About Judith

Judith Ridge is internationally recognised as one of Australia’s leading experts on writing for children and young adults. In a highly specialised career spanning more than 20 years, Judith has worked as an editor, community arts coordinator, writer and critic. Her experience as an editor encompasses more than six years at the NSW School Magazine, in-house at ABC Children’s Books and as a freelancer for Random House, Penguin, Walker Books Australia and O’Brien Publishers Ireland. She has taught children’s literature at Macquarie University and established the Writing for Children and Young Adults course in the MA of Creative Writing program at the University of Sydney. Judith has written about children’s and youth literature for journals such as Viewpoint and Magpies, The Horn Book (US) and The Melbourne Age. She has been invited on numerous occasions to speak at conferences and seminars in Australia, Ireland, the UK and the USA. She has twice been a judge on the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, is a Churchill Fellow and has an MA in children’s literature. She is currently project officer on WestWords: the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature Project.

From the Vault: Alice in the Undertoad

From misrule.com.au/s9y

Originally published Saturday March 6 2010

________________________________________

I went to see Alice in Wonderland last night.

As some of my readers will know, Alice is one of my favourite books. I have a smallish but nice collection of different editions of Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, as well as another small but interesting collection of Alice-abilia/-iana, whatever you call it. (China, characters in different media, including a set of Beanie Babies of the Disney cartoon versions of the characters, 1920s toys, etc etc. Also Carroll-iana—I’m sure I’m making these words up!—collections of his photographs, biographies and so on. I should photograph the collectins and post it for those interested.) I’m not unusual in that regard: Alice is held dear by many of my friends in the children’s book world, and I wouldn’t say I’m any more of a fan than many, and less than some. But I thought it was worth mentioning as I am about to discuss the film: Alice figures large in the history of my reading life, but I am by no means a purest when it comes to adaptations or interpretations. I’m always interested to see what artists see in the books, which is why my collection focuses on illustrated editions across the past nearly 100 years. I don’t think I’ve really seen a straight filmed version of the book that I love, but nor do any offend me mortally. (I just don’t watch the Disney cartoon one, makes life very simple!)

So there you are: my personal context for seeing the film.

I should also say that I am generally pretty open-minded about film adaptations of books. I guess I tend to view them as very different experiences, and I go to see a movie and hope it is a good movie in movie terms—I don’t expect to see the book replicated on screen. That said, I do think it’s possible to completely ruin a book, and that’s usually the case with movies “adaptations” when you see the film and think, why did they even bother to pretend that it was based on the book. Or adaptations which so egregiously misrepresent important elements of the book—such as the race of the main characters—that I get as outraged and upset as the next person. But if a film makes a fair stab at adhering to the emotional truths of the book and don’t play fast and loose with its politics, I am usually OK with it.

And having said all that, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is not, of course, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

I didn’t realise that when the first trailer teaser was “leaked” on the internet. I assumed it was going to be Burton’s vision of the book, but it’s not. Well, not exactly. Instead, as I was more or less relieved to discover, the film was to be set several years after Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, when she is 19, and apparently escaping an unwelcome marriage proposal. I have to say the sound of the engagement plot didn’t appeal much (and it turns out that it still doesn’t appeal, now I’ve seen the film, but more of that later), but I didn’t mind the idea of the movie being Alice’s return, especially given Hollywood’s penchant for adding years to a protagonist’s age for the sake of “audience appeal” (read: The Twilight Effect). What I mean is, if they were going to cast an adult actress, then for heaven’s sake don’t pretend she’s 10, or worse, update the book to match her age. So on that count, the “sequel” idea sort of appealed, and in any case, I was interested to see what Burton would do with this “Return to Wonderland” approach.

For me, what he did—and I know that comparisons are odious, and I actually generally really love Burton’s films, so forgive me—but for me, what he did was give us a bit of a mashup of Narnia (with the Red Queen stepping in for the White Witch via a slightly mean caricature of Elizabeth 1) and a NorthernLights/The Golden Compass Lyra-esque prophecy with a dash of BBC costume drama (I’d say Austen but it’s about 40 years too late…), all with a modernish feminist(ish) sensibility.

And I don’t mind any of that, really. It just kind of seems… beside the point. The frame is pretty silly. The lost father stuff works OK motivation-wise (as my friend Monica points out at Educating Alice, her blog which is, of course, named for Carroll’s heroine), but the engagement stuff is pretty silly. The potential fiance is so utterly repugnant, and why on Earth would his stuffy mother be so keen on the engagement if the family business has gone bung? We don’t know who Alice’s sister is until an utterly spurious scene in which Alice finds her brother-in-law kissing someone else in the hedges, which is, and remains, apropros of absolutely nuthin’, and is a very silly modern addition in any case. Simply put, the frame adds nothing thematically to the main story: it neither adequately reflects nor expands on the main themes of the film, and as such, is more or less pointless. I was, however, glad to see Lindsay Duncan and the sublime and under-utilised Frances De La Tour (although as Bonham Carter herself has pointed out, Burton makes no concessions to an actress’s vanities!).

Someone in the group I saw it with said she kept waiting for the actors who played characters in the frame scenes to pop up in Underland (which is apparently its real name, misheard by the child-Alice—I actually quite liked that innovation). Apart from two non-identical twins who were meant to echo Tweedledee and Teedledum, this doesn’t happen, and I’m glad of it. I think it’s a weak point of the film of The Wizard of OZ, having characters in OZ played by the same actors as Dorothy’s friends and family in Kansas, suggesting as it does that it was, after all, “just a dream”. (I’m sure this is original to the film, but I haven’t read the book since 197-gulp, so someone will have to remind me if I’m wrong.) I liked that W/underland is real and that Alice THOUGHT it was a dream, and I’m glad she gets to remember it at the end. (I did think, for a moment, though, that Dorothy’s red shoes might make an appearance… if you’ve seen the film, you may know the moment to which I refer.)

In fact there was quite a lot I did like about the film—Johnny Depp, who is always worth watching, makes a terrific Hatter, as expected (and what did everyone else think of the use of the raven and the writing-desk riddle as a sort of refrain between him and Alice?). Anne Hathaway as the faux-affected White Queen was very amusing (and I don’t think Wonderland is going to be all that better off under her rule rather than her sister’s, actually!). Alan Rickman’s sinuous voice for the Caterpillar was marvellous (although I am still a bit puzzled why so many of the characters got names—the Caterpillar is Absolom, amongst others, and I don’t geddit…) I was a bit disappointed in the Cheshire Cat (despite my eternal adoration for Stephen Fry), not sure why, and the poor White Rabbit was reduced to a cowardly wreck, which he’s not. Bonham Carter is fine as the Red Queen, and comparisons to Miranda Richardson’s “Queenie” in Blackadder are, I think, unfair if inevitable. (Bonham Carter’s Red Queen does owe a great debt to the historical Elizabeth I, though, I would say, especially as far as ERI’s penchant for favourites is concerned. And didn’t Miranda Richardson once play the Red Queen? Oh yes, here it is—Queen of Hearts. Hhmmm… now I’m confused. Is Bonham Carter’s character the Queen of Hearts from Wonderland or the Red Queen from Through the Looking Glass or an amalgamation of the two? Curiouser and curiouser!)

Mia Wasikowska is a wonderful young actress, as anyone who saw her in In Treatment will know, and she’s perfectly fine in this role. She’s not the Alice we all know, of course—her Alice is a rather worldly young woman, not Carroll’s “dream-child”—but a completely original character who better suits the modern, feminist sensibility I mentioned earlier. Whether or not any of that works for you?—well, tell me in the comments.

The film has Burton’s characteristic “look”, and at times I did find it a bit on the dark side (actually, not metaphorically, although that too—the heads in the moat bringing to creepily literal life the Queen’s trademark cry “Orf with their heads!”) and I also found it quite hard to hear what people were saying at times. (Most of those afore-mentioned new character names were lost on me. And again, I think they were unnecessary.) It was Wonderland meets Corpse Bride via Coraline as far as the set design goes, which I guess is to be expected (although I note that Burton was not involved in Coraline, but its director, Henry Selick, worked on The Nightmare Before Christmas with Burton).

 

But frankly, I’d rather have seen Burton’s take on the original Alice story. He clearly knows it intimately, or his screenwriter does (the detail of the film proves this), and has an empathy with for its darker, surreal moods, so why not just let him have his not inconsiderable head with Carroll’s world and see what he came up with? Alice doesn’t need modernising—she’s a girl for the ages, as so many pre-adolescent heroines of children’s literature are, from Alice through Anne Shirley and Judy Woolcot to Lucy Pevensie and Calpurnia Tate—before puberty and the imperatives of potential womanhood begin to hit home.

So no, I didn’t hate it. I liked a lot about it. I’ll see it again (I didn’t see it in 3D and actually, I feel absolutely no desire to) and probably buy the DVD. It’s not terrible, but we’re still waiting for an imagination to match Carroll’s to really bring Alice to the big screen.

Whither the Children’s Book? From the Vault: Wednesday, June 15 2011

This post was first published in June 2011, but it’s as relevant as the day I wrote it. Just this weekend, in fact, I read a review which described  Neil Gaiman‘s Fortunately, The Milk, as being for ‘the younger end of the YA readership’. Um, no. That would be CHILDREN. Remember them? They’re not mini-teenagers. They’re children and so there are children’s books and let us not forget it. Anyway, here’s my rant from 2 years ago. Consider it current.

______________________________

I first used this phrase (Whither the Children’s Book?) in my blog post about this year’s (2011) Sydney Writers’ Festival in context of the panel I chaired on the young adult/adult cross-over novel that was, rather ironically I thought, called “When is a children’s book not a children’s book” (ironic, because it wasn’t about children’s books at all). This is what I wrote:

given the title, I also brought in the question of Whither the
Children’s Book in a world when YA and the cross-over gets all the attention

but to be honest, we didn’t really answer the question. I think, from memory, we all kind of agreed that children’s books don’t get much attention and then moved on to questions.

Because not a lot seems to be about the children’s book, these days. The children’s novel, to be precise. YA gets vastly more of the blog space, media attention and arguably, reviews—although the picture book probably gets a fair bit of review space as well (and Shaun Tan’s done a hell of a lot to make the picture book an acceptable topic of conversation in adult society). And increasingly, I’ve noticed that when a children’s novel does get critical attention, it’s suddenly claimed as being young adult.

It happened to The Graveyard Book. It happened to When You Reach Me. And these are both classics examples of children’s literature, as far as I am concerned. I’ve argued the toss on this online and elsewhere, especially about The Graveyard Book, which people seem to want to claim as YA primarily, I think, because it deals with death and because of the extremely scary opening scene where the family is murdered (oh shut up, that’s not a spoiler). My argument about The Graveyard Book is this: it ends at the point where most YA takes up: Bod has to leave the graveyard to find his agency, and we don’t get to see that process. The rest of the novel—Bod finding who he is in the context of the only family he knows, through adventures that are often perilous, coupled with the exploration of friendship—is the classic stuff of the children’s novel.

The claim for When You Reach Me as YA puzzles me even more. Thematically, it shares nothing in common with the typical YA novel, but is firmly in the tradition of the great children’s novels—Harriet the SpyA Wrinkle in TimeAndre Norton‘s Octagon Magic springs to mind for some reason. I’m also thinking of The Game of the Goose and the lesser known The Games Board Map—children’s novels with a puzzle to be solved at the heart. There’s no subtext of the achieving of subjectivity, such a classic feature of the YA novel. These are all novels about children, with the concerns of children at their heart—friendship and family and belonging and home.

(For the record, I had a conversation about this with Rebecca Stead at Reading Matters last month, and she is firmly of the opinion that she writes children’s novels—and she says the letters she gets from her readers bears this out. So there.)

The only thing I can put the claim for such books to be YA down to is this—that they are books that are literary, meta-textual, substantial books full of ideas and complex plotting. They’re books that need time to read and consider and digest—books that take, as a frustrated parent of a frustrated 12 year old reader once said to me, longer than an afternoon to read. But complex doesn’t ergo mean older.

It’s as if we’ve all forgotten what kind of books we read as children. It’s as if the whole rich heritage of 20th century children’s literature has become some kind of quaint historical anomaly. It seems to me that the huge emphasis on writing and publishing books for “reluctant readers” (often code for “boys”) over the past 20 years has pushed the classic children’s novel so far out of our collective consciousness that we don’t even recognise it when we see it any more. If it’s longer than 200 pages, if it has serious ideas and challenging language, it has to be for young adults—almost seemingly regardless of the age of the protagonists and the thematic interests of the story. And it bothers me enormously that the gifted, devoted, passionate child reader doesn’t seem worthy of our attention any more.

Why am I banging on about this all of a sudden? There are two reasons: first, a long-standing concern and second, something I read today that really got up my nose. Here’s the first: the second will come right at the end of this post.

Reason for Banging On the First.

Well, first of all, the near-demise of the children’s novel, in this country at least, has been a concern of mine for more than a decade. It’s not just that YA is sexy and dark and dangerous and so excites the blood of the “won’t someone think of teh children” brigade (and yes, I get the irony that here they’re actually NOT talking about children at all, but treating young adults as if they WERE children) and so gets all the media attention. (No, I will NOT link to the notorious Wall Street Journal article; that damn woman has had far more than her 15 minutes of attention and I won’t be party to giving her a second more. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, google WSJ and dark and young adult and you’ll find it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) It’s more that the categories—children’s and young adult—seem to have been pushed so far apart from one another, in awards in particular, that there seems to be this huge gaping space into which the children’s novel, as we have known and loved it for about 150 years, has fallen.

If you’re not sure what I’m taking about, go to the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s website and compare the shortlists for the Book of the Year Award either before there was a split between Older and Younger Readers categories, or even in the early years of separation of the age categories. Look at the books shortlisted in the 60s, 70s and even 80s for the 8-12 year old reader (what the Americans usefully call “middle school”) compared to the Younger Readers shortlists of the past 10-15 years. Note how these days, there’s only one or two really substantial novels for this age (what I’ve always thought of the “golden years” of reading), with the rest of the shortlist made up of short, illustrated chapter books, typically for the under 8 years olds, and even picture books.

I’m not saying that those other books, the chapter books and more sophisticated picture books, are bad books or should not have been selected as books of merit—I just look at those lists and wonder where are all the great novels for children? Isn’t anyone writing them any more? Or is no-one publishing them any more?

Over the years, I’ve heard different views on this from Australian publishers. A decade ago, they were telling me they weren’t publishing them because they couldn’t sell them—apparently schools and libraries wanted the inheritors of the Paul Jennings phenomena; Aussie Bitesand books with a wider market appeal—and it wasn’t economical to publish literary fiction for that age. So the readers, like the child of that parent I mentioned earlier, who I spoke to when I was working in a children’s book shop who said he his daughter needed books that lasted longer than an afternoon—those readers either had to buckle down and read more mature fare that they weren’t really ready for, or stick with the classics, or read books from the US or UK, where they still seemed to be publishing real novels for the devoted child reader.

More recently, they tell me that the problem is that writing a really great children’s novel is incredibly difficult, and they just don’t see the quality manuscripts. Australian publishers tell me this; and Amanda Punter, the Penguin UK publisher on that Sydney Writers’ Festival panel, said it too. I just remembered! Yes! That was pretty much the answer to my question—Whither the Children’s Book? It’s hard to do well, and we’d publish more if we saw more of them.

Maybe that’s true—I suspect there is some truth to it. I can’t imagine the level of gift it would take to write a Hazel Green novel or a Tom’s Midnight Garden. But it’s an odd argument at the point that once upon a time there weren’t really any YA novels and plenty of wonderful children’s novels—has it somehow become harder to write a great children’s novel, or have writers turned their attention to other audiences?

What I am sure is true is that there are vastly more books published for young readers now, a greater variety and indeed, I’ve argued that there are more books for different kinds (and abilities) of young readers than ever before, and that’s a great thing. (I made that point in answer to a question at the Sydney Story Factory panel on children and writing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and I think it’s true.) So maybe it’s just that there are more books vying for incrementally less and less attention (see another recent post where I mentioned the shrinking of book review pages across the board in mainstream newspapers and the like).

But I can’t help but think that there are fewer contemporary children’s novels of the type you and I grew up devouring, and that’s emphatically not a good thing. And to circle back to my previous point, for some reason when we do see those books, they somehow get shanghaied as young adult. Which they’re just not. Which brings me to:

Reason for Banging On the Second.

This blog review of Oliver Phommavanh‘s second (and very wonderful) children’s novel Con-Nerd, in which our goodly blogger describes this book and others of its ilk as “young-young adult”.

Yup, you read it right. “Young-young adult.”

Is that really what we’re calling it now?

Heaven help me.

I don’t mean to have a go at you, goodly Alpha Reader blogger, but for god’s sake. It’s not “young-young adult”. There’s no such THING as “young-young adult.” It’s a children’s novel. A novel for children. There are still children in the world and they still need novels.

So maybe, after all, I am saying, will no-one think of teh children? But more than that—will no-one think of teh children’s book?

Thrilled Me, Silenced Me, Stilled Me

Sinead O’Connor has been in the press again today (October 2013), kicking up a stink, alienating people left, right and centre, as she is wont to do. It put me in mind of this piece I wrote back when I saw her in concert in Sydney in 2008.

I’m not ashamed to say I wept back then, when at last, 21 years after I first heard her music, I saw her perform live. I love her, like Emma Thompson in Love, Actually, loves Joni Mitchell. Flaws and all. She’s my girl.

Originally published Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at misrule.com.au/s9y

As I was leaving work today, our fabby young admin support guy, Ben, was playing—get this—Boz Scaggs on his computer. So I stopped for a chat and a groove (come on, Boz was pretty groovy in the day!) and it turned out that the CD belonged to Jean, one of our colleagues who is, I suppose, about the same age as my older sister, Linda, who owned a copy of Silk Degrees back when, well, Boz was groovy.

Jean started reminiscing about listening to Boz Scaggs when she was travelling around after finishing her HSC and we talked about how music comes to mean something more than itself when it becomes attached to a certain time in our life.

And then tonight, 20 years after I first heard “Mandinka” and bought a copy of The Lion and the Cobra, I heard Sinead O’Connor in concert.

I didn’t take my eyes off her for an hour and a half.

She’s tiny, and a little round these days from her four babies, and the top register of voice showed the wear of a year-long concert tour (this was the last concert) but, oh, when she opened her diaphragm and that voice came out… Oh that voice! It filled the State Theatre and it filled me up too.

I have always loved Sinead O’Connor, her contrariness and rage and compassion and feminist faith—and her songs. Her voice.

She started with “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and went into “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” and I don’t remember what else after that, except she played lots of old songs (some I had forgotten, like “Fire On Babylon”) and a few from her new album, Theology (which I bought last week and listened to over Easter). Lots from I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (which I am playing as I write this)—”The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance” nearly killed me, as it always does (as does “Three Babies”, which I hadn’t realised was a waltz, which somehow makes it even more sadly beautiful). Oh yeah, and of course she did “Nothing Compares 2 U”, which has never been a particular favourite of mine (not compared to “Troy” or “Jackie” or “Mandinka”—which she didn’t do, alas—or “Acquaintance”), but it was fabulous live.

She had a wonderful band—the feedback was obviously bothering her at times, but they sounded great most of the time. I hadn’t realised how tricky some of her rhythms are until I heard and watched the drummer. The violinist brought that amazing Irish sound to so many songs. I love that. And it was astonishing to me how Sinead would pull away from the mic and her voice was just as full and powerful as if it were still up close.

There was a young Irish couple sitting next to me. I did wonder what they made of the middle-aged single chick grooving away in her seat (you’re not allowed to get up and dance in the State Theatre, you see), but what the hell—maybe they didn’t really notice.

And then, during the encore, during “Black Boys on Mopeds” to be precise—I was leaning forward and singing along without making a noise, if you know what I mean—the woman of the Irish couple touched my arm and handed me a pair of binoculars. And so I watched Sinead sing the last verse of “Black Boys” close up. And burst into tears.

Me, not Sinead.

It was a little embarrassing, I admit. I did that waving-the-hand-in-front-of-the-face to indicate “sorry, I’m crying!” when I handed the binoculars back and they were so sweet. When the lights came up I was still all damp (well, she finished with a song that was a goodnight prayer for godssakes!) and I turned to them and said “thank you—I’ve been waiting twenty years for that!” “You looked like you were enjoying it!” they said, which was hilarious because I was in fact this weeping mess. I had to duck my head all the way out of the theatre so as for people not to see me all teary and ridiculous.

I don’t know why I got so emotional. It’s not even as if I’ve listened to her all that much in recent years, apart from the new album, but listening to her tonight, live and now at home, I realise how much those songs, her voice, have got into my bones. That voice is so familiar to me—so is that face. Thus the weeping binocular moment! She wore a blue scarf on her head—a bit like an old-fashioned nun, actually—and seeing her face close up, she’s still so very beautiful, and so familiar—and in her daggy old jeans and unflattering t-shirt, how “ordinary”!

I guess the thing is when a musician (as opposed to a celebrity) is important to us in some way over the years, and especially one whose life and lyrics have been laid so bare, we do feel like we somehow know them. (I’ll talk but you won’t listen to me. I know your answer already.)

And how contemporary are the lyrics to “Black Boys”, even decades after the Thatcher era:

These are dangerous days
To say what you feel is to dig your own grave
‘Remember what I told you
if you were of the world they would love you’

I’m not going to read over this or I’ll be too embarrassed to post it!

 

We can’t all be Miss Honey and maybe we shouldn’t even try.

I got a little bit cranky on Twitter tonight.

Oh, that’s nothing unusual. Twitter is kind of designed to make you cranky—indeed, that’s why many people, it seems to me, seek it out. Me, I usually retreat when I start to feel my blood pressure rise. Emotional equilibrium is pretty precious to me, and I’m not a great fan of conflict at the best of times.

But sometimes those cranky-making conversations are good for you. They get the old blood flowing to the head, and start to make you think about things, and why they get you cranky, and what you actually think about the topic beyond the initial instinctive reaction. And that’s brought me here.

The discussion was started by a tweeted report of a comment made at a conference where the speaker apparently said something about how schools kill off a love of reading, or make kids hate books, or something like that. It was a conference about YA literature, so presumably they were talking about teenagers, which means they were talking about high schools, which means, let’s face it, they were talking about English teachers.

So I hit the sarcasm hashtag and made a reply tweet about idiot English teachers whose ambition in life is to turn kids off reading, which in turn brought out all the (entirely anecdotal, of course, and so entirely unprovable of anything except themselves) comments about English Teachers Tweeps Have Known who don’t read. Apparently there’s a plague of them. Which of course proves the point that the main purpose of the English classroom is to make kids hate reading too.

What really stuck in my craw was that these tweets were mostly coming from teacher-librarians.* I made my own observation that I knew teacher librarians who didn’t like fiction OR students in equal measure. I was unlucky enough to teach in a school that had two such nightmares in rapid succession—well, one liked fiction OK but my GOD she hated the kids. Terrified of them, actually, which amounted to the same thing. Which anecdote is only useful insofar as it proves that there are probably, by extrapolation, at least some other TLs out there who similarly don’t see it as their job to even loan books to kids, much less turn them all into card-carrying members of the Puffin Club, but that doesn’t make them representative of the profession as a whole. Of course.

I mean, maybe it was just a bit of territorial pissing, but the fact is, I really find these kind of comments about fellow teachers, whoever they come from, and whatever the actual content of the criticism (work in a school long enough, ie five minutes, and you’ll hear every kind of cross-faculty bitching you can imagine) the educational equivalent of the Elaine Awards. You know—the award named for the late Elaine Nile for Comments Least Helpful to the Sisterhood.

I mean, really, teachers don’t have enough shit to put up with that we have to go on line and publically bag one another’s professionalism?

And I say ‘we’ even thought it’s well over 20 years since I taught full time, and ten since I spent any time ducking spitballs and fake names in roll call as a casual teacher, but the old adage is true—once a teacher, always a teacher. I am as passionate today about the profession as I ever was, perhaps in some ways even more so because I know how hard it is and how hard it is—especially when half of that is because of the criticism that is so freely and so frequently thrown at teachers—is why I left.

And another reason I left, although I don’t think I ever actually articulated it this way when I hung up my dust jacket (kidding—I never wore a dust jacket, although it is so long ago that I taught that I still used chalk)… One of the main reasons I left being an English teacher was because I realised that it was not my job to make kids love reading.

Let me say that again.

It is not an English teacher’s job to make kids love reading.

To think it is, is at best naïve innocence (the kind all first year out teachers should probably have to some degree); hubris at worst.

Ask yourself this: What other subject do we expect teachers to make kids love? Do we expect maths teachers to make kids want to race home and do a few algebraic equations for the fun of it? Do we expect geography teachers to inspire kids to go on walks on the weekend in order to map the topography of the local neighbourhood? Do we think history teachers have failed at their jobs if kids aren’t conducting archaeological digs in their back yard or dragging their parents off to a Historic Houses walking tour in their spare time?

And those of us who hated sport with a passionate hate—we bookish types who resent being shifted from our cosy position under a rug and a cat—how much did we loathe and despise the evangelist PE teacher who ran 1st double period on Friday like a compulsory exercise yard in a Beijing factory? Did they fail at their job because however many years or decades later, we’d rather poke ourselves in the eye (OK, not that—we need those eyes for reading) than go for a jog?

But English teachers, it seems, carry a particular burden. Despite the fact that’s the only compulsory subject right through to Year 12, so every single child who goes through school, be it in a bricks and mortar jobby, a home school or via correspondence or School of the Air, has to study English. Every child, regardless of intellect or inclination. And yet somehow it’s the English teacher’s job to make them all avid under-the-cover, couldn’t-think-of-anything-else-I’d-rather-be-doing, readers for pleasure.

Well, it’s not. For a start, it’s a ridiculous, unrealistic and again, arrogant goal to think that every single child could or should love to read for pleasure (by which, I should add, we almost always mean fiction). I’m not talking about being able to read, and at more than a simple able-to-decode standard; the necessary literacy skills to more-than-survive in a modern, complex world. I’m talking about reading for pleasure. It’s just not the English teacher’s job to make people love reading. And I can tell you that for those of us who think it is, that way frustration and disappointment lies.

I wanted it to be my job as an English teacher—to make kids love reading— although I didn’t consciously realise it at the time. I wanted it to be my job because that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to make kids love reading the same way I loved reading. More than that, I wanted them to love literature in the way that I do. And sometimes I was successful—I was great at book talking, and I always had kids keen to take home the books I recommended to them, just as if you speak enthusiastically to a friend about a movie you’ve seen or a place you’ve been to, they’re likely to think they want to see it, or got there too. Doesn’t mean they will, of course, although they might wish they had in a kind of half-hearted, if-only-I-didn’t-have-something-better-to-do fashion.

Sometimes those kids did read the books I book-talked, and the memories of some of those kids and books remain my most vivid from my teaching years. But probably most of them, in the end, didn’t. Or maybe they did, and enjoyed them well enough, but not enough to come back to me after the weekend and demand ‘another one just like that’ (one of those treasured memories). In other words, I may have encourage them to read and enjoy the odd book, or at the very least think that reading for pleasure wasn’t just a completely oddball thing to do, but for most of them I daresay, if they weren’t already interested in reading as a leisure activity, I doubt my enthusiasm converted them. And that’s OK.

Because not everyone has to love reading. Everyone should be exposed to good books, so as to have the option, just as everyone should be exposed to science and maths and sport and cooking and woodwork and music, but not everyone can possibly ever hope, or be hoped, to love maths or music or making muffins.

But don’t I think people’s lives are better if they like to read? Well, no. I can’t in all honesty say I do. I think people’s lives are immeasurably worse off if they CAN’T read, of course, but it would be a huge disservice to the millions of people world wide who either by choice or by circumstance don’t read for pleasure, and live perfectly well-adjusted, fulfilling and meaningful lives. Who am I to say, oh, but you’d be so much better off if you just read this novel! Who am I? Some self-important English teacher, that’s who I’d be. And that’s why I’m not an English teacher any more—because I wanted to say that and It Wasn’t My Job.

And I’m always wary of the smugness that can sometimes go along with the “Hey! Reading is Great!” message. I invariably hate those books that have pro-reading messages in the title. (I hate books with messages anywhere, really, but the Reading Evangelism ones really annoy me.) They just all seem so clubby, so self-satisfied, so finger-pointery at those kids for whom reading was a bore, or worse, difficult. Way to make sure they never choose the option of reading for pleasure, in my view.

All of which brings me back to the non-reading English teacher. Or to be more accurate—because I believe the actual non-reading English teacher, despite all the many anecdotes we can all trot out with our hands clasped in horror, is in fact a rarity and where it does exist, doesn’t survive long in the wild—the English teacher whose entire personal library consisted of Jackie Collins (hey, it was the 80s!) or trashy-looking SF. Sure. I’ve met them. I’ve worked with them. Hell, I’ve scorned them and mocked them and derided their professionalism (not to their faces, mind you).

And I was wrong. Because some of them were among the best teachers I’ve ever known.

These weren’t the teachers who were ever going to—because they weren’t interested—teach 3 Unit English (as it was then). They left that to the girly-swat bookish types like me, with our weird interest in literary theory and Sydney Theatre Company subscriptions. They could more than competently take on the standard set texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, the Usual Shakespeare Subjects, The Silver Freaking Sword—I told you it was the 80s) and sometimes they indeed grumbled as loudly as the kids did about them, but they did their job and they did it with enormous integrity, skill, passion and compassion. They met basic curriculum requirements, of course, but more than that, they focused on the skills necessary for the kids to live fully engaged, safe and competent lives: literacy skills, critical thinking and writing, grammar and spelling, whatever the naysayers would have you believe—it was in my experience the non- or non-‘serious’ readers who were actually more assiduous about the building blocks of English than we literary types. (Now who’s generalising? OK, ME. I was slack at the stuff, because it bored me because I knew it without knowing how I knew it or how to name it and I just didn’t know how to teach it.)

These were the teachers who knew that for the vast majority of their students, the biggest achievement they could get out of school was to be properly skilled and even critical users of the language as they would need it in their lives; that they needed to pass standard exams to make it into those adult lives with jobs, or in some cases, further study prospects, and that the best service they as teachers could do was to focus on those pragmatic life and educational skills.

Not to convert them to what is, when all is said and done, for most people, a hobby.

And yes, I know that ‘pleasure’ is included in the desirable outcomes for students in the NSW 7-10 English syllabus—although it comes last on the list nearly every time, which if nothing else tells you where it stands in the Board of Studies’ list of priorities. (And how do you measure it anyway?)

Because, in reality, making your students love your subject**, particularly for those of us who love our subject, is at best a bonus. It’s just simply not core business.

I’m not for an instant suggesting that teaching shouldn’t at its best practice have at heart a delight in the subject matter. Teachers can and should strive to pass on an enthusiasm and enjoyment for their subject, even if that pleasure is transitory or occasional. I’m just saying that it’s a nonsense to say that it is the English teacher’s responsibility to make Matildas of us all.

And I should add here that I am excluding teachers of elective subjects, where the subject truly is an elective for the student and not just whatever was left with a free space in the class on a particular timetable line. A drama teacher who doesn’t care about enthusing their elective students about the theatre/acting/etc will fail, and will be miserable.**

And I know they will be miserable, because I was that thing. I was that English teacher who wanted her kids to all LOVE reading. And I was doomed to misery and failure, because

That Wasn’t My Job.

And so I left. And I found work where it still kind of isn’t my job, but at least it’s work that has been a closer approximation of that desire to work with kids who love to read, or just might come to love to read, given the opportunity, in a context free from the constraints of curriculum and NAPLAN and Objectives and Outcomes and bell curves and ATARs and so on. It’s not that I wasn’t a good teacher; certainly, I was a probably close to being a great teacher for kids who already loved books and were as fascinated by literature as an academic study as I was. But in the end, there weren’t enough of those where I wanted to teach (one of my personal eternal ironies) and that wasn’t enough for me to be satisfied—and therefore, ultimately, to do my real, actual job, and to do it well, and properly.

So lay off English teachers. They don’t ruin books, any more than Baz Luhrmann ruined The Great Gatsby*** and they are no more responsible for your or anyone else’s kid being an avid reader-for-pleasure than a home ec teacher is responsible for them playing Project Runway in Grandma’s sewing room.

And it’s hard enough without the carping coming from within.

Night, tweeps.

___________________________________

*Those tweeting teacher librarians are almost certain to read this post, so I expect a pile-on in the comments. That’s OK. Have at me. You have as many characters as you need :-)

**Unless they just don’t give a crap about teaching and kids AT ALL and we’ve all met them too and sometimes they hang around in the profession for decades and crap know why, because not even the holidays are worth that job if you hate it. Some things will always remain a mystery. Like decaffeinated coffee. I mean, really. Why bother? Why do it to yourself? There’s got to be better ways to earn a living. I hear packing shelves in Coles can be very peaceful on the midnight to dawn shift.

***No, I haven’t seen it, and I have no idea whether or not I’ll like it as a movie. What I do know is it won’t ruin my pleasure of the book because it is not the book. The whole ‘English classes (by which people really mean English teachers) ruin books’ thing also makes my blood boil. But that’s another subject for another rant, another day. You Have Been Warned.

Matilda. Illustration by Quentin Blake.

Censor or suck it up? Racism and children’s books.

There’s a story on the Huffington Post today about a young girl, Ishema Kane, in Germany who wrote to the newspaper, outraged at their defence of racist language in children’s books—specifically, Pippi Longstocking. As letters of outrage go, it’s pretty fabulous. I especially love this bit: “I find it totally shit that this word would remain in children’s books if it were up to you.” You go girl! (She’s only 9.)

(I also note that the N word under scrutiny is apparently ‘Negro’, not the other N word, and am interested that this word appears in this instance to have caused as much distress and impulse to censor as the other, more commonly offensive N word. However, that’s a slightly tangential point to what I want to address here, but if anyone has any thoughts on that, please share.)

Now, this is not the first time this topic has raised its head in children’s literature circles, not by a long shot, but I posted the story on Facebook and it engendered  very interesting discussion that I thought I’d bring over here to the blog.

But before that, let’s have a bit of an overview, at least from my point of view, of how I’ve experienced this debate. I think it first raised its head for me back in the 90s when the Billabong books were reissued with the more, by contemporary standards, offensive language and attitudes towards Australian Aboriginal people removed. Sanitised. Censored. Depending on your point of view. (And look! I wrote about this back in 2006!)

The child_lit community has debated this topic many, many times over the years, particularly as it relates to portrayals of Native Americans (the list being US-based and mostly made up of US children’s lit professionals and enthusiasts). The discussion has often been spear-headed by the women behind the Oyate site, which provides reviews and resources on books by and about Native Americans—and doesn’t pull any punches when it finds books and authors it finds objectionable. (See also Debbie Reese’s blog American Indians in Children’s Literature.)

These discussions on child_lit sometimes became very heated, especially when  heart-held favourites, and strongholds of the canon—such as The Little House on the Prairie—were cited as books that could, had and continued to cause great hurt to Native American children who come across, or worse, are forced to read the book in school (because if you come across it yourself, you can chuck it across the room. If you have to read it for school, not only do you have to read it, but its very place on the reading list gives its attitudes and language an imprimatur).

I don’t know that Debbie Reese and her colleagues were arguing that bonfires of the Little House and Little Tree books should be lit across the land, much as maybe they privately wished that to be the case, but they were (are) determined to continue talking about this issues, difficult as it is for all of those of us who held Laura and Pa and the Billabong gang so close to our hearts as we grew up, then and now.*

My idealised view has long been that if the books hold values that are so anathema to contemporary values, then the books should be allowed to quietly disappear into the archives. I’m not a fan of tampering with a writers’ work/words/intentions, especially when they are not around to contribute to the discussion/editing process, no matter what the Estate might have to say about it.

But of course, it’s not as simply as that. Books don’t just quietly go away. First of all, what’s to stop people, even children, coming across them in secondhand bookshops, or in libraries with a conservative culling policy, or on the shelves at Grandma’s house. Perhaps more potently, though, there’s the nostalgia value: parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and teachers who want to share beloved books from our own childhood with the kids in our lives and classrooms. Sometimes we’re shocked to find what lurks in those beloved pages, and maybe we think twice about passing them on, or maybe we excuse those transgressions away with the argument that those attitudes are from another time when people didn’t know better. (Except that they did.)

There’s also the cultural argument: many of these books have stood the test of time, and still are popular and have much to offer readers now. Do we throw the baby out with the bathwater—you can read 6 of the Narnia books, but not The Horse and His Boy. (Or, arguably, The Last Battle, especially if you want to add sexism into the mix, but I think it’s fair to say that people get more upset about racist attitudes in children’s books than archaic sexist attitudes. I’m not sure why that is and don’t have time to think about it right now, but I’m keen to come back to it at some point.)

So if we operate on the assumption that most of us are pretty much bottom-line against censorship, as in outright banning these books, and we accept that these books aren’t likely to just magically disappear on their own account, what are we left with?

We reissue them with changes to language and attitudes—mid-range censorship. Or we let them stand as they are, reader beware. Treat them as a learning opportunity. Do Not Whitewash the Past. But at what cost?

As I said, I posted the German story on Facebook, and the first response I got was from my friend Gayle Kennedy, a wonderful writer for adults and children, who is a a member of the Wongaiibon Clan of the Ngiyaampaa speaking Nation of South West NSW. Gayle’s not backward in coming forward in expressing her opinions on, well, anything, so when she just posted a quizzical ‘Hhmmmmm…’ in response to the post, I was curious to find out what she REALLY thought.

And it’s not what you might expect. With permission, I reprint Gayle’s expansion on that Hhmmm…

I don’t like people fucking with other people’s writing. Simple as that for me. I can’t bare what’s being done to the texts of yesteryear. How are you going to learn from the past (mistakes and all) if you keep sanitising it? Sanitising these book means that kids these days do not have the benefit of seeing how far society has come in terms of how we see other people and society in general. Why not point out to the kids that these words and terms were used all the time in that day and age and how society has grown and realises now the harm and hurt it caused and still causes. There are lessons to be learnt from confronting these texts head on and none of from running away from or excising them.

My friend Jan then raised the point that books give authority to these attitudes, and how that authority can reinforce racism a given child may already be being raised with.
And then Penelope noted this:
I think it is important to recall that a real child identified real harm. That is not a what if and should be considered. Language does harm, it is not just a relic of past bad practices if it is still defended and supported by teachers and others with influence over children. It must sometimes look to a child as if everyone else’s opinion is more important than her wellbeing or suffering.
And this, for me, is the crux of the problem. We adults can bang on all we like about teaching moments and historical context, but what use is that to the Native American child who reads, in her classroom, the words “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”. How do we expect that 9 year old child of a German mother and Sengalese father to contextualise a word that she knows only too well we can not imagine how it makes her feel. The Aboriginal child who either doesn’t see himself at all, or sees himself compared to a dog.
What are we saying to those kids? Suck it up? That’s just not good enough. But nor is censorship a solution. I simply don’t have one—it’s an unsolvable dilemma. But while we’re talking about the rights of authors and cultural integrity, we must also acknowledge and honour the real harm experienced by real children. And so it is even more incumbent upon us—we, the gatekeepers—to find ways to make sure the balance is more than redressed by making sure that they are surrounded by books and words and images and stories and language that affirms their dignity and their right to be at the heart of cultural, social and artistic expression and experience, along with their white classmates.
__________________________________

*I’ve personally never actually read a Billabong book, and while I read the Little House books as a child, it was the TV show that won my heart. As the name of this blog attests, my best-beloved childhood book of this kind was Seven Little Australian Australians, which actually had a passage sympathetic to Aboriginal people removed after the first edition, not to be restored for 100 years.

 

 

Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2013

Happy New Year!

If you’ve been reading Misrule over the years, you will know that I have frequently written about the imbalance in awards for women writers of young adult fiction in this country. I’ve not been alone in this concern—mostly focusing on the remarkable consistency with which the CBCA Older Readers Awards have recognised male writers, or books about boys and young men—and as we’ve seen in the wider literary community over the past couple of years, the problem hasn’t been confined to these awards, or to YA fiction.

In response to a well-documented imbalance of reviews and awards for women writers generally, a group of very remarkable women established the Stella Prize, which attracted enough funding for the awards for Australian women writers to go ahead this year. (I support the Stella Prize, of course, but am disappointed that poetry and children’s books are excluded. I’m told that young adult books are eligible but the guidelines specifically exclude “books written primarily for children”, which I suppose means picture books are out, although illustrated books are, technically at least, eligible.  I hope that if funding permits the expansion of the awards, these categories will be included.)

Concurrently with the movement to establish the Stella Prize came an initiative, led by writer Elizabeth Lhuede, to encourage more readership and discussion of Australian women writers, which became  the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Individuals were encouraged to pledge to read a set number of books by Australian women, to blog about and review them and to generally help create a culture of supporting and promoting books by women. You can read about how it all came, and how in just 12 months it’s developed into something still grass-rootsy but also a bit more coordinated, about at the website. Go on! Off you go! Go and read it! Don’t make me paraphrase!

Right. Good on you. Welcome back.

I’ll be honest—much as, again, I supported the concept of the AWWC, I didn’t see the need to sign up for the inaugural challenge last year, as a large percentage of my reading has always been made up of women writers. This year, though, I’m rather more formally involved as one of the contributing editors. Elizabeth contacted me to see if I would be interested in filling in the gap in their panel of contributors and be their children’s fiction editor.

I was interested. And so I am.

I’m generally known as a bit of a YA expert, for which, you know, thanks, but much as I love and read widely and talk about fiction for teenagers, at heart my deep and abiding passion is for children’s fiction. (For example, I’m currently serving my third consecutive term as a judge on the Ethel Turner Prize for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, which is for books for ‘young people’ [ie young adults/teens] and I’m really happy about that, but honestly, I’d love to do the Patricia Wrightson Prize [children's books] one of these days. Years, now, I guess, as you have to have a hiatus after 3 years on the panel.)

Anyway, back on topic. I’ll be writing regular roundups of reviews of children’s books by Australian women writers for the AWWC website throughout 2013. I’ll be concentrating mostly on longer children’s fiction, but will make the odd reference to picture books as well. And I also need to link to other people’s reviews of children’s books by Australian children’s writers, so if that’s something you can help me out with, please send me links to such reviews as you write or come across them. You can use the comments section, or contact me on Facebook or Twitter, or on email. (firstname dot lastname at gmail dot com)

I think that’s all. Right now I’m running late on my first contribution—a round up of 2012, which is due up on the AWWC site today, so I’d better get hopping. Don’t forget though—please send me your reviews, or other people’s reviews you’ve come across, or (don’t be shy!) reviews of your own books. If you’re an Australian woman writer, that is. ;-)  Thanks.

 

Death by 1.7 billion cuts

There’s a scene in an early episode of Sex and the City that’s always been a favourite of mine. The girls are talking over a meal about—what else—men, and Charlotte says, in utter exasperation…

I’ve been dating since I was 15 years old, I’m exhausted, where is he?

I know how she feels. Only it’s not dating that exhausts me (chance’d be a fine thing!)—it’s education. It’s schools and teachers and kids and politicians and what seems like a lifetime of fighting one way or another for public education and the rights of kids and teachers to the very best that they are entitled to.

And after more than a quarter of a century, like Charlotte, I’m exhausted.

I didn’t intend to become a teacher. All I wanted to do was go to university and study literature. I’d spent my last 2 years of high school in a senior college in Canberra where I was able to study as many English units as I wanted to. A double major, they called it. I did subjects like Women in Shakespeare and The Short Story, Irish Literature and many more now that I can’t name even though I remember the teachers and the books and the fact that I was essentially, a pig in mud. And I wanted to keep studying literature at university, but I didn’t know—I honestly didn’t know—what else to do with an English degree except to become an English teacher.

I’d been accepted into ANU, USyd and Macquarie, and I wasn’t sure where I should go. I knew I didn’t want to stay in Canberra for the rest of my life, and I figured if I was going to be a teacher—because what else did you so with an English Lit degree—then I should train in NSW so I was qualified for the NSW school system. So I went to my careers advisor for advice, and instead of guiding me through the range of career options open to a kid who loved English, she simply said, well, if you’re going to be a teacher, then I suggest you go to Macquarie Uni, because Macquarie has the best teacher training program.

And she was right, and I don’t blame her for not giving me advice I didn’t ask for, and I duly went off to Macquarie and had what may have been the best 4 years of my life and came out the other end utterly committed to being the best public school high teacher I could be. And I’ve never regretted it.

But before I’d even graduated, I started to get a taste of life as a teacher. In my final year of university, I attended the wedding of a school friend, and because I was single and a nice girl, I was sat on the table with the extended family of the groom instead of my school and church friends. And I got stuck next to the annoying, overly-opinionated brother-in-law who took it upon himself, when he found out I was soon to finish my teaching degree, to inform me of everything that was wrong with the state of the teaching of English in Australia and what a cushy life teachers had.

This was essentially a precursor for the public discourse that dominated my short teaching career.

I graduated in 1986, and was appointed that year to a selective high school in Sydney’s south-west. It turns out it wasn’t a happy appointment, for a variety of reasons that are not the subject of this post, and I have often said over the years that if I’d had a happier first year out, then maybe I’d still be a teacher. Or have stayed in teaching for longer.

But really, it wasn’t the fault of that difficult first year, because subsequent to that I had wonderful experiences in fabulous schools with incredibly supportive fellow teachers and head teachers and principals (one in particular) who went out of their way to mentor and support me and give me opportunities well beyond my tender years. I taught 3 Unit English in my 5th, and final, year of teaching, thanks to a head teacher who was unfailingly encouraging and who saw in me a real need to challenge myself intellectually as well as creatively and professionally.

And I loved the kids. I loved the funny farm boys I taught in that first year at that selective high school, when I was only 22 years old—at 16 or so, they towered over me like gum trees. (I’m Facebook friends with a lot of those lads, and one of them moved me to tears a few years ago when he told me he became an English teacher because of me. Remember, I was 22 and what did I know? Except I loved teaching and I loved those boys and I loved my subject and I guess somehow that all came together.)

I loved the rough as guts working class kids I taught at my next school. The young woman who tried to teach me to break dance by saying ‘Go on, Miss, it’s just like yer making love!’; and the strapping Islander girl who with just a few well-chosen words pricked the inflated ego of her male classmate who liked to talk about his “morning glories” at the top of his voice, trying to make the now (if I might say so) cute 23 year old teacher blush.

I loved the Italian Catholic boys at yet another school who argued that Rita (from Educating Rita) was in the wrong for hiding her contraceptive pills from her husband, even as they asked me questions like, It was the Catholics who killed Jesus, right? (I kid you not—we were ‘doing’ Bruce Dawe’s poem ‘And A Good Friday was Had by All’.) I loved the Year 9 boy who carefully placed a framed photo of his girlfriend on his desk at the start of every lesson, and the Year 10 girls whose gelled fringes shot half a foot into the air. (Come on, it was the 80s. They were gorgeous.) I loved the kids I worked with on Rock Eisteddfod and the refugee kids who didn’t know how old they were and the Laotian kids with their warm gentleness and the Slavic kids who said they didn’t care whether their friends were Serbs or Croats because the cost of caring about that was why their parents left eastern Europe on the first place.

I loved the boy who made Year 7 English merry hell during that Friday afternoon double period, but whose poetry showed me what hell he was enduring at home. I loved another Year 7 boy who gleefully chopped me to pieces in a ceiling fan in one of his stories. I just loved them, even the ones I didn’t like (OK, maybe I didn’t love them), and I loved being their teacher.

I didn’t love everything about teaching, though. I didn’t like the fact that I ALWAYS had work that needed to be done—marking or programming or something, there was always something hanging over your head that needed to be done. I didn’t like that you never felt as if you finished the job—the kids would move on and you never really knew how they went after they’d left your class. And I was a bit frustrated, like many teachers who chose to work in less privileged schools are, that I didn’t often get the chance to engage with my subject area at the intellectual level I’d have preferred.

But what I really didn’t like was a growing societal and political atmosphere of outright antagonism towards my profession.

That conversation as the wedding was very much a portent of what I experienced as a teacher in the 1980s, and a lot of it was driven by a conservative state government hell bent on imposing their ideological position on teachers in schools that they fundamentally didn’t care about, have any personal or political investment in, and frankly, it seemed to me then (and now) they resented having to support.

This was a time when slandering teachers was a blood sport indulged in across the board. Letters to the newspapers were full of complaints about slack teachers who only worked for 6 hours a day and got 12 weeks of holidays a year. We were lazy, stupid, and responsible for (rather than victims of) everything from poor behaviour and discipline in young people to falling educational standards.

I’m not exaggerating when I say it was relentless. At least, it felt that way.

And it made it all too easy for the then government to come in and slash and burn not just teacher’s rights and conditions, but funding and resources to public schools.

If you were around then, you may remember the notorious education minister, Terry Metherill. So hated was he that banners at industrial meetings proclaimed “Come back Rodney, all is forgiven”, referring to the previous Labor education minister, Rodney Cavalier, who until then was the most reviled name in public education in NSW.

And there were lots of those industrial meetings. We were on strike a lot, and at that time it went right against the public mood. These days, things have changed a lot, and it’s comforting to hear Jo Public frequently comment that s/he supports teachers in industrial action even if strikes and stop work meetings are inconvenient.

It wasn’t like that in the Metherill era. People openly loathed teachers and were deeply critical of strikes. They seemed to think it was only about money and conditions—which it was, in part, but what was not appreciated then in a way that I think is better understood now, is that when teachers conditions are attacked, so are the learning conditions of students.

It’s all a long time ago now, and I don’t pretend to remember all the detail of Metherill’s notorious white paper, apart from the huge staff cuts in public schools (2500 teaching positions were cut), but I do remember the atmosphere of anger and hostility on both sides of the school gate. I remember so clearly saying to my then partner, I’m tired of being angry all the time. I’m not an angry person by nature, but I’m angry all the time.

I had friends in the staff room who never told people they met at parties or the like what they did for a living. Back in those days, calling yourself a ‘public servant’ was less reviled than being a teacher, and it wasn’t exactly a lie, either. But tell people you were a teacher, and you’d cop a barrage of opinion on your professional standards and how everything that was wrong with the world and with kids today was your fault.

I was sick and tired, every day, of defending my profession.

I was sick and tired of working in a system that in so many ways was geared to make so many of the kids I was teaching fail, and through no fault of their own.

I was sick of being angry.

And so I left.

Curiously, though, it wasn’t long before I was back working for the department, but this time in the curriculum directorate, where over the next decade and a bit I would spend around 8 years in different stints, and then another 15 months in at Head Office. And in those jobs—as an editor at The School Magazine and as a journalist on the staff newspaper (Side by Side), I got to see the other side of the bureaucracy.

Times and public opinion changed over the years, and somehow Jo Public came to a better understanding of the challenges and responsibilities facing teachers, and a much-welcomed greater level of general public support for the profession grew. At the same time, though, the term ‘public servant‘ started to be a dirty word. Phrase. You know what I mean.

My boss at The School Magazine, Jonathan Shaw, one of the best men I’ve known, and a terrific boss, used to talk about this a lot. I always remember how he would sadly note that where once upon a time, it was a good and noble thing to be a servant of the public, now it was a term of derision and contempt. And he was right.

I don’t know if it’s chicken or egg, but as the term ‘public servant’ became so vilified, it became that much easier for politicians to slash into departments and services—clearly for as much ideological reasons as economic ones—by emphasising that it was only public service positions that were going. That it was back room services, not frontline positions. As if all of those public servants, those back room workers were doing nothing all day long but drinking coffee and playing Tetris or, these days, fooling around on Facebook. When in fact, they were, are, providing administrative support for professional units whose staff—public servants too—in turn provided support for teachers by way of developing resources and programs and professional development that meant better teaching and therefore better learning.

I’m not stupid or naive or mendacious enough to say there’s never been a lazy public servant, just as I’d never say that every teacher I worked with was a sainted genius (in fact, I could tell you stories make your hair stand on end, as any teacher could. As any worker in any field could). I’m not going to deny that there’s never been good reasons to reorganise and restructure, to streamline services or to assess need and the best use of resources, and that sometimes that means people lose jobs and that’s the way things go in the adult working world.

But I can’t help but think of my old teaching colleague and sparring partner, Cheryl, who would regularly sail into the staff room waving her hands and crying “New rules! New rules!”, and her (and our) frustration at some stupid and unnecessary new procedure or rule that one of the exec staff had dreamed up when the rest of us were still marking illegible essays at 2 am.

And having lived through a few of them, I can tell you that many of those departmental restructures felt exactly like that—new ways of doing things just for the sake of it.

Sections would be restructured and positions would disappear, only to find that somewhere not too far down the track, the powers that be would realise that that person actually had a job to do, and now they weren’t there any more, that job wasn’t being done. And so a new position would be created, with all the costs and inefficiencies that go with firing and hiring people

Sometimes those restructures were little more than deckchair shifting—a new Minister would come in and, like my cats when they’re let out into the garden in the morning, he or she would feel the need to sniff around and leave her own mark where the last guy had been.

Things, though, have been pretty good, comparatively, in public schools in NSW for a long time. I haven’t been as intimately involved as many other people have since I last left DET in 2008, but certainly things have been much quieter on the industrial front, compared to the late 80s and early 90s when there was a real danger that teachers would stage an indefinite walk out. (Threatened, but they never do, because fundamentally teachers are about the kids and shutting down schools for the duration is bad for kids and so teachers, who are essentially conservative creatures, no matter what politicians or the Daily Tabloid would have you believe, will actually never take that kind of extreme action.

I know, for example, a cousin something removed of mine, who is a now retired primary school principal, disagrees with me on that last point (the one about things having been pretty good in public education for a while—arguably, under the last Labor state government). From Ed’s point of view, there have been plenty of cuts and attacks on conditions, but it’s been done by stealth, death by a thousand cuts. But I think even Ed would agree that what has happened this week is about as bad, if not worse, as it’s ever been.

So, you probably know, if you care about this issue long enough to have got this far in this post, that the NSW State coalition government has just announced 1.7 billion dollars worth of cuts to the education budget. Some of these ‘savings’ will come from freezing funding to Catholic and so-called ‘independent’ schools—not the actual real cuts that were mooted last week, before the back benchers revolted and the minister and premier backed down. (Apparently those back benchers don’t have any public school teachers or parents in their constituencies. Curious.)

I’m not getting into the public versus private funding debate here, though—this isn’t about that, and anyway, my views on this are well known to my friends and colleagues and the rest of you can probably guess.

What I want to talk about is what this is going to mean for public schools

1800 jobs are going, around 800 of them from TAFE. (And that’s a whole other issue, the relentless downgrading of TAFE over many years. It’s just as well this country doesn’t have a skills shortage problem. Oh wait.) 600 of those job losses will be from state and regional offices. But that’s OK, because they’re not teachers. They’re not ‘front line’.

They’re only public servants.

So let me tell you a little bit about job cuts to the public service of the NSW Department of Education and Communities.

The curriculum directorate has already, before this latest round of cuts were announced, lost around 200 staff. Most of these were, technically, public servants. However, they were also highly skilled and experienced classroom teachers who had moved into the directorate in order to develop and deliver resources and programs and professional development for—you guessed it. Teachers. Front-line staff.

And kids.

So, for example, the English/Literacy unit has been slashed down to just one or two staff members to serve the entire state of teachers and students, K-12. Two people, tops, to support the teaching of English and the support of literacy programs. For the entire state. Kindergarten to HSC.

It’s not just English, although obviously that’s the subject I care and know most about—it’s across all curriculum areas. Just as well there’s not a new national curriculum looming on the horizon that teachers will need support in delivering.

And just as well we haven’t all been talking about the best way to implement a review into school funding that would bring genuine reform to education on this country by creating a more equitable funding and resourcing model to ensure that every child has access to the very best education available.

Oh wait.

And beyond the basics of compulsory curriculum, there’s all those extra programs that enrich the educational experiences and opportunities for kids across the state.

Teams that created fantastically innovative programs such as Murder under the Microscope, which engage kids hands on with science, will be gone.

The Arts Unit will be dismantled.

The Priority Schools funding program is already gone, and I heard on the radio yesterday that the Best Start kindergarten early literacy and numeracy assessment program is also gone.

And this new round of staff cuts will come from regional offices.

So let me tell you about the staff in regional offices.

Many of them are subject/curriculum specialist consultants. They are teachers with recent classroom experience who work within a given region (eg South Western Sydney, the Riverina) to directly support teachers in their region with their particular professional needs. They work one-on-one with schools to develop programs to address specific needs. So if there’s a school with, for example, low reading engagement with Year 9 and 10 students, the regional consultant will work directly with staff to develop strategies to engage those students (who may/will have particular demographic profiles, so a strategy that will work well with refugee kids may not work with Aboriginal kids, just for instance).

We’ve lost 200 curriculum specialists and now we’re going to lose regional consultants.

But all of that’s OK, because the people who delivered these programs and resources are only public servants. And no-one cares about public servants.

Fat cats.

Bureaucrats.

Stationery orderers.

It won’t have any impact on teachers. Or kids.

And money doesn’t fix everything, apparently.

And we’ve all got to tighten our belts, so why should education be exempt?

And if you keep saying this stuff—like you keep saying ‘public servant’ with that flared nostril as if you’ve smelt something nasty—then it becomes truth and people stop caring and start getting irritated with those of us who keep trying to cut through the linguistic dissonance to talk about the actual detail of what this all means.

And you can bet your life that soon enough, it will turn around and be directed back at teachers. And for the same reasons I only lasted 5 years as a fulltime classroom teacher, I predict a mass exodus from the profession in the next, say, 5 years. Because being a teacher under these conditions is just. too. hard.

I’m not a teacher any more, and I’m not an education department bureaucrat any more either. But I spend a lot of time in schools and with teachers and I know what this is going to mean for them, and for kids, especially kids in the already under-resourced and desperately underprivileged public schools in regional Sydney and NSW.

And you never really stop being a teacher. And you never stop caring about education and those kids, those kids, who deserve every chance they can get to be bright and safe and happy and educated and to look forward to not just the best start, but the best life we can offer them.

For all our sakes.

I’ve been caring about this, angry about this, exasperated and frustrated and, like Charlotte, exhausted, for longer than I can bear.

Please, won’t someone make it stop?

;

;

;

;

;

;

;

;

Garn the Blues

As you know, I’m a contributor to the current Kill Your Darlings YA Championship over at the Killings blog. It’s been interesting to me to see which books my fellow YA afficionados have chosen to write about—their favourite books of the last 30 years, and the ones they felt made a significant contribution to the Australia YA canon.

In retrospect, it’s kind of interesting to me that no-one—myself included—nominated Puberty Blues.

I’ve commented several times over the years that Melina Marchetta‘s Looking for Alibrandi was a publishing phenomenaon* in a country where we don’t have much in the way of publishing phenomena. I still think it’s true—mostly because of how universally loved Alibrandi is—but what may be less well remembered now is what a phenomenaon** Puberty Blues was back in the day.

The day was 1979. I was 15, living in Canberra at the time, barely been kissed, and not naive, exactly, but certainly inexperienced. I had friends who were sexually active, to use that awful phrase—had done since Year 8 (although to this day I don’t know if those friends in Year 8 were spinning me yarns or were actually doing all the things they claimed to be getting up to out of school)—but that world was a long way off for me. But that’s not to say I lived a sheltered life—because if nothing else, I was a reader, and I had the great good fortune of having parents who never censored anything I read.

I vividly recall reading and re-reading Go Ask Alice when I was in Year 7 and 8. Go Ask Alice is, of course, a book that comes up a lot in discussion of the history of “dirty realism” YA, but for me, it was more of a fantasy than Narnia or Wonderland. I can still remember scenes and phrases from Go Ask Alice. I read it avidly, greedily, trying to comprehend that people—kids—actually lived that way, experienced those things. (Of course, perhaps they didn’t—we know now that Go Ask Alice was fiction, written as a cautionary tale for teen readers at a time when there must have been huge anxiety around sex and drugs and massive social change.)

And I also remember reading what I guess now was sort of soft porn paperbacks, which I found in a house of a family from our church that I was babysitting for. And I don’t mention that they were a church family to make a point about hypocrisy—on the contrary, I think that experience helped me understand (although I wouldn’t have articulated that at the time) that ordinary, good people (which they most certainly were) liked dirty books and movies.

I mean, you just simply couldn’t be a kid in the 70s and not be aware of sex as part of mainstream entertainment. Alvin Purple was released when I was 9 years old, and I was certainly aware of it. Number 96 had started on TV even earlier—1972, when I was 8, and while I was certainly never allowed to watch it (my parents’ liberal ideals didn’t extend quite that far), I saw the ads and read about it in TV Times. And anyway, Tianne Roberts was allowed to watch it and she used to hold court and tell those of us whose parents were less cool what had happened in the previous night’s episode.

Hell, even earlier than that, I vividly recall an episode of Days of Our Lives where Bill and Laura kissed, and she was only wearing a towel, and the camera scanned down her body as the towel fell and the scene ended on it collapsed around her bare, flexing feet.

So I wasn’t sheltered. I knew about sex, and I knew kids my age were having it, one way or another.

But I am not sure anything quite prepared me—or the rest of Australia—for Puberty Blues.

Australian readers will know that Puberty Blues was written by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette, two young women (21 or so at the time of publication) who grew up in Sydney’s southern beach suburbs (known colloquially as The Shire) and who had already been writing and performing together for some years. I’m having trouble finding the actual chronology, but together Carey and Lette were known as The Salami Sisters—I just can’t remember if they came to public attention in that guise before or after the publication of Puberty Blues. They had a column in a Sunday paper and wrote frankly about sex and drugs and adolescent life in a way that I don’t believe anyone in this country ever had before.  At least, if they had, they hadn’t done so on such a mainstream platform as The Salami Sisters achieved.

I’ve never forgotten an appearance they made—in character, a skit, really— on a current affairs show, possibly hosted by Mike Willesee, talking about one of them coming home from a party with semen on her jeans, and telling her mother it was toothpaste. I can still remember  the sensation of my jaw dropping, and the kind of delighted shock I felt that they were actually saying what they were saying.

(And it is because of this memory that I can never bring myself to describe the publication of Puberty Blues as ‘seminal’…!)

Because really, nobody was talking about the things that Carey and Lette wrote and talked about. Certainly, no-one was talking about it that was living it. And because they’ve always been so frank about it, we know that Puberty Blues was as much actual social document as it was fiction.

I don’t actually recall reading Puberty Blues for the first time, but I know I read it very soon after it was published—no doubt thanks to the school library. But what I do remember was the recognition I felt when I did read it. Not because the details of my life bore much resemblance to Sue and Debbie’s, although the emblems were so recognisable (we had panel vans and Chiko rolls in the western suburbs too), but because there was some essential truth about being a teenage girl in the 1970s that they simply nailed.

Whoops. Pun not intended.

I lived well inland—those western surburbs and then, by the time the book came out, in Canberra—but we’d holidayed every year since I was about 4 at Macmasters Beach on the Central Coast, and I was not very far off falling desperately and hopelessly in love with a bad surfer boy, or ‘surfie’, as we called them, who I met when I was 16 and didn’t get over until I was in my 20s. (Or possibly ever.)

So the beachside setting wasn’t unfamiliar to me, but even if we hadn’t had our holiday house on the beach, there were plenty of girls in string bikinis lining the concrete shores of the public pools in Auburn and Parramatta and Deakin. (I actually can tell you that the first time I called another girl a ‘chick’ was at the Auburn-Lidcombe pool where only a couple of years earlier I’d had swimming lessons as a skinny pre-pubescent.)

And girls in ankle-length Indian skirts and Jesus sandles hanging out hoping to be noticed in shopping centres, and girls discussing what bra size was acceptable (32B was the minimum, I recall), and girls slathering baby oil on their legs and passing around the Cleo sealed section and aching, aching for a boy to notice them.

And I guess all those long-haired boys on the beaches and in the school canteen and sneaking ciggies down behind the oval were equally hoping some girl would notice them, but it seemed to us that they had all the power and we could only just wait, and wait, and wait for them to turn their eyes on us and say ‘hi”.

Puberty Blues captured all of this, even for those of us not yet sneaking Winnie Blues, or having sex, or even getting kissed. It was so real, so true, and yes, so Australian in language and sensibility in a way that Go Ask Alice didn’t come close (of course). It was almost like a relief that at last, even if it wasn’t exactly us, that our lives and places (the schoolyard, the canteen, the beach, the shops) were where we were, and there they were—in the book.

I remember also, just a few years later, deep in the throes of my first real love for that afore-mentioned Surfie, that I saw the movie of Puberty Blues with a bunch of girls I’d befriended at Macmasters—true beach girls, born and bred.

Macmasters Beach chicks, circa 1981. I'm the least naked one.

By then, in our late teens, it was the feminist message of the movie/book that spoke to us. We left the cinema at Gosford whooping with delight and promising each other that we would learn to surf, just like Sue and Debbie did at the end of the movie, riding high on the wave with the exhilarance of youth and freedom and being strong, powerful young women—kind of new knowledge for us, and thrilling, absurd but hopeful and determined not to be that girl on the towel, watching the waves and keeping the fast food hot.

(Or in my case, keeping the dead match that that the surfie boy flicked at my leg in one of those weird rituals of affection teenage boys do to teenage girls, after he’d lit his Winnie Blue.)

We never did learn to surf, but I loved that movie. (I even seem to remember the Surfie  thought it was pretty good, although maybe I’m imposing that as wishful thinking.) I bet I still would.

And I bet I love the TV series of Puberty Blues that, as I type these words, is just starting  on the TV right now.

I have been so excited about this, as soon as I heard about it, and who was making it, and the cast. Everything I’ve read has been really positive, and I’m not even sure why I’m so excited—I just really want to see these characters and stories again. I suppose it’s partly nostalgia, but it’s also because, no matter how much I may shy away from the actual ‘s(eminal)’ word, Puberty Blues was absolutely a ground-breaking, earth-shaking novel and it marks a really important moment in writing and publishing for (and, as it happens, by) young people in this country.

But professional interest aside? I loved that book. I love those girls. I KNEW those girls. And I’m glad they’re back. And I hope, once again, always and achingly, that they’re OK.

Such Spunks. Bet they will be.

*Edited thanks to the assiduous copy editing of Helen Razer. Thanks, H! **And thanks, JS!