Reviewed: Raina Telgemeier, Guts, Scholastic; Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X, Hardie Grant; Vikki Wakefield, This Is How We Change the Ending, Text Publishing.
As with all categories of literature, Young Adult (YA) is a melting pot of genres, formats and inspirations that reflect the experience of teens. It’s a distinctly Western concept due to the proliferation of a few series that made the leap from page to screen, and then to the zeitgeist. There’s a lot to be said about Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games from feminist, postcolonial, classist and critical points of view, but those opinions have all been written to death. Moreover, YA is much deeper than the Netflix catalogue. There are stories out there that reflect home truths and small gains that are as impactful as any blockbuster.
Stories are how we learn, and YA has much to show teen readers about life. In 1990, Rudine Sims Bishop expanded on the concept of reading as a means to see ourselves reflected (mirror) or a glimpse at another life (the window), adding the idea of the sliding door. These doors ‘allow readers to walk into a story and become part of the world that has been created by the author’.
Typically this has been restricted to a fantasy world or a dystopian reality rather than, say, the over-policed black neighbourhood of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. As Australian publishing remains predominantly monocultural, local YA readers have had to look elsewhere to step through the door and into the life of someone without their privilege. Looking through the window is no longer enough; readers want to step into other shoes and walk a while.
There are incredible stories in the YA and junior fiction sphere that are helping young people to tackle hard subjects, difficult realities and complex emotions with empathy and compassion. And they are helping to build a language for students who don’t necessarily find these stories in their classrooms. More importantly, the continuing diversity of the format is helping to broaden the definition and the presence of YA in schools and libraries.
While targeted at a slightly younger audience, the work of Raina Telgemeier has helped many young people to see themselves in the graphic novel. Telgemeier is an American cartoonist who made her debut in the male-dominated comic industry with four adaptations of Ann M Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club series, launching Scholastic’s Graphix imprint. It made a splash, and since then she has been carving a niche as the go-to graphic novelist for tweens (I hate this word) with her autobiographical tales of middle school. Smile, which won the Eisner Award in 2011, was followed by Drama—frequently banned for its LGBTQIA+ representations—Sisters and, most recently, Guts.
All creators dig from the personal well, but Telgemeier’s stories always feel painfully earnest and real, particularly as her protagonist shares her name. There is no artifice, no wall, between her and the reader: the truth is all there on the page. Guts is her most personal story yet, detailing her lifelong struggle with anxiety that manifests as nausea and a fear of food. This could feel heavy for children, but it’s a reality for many young readers facing a worsening climate, unstable leadership and pandemics with the hard realisation that the world is not fair or just. It legitimises the stress of friendships, particularly in best-friend triangles, a friend moving away or even having your own nemesis. The feelings are deep and sometimes they have nowhere to go.
Adults reading Guts will sense what Raina’s potential illness might be, but in the eyes of a young reader this book fully acknowledges the feelings—emotional and physical—that Raina is suffering. A diagnosis is great, but seeing your experience depicted with humour in full colour is another. Telgemeier’s cartoons show ballooning cheeks, ringed eyes and waves of nausea and anxiety in rings of bold green. And all of it is undeniably familiar.
‘I am finding the more honest I am in my books, the further down I reach, and you know, the most open I am,’ says Telgemeire. She rips the curtain back on anxiety, offering understanding and coping mechanisms to her young readers, while also making them laugh. Telgemeire shows considerable skill in walking this tightrope, and the result validates the very real concerns, insecurities and stressors that bombard our kids. Most importantly, this book tells them that feelings are okay, and that they are much better shared. Guts is a comfort, a conversation starter and a unifier.
Another stellar addition to narratives for the young is The Poet X, Washington DC’s Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut verse novel, which was a big hit in 2018. In the first few pages she manages to convey, concisely and beautifully, exactly who her protagonist Xiomara is: ‘If Medusa was Dominican and had a daughter, I think I’d be her. I look and feel like a myth. A story distorted, waiting for others to stop and stare.’ If you were to summarise superficially The Poet X, it might sound slight: a 15-year-old girl from Harlem who finds her voice in poetry. In a world ‘where your body takes up more room than your voice’, this discovery is deeply moving for both the protagonist and the reader.
Acevedo skilfully showcases a teen girl dealing with the slings and arrows of everyday existence. Xiomara is a daughter, a twin, a warrior and a poet who deeply absorbs everything inflicted upon her. She has to deal with the words the neighbourhood men use about her body; her Dominican mother’s fierce Catholic beliefs and strict notions of how a girl should behave; her role as the protector to Twin: never Xavier to her. ‘I never told her he didn’t fight because my hands became fists for him. My hands learned how to bleed when other kids tried to make him into a wound.’ While she loathes the way her body is discussed by men, she’s conflicted about the curiosity and attraction she feels for her science partner, Aman.
Interspersed with her story are Xiomara’s English assignment drafts and the final version. Early drafts rip open her feelings and true self through the mode of verse, and the final versions are realised as less vulnerable revelations dressed up as prose. Her teacher Ms Galiano sees that beneath her student’s shyness is a voice. The Poet X weaves the tale of Xiomara’s interior narrative rising out of her to be shared with her friends, family and strangers through her slam poetry.
On a flight from Melbourne to Sydney I reacted so strongly to Acevedo’s story that the flight attendant felt the need to check on my emotional wellbeing. Acevedo voiced what too often is the plight of girls whose bodies are bigger than their presence. The intersection of first love, religion and art built from love and pain makes this an incredibly powerful read.
South Australia’s Vikki Wakefield is one of the more prolific Australian YA writers of the last decade. She debuted with All I Ever Wanted (Text Publishing), which established her as a fresh and unique voice in the industry. Worldwide, YA largely concentrates on stories of middle-class teens; Wakefield continually bucks this trend by cementing her characters in lower-socioeconomic neighbourhoods. Her work is often described as raw, quiet and tough, but these adjectives more accurately define her characters rather than her writing.
Her newest release, the Stella Prize-shortlisted title This Is How We Change the Ending, introduces Nate. Like Acevedo’s Xiomara, he has stayed small and quiet to walk through the world. His father, the manifestation of toxic masculinity, has transformed Nate’s bedroom into a hydro marijuana crop and he’s forced to bunk with his young twin brothers. His life has no predictability or security outside the youth centre he visits, and as a result he has shoved down everything good or optimistic inside himself. He worries about everything because everything is worrying. It’s a cycle with no end. The reader wholeheartedly wants this lovely kid to find an exit from this hopeless environment.
Wakefield skilfully demonstrates the ways in which our society functions to keep these children buried in the mud. They have no options but failure. If there is any good, it comes from ill-gotten gains, or is taken away immediately. She also shows the beautiful souls in this community—the reformed youth worker, the defeated teacher, the stepmother who hasn’t yet lost the battle with bitterness—who are supporting this kid as he stumbles through his life: a game of snakes and ladders, without a ladder to be seen.
Wakefield’s writing is sharp, observant and unapologetic. It is deliberate in the best possible way—dancing all over you until an observation or question drops like an anvil. At one point, in a moment of punishing self-awareness, Nate notes, ‘It made them feel big to make him feel small—part of me hated them for it, but I knew if I had to pick I would rather be like them.’ It can be uncomfortable, but you never lose sight of the skill of Wakefield’s prose. It makes the realisation that Wakefield has been consistently over-looked by the major writing awards even more puzzling.
Writing for young people is too often perceived as bombastic stories of heroism informed by simplistic notions of good versus bad. Guts, The Poet X and This Is How We Change the Ending reflect much more nuanced worlds. Sometimes victories can be small, arriving in increments of awareness and self-advocacy. And sometimes they can be big, like survival. This might look less impressive on a shelf talker but it can make all the difference for the readers who connect with these writers’ words.
Each of these books shows their protagonists stepping out of themselves to find strength in an uncertain world. They tell three very different stories about the pressures that can push us under, and they all find hope in the same places—people and art. They’re about hope and action, about learning that we are all capable of plenty, even if the scale is small. And they show that YA can be many things, from a finely shot arrow to an epic story for the ages.
Adele Walsh is a moderator, presenter, writer and teacher, an ongoing outspoken advocate for teen readers and youth literature. She is the senior coordinator of Community Outreach and Engagement at La Trobe University Library, where she leads professional learning, community outreach and arts programming.