If you love books, then Clunes Booktown Festival, established in 2007, is the place to be on the first weekend of May. Originally a gold mining town, there is something of the grand building styles found in Bendigo and Ballarat, although Clunes ismore like a gorgeous country town that knows how to dress up in autumn. The whole town gets involved, too: decals decorate most shop windows and the main street is given over to all manner of merchants who create and sell anything to do with books.
A number of the most grand buildings are venues for author talks and panels. I attended the VATE (Victorian Association for Teaching of English) sponsored panel titled ‘Exploring the Teen Reading Culture’ with Jackie Moriarty, Ellie Marnie and Zana Fraillon, chaired by Ernest Price.
Interestingly, all authors, and Price, were either still teaching, or had been teachers. There was an initial email exchange about the possible issues or ideas surrounding this topic, with each speaker agreeing on the difficulty of pinning down one particular culture – all had felt a level of disquiet with the use of ‘the’ (definite article) in the title.
The following interview is based on my own handwritten notes. Some answers are serious and others are more light-hearted Sadly, I didn’t record the times of laughter from both the audience and panel.
Price: Let’s start with each of you telling us a bit about yourselves and your own experiences as teen readers.
Moriarty: I grew up in a house without TV (for many years) so there was lots of reading. Mum had her own childhood collection of books that included ‘classics’
Marnie: my parents were not big readers, but we did have a number of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Later on, I found dad’s secret stash of sci-fi, and discovered Asimov and the greats. I was shy at high school and spent much time in the library, and read almost everything available. I don’t recommend this a life choice, though – I felt like a social reject.
Fraillon: we had an amazing room at home with wall-to-wall books; mostly adult books. YA wasn’t a thing back then, soI went from reading middle school books straight to adult books. I particularly enjoyed the magic realism of Isabelle Allende. My first high school was an all girl school, and there was an expectation to read moral books. My second high school was alternative, and though there wasn’t much of a library, we had a wonderful librarian.
Moriarty: schools often promote books that have strong morals, but it can make for a really dull reading culture.
Marnie: at my state school, there was no pressure of the ‘must’ read, but I became fascinated with adult fiction such as Flowers in the Attic and Jaws. Then I found The Outsiders and The Chocolate War with teenage protagonists: wow!
Price: we’re all avid readers. As writers, have you thought about disengaged readers, of the reluctant reader?
Fraillon: I believe, as many do, that as long as teens are reading anything – comics, sports mags, whatever – it’s a good thing. Keep them reading.
Marnie: I know many think of a ladder of appropriate reading canon and that some books are still seen as good for you to read. My 15 year old son has always loved reading, but now is not sure if he wants to read – there are so many competing or pressing interests at his age. I think it’s important to pitch books at what interests a teen to try and keep them reading. Also, try different formats, like audio or podcasts, to engage in a different way.
Moriarty: my 11 year old son is not a big reader, but my heart sings every time he does read. I have lots of friends in my adult life who don’t read and they are still empathetic and fully rounded people. It’s a paradox – lots of research tells us that reading helps emotional and empathy development, but then there are great people who don’t read.
Marnie: I’ve read recently that a huge percentage of teachers don’t read, perhaps due to time and work pressures. Also, many schools have been hit hard by funding cuts and the loss of trained teacher librarians is a hug blow to our schools. But when we read texts in class to analyse, are we teaching kids that reading is hard and arduous?
Fraillon: YA culture is exploding in social media and perhaps librarians should investigate this further.
Moriarty: it’s important to prioritise time for reading. Some people hated reading at school and now don’t read at all. We need to read critically, but kids should have opportunities to be able to read for pleasure without an attached assessment or book report. Maybe even read aloud?
Marnie: high school students LOVE being read to, and librarians are so important to tailor reading suggestions for student interests, and learn student borrowing habits.
Fraillon: if teachers aren’t reading, who’s modelling the importance of books?
Marnie: my son is struggling in year 12 – as a senior, it’s the first time he’s been asked to write a creative response to a book, something not marked to a rubric. He just doesn’t read for pleasure anymore.
Price: the senior years are driven by the expectations of the VCE and exams. The selection of texts to study at different schools is interesting – have you had much engagement with schools studying your books?
Fraillon: mostly UK schools, funnily enough, and I’ve had quite a few skype calls with students. It’s interesting to hear their perspective on my characters. I received one letter about a particular character who had depression and was a mother, and the letter said how terrible it was that a mother should be like that. It opened up a worthwhile discussion with those students about mental health issues. I feel this makes the study of a book a deeper, richer experience.
Moriarty: I’ve had the late Tuesday night email from a student asking me to outline the characters in a book, and the themes and so on for a task …
Marnie: I’ve worked on analytical questions with a teacher about a specific book being studied, and it often devolves into a discussion on authorial intent. Like how important are those blue curtains anyway?
Moriarty: but who knows what was happening subconsciously when you were writing? Maybe the blue curtains could be important – take the credit.
Price: are any of you active on social media?
Fraillon: My agent said I needed to be on something, so I chose twitter. That’s it. Insideadog is a great website and blog, attached to the State Library of Victoria, that encourages young people to be involved by writing book reviews.
Marnie: YA awards, like Inky, being judged by teens in Australia is great.
Fraillon: Inky judges came to a small festival at Eltham and did a panel: they were great!
Marnie: give teens the opportunity to be involved in a blog or twitter or whatever -a chance to contribute directly. I’m not so much on facebook, but I am on instagram and twitter.
Moriarty: in some ways it’s good to interact, but also dangerous. Actually, dangerous might be the wrong word. I’m thinking of the time teens where encouraged to to sign up to receive texts from an author, but then some started to reply. This greatly amused the people who set this up, because of course it wasn’t the author at all. I think the allusion of direct contact is tricky, as we have our own lives, too. I have been fortunate to respond to some individuals who wrote to me in crisis, but I’m not a therapist and can’t do the work of one.
Marnie: that’s a valid concern. Open access has good and bad points, but as a teacher, I often deal with welfare issues and probably feel a little more open to these responses, but we do have separate lives, too.
Price: so, is there one teen reading culture? Have you any experience with marginalised groups?
Fraillon: unless writing a character for a specific story, I tend to keep my people generic, in first person, and rarely describe skin colour. I was three edits in on The Bone Sparrow when someone asked if my protagonist was a boy or a girl. Someone had noticed that I hadn’t identified a gender, age or ethnicity, but the editors said I had to give a few details .
Price: I guess not being too descriptive does give the reader agency
Fraillon: one of my sons identifies as gender queer, and there are not many examples of these characters in YA fiction.
Price: there are issues for people if they don’t see themselves in texts … Imagine if your latest book was the last book a young person read
Moriarty: my latest book is for 9-12 year olds and it’s the first illustrated book I’ve done. When I saw the images, everyone was white skinned, and I had to ask for the images to be altered – I’d always seen this world as more diverse. I usually plan everything I write in quite a detailed way, but this time, I chose to write in different cafes and see where I ended up.
Marnie: that would make a great book tour: this cafe is where I wrote about this happening ..
Moriarty: yes, but I did end up gravitating towards a few cafes in particular.
Marnie: I’m not a planner, so that means there’s lots of re-writing to go back and make sure the book is coherent. In White Night, I use the trope of ‘new girl in school’ who attracts the attention of my male protagonist. She starts at the school as a new enrolment, but is actually a local who has been home schooled for five years and lives in a radical green commune. I’de be pretty happy if it was the last someone read.It was written without a safety net, and I plumbed old feelings – a friend describes it as a ‘soul dive’. It was hard work to write and I felt very vulnerable.
Fraillon: maybe we should consider plot as bait – throw out questions, give answers and drag the reader along. My latest book came from the idea of refugee children being trapped in slavery.
Audience question: are you conscious of readers when writing?
Fraillon: I’m not a girly girl so I can’t connect with writing that sort of character. We assume what boys enjoy reading, but I found it to be more hit and miss with my own children.
Marnie: try to pitch reading at their interests, as once detached from reading, it’s harder to pull them back. Often kids come in and out of reading, like a cycle, and good readers will return in their own time. I don’t think about the reader at all when writing, and don’t think about what would appeal.
Fraillon: we have such a good writing community in Australia, with many different styles, so there’s bound to something for everyone.
Marnie: we should encourage a wider variety of voices
Moriarty: I’d like to think that publishers are selecting from a wide range of writers. Myself, I was always searching for THE girl character when I was young. I don’t think of the audience, but as I have sisters and went to a girl’s school, it doesn’t follow that I only write about or for girls. I found boys to be mysterious, and I wanted to know more.
Marnie: why do we have this paradigm that says boys are busy and active and can’t sit still to read, while girls are sedentary and much prefer reading?
Price: boy characters are not exclusive to boys, or reluctant readers don’t need to identify with the main character
Audience question: we mostly read on book a term these days – what is the place of the classroom novel?
Price: VCE driven curriculum structure, even back into the junior years. There are ways to manage reading outside the expectations of assignments and analysis. I know of one school where Of Mice and Men has been taught for 35 years.
Marnie: sometimes it comes down to resources. Australia doesn’t have the capacity to produce movies or tv shows from books, and sometimes it’s easier for books to be taught if there are different ways to differentiate the teaching thought this other versions. There is still a view that books must be weighty to be taught, they ust have depth …
Fraillon: when I was looking at schools for one my children, I remember a teacher explaining that he taught Metamorphosis in years 7-8 and that thought the kids hated it, they ‘got something out of it by the end’.
Marnie: there are certain ideas about YA books, that they are not meaty enough, not suitable to be taught …
Fraillon: and that they can be read at home, or in the kids’ spare time …