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

I got a little bit cranky on Twitter tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me say that again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Wasn’t My Job.

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

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

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

Night, tweeps.

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

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

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

Matilda. Illustration by Quentin Blake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My friend Jan then raised the point that books give authority to these attitudes, and how that authority can reinforce racism a given child may already be being raised with.
And then Penelope noted this:
I think it is important to recall that a real child identified real harm. That is not a what if and should be considered. Language does harm, it is not just a relic of past bad practices if it is still defended and supported by teachers and others with influence over children. It must sometimes look to a child as if everyone else’s opinion is more important than her wellbeing or suffering.
And this, for me, is the crux of the problem. We adults can bang on all we like about teaching moments and historical context, but what use is that to the Native American child who reads, in her classroom, the words “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”. How do we expect that 9 year old child of a German mother and Sengalese father to contextualise a word that she knows only too well we can not imagine how it makes her feel. The Aboriginal child who either doesn’t see himself at all, or sees himself compared to a dog.
What are we saying to those kids? Suck it up? That’s just not good enough. But nor is censorship a solution. I simply don’t have one—it’s an unsolvable dilemma. But while we’re talking about the rights of authors and cultural integrity, we must also acknowledge and honour the real harm experienced by real children. And so it is even more incumbent upon us—we, the gatekeepers—to find ways to make sure the balance is more than redressed by making sure that they are surrounded by books and words and images and stories and language that affirms their dignity and their right to be at the heart of cultural, social and artistic expression and experience, along with their white classmates.
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*I’ve personally never actually read a Billabong book, and while I read the Little House books as a child, it was the TV show that won my heart. As the name of this blog attests, my best-beloved childhood book of this kind was Seven Little Australian Australians, which actually had a passage sympathetic to Aboriginal people removed after the first edition, not to be restored for 100 years.

 

 

Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2013

Happy New Year!

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

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

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

Right. Good on you. Welcome back.

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

I was interested. And so I am.

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

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

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