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Bridging the gap: why John Marsden is a hit with teenage readers

For an author to be popular with a certain demographic, their books have to be not only entertaining and interesting to those readers – those readers have to see themselves in their book and feel they are being represented authentically.

Every genre and category of book comes with its own set of challenges for writers. Books that read as authentic and convincing are, consequently, a feat of both imagination and experience.

Writers for children and young adults have the challenge of trying to understand an audience between whom there is an ever-widening age gap. Many adults no doubt find it difficult to relate to people decades their junior, or even to remember how they used to see the world as a young person.

One author who makes this leap of understanding seem effortless is Australian literary great, John Marsden. As the author of more than 40 books, around 30 of them for children and young adults, he has both the sales figures (over 4 million copies sold worldwide) and the testimonies of fans to show that he knows teens. Best known for the Tomorrow series (beginning with Tomorrow When the War Began), John’s novels have been a solace for and an inspiration to young readers for nearly three decades.

How he manages to write stories that resonate strongly with teens was something I was keen to make sense of. Fortunately, he was generous enough to indulge my curiosity and spoke to me from his office – the Principal’s office – of his school in regional Victoria.

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Candlebark School is nestled within 1100 acres of unspoiled wilderness half an hour north of Melbourne airport. Founded by John Marsden in 2006, it is the culmination of his two careers during which he has sought to educate and make a difference to the lives of young people.

He began his teaching career in 1979 and was head of English at Geelong Grammar’s Timbertop campus when he wrote his first book So Much to Tell You. Like fellow authors Andy Griffith and Paul Jennings, John was motivated partly by the desire to write a substantive book that would engage young readers such as the Year 9 students he was teaching.

His daily interactions with teens have informed his understanding of them. He affirmed, ‘You can’t help but pick up on their language and thoughts and values and attitudes – especially teaching in a boarding school where you’re on a teenage island for a lot of the time.’

While John has managed to translate this understanding into stories and characters his readers have loved, the same hasn’t always been true of adults. In his behind-the-scenes book Marsden on Marsden, he said that adults “loathed and feared” his sixth book Letters from the Inside.

Letters is told in the form of correspondence between two teenage girls, one of whom is serving a five-year sentence for a crime she never specifies. Through her, readers get an insight into life behind bars and through both girls readers are confronted with the issue of family violence.

Many of John’s books deal with similarly grim subjects – though we do get glimmers of light and hope. At Timbertop boarding school he encountered students whose parents were “neglectful, insensitive or selfish” and this is visible in works such as So Much to Tell You and Out of Time. The former has a 14 year old protagonist whose father is in prison for throwing acid on her face – an attack which was intended for her neglectful and selfish mother. The latter book features a boy burdened by the death of his sister – guilt which was seeded by his parents.

And then there are the Tomorrow books. In this series, a group of best friends are forced to grow up quickly when Australia is invaded by an unidentified nation. They experience things no teenagers should endure, and we follow them as they run for their lives, lose friends and family, and even kill to survive.

In asking John how he decides what stories will be relevant and interesting for young adults versus for adults, he indicated that the themes in his books can’t really be differentiated that way.

‘There’s so much common ground between the two it’d be pretty hard to say where one ends and the other begins,’ he replied. ‘A lot of the time the theme or the plot of a story is just the vehicle for exploring something else. What I’m really interested in is what happens to the human spirit when it’s really taxed to the limit.’

‘Whether the issue is abusive parents or a war or neglectful parents or any kind of external abuse like the boyfriend from Dear Miffy, I’m more interested in how people deal with those issues and what inner strengths they can find to move forwards again after a period of moving backwards or standing still.’

So Much to Tell You certainly fits this theme of teenage resilience. John wanted to know how teens might respond to this first book of his, so before approaching publishers, he gave a copy of the manuscript to three of his Timbertop students.

In talking to him, he said that he hasn’t done that kind of scoping again since and that he got enough confidence from the first book’s success to just keep going. He also suggested that while fads come and go in areas such as language, there are what he describes as ‘eternal verities’ for teenagers. His books revolve around these eternal truths, which helps to explain their continued popularity.

‘[Eternal verities] include things like the desire for freedom and autonomy, and the frustration with parents and authority figures who don’t facilitate that,’ he said. ‘The desire for responsibility, the interest in sex. And those things don’t change from one generation to the next. So it’s not difficult to know what appeals to teenagers because it’s the same stuff that appealed to teenagers when I was a teenager.’

John said that over the years he has probably given his books a slightly faster pacing with more energy to the language, taking care to choose words that don’t date too quickly.

‘So even though I’ll be fairly aware of what slang kids are using, I won’t use much of it in my books. I tend to use words that are relatively ageless.’

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After nearly thirty years of novels for children and young adults, John Marsden has his first novel for adults coming out this month. South of Darkness traces the journey of a boy who arrives at Botany Bay as a convict, expecting paradise and finding something much different. Given John’s response that he sees little difference between adult themes and young adult themes, I was interested to know how he defined South of Darkness as a book for adults and wondered if it had to do with the book’s construction.

‘Yeah, I think it’s more to do with language and content,’ he answered. ‘When I’m writing for teenagers I am using words that are more accessible to them. [With] South of Darkness I didn’t hold back; I used whatever I thought was the best word regardless of whether it was polysyllabic or even archaic at times.’

He also spoke about the book’s content, saying that there were ugly scenes in it, such as where the main character is subjected to sexual assault by adults in jail and on the prison ship.

‘I personally wouldn’t write about that for teenagers […] I’d be worried about it being seen as exploitative or done for salacious purposes or commercial purposes.’

John continued, ‘There does seem to be an attitude amongst some writers for teenagers that the more “gross stuff” – the more violence, the more sex, the more ugliness you can put in the book then the better its chances. I don’t really belong to that school of thought.’

In spite of the mature content he referred to, John seemed at ease with the idea of his adolescent fans picking up a copy of his new book.

‘I think if they can cope with the reading age of the book in terms of its vocabulary then they’ll probably be sophisticated enough to cope with the content. The content’s not gratuitous; it’s not like there’s some agonisingly drawn-out scenes of sexual assault. It’s actually quite euphemistic.’

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John’s approach to young people is manifest not only in his writing but in his teaching style and the philosophy that underlies his school. And it is this approach which arguably goes a long way to explaining his books’ popularity with teens.

Through my research and conversation with John, it was so clear to me that he sees the best in young people and cares deeply about connecting with his students and readers and influencing them in a positive way.

‘I do think that young people are under-estimated in general and stereotyped. And for the most part, young people have values that are really strong and admirable and they have a really high degree of integrity,’ he said.

‘There are moments in people’s lives where something will happen and the right word or right sentence will completely transform them, and you just don’t know when that moment might come.’

In inspiring teens to “take care, take risks” (as the motto of Candlebark school goes), John believes in giving young people greater freedom to live and make their own decisions; inferring that for the most part, all will come right.

He spoke about five students from Candlebark who, when I spoke to him, were soon to embark on a long, unsupervised hike through the Grampians in Victoria.

‘They’ve been here for years and they’ve been doing increasingly more challenging hikes,’ he said. ‘We feel they’re now at the point where, at the age of 15,16 they can go off on their own for four days and do this without us needing to hold their hands.’

‘I don’t anticipate any problems. They’ll manage that with great strength.’

John Marsden’s South of Darkness is out this month and is published by Macmillan Australia.

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Article published in the November 2014 edition of ACTWrite magazine, by the ACT Writers Centre.

Visit John Marsden’s website: www.johnmarsden.com.au

South of Darkness November ACTWrite cover

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