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.

Edith Betty Ridge: Our Mum

This is the eulogy my sister Alison gave for our mother at her funeral today. It is a word-perfect honoring of Mum’s long life. You can watch the video of the slideshow I made for the service on YouTube.

Edith Betty Ridge, nee Dykes, was born on May 8th 1928 in Enfield. She was the first born child and only daughter to Stanley and Grace and lived at home in Russell Lea until her marriage. Her brother Ronald “Ronnie” was born in 1931. Mum’s childhood was happy and carefree. Despite growing up through the depression years her family were comfortable as Stanley, Pa Pa to his grandchildren, remained in employment as a clerk with the Gas Company. Pa Pa was at the Gallipoli landings and his war service combined with his personality could make him prickly. This was balanced though by the gentle and loving nature of Grandma with whom Mum shared a very close relationship. Mum would always buy her Mother bunches of violets when they were in season. Mum also had a close and loving relationship with both of her Grandmothers and her Aunty Glad, Grace’s sister, and her husband Uncle Herb. Sadly, she had no memory of her Grandfathers. Her cousin Tom Treseder was extremely special to her. Mum and Ron were always great friends despite the fact that he could be a typically annoying younger brother. With her oldest friend Olwyn, Mum and Ron formed their own secret club known as The Gumnut Club, complete with passwords, certificates and minutes kept by Madame President which Mr Treasurer was to read. Mr Treasurer preferred to be pulling the wings off cicadas!

Family holidays and car trips to the beach and The Blue Mountains with friends were a regular occurrence, and one very special trip to Tasmania brought about a lifetime of wonderful memories. The family had a gorgeous red setter called Dookie who was adored adored and he gave Mum enormous joy. Growing up we heard so many stories about Dookie, it was almost as if we also knew him.

Mum attended school at Russell Lea Infants, Drummoyne Public and then Fort St Girls High where she told me she read every book in the library and would then go to the City Library after school. Mum was an extremely intelligent woman, but sadly her brain was, as my sister Judy succinctly described it, untrained. The Headmistress at Fort St was a Maths teacher and as Mum was not mathematically inclined she was placed in 4D despite good results in the Intermediate Certificate. Mum excelled in English and she enjoyed French and Latin, but could not pursue these in 4D. So she decided that she wanted to leave school. PaPa said if you get a job you can leave. Mum being Mum, head strong and determined, did just that. In 1944 she immediately gained employment as a punch card operator with the Sydney County Council and she remained there until her marriage 10 years later. Mum enjoyed her working life, and as a young woman stepped out socially with friends to the theatre, concerts and movies. She was an excellent knitter and dressmaker, and completed beautiful embroidery. Mum attended elocution classes with Miss Pilsbury and acted in a few plays, one of which saw her take top billing over the late Ruth Cracknell!!  Mum was always complimented on the beautiful way that she read, particularly scripture readings. She attributed this to reading stories to her children, but no doubt the elocution classes were a factor also.

She was a member of the Drummoyne Methodist Church and socialised with her friends there with picnics, playing tennis and “socials”. She scored at baseball games and looked after all the player’s watches, wearing them up her arm! She loved being a member of the Methodist Crusader Choir and performing in the Sydney Town Hall was always a big event. Crusader Camps were always a lot of fun. Mum was an excellent flower arranger and adored flowers. In recent times I swear that Mum spent more on flowers every week than she did on food! But they always brought her enormous joy and the home was always beautiful and welcoming. She was an avid crossworder, and her day did not begin until she had started the crossword in the Sydney Morning Herald. Up until her eyesight failed her in February/ March, she was still completing the crosswords. 

Mum was a good cook but I don’t think she particularly enjoyed cooking. It was tiresome trying to think of interesting food to prepare for 4 ratty kids in the 70’s! She did become quite modern and creative with Rice a Riso and a mince cabbage dish called Kye Si Min which we loved. Sunday roast dinners were special, macaroni cheese and chicken of the sea were family favourites and we loved her mocha cake particularly. Dave fell in love with Linda over mocha cake! Mum was able to move with the times becoming quite computer literate, and having an I pad has been her way to stay engaged and connected to the world via Facebook and emails. Unfortunately she also mastered the art of online shopping….. Sigh!

On the topic of shopping, Mum loved to shop!! She loved beautiful things be it pretty china, interesting pieces, jewellery, books, & music. As you all know she was always beautifully dressed with matching accessories. As a young woman she had immaculate taste and style. Over the years it has been a running source of family indignation that she was a shopaholic but she didn’t care! I would often quip that she was spending my inheritance to which she would reply, “That’s right”!! The last time we were in a shopping centre Mum picked up the latest Prouds catalogue & proceeded to pick out the items she was interested in. In the family we joked about “Mother’s millions”, her jewellery collection. Mum could be quite inappropriate at times, much to Dad’s dismay, and like her Dad she could be prickly. She was human. Mum had the most incredible and long memory. She had an amazing ability to recall names, places, dates. She could tell you where she purchased a dress, how much it cost, who was with her when she bought it and where she wore it! As I have been piecing together family history in recent years her wonderful memory was invaluable. Mum also had the most infuriating but endearing ability to tell a story. She would take you all around the world and there would be a cast of thousands in it, the relevance which was often a puzzle to us. Dad would say “Edith, get to the point” and she would retort “Oh Barry, do be quiet”. She would then happily continue on with her tale, gaily ignoring Dad, but she always came back to the point!

Mum made friends wherever she went, and once you were her friend you were her friend for life. Over the years she lost Olwyn, Elizabeth, Joan, Joy, Vonnie but their memories live on. Weekly chats with Norma continued until the very end, and Katie and Barbara, Lyn and Sue, Anne & Laurie, Judith & Jan, Christo and “my friend Pamela” have remained in constant contact. Friends made in more recent times have been a source of encouragement and support and she was so grateful for this. Her cleaner from Just Better Care, Grace, was very good to Mum and Mum was very fond of her. There have been many beautiful messages of love and support on Facebook, and people have been sharing special memories & thanking Mum. The word gracious was used frequently. We were particularly touched by several posts where people thanked Mum for the support and encouragement she extended to them after they emigrated to Australia. Thank you to all of you, so many and I don’t want to forget anyone, but you know who you are. Special thanks must go to Professor Ray Sacks, Dr Lena Reichardt, Dr Mark Fitzmaurice, the radiation oncology team at RNSH in particular Dr DJ, Dr Lisa Parker, and CNC Paula McLeod. Rev David Reichardt and Rev Bill Ives. Deepest gratitude to the staff at Bowden Brae nursing home who tended to Mum in her final weeks including the chaplains Tennyson & Frank. Extra special thanks to all the nursing, medical, auxiliary staff at Neringah Palliative Care Hospital & their community outreach team. Jo Manouk, pastoral carer, thank you so much.

Mum’s faith has been at the very core of who she is and what she stood for. When she was 14 she became a member of the Methodist Girls Comradeship and at the age of 16 she was taking Sunday School classes. Her lifelong journey of service all progressed from there. Her biodata (hold it up) reads like a Tolstoy novel and if I was to mention every committee served on, position held, job taken on, services conducted we would be here all day. Mum summed it up in one of the many talks she gave – she served 36 years in country and city circuits/parishes and was the leader of 36 fellowship groups. She served at Synod and Assembly level, district and national level. She was the President of Australian Church Women in both the ACT and NSW and is a Life Member, an honour of which she was aptly very proud. Retirement didn’t slow her down – what retirement? She was as busy as ever with various women’s groups, Uniting Church Adult Fellowship of which she was also a life member , Synod Committees and editor of several newsettes/handbooks. Australian Church Women and The Fellowship of the Least Coin were very dear to Mum and there is a collection box outside if you would like to make a donation to The Fellowship of the Least Coin. Due to illness and then Covid19 Mum was unable to attend church for some time, and this was a source of distress to her. Thank you to the Normanhurst Uniting Church community for faithfully and lovingly staying in touch.

Mum’s life changed when she made the move to Five Dock Methodist Church and commenced teaching Sunday School there. It was 1950. George Ridge, the Sunday School Superintendent, spotted her and immediately decided that she was the girl for his son Barry, who was serving as a probationary minister in the North West Mission, based at Boggabri. What a fantastic match maker Grandad turned out to be!! Edith and Barry met, fell in love, and the rest as they say is history!! They were married at Five Dock Methodist Church on December 4 1954 by the Rev C.L Connor, after a terrific thunder storm saw the beautiful bride unable to leave the house, making Dad an extremely anxious groom in waiting. Honeymoon spent at beautiful Jervis Bay, and then the newly married couple set off for their first appointment to Milton. Not before Mum had all of her teeth pulled in one sitting, as per the recommendation at the time due to a lack of country dentists. Mum & Dad were welcomed to Milton with a lovely afternoon tea spread of cheese and tomato on Sao biscuits. Poor Mum. You could say she gave her teeth for the church.

There was no training to become a Minister’s wife and Mum learnt as she went along. She was well supported by the older Minister’s wives, and as a couple Mum and Dad received loving Christian support from Rev Connor & his wife, Dr George Wheen and the Rev Stanley Bowyer Hayward (Principal of Leigh College where Dad studied) & his wife Kathy. After Milton they went to Gunning, Toronto, Katoomba, Auburn, Yarralumla in the ACT and finally Homebush-Strathfield. Mum and Dad were an awesome team and served the church faithfully. Mum learnt to make do with parsonage furniture and she shared Dad without complaint with the people and places that needed him. There were hard years, and disappointments along the way. God’s lemon drops are everywhere. However, there were also many, many fun times. Mum could do a wicked Nana Moskouri impersonation and she rather enjoyed some of Meatloaf’s music (whom she famously called Meatball!) When she wagged the finger or threatened to knock our heads together we knew we were in trouble or would soon be if we didn’t tow the line. Mum battled several major health issues over the years, but always came out on top until the final illness. Her strength of character and determination were incredible.

Mum & Dad were married for 62 years and were devoted to one another. Mum loved & respected Violet & George, her in laws deeply, and they always referred to her as their daughter & she called them Mum & Dad. Mum told me that she hit the jackpot when she married into the Ridge family, and she was loved in return by members of the extended family. Linda was born in 1956, David in 1959, myself in 1961 and Judith rounded off the family in 1964. We had several cats, 2 rabbits, fish and 2 budgies in the family at various times. We had wonderful holidays at our holiday home at MacMasters Beach, the deposit on which was supplied by Mum’s long service leave pay out. We watched family TV shows such as The Bobby Limb Show, Bandstand, Seekers specials, Happy Days & Countdown and ate saucepan cooked popcorn. We also watched Division 4 & Homicide! Surprising, I know! Mum famously said “No swearing in my kitchen” in response to some very tame swear words that were said on these programs. We saw live shows such as Godspell & Jesus Christ Superstar and went to lots of movies. We were not a wealthy family in money terms, but in every other way we were millionaires. One of my favourite memories growing up was sitting at the dinner table and talking about our individual day. Mum was always engaged and interested in our lives, our friends, our interests and our thoughts on the world. She loved us unconditionally and was always supportive, allowing us to make mistakes without judgement. Her standard greeting was always “Hello love” and these were the last words she spoke to me. Mum was surprisingly open minded and forward thinking for a woman of her generation and background. She believed firmly in women’s rights and had a very strong sense of social justice. She welcomed and loved our respective partners – Dave, Pauline and Bernard and made strong friendships with their respective families. Mum was a loving aunt to Margot & Wayne, and Elizabeth, and to Ron’s stepson Paul and his wife Liz and their children. It brought her so much joy when Margot reconnected with her.

The adored grandchildren came along and Mum couldn’t have been a more wonderful grandmother if she tried. She played soccer with Peter which coined the infamous saying “Peter kicks, Grandma runs!It never ceased to amaze me how my children could get away with anything with Grandma – things she would not have accepted from me! Peter & Emelia, Heather & Cliff, Alice & Keaton, Emily, Lucy, James & Alex and Grace and Glen. Grandma was so proud of all of you and watched you grow and make your way in the world with deep satisfaction. She was keenly interested in all that you did and did her best to be there for you as much as possible. Thank you for your phone calls and visits, Mum was so grateful.

Just when we thought our lives couldn’t get any better along came the crème de la crème for Mum – the Great Grandchildren! Move out of the way everyone else. Nothing could compare to Bennett, Isaac and Zarahlinda! Boy, was she one besotted Great Grandma. She lapped up every snippet of information about them that came via Facebook or phone calls, and loved every photo and video. When she was able to spend time with them in person either in Coffs Harbour or when they came to Sydney it was a really joyous occasion. Ben, Zaccy & Zara know that Great Grandma loved you very, very much.

Mum faced her illness bravely with dignity and grace. She never said ” Why me?” She wanted to know exactly what would happen and she accepted it. Mum wasn’t ready to die; she had so much to live for. She had purchased a lovely outfit to wear as Grandmother of the bride for whichever of her Grandchildren was going to make the next trip down the aisle. But her faith saw her slip away quietly and peacefully.

Mum had a very distinctive walk – she could really stride it out with vigour in her younger years. You knew the sound of her footsteps before you saw her. I imagine that she strode home to God with delight and all the energy of the 16 year old Sunday School teacher. She is now resting in the Peace that surpasses all understanding and her earthly struggles are no more. To quote Dr George Wheen in a letter he wrote to her – “A little faith will bring you to heaven, but a great faith will bring Heaven to you.” 

Sleep well, our darling mother.

Dark Emu—Bangarra Dance Theatre

I went to see Bangarra Dance Theatre‘s production of Bruce Pascoe‘s non-fiction book Dark Emu tonight at the Sydnery Opera House, fittingly, during NAIDOC Week.

Dark Emu is amazing. I am not good at talking about dance—it’s not my language—but this was mesmerising. There were 15 dancers, and the staging was stunning. Turning a non-fiction book like Dark Emu into dance performance must have had very specific challenges, but they captured so much of the book, both the content and the significance, and the emotion of coming face to face with the rich truth of Aboriginal history and culture.

Before the performance started I noticed Uncle Bruce Pascoe take a seat a couple of rows in front of me, and then I realised an old mate and colleague, Cathy Craigie, was sitting with him. Turns out we picked a good night to go — Cathy moderated a discussion between Uncle Bruce and Stephen Page from Bangarra Dance Theatre. What luck!
There were various scenes which, in boldly and sinuously choreographed moves and utterly stunning costumes, portrayed Aboriginal agricultural and aquicultural practices. Impressionistic scenes of seed harvesting, fishing traps (the world’s first feat of engineering), whale hunting. Exquisite scenery constructions of a burning banksia seed, seed-gathering basket, a canoe; lights evoking the Dark Emu of the title (the space around the Milky Way), a scene depicting the building of stone houses (later described by Cathy and Bruce: “We built the first village—we invented society”), and a penultimate scene reminding us of the confinement of people and culture and the loss of knowledge, as the dancers stood and moved along and around a long rope, an image I won’t forget in a hurry.
The audience response was both deeply felt and wildly enthusiastic. If you can go and see it, go and see it.
And did I mention the score? It was incredible. I hope they release it. It was gorgeous, a blend of traditional Aboriginal song and instruments and rhythms with western wind instruments, piano, strings, singing and spoken word.
And then we stayed for the discussion afterwards, as did most of the audience: Stephen mentioned that Bangarra is the only major Aboriginal arts company to receive OzCo funding on an on-going basis (next year is its 30th anniversary), and the only company that can fill a 6 week season in the Drama Theatre at the Opera House to 90% capacity.
Talking about the work Bangarra does, Stephen connected it straight back to cultural practice, saying, These are our modern rituals. He also talked about how they always take their performances back to Country, and how even if there are only 14 people to perform to, then those 14 are elders, holders of story, and that is enough.
Cathy and Bruce talked about how the performance has changed from opening night; this is such a layered and complex performance, I am sure part of that is that they saw different things each time, but it’s also true that it is a living thing, this dance, and it not only bears repeat viewings (I would see it again in a heartbeat if I had the time and money), but also it is changing from performance to performance.
Bruce spoke quite a bit about how the book came about, and the importance of Australia knowing its true history. Otherwise, he said, all we’ve got is Don Bradman and failed military campaigns and the stump-jump plough—and we don’t have any stumps left.
Cathy observed that she has seen a shift in the national conversation in the past five years, that there’s a growing interest in and appreciation of Aboriginal history and culture, and she asked why that might be. Bruce’s take on that was that young people are deeply invested in this land, and in protecting it, because god knows we’re in desperate times, environmentally, and they are looking to Aboriginal ways of custodianship to learn from. “They want to know how to love this land.”
Which echoed straight back to the last words of the musical score to the performance:
Thank you, my Country.
Thank you, my Country.
Thank you, My Country.

Book Launch: Quark’s Academy by Catherine Pelosi

I taught a short course in writing for children and young adults for more than ten years, and over those years, I must have taught hundreds of people, and some of them became and remained friends (online and in real life). I’m always excited when one of them finds success with their writing, and I’m quietly proud that several of my students have had children’s books published. It’s not so much that there’s any question of taking credit, just a pleasure that they may have taken something from your teaching that stuck. (Talent is one thing; the determination to persist with one’s craft and be patient with the process is a whole other thing. It’s the willingness to do the work that separates people who want to write from those who just want to be published.)

One of those students is Catherine Pelosi, who I know from our online friendship and personal correspondence has quietly persisted with her writing over the years, and now is seeing the fruits of that labour, with three children’s books scheduled to be published this year and next.

The first of those books is Catherine’s debut children’s novel, Quark’s Academy, and I was thrilled when Catherine contacted me earlier this year and asked if I might be available and willing to launch the book.

You bet I was. And today, at the very impressive Lindfield Learning Hub, I gave the following speech to launch Quark’s Academy into the world.


It is a great honour to be here today to launch Catherine’s first children’s novel, Quark’s Academy. I first met Catherine some years ago in a writing course I used to teach, and we’ve been online friends pretty much ever since. We share a love of great books—especially great kids’ books—travel, cats, and stories. Perhaps most of all, stories.

And does Catherine have a story for you. In Quark’s Academy, Catherine has achieved something I don’t see all that often any more in novels for young readers. First of all, it’s a self-contained novel. While she might have more adventures for our three young heroes planned, I have to say, it’s such a delight to read a book and get to the end and feel absolutely happy and complete by a story well-told, and complete in itself. I know lots of people like series, but I’m a big fan of the stand-alone novel, especially one where the world of the book and its characters is as well-realised as it is in Catherine’s novel.

Secondly, what I love about Quark’s Academy, is that it’s a good old-fashioned adventure story, where the kids have to rely on their own spunk  and resources—including their brains and courage—where the adults are either useless, absent, evil, or all three!—and the author’s inventiveness translates into high adventure and tricky challenges for both the characters and the readers. And when I say old-fashioned, I don’t mean that at all in any negative sense, because the reason Quark’s Academy is such a great book for today’s young readers is that Catherine has learned the lessons of all the great kids’ writers going back to Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl as well as more contemporary writers for kids like our own Deborah Abela and Paul Jennings, by bringing the adventure story well into the modern age. Quark’s Academy is the perfect book for today’s young reader who loves science and technology as much as school and, most of all, stories, and doesn’t see any reason any all these parts of their very modern lives should be separate from each other.

Quark’s Academy features three young people who are bursting with ideas and ambition, but whose home lives aren’t as happy and supportive as they could be. We have Augustine, weather-fanatic and science genius, whose parents are also scientists, and perhaps not quite as clever as they think they are. There’s Celeste, whose sports-nut parents love but don’t really get their daughter, so much so that Celeste sometimes thinks she’s been born into the wrong family. And then there’s Oscar, who just wants to be noticed, and sometimes goes about that the wrong way.

Each of our three heroes—and might I just add what an incredibly job Catherine does at juggling three narrative points of view in her novel, not an easy feat for any writer, but especially a relative newbie!—receives an invitation to the Quark’s Academy of the title, a place where child scientific genii can go for a week long boot camp to work on their inventions—there’s a big prize on offer—but also to learn science and technology from some of the world’s top inventors. But as you might expect, Things Are Not As They Seem, and before long, Augustine,  Celeste and Oscar are fighting not just to win the competition, but for their very lives.

Quark’s Academy is full of science, thrills, danger and adventure, but it’s also a story about friendship, and how when the world lets us down—including adults, our teachers, and even our parents—our friends can literally save our lives. It’s also at times very, very funny, and for kids who love language as much as they love black holes and jet packs and stink bombs, there’s a lot of pleasure in store for you as well. Oh, and let us now forget the cat—children’s books generally have a long history of great cats, and Quark’s Academy’s Copernicus joins a great line of fictional felines, from Wonderland’s grinning Cheshire Cat, Kipling’s Cat Who Walked By Himself, through the magical cats of Diana Wynne Jones’s multi-universe Chrestomanci fantasy books, to Carbonel the King of Cats and Minnie the Danish newspaper cat… and I could go on but you get the gist. Copernicus is a great, dare I say, invention (and no, that’s not a spoiler—OR IS IT?!) as are the rest of Catherine’s characters, human and non-human alike.

I recommend Quark’s Academy to everyone here who loves a great story, especially, but not only the kids. I am going to be adding the book to my own school’s wide reading collection and making sure we have a copy in the library. I wish it, and you, Catherine, all the success in the world. Congratulations also to everyone at Hachette Australia for this beautifully designed book, and may I leave you with these fine words of wisdom: if you can smell squid, you can bet there will be squid.

And so it is with great pleasure that I officially announce Quark’s Academy launched—with or without a jet pack!

Quark’s Academy is published by Hachette Australia.

Our Dark (Curriculum) Materials

There’s an article on The Guardian today getting a fair bit of traction, by Alice Pung, along the lines of “teens can handle dark topics” and I have to admit, it’s been bugging me all day.

Look, I know I am eleven hundred and twenty years old (give me a frickin’ beer, thank you Buffy fans), but really, haven’t we had this discussion? Like, every ten years or so?

I don’t have any argument with Pung herself. (I love her memoir writing, but I am in a minority of people who weren’t all that enamoured of Laurinda—it was too mannered for my taste, the characters unconvincingly self-referential). But she hasn’t been around YA for very long as a writer, and I doubt she’s been observing trends in the reception of YA and children’s books as an on-going concern.

Well, I have. And she’s right. There was a stink about “dark YA” back in the 90s when she was at school, and it did (in this country) focus largely on John Marsden, but it was mostly in the media and schools and teachers then, as now, pretty much just got on with doing what they always do—choosing the best materials for the interests and abilities of their students. And that included, by the truck load, classroom sets of John Marsden novels, including So Much to Tell You.

And way before Marsden, there was a stink about The Outsiders and after Marsden it was about The Hunger Games and there was that time that a judge let someone off a swearing in public charge on the somewhat sarcastically made basis that if the CBCA Book of the Year could have the ‘f’ word in it, society had declined so far that we could hardly expect standards of common decency to prevail, and then that abortive (pardon the kind of pun) attempt to ban Judy Blume’s Forever, because if it’s not “darkness” it’s sex and witches and look, honestly.

I remember an infamous Sydney Morning Herald take-down of the CBCA Book of the Year awards where the commissioned reviewer, who had no expertise in children’s literature, wrote with dripping disdain how disreputable the books in the older reader category shortlist were, and that he’d rather his (then) 9 year old read Wuthering Heights, ignoring the fact that the Older Readers category has never been for 9 year olds, and anyway, WUTHERING HEIGHTS?! But it was this kind of commentary that lead to a whole raft of “won’t they think of the children” talkback outrage. And it wasn’t the schools, or teachers, leading the pack. Then, like now, though, it was the schools and teachers copping the flack.

The truth is, we don’t have a significant censorship problem in this country (indeed, outside of individual school policies and BOSTES guidelines, we don’t have a mechanism for the kind of systematic censorship we see from school boards in  the USA). So let’s not beat one up, especially on what appears to be no more than a single anecdotal incident. Many kids and YA authors and yes, even teachers can cite anecdotes of schools asking them not to speak on certain topics, and parents requiring their children not to read books with certain content (ref. my previous comment on sex and witches). And sure, teachers and teacher-librarians will sometimes make choices about what’s going to cause them the least grief, depending on their school community, and what system they’re working in, and a whole host of other influences, but let’s not make them the problem, when by and large they’re just not.

And yes, I know and indeed have long argued that the price of our [mostly] censorship-free system is eternal vigilance and I will continue to argue that. I am well aware of specific incidents at schools, such as Will Kostakis having a school visit cancelled after he came out, and it goes without saying that I completely condemn such acts of prejudice and protectionism (of what, I have to ask—do these schools seriously think kids don’t know about queer people?). Frankly, I suspect that these kinds of incidents are way more common than we get to hear about, and are far more worrying than any suggestion that schools or teachers are shying away from difficult/challenging topics such as violence, environmental degradation, drug use, mental health or political issues.

(And without getting too political myself [oh who am I kidding], I’d like to stack up these incidents to see how many of them happen in private versus public schools.)

I’ve been in and out of schools for 31 years now (longer if you count my years as a prac teacher and before that as a student), so if you’ll indulge me, here are a few anecdotes of my own:

  • My Year 11 teacher (1980) telling us that the main problem with Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers was that he didn’t get laid early enough, and then musing out loud about how old she was when she lost her virginity. My head may have quietly exploded on the inside, but we all just took it in our stride and no-one came in and carted her off to a re-education camp for naughty teachers.
  • Classroom texts for junior high school students in the 80s and 90s (pre-Marsden) included Go Ask Alice (faked, but with explicit discussions of sex and drug use) and books by writers like Maureen Stewart, which were largely issues-driven and designed to largely as cautionary tales and which certainly explored what could broadly be described as dark topics. My main objection to those books that they were on the whole pretty badly written, overtly didactic, and did nothing to deter kids anyway, except from enjoying their English classes. (Seniors studied The Year of Living Dangerously, speaking of The Killing Fields.)
  • The only challenges I remember when I was a young teacher was from conservative religious parents who didn’t want their kids reading ab out magic or the supernatural. I remember one Christian family not wanting their child to read A Wrinkle in Time, apparently innocent of its original conception by author L’Engle as a Christian allegory. The parents’ wishes were accommodated by the school, just as they were when my then maths teacher partner had to make concessions for a student who wasn’t allowed to learn about gambling, despite the fact that the whole point of teaching them about gambling was to teach them how entirely the odds were stacked against them (much as reading Vicki’s Habit was meant to teach them not to take drugs, although I would suggest, far more effectively).
  • The school where I am currently working, which is 7-10 only, teaches The Giver, The Hunger Games and The Accident by Kate Hendrick. All by any standards could be classified as dark. Year 10 has been doing a unit on concepts of justice, using the film A Time to Kill and some pretty challenging related materials, while across in history they’ve been looking at the civil rights movement.
  • JC Burke’s The Story of Tom Brennan is commonly taught right across the country—it’s an HSC text for Standard English students in NSW and deals with extreme teenage drinking, death, mental illness, plus it includes a sex scene.

My point is.

It’s not schools or teachers who are shying away from anything; indeed, as my friend and colleague Sam, a Head Teacher of English I once worked for says, “we’re bloody drowning in dark books.” And for once, it’s not even an issue in the wider community or media. (No doubt they’re too busy making spurious connections between marriage equality and anti-bullying programs and leaving the poor English faculty alone.) And, as always, the kids are just fine, self-censoring where required and just maybe having the stuff they heard and read elsewhere balanced and challenged in the classroom.

Because the kids are all right, the books are fine.

And so are the teachers.

Now give me a frickin’ beer.


Talking great kids’ books on ABC Sydney Radio

This last Sunday (10th September 2017) I was part of a panel talking about great kids’ books on ABC Sydney, my local  radio station of our national broadcaster. There was me, host Simon Marnie; my dear friend, the exceptional children’s author Anna Fienberg; Lucy Robertson, teacher-librarian from Culburra PS; Li Gin, the t-l from Sydney Grammar School, and Richard Neville, the Mitchell Librarian from the State Library of NSW. It was a fun half hour, and we had lots of interest from listeners, who called, texted and posted on Facebook to share their, and their kids’, favourite books.

Not sure how long the link will be live, but you can listen online here.

a and b fienberg




Image: Anna and Barbara Fienberg, from http://www.kinderling.com.au


Dad’s eulogy

My father, Barry John Ridge, died in the early hours of 9 August 2017. He was 89 years old, and had been living with Lewy Body dementia for around seven years. This is the eulogy I gave at his funeral.

Dad BM

Growing up, the four of us kids were what’s known in the trade—the church trade, that is—as PKs. PKs, parsonage kids, we’re a tribe tens of thousands strong, across the country and across generations who share a common language and experience that is quite unlike that of most kids growing up. There are lots of assumptions made about PKs; we must be incredibly rebellious or else unbelievably sanctimonious and dull, and our parents, especially our fathers, must be strict, uncompromising, and our lives therefore confined and restricted from the freedoms and pleasures other kids enjoy. I’m sure there’s not a PK alive who hasn’t heard some variation on the question, “What’s it like to have a minister for a father (or, of course, mother)?”, the only answer to which is, well, I dunno. What’s it like to have a mechanic for a father? Our father was the only one we had, and our life the only one we knew. And how fortunate indeed were we to have Barry, our father—and Edith, our mother—and the life that they gave us.

Dad, as I am sure all of you who knew him will immediately recognise, was none of those things that our schoolmates assumed. He was neither strict nor boring, and while he had very clear ideas and a firm and unwavering sense of his faith and the values by which he lived, he was neither uncompromising or punishing in his dealings with people in general, and his children in particular. In his role as a Minister of the church, Dad viewed service to others his highest calling, and the absolute expression of his faith. For us, his family, his responsibilities to his parishioners, the broader community and the church meant that there was no such thing as 9 to 5, no reliable “quitting time”, and even his one day off a week was rarely left to him and Mum to share and enjoy without interruption. Perhaps we kids felt it the most on family occasions—only PKs know the peculiar agony of having to wait to open Christmas presents until after Dad’s second or maybe even third service of the day. But while Dad’s working hours may have been unconventional, when he was home—and that may well have been at 3 o’clock when we got home from school, only for him to disappear again after dinner for meetings or Bible study or marriage counselling sessions or youth group—he was absolutely with us in a way many, many fathers of Dad’s generation were not.

In the same way, Dad was a most modern husband in the way he took on his fair share of the housework. He changed our nappies as babies, he cooked and cleaned, he ironed, and he especially loved to work in the garden.

Dad was a practical and pragmatic man. He could turn his hand to pretty much anything; a true child of the depression, nothing was ever wasted, and he took great pleasure in doing up toys, bikes and so on for us kids and the grandkids; they never felt second-hand, but rather, remade with love. His grandson James remembers with great affection the hours they spent pottering in the garage, and the time they made a possum box for a family of ringtails in the backyard at James’s family home house. No piece of wood, no useful piece of rope, no nails and screws, no matter how rusty, were discarded unless absolutely beyond the pale (and not even then, often!). Council clean-ups were a challenge; while Dad loved finding treasures in other people’s unwanted items, convincing him to get rid of dried-up old mops and other things that “just might come in handy one day” was not so easy. He wasn’t miserly, but he was conservative about money, and he hated waste in any form.

Dad genuinely and clearly loved being a father. Fatherhood was so much more than mere duty; it was a pleasure, as well as a responsibility. He enjoyed playing games with us, be it tether tennis or Scrabble, Cluedo or cards (although only simple card games like Snap and Happy Families because, you know, Methodist…). Our strongest memories as a family are associated with music; Dad had a fine singing voice and he was a good pianist. Playing Mum and Dad’s record collection and singalongs around the piano are favourite memories for all of us kids. That piano, his childhood piano, has been lovingly restored by his eldest grandson Peter, in whose home it now resides, and I know Dad would be thrilled to think that Peter and Emelia’s children, Bennett, Isaac and Zarahlinda, will grow up listening to music played on their great-grandad’s piano, and perhaps playing it themselves. (That’s playing it, Ben, not sitting on it!)

I remember stories of he and Mum told of times long before I was born, when they allowed that new-fangled rock and roll music to be played at church hall socials, and the dust the young people raised dancing. Dancing in the Methodist church hall! I can imagine the raised eyebrows this decision caused. When I was 8, Mum and Dad took us to see the first Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar. I think even then I had an idea of what this said about our parents; that they were interested in new ideas and ways of thinking about the world, and that their faith, character and intellect were strong and certain enough to be open to challenges, and not just musical ones (that rock and roll music again!).

Which is not to say they always liked the music we listened to, but they put up with great grace Linda’s period of mild acoustic guitar folk music led teenage rebellion, our collective Barry Manilow fandom, and endless Sunday nights watching Countdown and my seemingly endless obsession with ABBA. In my teenage years, they allowed me to take an overnight bus to Sydney from our then home in Canberra to attend an Elton John concert. They trusted us, they respected our choices, they never once attempted to censor or very rarely expressed disapproval, which is not to say they didn’t offer guidance when required.

Mum and Dad took us to movies and stage musicals from as early as I can remember, and there are many I cannot watch or listen to without associating them with Dad. I think we all remember the night they took us to see Sweet Charity at the Gosford Drive-In without realising what it was about, but to their credit, they didn’t leave, and again, I turn to the words trust and respect—which of course meant we in turn trusted and respected them.

The night after Dad died, I played the movie of Fiddler on the Roof as I wrote a notice about Dad’s death to share with friends on Facebook. David has since reminded me that Mum and Dad made a special trip with us to see Fiddler at the cinema in Sydney, as it wasn’t going to be showing in the cinema in Katoomba, where we were living at the time. They didn’t want us to miss out on a thing we didn’t have to, just because a.) we were living on a Minister’s stipend and b.) we were living what was then a very long way away from the city. Watching Fiddler again I was reminded again how the character of Tevye always makes me think of Dad; it’s without doubt both the unswerving faith in a loving and wise God, and a deep devotion to their children that makes me associate one with the other. Fiddler also has great songs, and Dad, as we know, loved to sing.

One of Linda’s early memories from the Toronto years is Dad along with one of the women from the Couple’s Club, dressed as tramps, singing a duet of Underneath the Arches and Side by Side. I wonder if in another life Dad might not have enjoyed amateur theatricals. He could be a bit of a ham; we remember fondly his appearances in musical reviews on stage at the Victory Hall in Auburn, including his turn in A Murky Melodrama and a pun-filled musical soap opera; I can still hear Dad singing “I’m a Lux Change Daily Girl” with Mum and Dad’s good friend Lynne Drabsch, who is here today.

And of course, none of us will ever forget his lovely voice leading the singing in church. Mum tells us Dad never joined a choir because he wasn’t quite a tenor nor quite a baritone, and he didn’t think he could sing parts. He could sing hymns, though, full-throated and heartfelt. In his later years, when the Lew Body dementia affected his throat muscles and he could no longer sing, it was for us all a significant turning point in his decline, and we missed, and miss, his voice terribly.

Dad always liked being around young people, and he truly enjoyed our company, at home, on Sunday drives, or bushwalks in his beloved Blue Mountains, and especially at the beach, Macmasters (Macs, as we called it), which was in many respects our family home. A small fibro shack when he and Mum bought it in the early 60s, our house at Macs redefined the word “modest”, but lovely as many of the church homes we lived in were, Macs was the only one that was truly ours. And while even on holidays Dad was always busy; building extensions to the house, clearing gutters, calling the snake man to come and relocate an unwelcome visitor, he always, always had time for us. I think we all have in our heads a clear image of Dad emerging from the surf, hair pasted to his head like Mo from The Three Stooges, laughing with the sheer pleasure of being in the surf, and more often than we’d have liked, at the sight of one of us kids emptying our togs of sand after being dumped. The photos where you saw Dad at his most relaxed in the slideshow were nearly all taken at Macs. He loved Macs perhaps more than any of us; his final ritual of every holiday was one last swim, just by himself, no kids allowed, before we loaded ourselves in the car for the trip home.

Dad was also genuinely interested in us as people; interested in our thoughts and interests and lives. Not in an intrusive way—Dad respected our privacy as much as he valued his own—but in an admiring and deeply respectful way. He never mocked us for our ideas or passions as children; as adults, he was always completely supportive of everything we set out to do, utterly and unconditionally proud of us and our achievements, and practical and kind when things didn’t go to plan.

As I was writing those very words, a video of Bennett, my great nephew, Dad’s first great grandchild, landed in my email inbox. The video shows Ben riding a pushbike on his own for the very first time, and in the proud, loving and encouraging words of his parents, Peter and Emelia, I can hear echoes of Dad, and the way he raised us to always give things a go, and of the unselfish, admiring pride Dad and Mum both have always taken in us, and subsequently their beloved grandchildren. Some of Dad’s last words were about his great-grandchildren, and I don’t think that’s any kind of accident. Family was everything to Dad, and in the last difficult years of his life, as the Lewy Body dementia began to take away his ability to engage with the world, his memories of his parents, grandparents, his adored Uncle Jim, his cousin Mavis and other family members were what brought him the greatest comfort and pleasure.

Alison remembers with great fondness her and Dad’s shared love of baseball and softball, and the hours Dad spent with her practising pitching and hitting. Dad played baseball as a kid, and this was a unique bond Alison and Dad had—that is, until she had a son of her own who also became a baseball player. Dad loved going to watch James play, and I think was quietly chuffed about the continuity across the generations.

Some of my own fondest memories are of having serious conversations with Dad about politics and social justice, feminism and other issues dear to my heart. It wasn’t until very recently that I discovered that Dad held his own intellect in fairly low esteem, but I think he was wrong about that. To me, the mark of intelligence isn’t just about formal scholarly achievement, but about having an agile, open and curious mind. Dad proved over and over again in his lifetime that he had both the capacity and the willingness to change his mind and to accommodate new ideas, while remaining true to his most deeply held principles.

I think in many ways this is the aspect of Dad’s character that I admire and hope to emulate the most.

Dad was also funny, sometimes surprisingly and wickedly so. He was patient, organised to the point of intractable, slow to anger, but righteous in his anger if the cause arose. He was, it has to be said, stubborn, and could therefore be, as Mum has said from time to time, a most infuriating man. But I think it’s the kindness, the compassion, the patience and the good humour that we will all remember most.

We have many stories about Dad we’ve been sharing this week; here are just a couple.

Linda says that, being the eldest, Dad had to learn on the job how to be the father of a teenage girl. She remembers the discreet flicking of the outdoor lights, and the “ahem” of milk bottles being gently rattled—Dad’s way of saying “time to come inside now” when he felt she’d spent enough time saying goodnight to the boyfriend of the day.

Dad’s compassion when we faced heartbreak and disappointment was constant and consistent. Alison remembers, after a personal heartbreak when she was a young woman, that Dad came and sat with her, just sat quietly as she grieved, not speaking, just stroking her forehead and being there loving her. Alison says she thought of this often when, at the end of his life, she reciprocated his loving care, sitting with him in the nursing home, no words spoken, stroking Dad’s forehead and just being there with and for him, loving him.

In the days since Dad’s death, the family have received many messages of love and respect about Dad. The words that keep coming up about him are these:

Kind—and as Dad’s friend Pamela once said to me, kindness is not to be undervalued as a virtue.

Many have spoken of Dad’s guidance and mentorship; my friend from my teenage years, Sally, wrote “I had some of my most important and life-defining conversations with him and loved his mix of kindness, humour and genuine care.” Others have spoken of how Dad supported them in their ministry; others still simply spoke of what a good man Dad was. There have been many more similar messages, and it has helped us all so much to know how much our beautiful dad was so important to, and so loved by so many. He was indeed a good man; he was without doubt the best man I have ever known, and ever expect to know.

I would just like to finish up by reading a passage from a book that informed a great deal of Dad’s ministry and faith, and also reflects exactly who Dad was. It’s one of my most treasured possessions—Dad’s copy of Your God Is Too Small by J.B. Phillips. Early in the book there’s a section called “MEEK-AND-MILD”, several passages of which Dad has marked; they clearly contained ideas that resonated with him. The section is essentially a critique of the child’s prayer Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild, or rather, what it suggests about the character of Christ. Phillips objects to “the impression of a soft and sentimental Jesus (supported, alas, all too often by sugary hymns and pretty religious pictures)” that the words conjure, reminding us that Jesus was a man who did not hesitate to challenge and expose the hypocrisies of the religious people of his day, and who was considered a danger by the authorities. A rebel, and a radical, in fact; not the first things we associate with someone described as “meek and mild”.

Now, Dad wasn’t a boat-rocker in the obvious sense, but nor was he one to stand down from what he believed to be right and true. I think there’s a danger in mistaking gentleness—and Dad was indeed a gentle man—with indecision, weakness or passivity. Dad was none of those. He tempered determination with caution, justice with compassion, and passion with pragmatism.

Phillips concludes:

There is a further offshoot of the worship of this false god which must be mentioned. It is the sentimental Christian ideal of “saintliness.” We hear, or read, of someone who was “a real saint: he never saw any harm in anyone and never spoke a word against anyone all his life.” If this really is a Christian saintliness, then Jesus Christ was no saint. It is true that He taught men not to sit in judgment upon one another, but He never suggested that they should turn a blind eye to evil or pretend that other people were faultless. He Himself indulged no roseate visions of human nature: He “knew what was in man,” as St. John tersely puts it. Nor can we imagine Him either using or advocating the invariable use of “loving” words. To speak the truth was obviously to Him more important than to make His hearers comfortable: though, equally obviously, His genuine love for men gave Him tact, wisdom, and sympathy. He was Love in action, but He was not meek and mild.

And that is our Dad in a nutshell.

We love you, Dad, we are grateful to have had you for as long as we did, and we will always miss you, but we are glad for your sake that your troubles are behind you. Rest well, dearest Dad, and thank you for everything you did and everything you were.

CBCA Shortlists 2017

I presented my choices for the Book of the Year: Older Readers at today’s Children’s Book Council of Australia (NSW) shortlist announcement event. 5 of us “industry experts” were asked to give our picks prior to the announcement of the official shortlists at 12 noon. Here’s a potted version of what I said:

I had started reading and already chosen 3 books I wanted to include in my list when the Notables list was announced earlier in the year. When I compared the Notables to the pile of 2016 books I had prioritised for my reading, I was surprised to see a big disjunct: a lot of the books I really was interested in, or had actually already read and loved, weren’t Notables. The regularly list less than 20 Older Readers Notables, which I find a bit frustrating, so I made a conscious decision to focus my reading on non-Notables.

My shortlist ended up looking like this:

Randa Abdel-Fattah‘s When Michael Met Mina
Cath Crowley‘s Words in Deep Blue*
Kirsty Eagar‘s Summer Skin
Justine Larbalestier‘s My Sister Rosa
Glenda Millard‘s The Stars at Oktober Bend*
James Roy and Noël Zihabamwe’s One Thousand Hills

The two books marked with asterix were the only Notables on my list and I was absolutely confident both would be shortlisted, but only Cath Crowley’s exquisite Words in Deep Blue was. (And it’s my pick for Book of the Year.)

None of this is to say that I think there’s any problem with any of the books chosen for the Notables list—on the contrary, it’s a good, solid list, just too short, in my view. I wanted to draw people’s attention to other worthy books, though, and I am very happy with my list. I also noted how the state literary prizes often pick very different books from the CBCA, which is good, really—shares the love, and the prize money, around.

I also added 4 other titles I wanted the audience to know about, and I feel terrible, becauseI left one of them on the kitchen table and so forgot to mention it. My “Notables” were:

Helen Chebatte‘s Bro
Steven Herrick‘s One Night in Mullet Town
Mark Smith‘s The Road to Winter
Lili Wilkinson‘s The Boundless Sublime

I also quoted from a recent article on lithub.com about how YA fiction will change the world, and talked about how some of the best YA fiction manages the delicate balance of addressing current ‘issues’ (how I hate that loaded term) of interest to young people while telling good stories with great characters and beautiful language, and how great YA can help young adult readers consider and make sense of the world they are growing up into. I don’t think we need to shy away from the fact that children and teens learn all kinds of things about the world from literature, that it has a clear socialisation function, and that those things are most effective when the writing is glorious and the storytelling strong.

And if you haven’t seen them, the actual shortlists are here. Can we just take a moment to note what a massive turn-around there’s been from the many, many years when male authors dominated this category; all this year’s shortlisted YA authors are women.

Congratulations to all those listed, commiserations to those feeling miserable that they’re not, and let’s keep reading and sharing great books.

CBCA OR 2017

The Book I Made: The Book That Made Me

BTTM FrontI am thrilled and excited to announce that my first book, The Book That Made Me, will be published on September 1, just a couple of weeks away, by Walker Books Australia.

The Book that Made Me was inspired by my fascination with the reading lives of writers. As a teacher, editor and a devoted fiction reader, I have read a lot of ‘how to’ writing manuals and writers’ memoirs, and I am always intrigued by the way books—especially the books read during childhood and adolescence—contribute to the way we think, feel and view the world around us. And while I’d read a lot about the influences on adult writers, I really wanted to know more about the reading lives of my favourite writers for young people.

The Book That Made Me is the product of that curiosity.

The book has been a long time coming. I initially pitched it to then-Walker Book publisher Sarah Foster around four or five years ago. A book like this will always take time; you’re commissioning several dozen individual pieces of writing, across several countries and involving visual artists as well as writers. People agree to be part of the project, and then other commitments take priority and they have to drop out. Changes happen within publishing houses, and within one’s own life, that affect the editorial and publishing process.

But we got there, and the actual publication date is not incidental: September 1 is Indigenous Literacy Day, and the royalties from The Book That Made Me are going to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation to support the work they do with young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers. And excitingly, Candlewick Press, Walker’s US parent company, will be publishing the book in the northern spring (2017).

Commissioning and editing a collection of personal essays is both a pleasure and a great responsibility. I am honoured that my friends and colleagues who have contributed to this book have entrusted me with their stories, and I am proud of the book that we have made together. I am excited to be able to share it with the young readers we created it for, with the intention that their reading eyes would be opened up to a whole new world of books and writers and ideas.

Review copy requests and media enquiries for The Book That Made Me: Stephanie.Whitelock@walkerbooks.com.au

Contributor Will Kostakis is excited!

Contributor Will Kostakis is excited!

A little bit more about me:

I am internationally recognised as a specialist in children’s and young adult literature. Originally an English teacher, I fell in love (again!) with children’s literature when undertaking post-graduate studies at Macquarie University. I have a Masters in Children’s Literature (on feminist retellings of fairy tales for teenagers) and I am currently writing my PhD on representations of Australia in children’s and YA fantasy fiction (with a special interest in Aboriginal story and representation).

I have worked as an editor (at the NSW School Magazine, ABC Books and as a freelancer), a teacher of writing children’s and young adult fiction (two years in the MA program at the University of Sydney and more than ten years at the Australian Writers’ Centre) and in arts program development. I was creative director of WestWords (the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature Project) for seven years; I’ve programmed two schools’ programs for Sydney Writers’ Festival, and am currently the Coordinator of Outreach Programs for Liverpool City Library in south western Sydney. I was a member of the Board of the Australian Society of Authors from 2012 until 2016.

I’m widely known as a critic, commentator and advocate of children’s literature and reading. I’m a regular speaker at festivals, conferences and in the media, including internationally. In 2001 I received a Churchill Fellowship to study literature programs for children and teens in the US, Ireland and UK. In 2009, my paper at the conference dedicated to the work of British children’s fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones was voted favourite paper by the Guardian Books Blog.

Some links:

The Book That Made Me on goodreads.

Me on ABC Overnights

Guardian Books Blog

My 2010 Sydney Writers’ Festival session with Melina Marchetta and David Levithan.

Teachers’ Notes for The Book That Made Me.


circleI attended the launch of Jeannie Baker‘s new picture book, Circle, tonight, at the Maritime Museum in Sydney. I don’t remember how many launches of Jeannie’s books I’ve been to, but I know I’ve been attending them for well over twenty years, and I was privileged to work with her on the education kit that accompanied the tour of the artworks of her last book, Mirror.

As with Bob Graham‘s books, I always think Jeannie’s latest book is my favourite, and her most beautiful, but this time I think I am not only right about that, but that it might also well be her most important book.
Circle tells the story of the migratory flights of Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica baueri) from Alaska to New Zealand/Australia and back again. These small birds undertake the longest migratory journey of any animal ever recorded; a female bird with a satellite tracker fitted was recorded flying from Alaska to New Zealand in one unbroken flight lasting 8 days—and she returned to the exact same waterfront she had last been settled on in New Zealand.
When Doctor Richard Fuller from the University of Queensland, who launched the book, told that story tonight, you could feel the awe and wonder that fell over the listening audience. Then, when he went on to describe the terrible destruction of their landing places—mudflats in Korea and China in the Yellow Sea, and the impact it is having on the survival of these extraordinary birds—well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I felt a terrible despair. Some days I feel utterly frightened and despondent about climate change, the loss of habitats, the high rates of extinction and basically, about the future of the planet, and there seems so little will to do anything from those who actually have the power to act. Outright denial of climate science, the rise of the anti-vaccination movement, the whole ‘eat well and cure yourself of cancer’ nonsense. Honestly, some days I wouldn’t give you tuppence for the human race, and I felt a searing sorrow as Doctor Fuller spoke.

And yet.

Looking around me, I was surrounded by the most marvellous examples of human beings’ artistry, imagination, ingenuity and inventiveness—artworks by Aboriginal Australians showing their migratory patterns around the oceans and waterways of Australia; beautiful and efficacious nautical instruments; planes and ships and navigation flags and so on—and I caught myself stopping myself from thinking, there is no living creature more destructive and barbaric than humans, not because I don’t think it’s true, but because it’s only part of the story. We are capable of such enormous, willful damage—like the 35 kilometre seawall in Korea that has destroyed the Godwits way-station, where they once landed to eat and replenish their strength on the long journey north. (I don’t know why they don’t stop on the way south—guess it’s all downhill 😉 )
But humans are also capable of great love and courage and creativity and beauty and art, and it’s maybe those things that might save us.
I can’t help but hope that the art and beauty of Jeannie’s book will help save the Godwits. More than that, I hope and trust it will help bring up a generation of children who will make the difference—who will not forget the feeling of awe they must feel when they read her book, and learn of the extraordinary journey these birds undertake and the ancient power* of that journey, and yet the very fragility of their survival against human greed and selfishness.

Because despite how this might all sound, Circle is not a sad or despairing book. It’s a book full of life and light and hope. Like all the best children’s books, the darkness and danger is acknowledged, but it is a book replete with beauty and infused with love and hope.

This is what books, stories, can do, and especially what children’s books can do. They give us that moment of awestruck wonder that as adults, we’re probably likely to forget as we go on with our business. But imagine if every child in this country heard the story of the Godwits, and kept that moment of powerful understanding in their heart, imagine what that could do for environmental policies going into the future, when those kids grow up and start to take charge of things. If it’s not too late, already—not just for the Godwits (who are now listed as endangered), but for all of us.

Jeannie has been teaching us in the most beautiful way to love our Earth for so many decades now, but there’s never been a more timely book than Circle. If you can, go to see the exhibition—it’s travelling around the country for the next two years—and buy the book, or borrow it from your library, and make sure you share it with a child, or maybe a childish Environment Minister, should you have the chance. It might not save the planet, but it will soothe your heart.


*(Think about it—how did the ancient ancestors of these birds even know there was a continent all the way on the other side of the world to fly to? and I’d love a sciencey friend to explain to me the evolutionary impulse behind it.)

Behind every great artist…

There’s often an arts worker.

Much has been written lately about the high-handed and, frankly, insupportable decision by the Federal Arts Minister, Senator George Brandis, to remove a massive slice of funding from the Australia Council for the Arts in order to establish a National Program for Excellence in the Arts. If you already know and care about this issue, then you’ll have a good handle on debate—not that you could really call it a debate, when it was undertaken with absolutely zero consultation with anyone in the arts sector, and is clearly another example of a Captain’s call from this most arrogant of governments. Many of us in the arts believe that this is a big old chunk of payback for those artists who protested Transfield’s sponsorship of last year’s Biennale. Whatever the motivation, though, there’s no question this is a devastating blow to the OzCo and to the notion of arms-length, independent and peer-assessed funding in this country.

Briefly, some of the key issues include:

No-one has any idea what the parameters of eligibility for this funding will be, beyond what we already know about Brandis’s tastes in The Yarts.

Major arts companies who have had their funding assured have been gagged from criticising the decision.

The Australia Council has suspended the current round of applications for 6 year funding for key arts organisations (and disclaimer: I am on the board of one of those affected) and the June funding round has been cancelled altogether.

The ArtsStart and Creative Communities Partnerships Initiative will no longer be offered.

Many people have written with great passion and eloquence about what this will mean for small independent artists—this one from Kill Your Darlings is especially on point. As is this one, by the redoubtable Alison Croggan. And of course, Kill Your Darlings is one of the small journals in very real danger of becoming unviable without Australia Council support. The Sydney Review of Books is another, as founder Ivor Indyk reports.

But this blog post isn’t merely to rehash the discussion, or simply to post links, as useful, perhaps, as I hope that will be.

It’s to remind everyone that it’s not just artists who will be affected by these cuts.

It’s also arts workers.

Because let us not forget in all of this that when we are talking about small-to-medium arts organisations losing funding, we’re not just talking about lost opportunities for artists—new, emerging and independent artists who, as you’ll know if you’ve read some of the articles linked above, so often end up being the beating heart of mainstream and major arts companies. We’re also talking about lost opportunities, lost jobs and maybe even lost careers for arts workers.

So, what’s an arts worker? And who cares? Aren’t they just slightly glorified paper-pushers, useful maybe for writing grant applications and reports to boards, necessary to keep databases and mailing lists and newsletters up to date, but more or less interchangeable with any other arts grad out there?

Well, maybe, in some instances, but I’d argue that even the lowliest arts intern isn’t worth much if they’re not passionately and powerfully invested in the art form they have specialised in, and deeply committed to the company they work for—often for barely, if at all, minimum wage. And those young turks need to have a career path ahead of them—and that’s potentially, if not actually, been taken away from them by these funding cuts.

But beyond the freshly minted grad who is willing and able to get their opshop-shoe-shod foot in the door for whatever coin is tossed their way, there are also the career arts workers. Those of us—and yes, this is where it gets personal, even though I am no longer actually employed in this capacity—who have, early-, mid- or late- career, sacrificed job security and a decent salary and regular working hours and even, in some cases, the limelight, to create and run and support and develop artists and arts companies and programs and small organisations…

So that, on a practical level, flights can be booked and venues and accommodation organised and events promoted and audiences secured and media contacted and materials purchased and lunches ordered and photo permission forms signed and  money taken and invoices corrected and processed so that they can be paid in timely fashion…

So that artists can be employed. So that communities can be represented. So that work can be developed and nurtured and shared across place and time and geography and cultures and ages. So that (here come the buzz words) capacity can be built so that non-specialists can take up ideas and programs and run with them, so that (for example) poetry slams can happen in places with no poets, so that aspiring actors in reviled western suburbs can see themselves on stages, so that writers from unrecognised classes and cultures can have their voices heard.

Because arts workers are not just administrators or form-fillers or even wannabes. Arts workers—artistic directors, program managers, education officers, admin officers, interns and volunteers—are the lifeblood of the arts in this small nation of ours. And they are often genuinely creative people themselves, even if they are not technically practising artists. (Although Lord knows there’s an art to writing a successful grant application—am I wrong?!)

Arts workers create artistic programs that give time and space and income to artists. Arts workers identify, nurture and sometimes even create opportunities and audiences.

And arts workers have mortgages and families and bills and pets and aspirations and careers and when arts funding is cut, people lose their jobs. And that ain’t nothing.

I’ve spent most of my career, one way or another, as a public servant and an arts worker. And when cuts are made to (so-called) bureaucracies and the arts—soft targets all—it’s easy to overlook the fact that those cuts mean less jobs for actual people with actual careers and commitments and creative lives and practical needs along the lines of, you know, earning an income.

(It’s not like we were rolling it in in the first place—I recently realised if I’d stuck with my teaching career, I’d have been earning around 30k a year more than I was as an arts worker. And I’m in my 50s. I don’t have a lot of superannuation accumulating years to waste.)

So while we rightly worry about the impact of Brandis’s newly devised personal artistic playpen on artists and artistic practise and development, please let’s remember that the demise of funding programs for small-to-medium arts organisations means unemployment and heartache for many more folk behind the scenes.

And that ain’t nothing.

Ryan Gosling arts admin1