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Friday 14 May 2021

What’s notable for YA readers? Reality strikes!

Are you reading your way through books identified on the CBCA Notable and Short lists? Carol Fuller regularly engages with children’s and young adult literature and brings her experiences as a past and future judge to this overview of what’s happening in the field of YA writing as she considers themes emerging over the past two years in the Older Reader category.

Last year I read all the notables. This year I decided to do the same but just the Older Reader (OR) titles in preparation for my second stint as a ‘Book of the Year’ OR judge.

All this dabbling in OR literature has led me to ask questions. What themes and stories are Australian writers presenting to older readers? And, are we presenting what OR readers want?  

This led me to speculate on how authors choose their themes. Do authors write from their own life experiences, from their assumption of issues that are relevant to the OR demographic, from what the individual author believes are the issues in which ORs should be interested, or from informed research into the issues of interest to today’s youth?


A few years ago, in 2009-10, when I was lecturing in Senior English Curriculum and Methodology to student teachers, I set a practicum task; to conduct a survey in their placement school to ascertain what topics and genres senior students were reading. The results indicated that fantasy was the most popular genre. The reason? Escapism. The world has changed considerably in the last decade but I wonder, have OR interests also changed?

In reviewing the OR notables over the last two years I detect an abundance of deeply serious, life issues being the most common focus of the books chosen. Humour and lighter themes are fairly rare in the final notable list.

In 2020 the themes were fairly diverse but serious; domestic violence, poverty, mental illness, grief, racism and disability. Check out Ghost Bird Lisa Fuller (racism), The Boy Who Steals Houses by CG Drews (homelessness and disability), How it Feels to Float by Helena Fox  (grief and mental illness), The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim (parental dementia) are a few examples. 


2020 CBCA shortlist for Book of the Year: Older Readers

Out of twenty notables only one mystery, “The Man in the Water’ David Burton, four science fiction/fantasy, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Monuments by Will Kostakis, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte and Aurora Rising by Kaufman and Kristoff. And only one that I would judge as a lighter study of teenager-hood Take the Shot by Susan White and even that had the protagonist suffering from a heart problem.

In 2021 I have only managed to read half of the listed notables but again an abundance of really serious themes; Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whateley (autism?, anxiety), Please Don’t Hug Me by Kay Kerr (autism), Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore (race, grief). Garth Nix’s The Left-Handed Booksellers of London (fantasy) has been a welcome relief. As was The F Team’ by Arja Rawah despite its serious themes of male anger and anti-Muslim prejudice and the suspenseful mystery story Deep Water by Sarah Epstein.

2021 CBCA shortlist for Book of the Year: Older Readers

When you look at the overall picture, fairly sombre topics dominate. That’s not to say all these books aren’t excellent OR literature. Every one is well worth reading and are a testament to the breadth of talent in out Australian children’s authors. But does quality literature have to be so serious?

A redeeming feature of all these stories is that most culminate in hopeful, positive outcomes, but I remember as a teenager, curling up with a good book that I could enjoy without having deep and meaningful deliberations. So I wonder, how entertaining, and relaxing is the literature we are currently presenting to young people? 

Carol Fuller
CBCA Older Reader judge 2022-23

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Carol for raising such interesting questions. We often ask the same about the texts selected for the English Literature and English 3 TCE courses, why are the themes often so dark and 'heavy'. I wonder how much of the subject matter is driven by what the publisher accepts, rather than what the author chooses to write?