For today’s KYD YA Championship installment, Ruth Starke tells you why Phillip Gwynne’s Deadly, Unna? is her favourite Australian YA book.

Here’s why Deadly, Unna? by Phillip Gwynne gets my vote (and deserves to get yours) for the KYD YA Championship.

Favourite: CBCA Book of the Year, Older Readers, 1999; Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 1999; Adelaide Festival Award for Literature, 2000: Children’s Peace Literary Award, 1999. In Germany, where it appeared as Wir Goonyas, ihr Nungas, it was shortlisted for the 2002 German Young People’s Literature Prize and Die Welt praised it as ‘one of the political books for young people most worth reading’.

Young Adult: What characterises YA fiction? True YA stories relate to the lives of young people in the turbulent teenage years, when relationships with friends, parents and the opposite sex can produce problems and intense emotions as they try to negotiate their way through new and unfamiliar territory on the path to adulthood. They don’t know why they feel the way they do or why they are unable to express in words what they feel. They struggle alone with issues their parents often don’t even know about. Their emotions are close to the surface and in constant flux; they feel deeply, probably more deeply and intensely than they will ever feel again. A teenage protagonist, rites of passage, coming of age … this is the stuff of YA fiction.
Deadly, Unna? meets all the criteria. The story is about 14-year-old Gary (Blacky) Black’s attempts over one winter and summer to come to grips with the world around him: the small fishing town in which he lives, the Port; his large family of seven siblings dominated by his abusive, alcoholic father; and relationships with the Nungas of the Point, an Aboriginal mission just along the coast. The two towns have little contact except on the football field, where the Nunga boys make up half the team and most of the talent. When the star player, Dumby Red, is passed over for Best Player, Blacky rightly recognises it as a manifestation of the racism endemic in the town. Shortly after, Dumby is killed during a break-in at the pub and Blacky defies his father and the rest of the town by attending his funeral at the Point. It’s the catalyst for Blacky and his siblings working together in the final pages to score a small victory in the fight against racism, and for Blacky to leave his childhood behind.

There’s a romantic subplot: Blacky is attracted both to Clarence, Dumby’s sister, and to Cathy, the pretty, blonde out-of-towner in the Port for the summer, and both relationships pose problems. The supporting cast of siblings, neighbours, friends and townies come alive on the page, with equal attention paid to both young and adult characters.

Australian: You don’t get more true blue than Deadly, Unna? The story is set in a small South Australian fishing town – in fact, Port Victoria on Yorke Peninsula, where Gwynne himself grew up. The time is the late 1970s and after a winter of footy there is nothing much to do during the long summer but fight over TV viewing rights to Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, and hang out at the local jetty.

Blacky narrates his story with a light touch, more than a bit of humour, and in an authentic Australian voice: there are no cool dudes in this novel. And of course there’s Arks, the footy coach: ‘If I’ve arksed youse boys once, I’ve arksed youse a thousand times, don’t buggerise with the bloody ball on them flanks, kick the bugger up the bloody centre.’ That’s on the first page. Bravo!

And just look at that bright, brave and beautiful cover photograph (by Sonya Pletes), featuring a joyous, exuberant, grinning young Aboriginal man. Not the white boy narrator, but Dumby Red, a Nunga.

I recently attended the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore, and learnt that in the United States many publishers are loath to put out a YA novel with a ‘black cover’ – that is, a cover featuring an Asian or coloured face. Instead, publishers use silhouettes, side or rear shots where you can’t see facial features In 1998, Penguin and Phillip Gwynne were doubly brave: not just a full in-your-face shot of a young Aboriginal, but a title that could have meant little to most readers. In the lingo spoken by the Nungas of the Point, ‘Deadly, unna?’ means something like ‘Awesome, isn’t it?’ Too right: it is. Give this book your vote.

RUTH STARKE supervises postgraduates in creative writing at Flinders University where she is Writer in Residence. She has published over 25 books, many of which have won awards and enjoyed overseas sales. NIPS XI was a CBCA Honour Book while her novel NOODLE PIE was selected by the US Board of Books for Young People (USBBY) as an 2011 Outstanding International Book for Young Adults. She writes the successful CAPTAIN CONGO series of graphic novels (Greg Holfeld, illus), and is a regular reviewer for Viewpoint and Australian Book Review.

If you want Deadly, Unna? to win the KYD YA Championship, you can cast your vote for it here! Vote now and you can also go into the draw to win some amazing prizes.