Today we round-off our spotlight on the Children’s Book Council of Australia awards by looking at winners in the Older Readers category. One interesting fact is that all three honoured authors are first-time or early career novelists!
Book of the Year (Older Readers)
Winner: The Protected by Claire Zorn
Hannah’s sister Katie has been dead nearly a year, irretrievably shattering her family’s lives. Since then she has been shuttled from psychologist to psychologist – but who wouldn’t have problems when they have a depressed mum, an injured dad and a dead sister? When she starts to connect with the school’s counsellor, the full tragedy of Hannah’s situation is finally revealed – she has been a victim of extended bullying, while her cool, beautiful sister stood by. This is the story of how Hannah slowly deals with her grief, hurt and guilt, nurtured by the glimmerings of new friendships.
I was devastated by Hannah’s story, particularly the depictions of bullying, how poisonous but random these vicious acts can be. The characters are complex – particularly the deceased Katie – and far removed from cliches. The complexity of their feelings for each other is unexpected and riveting.
Claire Zorn is an exciting new author whose two novels have both received critical acclaim. While her debut novel, The Sky so Heavy, was a CBCA Honour book last year, The Protected has done one better by winning the Older Readers Book of the Year. The Protected has also won the Young Adult prize in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.
Honour book: Nona and Me by Clare Atkins
Rosie is a white girl living in the Aboriginal community of Yirrkala in Arnhem Land. Her family was adopted into that community years ago; Rosie grew up with Nona, an Aboriginal girl who became her sister – Yapa. They were inseparable until Nona went away at age nine.
Fast forward six years and Rosie is at the mainstream (i.e. mainly white) high school in the nearby mining town. She is navigating through familiar teenage minefields – trying to conform, to fit in, crushing on a cute boy. When Nona returns unexpectedly, Rosie’s Aboriginal links become a source of tension. Will she risk prejudice and exclusion, in order to reconnect with Nona?
Nona & Me is a powerful story about friendship, community and being true to oneself. It also presents an unusual take on being caught between two cultures. Nona and Nick, both crucial to the story, remain somewhat elusive – I would like to get to know them better. Clare Atkins is a first-time author with a background in screenwriting. Nona & Me was written while Clare lived in the Aboriginal community of Yirrkala, and contains significant input from its Yolnu community.
Honour book: The Minnow by Diana Sweeney
The Minnow is Diana Sweeney’s first novel. It had already won an award as an unpublished manuscript (the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing, in 2013) so it is no surprise that the published version is also a critical success. Tom is a fourteen-year-old girl adjusting to life after her personal apocalypse – a massive flood that has killed the rest of her family and destroyed much of her town. After leaving an abusive environment, a pregnant Tom seeks refuge by moving in with her best friend, Jonah. Tom’s bond with Jonah, her wise and vivacious Nana, and with The Minnow – her name for her unborn child – slowly allow her to process her grief and move on with her life.
The Minnow deals with some confronting topics – Death, grief and abuse – but it is not grim. Instead it is melancholy, dreamlike and somewhat surreal, due to Tom’s regular conversations with her dead family, Oscar the pet carp, and Sarah the catfish (that just may be Tom’s dead sister). Is Tom unhinged, or is she constructing an alternative reality in her mind? However you interpret this, it does not detract from Tom’s appeal – she is strong and steadfast and utterly admirable. And mature – it is hard to remember she is only fourteen.
These prize winners represent only a tiny fraction of a diverse and vibrant local industry. Recently the Australian YA community – authors, teachers, librarians and booksellers – have used the #LoveOzYA hashtag to publicise the quality and range of Australian YA. This is to counter the overwhelming attention given to blockbuster imports such as Hunger Games and Fault in Our Stars, supported by the significant marketing budgets of big publishers and film studios.
Search for “#LoveOzYA readalikes” on the internet and you will find many suggestions of great Aussie reads that explore similar territory to your favourite overseas authors. Some of these readalikes include:
For fans of paranormal romance try Alexandra Adornetto’s Halo series
For stories with a multicultural perspective try Alice Pung’s Laurinda,
For fans of dark fantasy try Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts
For fans of John Green try Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts
For fans of morally ambiguous stories try Justine Larbalestier’s Liar