It’s a perennial yarn. Someone easily shocked or offended picks up a work of Young Adult fiction and reels at the contents. Horrified that their innocent young darling could be corrupted by such truth-telling, they quickly fire off a complaint to the library/school council/education department/all of the above. A cranky letter to a local newspaper follows and before you know it there’s a story cobbled together asking whether YA fiction is too dark and dangerous for young people to read.
As a journo and YA author I follow these stories with particular interest. These days I’m more author than journalist so I was amused/bemused by a recent media request to discuss this exact topic. The piece was due to run in a Fairfax weekend mag but I’m yet to spot it. (Please shoot me a link if you’ve seen it.)
One of the points I failed to make during the interview is that I grew up in an era where there was no YA section in bookstores or libraries. In the school libraries I frequented, once you were beyond Enid Blyton and had scaled the heights of Ivan Southall and Colin Thiele, you were fast running out of options. In town, the library bus visited fortnightly. While my younger siblings pillaged the limited children’s selection I was free to range the semi-trailer and make my own choices. Invariably I returned home accompanied by Stephen King, James Clavell or James Herbert – guys who didn’t exactly bubble wrap the darkness and violence in their stories. I don’t believe I’m any the worse for reading their work before I turned 18 or 21 or whatever age you’re allowed to know the world isn’t entirely Blyton-esque.
My own YA novels draw heavily on my experiences as a journalist and subsequently contain dark matter. I make careful choices about what I include and how explicit I should be. I also borrow from history as true stories often can’t be topped. It’s rare that I get a complaint. (For the record, I did get one a few weeks back from a reader disturbed by one of the historic elements I used in Five Parts Dead. I’d forewarned him the books were intended for older children and told his parents to read ahead of him… Interestingly, he preferred Game as Ned, which I feel is even more confronting. We clearly have different sensitivities.)
One of the things I did refer to when interviewed was the short story competition I judge annually. The entrants are 12 to 18 years of age and heavily skewed towards the 13-14 year old bracket. The topics are of their own choice – serving as a free window into teen thinking. Having just finished the judging, here are the topics covered this year and the number of young people who tackled them:
I could rail on about fiction being a safe space to explore and gain insight into the dark side of life but I think that list renders my comments redundant. Many young people portray a world that is considerably crueler than I could dream up.
So I’ll keep on writing the stories that feel right to me. Hopefully, to quote one of my former editors, my stories will show that even in dark places the light can shine through.
In the end, she found herself. She’d been missing four days.
Her parents reported her absence after only eight hours when she failed to return from work. After 12 hours, the police released a media bulletin describing her uniform, her gaudy bicycle, her autism spectrum disorder and the possibility she may appear distressed when approached by strangers.
The officers at the police station didn’t appear unduly concerned; they don’t list you as missing unless you’ve been gone for 48 hours. Besides, her bicycle was located at the retirement village where she worked. That suggested she was on foot so she couldn’t have gone too far.
Her parents were not becalmed by this discovery. As parents, they were hard-coded to worry. She was a young woman, even if she dressed older. She had never done anything like this before, never even missed a home-cooked meal. Indeed, she disliked disruption to her established routine. She attended work, Greek Orthodox church and weekly luncheons at the local RSL. As a rule, her whereabouts could be charted to the minute and square metre. This absence made no sense. Foul play loomed large in their minds.
When she appeared, trembling and emaciated at their front door, police officers were summoned to examine her. Wrapped in her favourite blanket, with a steaming bowl of soup in front of her, it quickly became clear she was not fit for interview. Her hand shook so much the soup jittered off the spoon. When she collapsed forward onto the table before her father could catch her, the police community liaison officer suggested she be moved to hospital.
In many ways the hospital was a setback. She was distressed by the drip in her arm, the omnipresent white light, the current of strangers sweeping by her bed. The doctors had to sedate her while they did a forensic examination – and then keep her on the drip while she regained strength. A welfare worker suggested a psychiatric ward but her parents vigorously opposed this.
As she slowly emerged from the fog of medication the police took their chance to ask questions.
“Hello Anastasia, my name is Senior Constable Callaghan. I’m here to check you are OK. How are you feeling, Anastasia?”
Her voice was groggy. Monotone. “Yes, I am very well thank you. How are you? Are you very well, too?”
“Yes, thank you for asking. We need to know where you have been, Anastasia. Your parents have been very worried.”
“My parents are very well, too. Thank you for asking.”
“Yes. My name is Anastasia. How do you do? Are you having a good day?”
“Anastasia, can you remember leaving work on Tuesday?”
No reply. The policewoman tried another approach. “Did you get in a car after work on Tuesday? Did someone take you to their house?”
Anastasia frowned. “I do not work in a house. I work at Brompton Village. It is a very lovely place. Do you know Brompton Village? I help with the dishes and the cleaning. Do you like dishes and cleaning?”
After an hour, the senior constable and community liaison officer gave up. There were no visible injuries, no current evidence of assault. Anastasia’s uniform was musty, dusty and crumpled but otherwise intact. Apart from starvation, the past four days had no tales to tell.
Ana’s co-workers at Brompton were interviewed but shed no more light on her absence than she could. Yes, one of the residents died five days ago but deaths were a reasonably regular event and Anastasia had not gone missing before. Surely old Mrs Latham’s death could not have triggered this unexpected absence.
They should have known Mrs Latham’s room was Anastasia’s favourite. The sideboard had a collection of porcelain figurines and a clock of whizzing golden gears contained within a tall, domed glass cylinder. Hanging on the wall were Mr Latham’s war medals, silver and brass and bedecked with ribbons coloured like tropical birds. On the walls were black and white photos, including a large one of Mrs Latham dressed as a young nurse with Mr Latham as a young soldier standing in front of a big gunship. Anastasia used to rush her dusting of other rooms so she could spend more time in Mrs Latham’s, touching and polishing.
Mr Latham died seven months ago. Anastasia understood people died and never came back and that afterwards Mrs Latham was moved to a smaller room. The furnishings were the same, only with less chairs and a smaller bed. Anastasia had helped put each figure in its correct place on the sideboard. Mrs Latham had summoned a smile and thanked her, saying that Mr Latham liked things to be in their right places. Anastasia liked that too.
Mrs Latham had been unwell recently. On Monday morning the charge nurse barred Anastasia from doing any more than emptying the bin in the room. On Monday afternoon she spied the vicar visiting and knew this was unlikely to be a good sign.
On Tuesday she’d knocked before entering the room, only to find it completely empty. The figurines, the photos, the medals and memorabilia were gone, along with Mrs Latham. Anastasia had been frantic. She’d pushed her cleaning trolley along the long grey corridors, knocking on every door and then scurrying away as soon as she’d glanced inside.
At the end of the corridor she’d passed through the fire door and shunted her trolley alongside the laundry. Beyond this was the incinerator but she couldn’t remember it being used lately and surely they couldn’t, they wouldn’t.
The last building before the gardeners’ hut had a padlock hanging askew on the door. Anastasia eased the deadbolt sideways and tiptoed inside, dragging her trolley with her. Blam! The wind caught the door and smashed it into the wall, terrifying Ana. Shoving the trolley into the depths of the shed, she leapt behind a pile of cardboard crates, acutely, no, hideously aware that the storage shed was Out Of Bounds to her. Soon she heard footsteps, the heavy tromp of a gardener’s boots, a muttering, a slamming of the door and the clunk of the latch.
There was no door handle on the inside of the aluminum storage shed. Anastasia weighed up banging on the door to alert the gardener or laundry staff that she was trapped. The truth was she feared the scolding she’d get for entering the shed more than she feared the room itself.
As her eyes adjusted to the gloom she noticed ‘Latham’ scrawled across the lids of several boxes. Clambering over to them, she eased the lid of one carton open, gasping as she sighted the contents.
The golden clock lay on its side, the cogs and counterweights silent and unmoving. The figurines were jumbled around it, the Curtseying Lady now missing her delicate outstretched arm. Anastasia was still searching for the missing limb when she heard footsteps again and a fragmented conversation outside, “… no descendants known … Latham. Reckon you can take that pile to the opp shop … Anything of value you could chuck on eBay…”
Anastasia couldn’t fully untangle the conversation but sensed a rescue was required. The question was what. And when. Reaching her decision, she began to rifle through the cartons. Once she was finished all she had to do was wait.
When dusk fell and the shadows crept around her, Anastasia found comfort by making order from chaos in the shed. She stacked the boxes along one wall until she had made a sideboard of sorts. The gold clock took pride of place and, once she got it level, the return of the familiar whirling and clunking eased her into a safe space.
In her trolley she found two sugar sachets and four biscuits in plastic wrapping. She nibbled a biscuit as she made a nest out of old clothes and linen.
By day four the biscuits and sugar were gone and her body was begging for water. Only the clock’s whirring let her steer her thoughts from her thirst.
On several occasions footsteps had clumped by the door but at no point did they stop outside to unfasten the latch. Until what she guessed to be mid-afternoon of day four.
Anastasia listened, wondering if she was awake or drifting away, as someone approached and grappled with the deadbolt. She thought she saw the door open a centimetre or two before a mobile phone pealed and the person at the door strode away. Taking a deep breath, Anastasia stood unsteadily, leaning against her cardboard mantel until dizziness stopped swirling like the gears in the clock.
Pushing her trolley in front of her, she wobbled into the sunlight. The other staff must have been serving afternoon tea. Parking the trolley beside the laundry, she scuttled to the staff car park. Her bike was still chained up, albeit with a strange blue and white ribbon looped around it. The dizziness dive-bombed her again and she decided the bike was a bad idea. In the front garden she crouched beside a garden tap and drank greedily before listing out onto the footpath, headed for home. The walk felt like it took days.
Anastasia hated hospital but calmed herself remembering the whirring of the golden clock. On her first weekend back home, when her parents asked if she was well enough to go out for lunch, she nodded her assent.
At the RSL club, while her father played cards with a mate and her mum put five dollars into the pokies, Anastasia took a package out of her handbag. After careful consideration she left it on a chair beside a fire extinguisher.
A cleaner found it that night, wrapped in brown paper, with an envelope addressed ‘RSL’ on top.
The club treasurer unwrapped the package the next day and found an immaculately polished set of Great War medals along with a framed photograph of a grinning soldier and beaming nurse. The card inside the envelope read, in clumsy handwriting, ‘Gift for RSL from Mr and Mrs Latham. Do not chuck in the bay.’