Seventeen-year-old Adelaide is sick of being expected to succeed on other people’s terms. She knows she just has to stick it out at school for one more year and then she’ll be free. Instead, she runs away from her fancy boarding school back to her sleepy hometown to read and dream.
But there are no free rides. When Addie’s grandad gets her a job at the local historical society, she soon finds out that it’s dusty and dull, just like her new life. Things change when she starts hanging out with Jarrod, a boy who seems full of possibilities. But it turns out he’s as stuck as she is. And Addie realises that when you want something in life, you’ve actually got to do something about it.
Wow. I’d been excited to read Untidy Towns for quite some time, mainly because it’s #LoveOzYA and it has a gorgeous cover. (Yes, I’m superficial. Deal with it.) But when I finally got the chance to read it, I loved it even more than I expected. So much so that I’d consider it to be in my top five #LoveOzYA books of the year. The characters were just so authentic and the story itself was beautifully written and one that I could connect to on such a personal level. Kate O’Donnell absolutely blew me away with her debut novel, and I’m so excited to read whatever she releases next.
Adelaide felt like such a genuine character, and I know that so many high school students will be able to relate to her. She posed some of the same questions as I did, and I’m sure so many other teens do when at high school. How does regurgitating everything the teacher says in an essay make you ‘smart’? Why do our scores at the end of high school have to define where we can go to university and what we can study? Does high school really prepare you for the real world? Like Adelaide, it was really in my last year of high school that I became more aware of the restricting nature of that kind of a learning environment, and realised that I had to just play the game.
But what was most comforting about this novel was how it portrayed that high school, and exam results, aren’t the end of the world. So many people are successful without completing high school or getting good exam results, and being ‘school smart’ doesn’t necessarily make you ready for life after school. Adelaide decides that finishing Year 12 in the traditional high school setting wasn’t the best for her, and it was great to see a #LoveOzYA novel show that there isn’t just one way to be a teenager. What works for you is most important.
Adelaide’s sleepy home town of Emyvale felt so genuine that I could have sworn this place actually exists. I’m not sure what it was about Emyvale, but it was the best portrayal of a small Aussie town that I’ve ever read. It was dusty and sleepy and not a lot happened, and I could vividly see it. I could see the main street and the houses and the old train station. Emyvale felt real and alive, and I loved reading about that town. It provided the perfect backdrop for the characters and the story, and it just wouldn’t have been the same set anywhere else. It was spectacular.
All the relationships in Untidy Towns felt incredibly genuine as well, and getting to know the people of this town and Adelaide’s family felt like reconnecting with old friends. There was a brilliant authenticity to how these people were written, and each of them was three-dimensional and whole, complete people. But what was undeniably my favourite aspect of this novel was the messages it shared. Untidy Towns reminds teens that it’s okay to not know what you want to do with your life and that high school isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. What matters is finding what makes you happy. Life doesn’t just sneak up on you. You have to go out and find it.
Have you had the chance to read Untidy Towns yet? What’s been your favourite #LoveOzYA book of the year? What are some of your favourite novels set in small towns? I’d love to know!
Thanks to UQP for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
A Q&A with Kate O’Donnell
Kate O’Donnell is a writer, editor and bookseller specialising in children’s and young adult literature.
She has a BA in History and French from the University of Melbourne and studied Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT. Untidy Towns is her first novel.
Last week, I was lucky enough to catch up with the author of Untidy Towns, Kate O’Donnell, to ask her a few questions about her novel! I hope you enjoy our little Q&A from a somewhat hipster cafe in Melbourne.
Sarah: How much of yourself do you see in Adelaide?
Kate: There’s definitely a little bit of Adelaide in me, but it’s mostly just that moment that I vividly remember from high school – of feeling like there was an expectation of me to do school a certain way, and I didn’t know why, and the rest is completely fictional. I wish I was Adelaide. She’s so ballsy and brave and I wish I’d been braver. So I had to write the girl I wish I’d been.
S: One of my favourite aspects of Untidy Towns was how authentic Emyvale felt. Was it based on a place you knew well?
K: It was kind of a hybrid of a few towns that I know. I grew up in Geelong, but every year we’d go down to Port Fairy for a festival, and we’d drive through Colac and places along the way. And so I guess it was a fictional amalgamation of Camperdown – which has got this beautiful clocktower and an amazing avenue of pines remembering those lost in the war – and Birregurra, which, I don’t know if you’ve been to. It’s the cutest little town – the train goes through it and then there’s just one main street, and, I only found it right at the end of the writing process, there’s a cute little historical society there. I went and visited the woman and she was so beautiful. So it was just an amalgam, and it was kind of like a dream kind of town.
S: What advice would you give to those in high school who aren’t quite sure what they want to do with their lives?
K: Just do what feels right at the time. Try hard if you want to work hard at school, there’s no harm in that, and having dreams. I took a year off before starting uni, but there’s so many things you can do. Get a job. That’s my advice – get a job and learn how to be in the world. Travel if you can. I don’t know, make friends. Be kind to people. I think people are more important than success.
S: What are some of your favourite #LoveOzYA novels at the moment?
K: I do love Pip Harry’s Because of You – a beautiful story of homelessness. I also surprised myself by really loving Krystal Sutherland’s second book – the Nightmares book – I thought it was hilarious. I loved how busy it was, but it still told a really great story. I’m reading a lot of middle-grade this year, so I loved Nevermoor and… I’m looking forward to the new Nova Weetman because she writes so beautifully. And I’m exploring old, 2000s YA again.
S: Can you give us any hints as to what you’re working on at the moment, and can we expect another novel from you soon?
K: Hopefully! I’m working on the second novel I’ve been commissioned for with UQP. At this point it’s set in Paris about an Australian girl in Paris.
S: If you could say one thing to high school you, what would it be?
K: Be brave. Be braver.
Kate’s image and bio is sourced from her website.