YA author Steph Bowe chooses the cream of the crop in recent Australian YA releases that can be read by teenagers and adults alike!
Steph Bowe was born in Melbourne in 1994 and now lives in Queensland. She has written two earlier YA novels: Girl Saves Boy and All This Could End, and her newest, Night Swimming, is due to be released on April 3. Steph is currently a Stella Prize Schools Ambassador for Queensland.
One Would Think the Deep by Claire Zorn
Claire Zorn took out a whole slew of literary awards with her previous YA novel, The Protected, and One Would Think the Deep is a compelling follow-up, about a boy who, after the sudden death of his mother, goes to live with his estranged aunt and cousins, and starts to unravel old family tensions and secrets.
Against a backdrop of surf culture and the complex dynamics of a working class family, Zorn writes the internal world of a grieving teenager especially well. The pop culture references will appeal to people who were teenagers in the 1990s (and to fans of Jeff Buckley), but it’s written in such a way that it’s timeless.
On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
Melina Marchetta is the queen of Australian YA. From her first novel, the coming-of-age classic Looking for Alibrandi, to her more recent work, which has spanned Young Adult fantasy and adult crime, there is really nothing she can’t write. My favourite novel of hers – and one of my favourite novels overall – is On the Jellicoe Road. It’s a remarkable book – moving and confronting. Be sure to prepare yourself emotionally. But look: you can’t go wrong with any of Marchetta’s novel.
The Whole of My World by Nicole Hayes
Set in the 1980s, The Whole of my World is about Shelley, who is obsessed with Australian Rules Football and strikes up a friendship with a player at her favourite club. It raises all sorts of issues around hero worship and blurred lines between footballers and fans. Shelley’s voice is authentic and compelling; she’s fourteen, and a character older readers will see their younger selves in – a little naïve, and desperate to find her place in the world.
Shelley is at times painfully vulnerable, and makes some truly awful decisions – she’s struggling with grief and her father is distant and detached after death devastates their family. It can be a heavy read, as events unfold leading Shelley inexorably towards crisis point, but it’s engaging and ultimately uplifting, and the 1980s nostalgia and AFL references are a highlight.
Cloudwish by Fiona Wood
Okay, so, I might be cheating here by putting this on a list of contemporary novels: a magical wish is crucial to the plot. Don’t let that put you off! Cloudwish engages in a really thoughtful way with issues around race and class – our Jane Eyre-obsessed heroine, Van Uoc, is Vietnamese-Australian, attends a private school on a scholarship, and her parents are migrants. She’s hopelessly in love with Billy Gardiner, who is rich, popular, athletic – totally unlike Van Uoc. This is where the wish comes in.
Even though it deals with real-world issues with tact and insightfulness, Cloudwish is ultimately a really lovely, romantic novel – but Van Uoc and Billy’s relationship is written with more depth than the usual teenage romance. Fiona Wood’s first two novels, Six Impossible Things and Wildlife, occur in the same universe as Cloudwish and feature some character crossover, which is fortunate because after reading Cloudwish you’ll want to spend more time in the world of these characters.
Laurinda by Alice Pung
Lucy, the child of Chinese migrants, earns a scholarship to an elite private school, where she has to deal with the hostile behaviour of her wealthier, white classmates. Her affection for her working class neighbourhood and her family is authentic and beautiful. The depiction of her mother doing piecework in the garage while her baby brother sleeps nearby is especially compelling. It’s thematically similar to Cloudwish (though it lacks a romantic storyline) and is just as gorgeous a novel – it’s so convincing and realistic it reads like a memoir.
Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar
Kirsty Eagar’s oeuvre is amazingly varied – every novel unique to the last. Her debut, Raw Blue, centres around a girl reclaiming her life (and sexuality) after being sexually assaulted. She followed that up with paranormal novel Saltwater Vampires (which is exactly what it sounds like), then Night Beach, an extraordinary surf-gothic-supernatural-horror novel (for lack of a better term!).
With Summer Skin, she defies all the stereotypes of girls in YA – her female protagonist is badly behaved, not always likeable, sexually empowered and unashamedly feminist. It’s a little more grown up than most YA – it focuses on the lives of university students living in residential colleges, and lust takes centre stage rather than romance.
In-Between Days by Vikki Wakefield
All of Vikki Wakefield’s novels are gritty, literary and slightly surreal – they might be set in places that seem familiar, but something is always not quite of this world. For the purposes of this list, I’m calling her work contemporary YA – but it really resists classification. (With her 2017 novel, Ballad for a Mad Girl, Wakefield has made the leap into the supernatural.)
In-Between Days is set in Mobius, a sad, dark, dying town, like something out of a David Lynch film. The only attraction is a forest renowned for suicides. Protagonist Jacklin, a seventeen-year-old high school drop-out who lives with her sister and works in a roadhouse, is insecure and full of longing and desperation to escape. It’s not heavy on plot, but it’s compelling. Difficult characters, uncomfortable situations and moral complexity abound.
Like both Kirsty Eagar and Vikki Wakefield, Simmone Howell doesn’t write “nice” teenage girls. Her earlier novels, Notes from the Teenage Underground and Everything Beautiful, feature girls who are difficult, unapologetic and self-assured, and the highs and lows of female friendship are artfully explored. Sky Martin, narrator of Girl Defective, is probably the most likeable of Howell’s protagonists.
Though Girl Defective is set in present-day St Kilda, there’s a real timelessness and nostalgia to it – Sky’s family own and run a record shop, and live in the flat above the shop. Sky’s older, wilder friend, Nancy, is like a girl from another time. The night scenes (including one at Luna Park) have an unreal and enchanting atmosphere, in amongst the real and familiar. There’s a mystery, but it’s never strictly solved. Howell’s writing style is captivating and immensely readable.
Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley
Words in Deep Blue is set in a bookshop. A Letter Library in which people exchange messages figures heavily into the plot. The letters tell a number of different stories – beautiful, romantic, and tragic. It’s definitely one for the word nerds. The two central protagonists – both of whom are point-of-view characters – are on the cusp of adulthood and grappling with love and loss and life inevitably changing. Grief is exquisitely explored. If you want to have a good cry, this is the book for you.