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?

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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, my friend Tianne 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!

Let the games begin!

No, no, no, not those games! The Kill Your Darlings Great Aussie YA Championship has begun!

I mentioned the Championship a few days ago, and now the list of 11 great YA books from the past 30 years has been announced. The posts will begin on Monday, and you can vote for your favourite of the contributor’s books (pick me! pick me!) plus they will also be running a people’s choice competition, where you can vote for whatever book you like.

As you will see from the list, I chose to write about Joanne Horniman‘s 1997 novel Loving Athena. I have been a fan of Joanne’s novels forever, and I was really pleased to have the opportunity to revisit this gorgeous book. I’m not sure when my post will be up, but you can RSS feed the Killings blog, or subscribe to their mailing list for updates.

And while you’re at the blog, check out the recent post What does YA mean to you? A discussion about definition. And don’t forget to leave a comment and contribute to this question, and the whole Championship discussion!

Finding readers finding books

I met a young woman today—a girl, really, a young teenager—who I’ll call Jessica. I was at the Mount Druitt Hub for a work event—we had an author talk and book launch with Ambelin Kwaymullina, and her first young adult novel, The Tribe: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf.*

In the room opposite, an exercise program for children was running, and the parents and carers of the kids were out in the foyer area discussing exercise and nutrition and so on with a health worker. Jessica was kind of mooching around, looking at the posters on the noticeboard but mostly looking to be at a bit of loose end (I discovered later her younger brother was in the exercise class) and so I struck up a bit of a conversation with her.

She was a quietly spoken girl, a bit diffident, not very confident, I would guess, and I found it hard to catch her voice. I asked her if she liked to read, as we had a book launch happening. “Is it the Wolf book?” she asked—she’d seen the posters. “It looks a bit scary,” she said when I confirmed it. It’s not so scary, I reassured her, although it has a lot of action and adventure. Do you like to read? She shook her head. “Not all that much.”

I very nearly left it there. I didn’t want to be the creepy book lady, pushing paperbacks on the unwilling, but something made me think, what the heck. I had a spare complimentary copy of Ambelin’s book, so I ducked in and got it, and took it out to Jessica. Would you like this? I asked her. I have a spare. And if you like, you can come and meet the author and she’ll sign it for you.

“Oh, but I haven’t read it yet,” Jessica said, stroking the cover, as if somehow an unread signed book would be a spoiled thing. That’s OK, I said. Ambelin will sign it for you anyway,and you can keep it and read it and you’ll have your own copy signed by the author.

To be honest, I’m not sure she completely got what I meant. But she came with me anyway, and I introduced her to Ambelin. “Are you the author?” Jessica asked, a tiny bit awestruck. Ambelin beamed—Yes, I am! and they chatted a little, and Ambelin signed the book.

Jessica went back out to the foyer and as we were still waiting for people to arrive for the launch, I was popping in and out of the room and the foyer. I was glad to see Jessica was reading the book. And then suddenly, she stood up, and took herself back into the room where Ambelin was, made her way over to her, held out the book and said,

“This is really good.”

It was like she just had to tell her. There was a quiet urgency about it—this is good, and I have just discovered this, and I have to tell someone. And on this day, just because of a confluence of events, Jessica just so happened to have the chance to tell the author.

I don’t have to tell you that I was thrilled. For people like me, who believe passionately in the truth that life is simply better with books (by which I mostly mean stories) there’s just nothing to compare with the feeling of having made that connection for someone. And I’m really pleased, and lucky, that my day job allows me this opportunity from time to time—to find readers finding books.

But I’m certainly not suggesting that I made a reader tonight, because despite her initial hesitance, Jessica was clearly not really a non-reader at all.

After the launch was over, I went out to introduce myself to her mum, so that she’d know where (and who) this book came from, and I met Jessica’s younger brother, who I’ll call Sam, who, it has to be said, was looking at the book with what can only be called booklust. (Oh, how he wanted that book! And he wasn’t shy like his sister!)

I spoke with their mum, and she said their dad was a big book person, and that she liked to read, and that they always had books for the kids. She was really pleased about me having given Jessica  copy of Ashala Wolf, and I gave her information about the day job, and how soon we’re going to be publishing kids’ book reviews on our website, &tc and so on—and I hope we hear from them.

But I know quite well that my pleasure in the encounter was more my own sense of connection and having done something concrete and practical in the way of putting that book in those hands—and that’s fine. We all need a little reminder of why we do what we do, and a little personal fillip to keep us on track. But nor do I want to overplay the encounter beyond my own personal pleasure from it, and the things I value that it reminded me of.

Because the more important point is that this is the work that teachers and librarians (and especially teacher-librarians), do every single day. It’s one of those remarkable and important things about the role of the teacher and the librarian that can’t be measured by budgets, NAPLAN results (whatever the pollies will tell you) or esoteric arguments about the future of the book. It requires people; people making connections, taking chances, having conversations. People saying, hey, have you read this? People—grown up people—saying to less grown up people, people in a position of trust using that trust to say, hey, I think you might enjoy this, if you’d be willing to give it a try.

People more or less bumping into one another in that random and sometimes astonishingly fortuitous (but perhaps also actually mostly rather prosaic) way that may happen between strangers (like me and Jessica) but which more often and more easily happens between people who have a reason to know one another—like teachers and librarians and kids.

So however it happened in this instance, I hope Jessica (and all the other Jessicas out there) is tucked up in bed and is halfway through Ashala Wolf by now (and that tomorrow Sam—and all the other Sams—will steal it from her and devour it), and that after that she’ll go to her school or local library, she’ll talk to her English teacher or her T-L, she’ll say, “I read this amazing book, and I wonder…” and she’ll find (and be helped to find) another book, and another…

and the next time someone asks her if she likes to read, she’ll nod and smile and say, quietly, confidently,

Yes, I do.

________________________________________

*The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is a terrific book, by the way, and Ambelin is a new talent in Australian YA fiction to watch—of which, more later in another post, but in the meantime—thank you, Walker Books, for this evening!

Remembering Margaret Mahy

I am so heavy of heart to write this post.

We’ve lost so many people in the children’s book community this year—big names like Maurice Sendak, lesser known but well-loved folk like blogger and writer Peter Sieruta, both from the US. Here in Australia, recently, we lost dear Jean Chapman, a writer and champion of children’s books and reading (and the only person—so far!—to ever dedicate a book to me!), and illustrator Pamela Lofts.

And now, we’ve lost Margaret Mahy.

I’m often asked about my favourite children’s and young adult authors, and for years and years now, I’ve often answered by saying, well, when I grow up, I want to be Margaret Mahy.

You know I have other favourite children’s authors, most notably Diana Wynne Jones, and now we’ve lost both her and Margaret. And as I write this, I keep remembering all the connections between their work—Chants and Changeovers and so on.

I’m more than a little bit heart-broken.

Margaret was one of the first international authors I heard speak, and I’ve always remembered (as anyone who heard it can attest) the absolute thrill of hearing her perform her incredible poem (later published as a glorious picture book) Bubble Trouble. (I looked for a video of Margaret performing Bubble Trouble without success—perhaps someone else knows of such a thing out there on line?) Margaret’s rhyming picture book texts (see also Down the Back of the Chair) set the highest benchmark possible for that most difficult of arts—poetry for children. (Don’t believe me? Read your way through the awful doggerel that passes for rhyming texts for children that make up a good whack of any publisher’s slush pile.)

I have so many favourite Margaret Mahy picture books—Margaret was a friend to cats, and I adore The Three-Legged Cat, but also check out The Great White Man-Eating Shark and so many others. Her junior fiction is also as good as it gets—funny, smart, subversive and about as child-friendly as you could ask for. The Great Piratical Rumbustification and The Very Wicked Headmistress were staples of The School Magazine when I worked there back in the 1990s and early 2000s, and they were also wonderful playgrounds for illustrators.

But for many readers, it is Margaret’s older children’s and young adult fiction that will live with us forever. The Changeover ranks high on the favourite books list of so many readers and writers, and I love it too (one of the great books about nascent teen sexuality ever written, no?), as I loved The Catalogue of the Universe, Memory and Underrunners, but my very favourite of all her novels is The Tricksters.

It’s quite a long time now since I’ve read The Tricksters, but so many of its moods and images continue to cast a long, welcome shadow over my reading (and writing) life. Harry’s secret novel. Those three creepy brothers. Family secrets. The mysterious Teddy Carnival. The sea… the sea…

We Australians have a habit of claiming New Zealanders as our own, and there has been many a time over the years that my colleagues around the world have assumed Margaret was an Australian. She wasn’t—she was essentially a New Zealander, but I think there’s a shared colonial, antipodean culture and world view that we share, and it goes some way to explaining why we hold Margaret and her books so dear. Or maybe we just recognise good writing, like anyone.

Because we’re clearly not alone in our love and reverence for Margaret. Already on child_lit and Twitter and Facebook, friends and colleagues around the world are expressing their great dismay and sorrow at the loss of this incomparable woman and writer.

And yes, I did know her. Not well, but I was so fortunate to have met her several times over the years, and to have published not one, but two interviews with her. She was warm and generous, circumspect and respectful. And funny.

The last correspondence I had with Margaret was after the June 2011 Christchurch earthquake, when I fielded many questions about her safety. She was grateful for the enquiries, and asked me to pass on the message that she was safe and well and staying with family.

And now she’s gone.  How we will miss, and remember her.

 

The Great YA Championship—Kill Your Darlings!


Why yes, I have been busy lately!

A few weeks ago, I received a very thrilling email from one of the editors at the terrific literary journal Kill Your Darlings. KYD’s online editor, Estelle Tang, contacted me to ask if I’d like to be part of a celebration of Australian YA fiction on KYD’s blog Killings. The inspiration for this came from the (most) recent resurgence of interest in Australian classics, spearheaded by Text Publishing‘s classics list. The good folk at KYD decided that it was time to look back at the great history of Australian young adult books, by asking YA enthusiasts to choose a great Australian YA book from the last 30 years to write about.

Well, ooh! How exciting! And I immediately knew my own shortlist of books I wanted to write about. I thought that this was an amazing opportunity to bring back into the light some wonderful novels, favourites of mine, that have been neglected or forgotten or were never properly acknowledged at the time of their publication. I sent my shortlist through, and waited to hear back which one they wanted me to write about. And I was really pleased that their first choice was my first choice.

It was all embargoed and a bit hush-hush until a few days ago, when the announcement was made on Killings, so now I can tell you all it’s happening! Well, will be, from July 30. And you can be part of it—because you can vote for the books we contributors write about, to come up with a top 3. And there are prizes, too, of—what else! YA book packages, donated by Penguin, Allen and Unwin and Hardie Grant Egmont.

My secret hope is that the Championship might even see some of the books—those, like the one I’ve written about—come back into print.  Or at the very least, encourage people to seek them out in libraries and second-hand bookstores. (Of course, some, perhaps many of them, will still be in print—mine isn’t, and I so wish it were, as my copy is looking decidedly well-loved!)

I am, by the way, permitted to reveal which book I wrote about, and if you’re my friend on Facebook (and if you aren’t why aren’t you?), then you may already know—we played 20 Questions the other night. But I’ve decided to maintain a little mystery for now, in the hope that you’ll add Killings to your reader and wait with bated breath for my offering!

But in the meantime, here are some clues:

Red insects. Muses and goddesses. Poetry. Pottery. First love. First loss. Family.

Let the celebrations begin.