fantastic books and where to find them – young adult fiction with melanie basta

22 February 2015

The first page gets me every time: Panic was my first reaction to the multiple choice options which lay on my desk in front of me.” The scene is set immediately and you expect a generic classroom situation, but it turns out Josephine Alibrandi is completing the “What kind of a friend are you?” quiz in Hot Pants magazine. Hot Pants. If that’s not the best way to satirise women’s magazines, then I don’t know what is.

For those of you who are not familiar with Looking for Alibrandi, it is one of Australia’s most iconic stories about being a teenage wog girl in Australia, struggling with class, and dealing with death and family secrecy. It’s about emancipation.

I loved this book so much when I first read it at 15 that I may have stolen a line from the book and used it in one of my Year 11 creative writing assessments. Josephine was desperate to “run to be emancipated”. Apparently, so was Andy from The Shawshank Redemption, when he miraculously escaped jail through the sewers and bolted through the pouring rain.

So why is this book iconic? It comes down to a few things. First of all, Melina Marchetta has an excellent turn of phrase. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a writer who surpasses so many others in conveying such casual, funny, yet eloquent dialogue and narrative.

“My first house,” she said, pointing to a shack. “No matter how much I would clean it, it would always be dirty.”
Don’t believe that. My grandmother, like most Europeans, has this obsession about dirt. She cleans her house at least 5 times a week.
“Sometimes the snakes would come in, Jozzie. Oh, Jozzie, Jozzie, Jozzie, do you know what it is like to have a snake in your house?”
“No, we have a heap of cockroaches though.”
She closed her eyes and put her hands together as if she was praying.

It also comes down to Josephine, the protagonist. She’s feisty, argumentative, intelligent, funny, and gets along well with the guys and the girls. The characters are not all necessarily likeable, but memorable, and the book is full of conflict, but the banter is rife.

Lastly, it doesn’t wholly come across as a Young Adult novel. It doesn’t disparage teenagers or their issues, and, unlike many other YA books, I can read it again and not  tire of it.

If we keep compartmentalising teenagers and writing ‘Young Adult’ stories, we somehow end up trivialising them and their issues. Marchetta wrote this for teenagers, but she treated them as people.

It’s really not that hard to just speak to teenagers as you would to an adult, and far too many YA writers belittle their audience. What I’m trying to say, after all of these columns, is this: fuck ‘Young Adult’ lit.

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