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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Teens to the Front!

Last week I was involved in a Literary Debate for my old University, RMIT – the event being part of an assignment for current Writing & Editing students who had to come up with the concept, approach those they wanted involved, promote the debate and actually run the event. 

The debate topic was; “Are adults who read YA just BIG BABIES?” and we were kindly invited to choose which side we’d like to be on … and I chose affirmative.

Yep. I chose to play Devil’s Advocate and argue the point that adults who read young adult fiction (and I’m one of them!) are big babies.

Now, those of you who know me will know my true feelings on this topic, because they’re well-documented. But I was moved to debate from the other end of the clickbait for a couple of reasons … and one was undoubtedly the lure of a win-win outcome for me (either my teams wins – YAY! Or we lose and I am not a big baby for reading YA – YAY again!).

Another was the fact that the question posed was not about hating on the books themselves (I couldn’t have argued that in good conscience).

And finally it was the recent revelation of figures shared at The Nielsen’s Children’s Book Summit; “Eighty percent, he announced—yes, 80%—of YA titles, are bought by adults, not young adults, according to Nielsen research. And those buyers are buying those books to read, themselves.” That number kind of shocked me … and not in a good way, because it suggests that teens are not making their way to the books that are meant to be theirs. And why is that? What has happened to YA that teenagers are being led to believe that it’s no longer for them?

In debating this topic I wanted to explore whether or not this book industry trend of teens leaving YA is similar to their mass exodus from places like Facebook – at an estimated rate of up to a million a year! – when one proven reason for this is the fact that it seems like only adults are on Facebook (as investigated by the Washington Post).

It’s a bit of a double-edged sword as I see it; the increase of adults reading YA has undoubtedly helped to make it a global phenomenon and the books hugely successful, but it has also resulted in teens departing the readership. I wonder if there’s a danger in more adults reading YA – and them potentially having a bottom-dollar that matters more – which will see the readership being shaped by them and for them, and increasingly excluding teens (and, yes, I did bring up New Adult for audience consideration in the debate. I know. I know!)

Because here’s the thing – I didn’t attend literary festivals, bookshop or library events when I was a teen. I wasn’t entirely aware of them, and even if I had been I was probably too shy and would have been swayed by the disinterest of my friends to not attend. That only changed in my first year of Uni, when Richelle Mead toured Australia and my Vampire Academy fangirling won out, so I attended a local bookstore event of hers and was BLOWN AWAY. It was a heady combination of close proximity to one of my all-time favourite authors, the chance to get “insider information” on then forthcoming books and just being around fellow fans who could relate to my fervour.

After that I started getting more and more involved in the bookish communities I’d only admired from afar … I even created my own book blog after so long only reading and lurking in the comments sections of other blogs I’d appreciated from afar. I referred to it as ‘my solo book club’ – which I still see as me taking hold of my own fandom and personal interests, and who cares if I turn up to events all by my lonesome? (Of course one of the benefits of choosing to engage with these communities was actually making friends within them – friendships I’m forever thankful for).

During this time I also attended a John Marsden library event, where I cried while telling him how much Checkers means to me, and learnt about a little something then called ‘John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers’ (now called ‘The 2015 John Marsden Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers’) which I entered and came runner-up in.

I’m so happy that I finally decided to engage in a community I’d longed to be more apart of for so long. And I’m still kind of floored by the fact that merely asking to be part of it was all I had to do to get in. But I still remember the teenager I was; too shy and self-conscious to engage, and I know that if I’d turned up to those first few book events and been confronted with only adults and none of my peers, I’d have been put off and retreated back into my safe shell.

Which is why I so love ‘Teens to the Front’ – a concept developed by emerging Melbourne writer David Witteveen. He’s been inspired by the revolutionary 90s counterculture Riot Grrrl movement, specifically Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and her idea of ‘Girls to the Front’ … suggesting that music gigs could be more female-friendly if men accepted that they could be in the room, but not dominate the room.

Similarly – I believe that adults can be in the readership, but not dominate the readership.
So many organisations already promote this idea as part of their core values, like the fabulous Centre for Youth Literature. I mean; it doesn’t get more ‘Teens to the Front’ than the Inky Awards (which, btw – are announced today!) it’s a literary award voted for by teens, for teens.

Free Comic Book Day’ also allots the morning to families – and All Star Comics in Melbourne has a great courtesy policy they encourage in adults who attend, that if you’re waiting in line and there’s a little kid behind you, do the cool thing and let them go in front … because Free Comic Book Day is all about encouraging the reading of comics, and letting people see that it is a safe, fun and respectful community to be part of.

Brisbane Writers Festival that I attended this year also has a ‘Love YA’ free weekend, which specifies an age-bracket for attendees … I did show up for one ‘Love YA’ session, but I didn’t hang around for the fully-booked Cassandra Clare/Holly Black talk, because it was literally standing-room only and I was happy to give my seat to a teen fan.

That being said – there were some adults in the room who I know were publicists, librarians, teachers, or programmers – and that’s a different kettle of fish, and not who I’m talking about in the context of ‘Teens to the Front’. Because of course adults in the industry should attend teen events – librarians and teachers make the world go round, but they really make the YA readership go round.

And if you’re an adult reader of YA attending events, trust me when I say that’s fantastic – you have every right to read and celebrate whatever the heck you want, and I’m going to quote Libba Bray (always!); “Every time you open a book, it is a strike against ignorance” and it sooooooo doesn’t matter the metadata of that book.

But be cool and let all the teens have their moment with the author. Don’t monopolize question time, and don’t get upset if there are “teen-only” events organised in the future that exclude you. Be supportive of the fact that book events should really include teen panelists to discuss YA books (*cough* OzYa Heroes at Readings on Oct 19 *cough*). 

And just know that it’s not always about you – it’s not that programmers are trying to over-curate events and have only the “right” kind of audience. It’s just not about you, period. It’s about letting teenagers have their own safe space to engage with each other and the books that are meant to be theirs. It’s about showing teenagers how awesome book events can be, that they won’t have their voices drowned out by the adults in the room (whether you do so knowingly or not). It’s about letting teen readers connect with one another and grow their own fan communities – heck, it’s just about letting them have fun. And don’t even get me started on changing ‘YA’ to ‘YAH’ (young at heart) … just, no.

Because we in the book community know that it’s already a fraught enough place for certain voices who don’t always get heard – whether in the books themselves, or at events – teens shouldn’t be made to suffer that hard lesson within the very readership that is mean to be theirs in the first place.

That’s why Teens to the Front; it’s meant to be a reminder that adults can be in the readership but not dominate the readership.


  1. Danielle, this article is beautiful. It literally made me tear up.

    1. Thank you so much, David - and thank you for putting a catchy slogan to this very important concept!

  2. Fantastic piece! I linked to it in one of my blog posts about reading YA as an adult.

  3. Such a great post, Danielle. I relate to this so acutely & have so many mixed feelings...

    I agree with people who believe that YA is partly a marketing term, that many of the issues/stories in YA are universally relatable & important (no matter the age of the reader), and that adults have every right to read what they want & support these authors however they want. But I do think that it's wrong for younger readers to be (or feel) crowded out by adults with more buying power and louder voices, especially if/when authors set out to write these books FOR teen readers.

    I was not involved in the YA book community as a teen - didn't know YA was even a thing until 2008 or so, at which point I was a couple months shy of college. In some ways, I'm a little sad about it because I would have benefited so much from being more involved in the YA community when I was younger, and now as an adult I feel that it's not really my place, and when I DO take part in YA book events, I feel like I'm cheating some sort of system…

    Anyway, lots of good stuff to think about. Also, I love that you see your blog as your own solo book club - I very much see my own in the same way. :)

    1. I think the important thing is to be aware of the "power" we wield as adult readers of YA, that's key. I'm so glad you liked the post, thank you for the feedback :)


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