Teens will tell you when you're wrong

Wednesday, August 2, 2017
Shivaun Plozza

A photograph of Shivaun Plozza
Shivaun Plozza

Nothing is off-limits in young adult literature as long as it’s handled well, says Shivaun Plozza. Ahead of her Writing YA workshop, Shivaun talks about diversity and reader reactions.

Young adult literature has a reputation for busting boundaries around difficult topics and themes. Are there any boundaries left to bust through?

I’m not actually sure it’s about pushing boundaries – authors just want to write stories that are real, thought-provoking, entertaining and have relevance to our teen audiences. Because of this, we cover some difficult topics: topics that might be considered ‘controversial’ but are actually things our readers are going through, seeing their friends go through, or can see happening in the wider world. The only thing that makes these topics ‘controversial’ is the way adults perceive them, considering some topics too ‘dark’ for teens to read about. I think so long as you handle a topic well and without sensationalising it, there really are few topics we can’t cover.

The only boundaries we need to bust are those imposed on YA fiction by adult gatekeepers. For example, why would a book with two boys kissing be considered ‘controversial’ for teens to read (and yes, that still happens) when a book with a boy and a girl kissing is fine? What’s the difference? Those are the boundaries we need to bust.

There’s a growing call for representation of diverse and marginalised characters in literature. Is this also the case in YA?

This is absolutely the case and I would hazard the opinion that it is the YA community which is driving the push for more and better representation with the greatest force. We are certainly not perfect – we have issues not only with representations on the page but also in who is getting the chance to tell stories and work behind the scenes in the publishing industry – but I see so much robust and insightful conversation around this topic online and at events and this makes me hopeful for change. We have a long way to go but the most important thing is that the readership is there and teens are hungry – they are ravenous – for books with diverse representation done well.

What is it about YA that attracts older readers as well as teenagers?

While YA is certainly written for a teen audience, it explores universal themes such as identity, power imbalances, love, death, prejudice, etc. Just because the characters are teenagers, it doesn’t mean adults can’t identify with what they’re going through.

Because teenagers are such a discerning audience – they are very vocal with their likes and dislikes – YA authors are conscious of writing cracking plots and engaging characters so the quality of writing is often very high with hardly any pretention.  

And there is so little restraint in the way teenagers respond to life, be it first love or a favourite band or whatever. Their emotions are raw, honest and unashamed and that’s wonderful to read because, for me anyway, it transports me back to that time and those feelings, which I think we mostly lose as adults.

How do teenagers react to diverse characters who are – and aren’t – written well?

Teenagers are articulate, passionate and fiercely political. Adults too often don’t give them credit for just how political they are, just how actively they are agitating for positive changes to the world. Unless you interact with teens regularly you might not realise that, given a chance, they are enthusiastic about engaging with the wider world, trying to make a positive impact. Teen readers are not afraid to pull you up when you get things wrong. Even if they don’t tell you about it they will tell their friends – they see it as a duty to let others know if a book is harmful because of bad representation.

Your debut novel ‘Frankie’ is about to be released in the United States. Where there any suggested changes to Australian edition that surprised you?

I expected the spelling to change so that wasn’t a surprise. I also expected to have to tweak certain sections for clarity but I didn’t realise how much I would have to do that. It wasn’t until I was looking at the book from the perspective of an American audience that I realised just how ‘Australian’ is was – the mind-set, the language, the everything! There was a lot of back and forth in the editing process, with me trying to explain things like ‘speckies’, ‘Centrelink’ and what ‘buggered’ means when an Australian says it.

About Shivaun Plozza

Shivaun Plozza is the author of 'Frankie', a darkly funny novel about a troubled teen willing to defy her friends, family and the law to find her missing brother. Her second novel, 'Tin Heart', is due for release early in 2018. Other works have appeared in anthologies and journals including 'Where the Shoreline Used to Be', 'ELLE Australia', 'Text' and 'The Victorian Writer'. When not writing, Shivaun works as a freelance editor and manuscript assessor.