Some people approach art the same way they approach choosing what to eat. Classics, literature, arthouse movies are broccoli, spinach, and oatmeal porridge; chick lit, romantic comedies, and young adult novels are ice cream, chips and sauce, fairy floss, and sugary cereals.
This set of attitudes has fed into the debate around young adult fiction, and whether adults should be reading – and indeed, celebrating – the genre. In Slate, Ruth Graham writes ‘Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.’ My response: shut up. You’re boring me, Ruth. There’s something suspicious about the idea that to read young adult fiction or watch romantic comedies is to indulge in a ‘guilty pleasure’ that’s no good for you.
You can read what you want to read, and you can do so with thoughtfulness and awareness. There is a balance to aim for here. As a primary teacher, it is something about which I try to teach my students: if you always choose the same kinds of books, what could you be missing out on? I don’t want to read young adult fiction exclusively: but not because it isn’t good for me. Rather, I read beyond YA because I want a reading diet that is diverse and varied. I want to push myself to read books I wouldn’t instinctively reach for, to read different forms and genres and authors. It’s too easy to read only what we know and feel comfortable with. When Ruth Graham tells me to be embarrassed about reading young adult fiction, she unintentionally reminds me of what I want my reading habits to be. I’m not embarrassed about reading young adult fiction, but I would be embarrassed to dismiss a whole collection of books just because someone had told me that they weren’t written for me.
Reading your favourite kind of book is a damn good feeling.
That said, reading your favourite kind of book is a damn good feeling. And I love reading fiction, be it young adult or not, set in high school. It started with Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers, St Clare’s and The Naughtiest Girl at School books – how I wished I was getting on the train with Darrell, holding our breath for the first glimpse of the hallowed halls, playing pranks on our French mistresses and eating midnight feasts in the dormitory. A large part of my enjoyment of reading Harry Potter was reading about Hogwarts itself, the professors and the classes and the homework (though don’t get me started on how pedagogically backwards that place is).
I also love reading about young women. Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn was the first book that got me, that I really got, that made me gasp with the recognition that this was what fiction could do. Elspeth’s struggle to understand herself and her place in the world showed me how fiction can be a kind of mirror – how it can help us understand not just other people, but also ourselves. Classic young adult books such as L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi,and of course J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter are examples of the common narrative structure of a young person searching for a sense of identity and belonging.
So when I heard that Alice Pung’s debut novel was to be a story set in an exclusive girls’ school, I was more than a little excited. Pung has previously written two memoirs, Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter and edited the anthology Growing Up Asian in Australia. She is also a kind of hero of mine, working as an Ambassador and Board Member for 100 Story Building, a centre for young writers in the west.
Pung’s debut novel follows Lucy Lam, a girl who gets a scholarship to attend Laurinda, a private girls’ school. Lucy’s parents are Chinese-Vietnamese refugees, her mother works from home sewing clothes and her father works at a factory. They respond with pragmatism at Lucy’s acceptance to Laurinda, pleased that they won’t have to get a refund on the payment for the entrance exam. The love with which Pung describes Lucy’s family is evident – surely she has drawn from her real life. They are tenderly rendered, from her baby brother Lamb and his constant emission of bodily fluids, to the description of her mother eating so quickly that she barely chews, to the time her father brings home McDonalds for all of Lucy’s (non-existent) private school friends. Sometimes adults in young adult fiction can be blandly written caricatures of annoying grown ups who don’t understand what being a teenager is really like. Pung, however, has done what Rainbow Rowell also did so well in the similarly striking Eleanor and Park, and given the adult characters almost as much complexity and interest as the teenage protagonists.
When she starts at Laurinda, Lucy is determined to not get involved or let the school change who she is. But she is slowly drawn into the politics surrounding the three central popular girls – known as The Cabinet – and becomes entangled in their machinations. The Cabinet are at first indifferent to Lucy, then fascinated with her foreignness and then finally confused by her unwillingness to play their games. She witnesses cruel pranks on teachers and the callous and calculated bullying of girls around her. She is subjected to incessant casual, ‘well-intentioned’ racism; her peers tell her she doesn’t understand their pranks on teachers because she’s ‘Asian and respectful’, and when one of The Cabinet’s mothers, Mrs Leslie, invites Lucy to her house to show her how to make ‘authentic’ rice-paper rolls, she exclaims ‘Well, would you look at those dexterous Asian fingers. So fast!’
Figuring out who you are is hard; figuring out that it isn’t a process that will ever end can be freeing.
Lucy is caught. When she’s at Laurinda, she is made to feel again and again like she doesn’t belong, clapping enthusiastically when a classmate performs the piano, not realising that everyone else is simply clapping politely. When she walks around her suburb wearing her uniform, she is just as out of place. Being a teenager is hard. Being a scholarship girl at a private school is harder. Lucy feels like she is being asked who she is or who she wants to be every second – the principal reprimands her for not being involved in school life enough, the Cabinet have their own ideas of what a scholarship girl should be, and of course, her parents have their own expectations. When Lucy begins to take herself back from all these expectations, I was cheering for her. Figuring out who you are is hard; figuring out that it isn’t a process that will ever end can be freeing. Exhausting, but freeing. In her final reflections on her year, Lucy writes ‘I learned that to have integrity means piecing together all the separate parts of yourself and your life.’ Lucy understands that this is an ongoing process, one she’ll have to keep on doing for the rest of her life.
Teenagers go through those awful years when they begin to see their family through society’s eyes – or at least they think they can see what others see. Bringing your friends home, introducing them to your parents, becomes excruciating – you realise that your parents are so not cool, and then you worry that, by extension, neither are you. When describing the colour of her house in Stanley, she writes ‘I mean blue the colour of that bubblegum-flavoured ice-cream all kids love until they older and find out how many chemicals are in every scoop.’
Slowly, Lucy begins to see her family, her house, her suburb through the eyes of the Laurindians: ‘Everything was so cheap and tacky here, I now saw.’ This superficial perception of teenage life happens to us all, but the strength of this book is that Pung doesn’t allow Lucy to believe that life in the working class suburb of Stanley is romantic or dreamy. She can understand why her parents want her to work hard and achieve – economically and educationally – what they couldn’t, but her position between the two worlds also allows her to see the worth of her parents’ world.
I try to read consciously, with an awareness of my biases and preferences. I am biased towards reading young adult fiction featuring female protagonists. With Laurinda, Alice Pung has joined other Australian writers like Vikki Wakefield, Cath Crowley, and Gabrielle Williams who are writing smart, funny YA fiction full of complex and engaging characters. As long as these authors continue to write, I will continue to read their work. Without embarrassment.