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 Potter 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!)
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!