A while back I tried ~very hard~ to read every single novel entered for the younger readers category of the CBCA book of the year 2014. Turns out I missed out on reading the novel that won, this year, but I sure did still have some feelings.
You should know that I have a really strong feeling that more Australians should write books set in Australia. I’d be happy if the whole world spent more time reading books set in Australia, really, but sometimes when you read books set in Australia written by Americans or other people from overseas it goes horribly, horribly wrong, and more books, written by australians, set in australia will stop that. I was cranky about last years CBCA notable older readers book, fairytales for wilde girls, because it’s written by a ballarat author but set in some town on the south east coast of england. are there any books set in ballarat that aren’t that one kerry greenwood novel or to do with the goldfields? Ballarat can be more than 1928 trains and gold mining. Ballarat COULD be somewhere to set a fairytale novel. The only real requirement for a fairy story is young people and imagination so i am pretty sure that someone could write a fairy story set in a place that was neither england nor western europe. i would like someone to write me a fairy story set in an australian place.
The potential for Australian fairytales aside, about halfway through the 90 books i managed to read i slowly started to get truly weirded out. Even in those books actually set in Australia, only a handful of them reflected an Australia anything like the one i live in: an Australia that has people born in other countries living here; an australia that has asian-australians living in it; an australia that recognises that not-straight people also exist. One of the 90 books managed to talk, sensitively, about people growing up somewhere else and moving to Australia; one other book spoke about the experience of Asian-australians in Darwin in 1941. But so very many of these stories were about straight white middle class people, speaking English, and living in cities. I’ve read that book so many times already.
Do you know originally i ended that paragraph by typing “i hoped that the book of 2014 might be more than the best younger readers book of 19” and then looked up the CBCA lists to decide what year I was going to, implicitly, denigrate. Now I’m setting up to write another essay on “how the best books of the seventies hold up to the best books of the teens”.
The only explanation I could come up with for the complete lack of any representation of sex & gender diversity was that this was aimed at younger readers. To me, younger readers is about family and finding how you fit in the world. All these books do that! All these books are about family. What family means, where your family lives, how you will live as a family, what you do if you are separated from your family, what you do when your family is threatened, what does it mean to threaten a family —
And then I read the shortlisted novel, Figgy in the World. Now this honestly is a good read, about Figgy’s trip to America to buy medicines for her grandmother. Definitely a story about what family means, and what you do for your family, and how you fit into the world. It’s also a story where a nine year old decides that this particular boy is The One, capital letters and all. SHE’S NINE.
Look, it’s totes cool for a nine year old to have a crush. And she hadn’t heard the language before, so it’s playing with new definitions and it’s fine, everyone likes finding new words and seeing how they fit to your own experience.
But this means that actually there can be romantic relationships in younger readers books, so all these authors have made the choice to only represent het relationships. okay. that’s fine. i’m not hurt.
(This whole issue is ignoring of course that family members (rather than the child point of view character) could be sex & gender diverse even if — ESPECIALLY IF — the book isn’t about that). Like, can’t one of these characters have a gay aunt?)
I tried to find some books that said something new, or said whatever they needed to say really well. Next year, if you wanted to do something new, you could write a book which recognises the existence of the australia i like to live in.