It’s been a week since the 2015 Reading Matters conference and I think I’ve finally had enough time to process everything I have heard and learnt. There were so many amazing speakers that each brought their unique perspective to the current status, influence, and potential power of contemporary YA literature in this country that this post would have to be a thesis in order to document each speaker accurately. Instead, I will try my hardest to consolidate my own thoughts on what I thought were the stand-out ideas for my own professional development as a reader, educator, librarian, and fangirl.
The first panel that struck me was the teen panel early on Day 1. These sophisticated and intelligent young adults confirmed what I have been expecting was the current perception of YA lit amongst teens today: romance is not that crucial to a story! If the plot is good and can stand on its own, there is no reason to throw in a love story for the sake of it. Young people do consume a lot of romance, but there are plenty of books for that, and it’s not necessary in every story ever written. Even more telling however, was their need for “imperfect protagonists”. As a reader, I have been searching for flawed characters in the books that I read. Characters that can’t fit in, or that have had a particularly tough childhood. Characters that are scarred (emotionally or physically), awkward, and odd. Characters that are suffering, and who are dealing with mental illnesses and other demons. Characters who society sees as likely to fail but then they have these small victories that keep them going. These are the characters that I – and I’m sure at least a few teenagers – want to read about.
Another important panel on Day 2, ‘We Need Diverse Books’ with Clare Atkins, Abe Nouk, Jared Thomas, and the super-hilarious Sara Farizan, explored the under-represented voices in YA currently. This discussion particularly resonated with me and my experience as a reader, as Ms Farizan and Ms Atkins made some very poignant sentiments about the current saturation of ‘normal’ images, and the effects that this can have on young people. At the heart of the discussion was the idea that if a person is vulnerable, and cannot find images or characters that represent them in a positive way, all the images that they do see can have negative effects. Instead of seeing themselves affirmed in the media and the visual and written texts that they consume, they see a different image that is promoted. This constant normalizing of the dominant white, middle class image works subconsciously in many young people who might think, ‘I want to be something else’ and then either start making changes to their identity in order to ‘fit in’, or will become unhappy with how who they are is not the same as what they think they should be. Alongside imperfect protagonists, we need to ensure all teenagers are represented. In conjunction with the dominant voice that is represented currently, people of colour, religion, various sexual orientations, mental illness, and disability needs to be normalized. This involves being included on the fringes in secondary characters as well as being the protagonist; not to be included as the token element of diversity, but in a way that would honestly and accurately depict life.
I left the conference on Saturday night exhausted and inspired. I have already ensured that in each Wide Reading class I have I’m recommending wonderful Australian YA that I have read, hoping that these important and beautifully written stories make it into as many teenage hands as possible. I have particularly enjoyed telling my students about the great Australian stories that I have recently read with a renewed vigor since last weekend. I even taught my Year 7s about the concept of empathy this week, and how reading is so powerful in helping us to experience it. Bring on 2017!