents trans­form the school’s cul­ture by shar­ing food and Mick en­cour­ages Laura to join in. ‘‘ And then he makes a space/ be­tween him and Selina/ and of­fers me the first crackle/ and it tastes/ as fresh and crisp and sweet/ as friend­ship.’’ Friend­ship, an im­por­tant theme of this book, can be man­i­fested and de­scribed with wide sweeps or with de­tail to show cher­ished in­ti­macy. NSW Blue Moun­tains­based poet and au­thor Her­rick is an ex­pert writer of hu­mour and its off­shoot, pathos. His style is sim­ple but able to tran­scribe au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ences and emo­tions.

An­other verse novel is Than­hha Lai’s In­side Out and Back Again (UQP, 276pp, $16.95). This award-win­ning book tells the story of Ha, who faces the de­pri­va­tions caused by the en­croach­ing Viet­nam War and whose fam­ily fi­nally is forced to leave their Saigon home in 1975. Their sea voy­age merges with the many ap­palling refugee tri­als that we hear and read about in the news and in other lit­er­a­ture, but the fam­ily even­tu­ally is spon­sored in Alabama by a cow­boy looka­like with a sour wife. All the fam­ily find it dif­fi­cult to set­tle. Ha is bul­lied and rages at feel­ing dumb be­cause of her lack of English. The pa­paya fruit be­comes her sym­bol. Be­fore leav­ing home, she watches the big­gest pa­paya grow and ripen un­til, fi­nally, the fam­ily cuts it rather than leave it for the com­mu­nists: ‘‘ Brother Vu chops;/ the head falls;/ a sil­ver blade slices./ Black seeds spill/ like clus­ters of eyes,/ wet and cry­ing.’’ The shared al­lu­sion of the fruit and dy­ing peo­ple trans­form Lai’s short lines of spare writ­ing into ur­gent im­ages of pain and death. The verse novel form is po­tent be­cause ideas and feel­ings can be crys­tallised into fewer, honed words. It has the sen­sory re­fine­ment of po­etry and the power of story. This is a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal tale whose trun­cated, yet lyri­cal, voice is formed from the au­thor’s reimag­in­ing of a girl shack­led by speech and lack of un­der­stand­ing.

Paul Grif­fin is an­other New Yorker. His nov­els aren’t au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal but are in­flu­enced by his work with at-risk teens. His new one, Burn­ing Blue (Text Pub­lish­ing, 256pp, $19.99), masters the dif­fi­cult sub­genre of the psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller. It’s aimed at older teens (and adults who read YA fic­tion will love it). The most at­trac­tive and pop­u­lar girl at school, Ni­cole Cas­tro, has acid thrown at her face. Her beauty seems to be de­stroyed. Jay, a loner, has seizures and is just resur­fac­ing from a pe­riod of home-school­ing. His life in­ter­sects with Ni­cole’s and they be­gin to grow close. Jay is an enig­matic char­ac­ter whose phys­i­cal beauty is not re­vealed at the start of the book, skil­fully cloud­ing and chang­ing our re­sponse to him. He uses his com­puter hack­ing and other skills in a riv­et­ing, chill­ing search for the vi­cious per­pe­tra­tor of the at­tack on Ni­cole. Ev­ery char­ac­ter could be a sus­pect but, as with Liar & Spy, I mustn’t re­veal too much. The un­pre­dictable characters, along with the book’s se­crets, are the foun­da­tion of the story. As well as writ­ing in Jay’s voice, Grif­fin uses emails and jour­nal en­tries to change per­spec­tive and keep us off bal­ance, as we should be when read­ing a good psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller. The red her­rings and out­right lies heighten the ten­sion, mis­lead­ing us through a dance of eva­sions un­til the truth is bared in the as­tound­ing fi­nale.

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