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Monday, March 31, 2008

New YA fiction series begins!


When I began my first job as a teacher-librarian, in the 1980s, there were a lot of teen romances around, mostly American, some British. They were a sort of junior Mills and Boon. The girls loved them, of course, though to be honest, most of them weren’t very good. They were churned out like the junior horror novels of today and had one basic plot, with minor variations. High school Cinderella, after having to compete with the beautiful school witch, finally gets the school Prince Charming, or else the school Prince Charming turns out to be shallow and vain and Cinderella discovers she’s happier with the nice boy who has been her shoulder to cry on throughout the novel. The heroines were always, always middle class and white, of course.

In Australia around this time, a new teen romance series appeared, Dolly Fiction, which was actually written by some of the country’s top YA and children’s writers, though they wrote under pseudonyms. Consequently, the series was better-written than most of the other books of this genre. Alas, it didn’t last long. Possibly, the kids preferred their cotton candy literature. or maybe the writers had other things to do.

Now, though, we have a new series along the same lines, Girlfriend Fiction. I should add that if these don’t work out as teen romances, they will succeed as perfectly good YA novels. The romance elements are light and don’t overwhelm the stories. This may disappoint girls who have bought or borrowed them because of the hearts on the cover, but at least the books won’t fizzle out in favour of cotton candy romance. The well-known writers writing them are using their own names this time.

The first two have just come out and more are promised, one of them by Kate Constable, best known for her fantasy novels.

My Life and Other Catastrophes is written in the form of a diary - you know, the usual “my English teacher says we have to write a journal, so...” beginning. This diary is being typed up on computer, though, which plays an important role later in the novel. Kids like novels written in the form of diaries or letters, anyway - the “chapters” are nice and short.

Sixteen-year-old Erin’s life is a mess. Dad has left the family for reasons she can only guess (wrongly, as it turns out - very wrongly!). Mum has a new boyfriend Erin dislikes intensely - and worse, he’s a teacher at her school. Her little brother is making suspiciously large amounts of money, far more than you’d expect from a fourteen-year-old nerd. Erin is playing Mina Harker in the school’s musical version of Dracula, but her Jonathan is not her idea of “hot” and the potential boyfriend material playing Dracula, Brendan, seems more interested in her greenie friend Rami (who is currently not talking to her anyway).

Is Kid Brother (or Sucky Little Brother as she calls him) selling drugs? Is “Creepazoid”, Mum’s boyfriend, about to start a drug dealers’ turf war? What’s wrong with Brendan’s mother? Will the school witch, “Mandozer” actually win Australian Idol, as she’s been bragging?

All will be revealed in the course of this very funny story, which includes a laugh-out-loud local newspaper review of the school show that completely fails to notice there was a real police raid in the middle of it. And, yes, Erin gets the guy and is reconciled with Rami. This should be no secret.

The Indigo Girls is more serious in style. The story is told, in alternate chapters, by Zara and Tilly, two very different girls. Every year their families meet at Indigo, a bayside town with a camping ground. Summer is the only time the girls meet and they have very different lives in the meantime. Usually, they’re part of a threesome., but this year Mieke is going to be a few days late and Tilly and Zara wonder if the two of them will get along without her to keep the balance. Tilly is a nerd who’s going straight to university. Zara seems to have all the friends, but dreams of taking a trip around Australia alone after school.

Zara has become the victim of cell phone stalking. Since she broke up with her boyfriend under particularly nasty circumstances, she has been receiving obscene and threatening anonymous text messages. Because it is her policy never to share secrets - they break up friendships, she believes - she has kept it bottled up, not even telling her brother, Ivan. Zara is beautiful and popular, but has no real friends. Her parents aren’t talking to each other, for reasons we never find out, and her father isn’t talking to her, for reasons we do find out, but which aren’t her fault. She just can’t tell him, because it’s a secret.

Because of this, she wistfully admires Tilly’s close-knit family and Tilly herself for her strength and honesty, while Tilly admires Zara’s beauty and seeming confidence. She also fancies Ivan, briefly, though there is another boy in the story with whom she ends up.

Zara takes comfort in sneaking out to surf by night. It is a time when she can rejoice in the waves and having to do it by feel. Tilly asks to join her and the accident that follows makes both of them think about their lives.

Eventually, Zara discovers who is really sending her those text messages - not her ex, as assumed - and has another think about what friendship really is.

What about that cute - and intellectual - waiter at the golf club, Sawyer? Does he like Tilly for herself or just because she’s dressed like Zara at the time?

It’s a story that teen girls will enjoy, as long as they think of it as a story about friendship more than romance. It’s just a pity that Zara’s family is still "toxic’" at the end, though she does reconcile with Ivan, before being made welcome by Tilly’s family.

Oh, well, can’t have everything. Both books are suitable for girls in mid to late high school.

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