Feminism in Young Adult fiction

I have recently been thinking about how the stories we consume have the power to shape us, particularly at a young age. The books, films and narratives that surround us as youths can often have long lasting effect.

But it’s the characters that we discover, love and admire most as adolescents that perhaps shape us the most. And revisiting these characters and their stories always leaves an effect. I have always been a reader, but discovering Aussie Young Adult fiction really gave my younger self some inspiring role models.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of great characters for young people to look up to elsewhere. Determined and quick-witted Anne Shirley (from Anne of Green Gables) has been a lifelong favourite. And of course with the resourcefulness, love and pure magic of Harry P9780140360462otter and co. But they have always been separate from me, by time and space.

When 13 year-old me read Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta (published 1992) that first time I immediately fell in love with it. There was no more than 15 years and 50 kilometres between Josie and I. She was growing up in an Italian family in modern Sydney, and so was I. She did not lead a perfect, or even a particularly exciting life – but she was taking charge
of her own destiny, in whichever small way she could, and I admired her. Marchetta’s beautiful prose formed her heroine more real than any I had previously encountered.

A year or so later, I picked up the Tomorrow, When the War Began series (first published in 1993) and found myself faced with another cast of fierce, intelligent, yet still flawed female characters. John Marsden writes painfully realistic teenagers, which is not as easy to do as it sounds. And not only are all the characters believable but they are wonderfully active in their own stories. Too often are female characters reactive, rather than being active themselves even if they are framed as heroines. Ellie, Robyn, Fi and even Corrie are often braver and bolder than their male companions, and it is so important for teenage readers to have characters like them. Despite their action, they are still framed as desirable and feminine, traits that often disappear when the “take charge” attributes are given in novels. (I have just watched the first episode of the new TV series and it is so good!)

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Ellie is played by Molly Daniels in ABC’s new series.

These novels were both written before “Young Adult fiction” came into its own as a legitimate genre, rather than just being for “older children”. Now with the YA category thriving, it is important for current authors to take note. Whilst sales in adult fiction are declining, YA sales have been on the up for a number of years. Also, the readership is ageing, with a majority of YA sales going to those over the age of 18. Readers are demanding more realistic, more active female characters. And rightly so.

While we have certainly bridged some of the gap between the sexes in the last 100 years, there is definitely more to go. And there is no better place, I think, than to educate our teenagers, of the importance of feminism, than between the covers of the latest bestselling novel.

 

Who’s your favourite feminist Young Adult character? I’d love to have a discussion!

Ella Minnow Pea || March Review

Ella Minnow PeaElla Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is such a fun concept and interesting premise that it was on my TBR list for a long time. Now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading it, I just want to re-read it again and again. And make everyone around me read it.
Ella Minnow Pea is set on the little island of Nollop, just off the coast of the US. An island that has renounced almost all modern technology in favour of veneration of words and language, in honour of their favourite son, Nevin Nollop, who coined the ubiquitous pangram (a sentence which contains all the letters of the alphabet) “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

When the letter Z falls from the statue on which this phrase is immortalised, the Council decrees that it is a sign from the great Nollop, and so, ban the use of the fallen letter. This requires almost all published work to be confiscated and the Islanders to be very careful about their word choice, as mistakes as severely punishable. The absence of Z is somewhat manageable, but when more letters fall communication becomes so fraught with challenges that most Islanders are exiled, leave, or are rendered mute.
Ella Minnow Pea is indeed ‘A Novel in Letters’ as its subtitle suggests, in more way than one. It is entirely an epistolary novel, displaying all the titular Ella’s correspondence. It is also, clearly, a novel about letters and language. Dunn revels in communicating in what, by the end, is only a mere suggestion of the English language. It takes a bit of mental gymnastics initially, but soon his mad methods are comprehensible.
This is Dunn’s first novel, after decades as a successful playwright. There are some points of improvement certainly. The love interest feels a little tacked-on, and the political side and citizen response to the whole calamity is well under-explained. Also the main letter-writers have quite a similar voice so it is often hard to distinguish one from another. But he tracks Ella’s despair and near madness quite well.
This quirky timeless little fable is such a quick read, that it can be easily dismissed as nothing more. However, upon closer examination it is an (mostly light-hearted) exploration of totalitarian governments and the importance of our right to freedom of expression. Aandd, for word lovers, it leaves you with a newfound appreciation for even the most seemingly unimportant letters.
Overall, I found this to be a cute, humorous linguistic exploration and I am very keen to read some more of Dunn’s work.

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