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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Reading Matters: Professional Program Day 2 recap

Here lies my recap of the second and last day of Reading Matters Professional Program (*sniffle*). I really, really tried to piece together a half-decent summary (or at least a small morsel of the deliciousness that was #YAmatters) but I do apologize if I've mucked anything up. If I attributed to the wrong person, totally misquoted or just plain missed the point then, I’m sorry. Please, for those who were at Reading Matters do correct me if I got something wrong. Otherwise; here goes my final recap. 
P.S. - ...and sorry for any atrocious spelling mistakes! 

My life in comics

Raina Telgemeier

Raina was the “first performer on a rainy day” and a nice first burst of sunshine. Her talk was chock full of personal photos, sketches, artworks and was just incredible. I think there might have been a few comic/graphic-novel sceptics in the audience (certainly not me though!) but by the end of her talk I think Raina had even the naysayers converted. At the end of her talk she did say she hoped the Melbourne comic scene grew and was embraced; and I think she went a long way to ensuring that was the case amongst those teachers and librarians. 

Raina began by talking about her inspirations, which can be traced back to her childhood and a love of cartoons. 

She was an especially big fan of the ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ comic strip by Bill Watterson, which were more than just lines on a page; those characters ran and danced and lived for her. She also loved the ‘For Better or For Worse’ comic strip by Lynn Johnston (which ran for 30 years! And chronicled one family’s life – from babies to marriage) – this comic was “like reading about your next-door-neighbours”, and even included a story about the family pet dying. Raina also mentioned her dad buying her a copy of ‘Barefoot Gen, Vol. 1: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima’ by Keiji Nakazawa which looked really cute and sweet, but it ended up that EVERYONE DIED in the end – and that stuck with her, that comics could be so serious too. On her inspirations, Raina said; 'You put all your influences into a blender and create your own style.'

She then showed us some of her earliest artwork, as a “genius two-year-old” and ‘pizza-people.’ She then showed us some of the stuff she was drawing in year 7, and when she was 11-years-old she started drawing comic strips. 


Raina graduated from Manhattan's School of Visual Arts, an institution she really loved because she was able to dabble in all art forms, but at the end of it all you got a diploma with a seal on it that said you “graduated from comic school!” 

After graduating she started creating mini-comics, and selling them at zine stores. She also rented booths are various comic conventions . . . and it was because she did that, that an editor at Scholastic found her and spoke about their new ‘graphix’ imprint for graphic novels. But Raina was nervous – she’d previously only written 8-page mini-comics, not a full-length graphic novel! So she decided to adapt a childhood favourite; ‘The Babysitters Club’ (with the help of Ann M. Martin). It was after adapting those books and building her confidence that Raina felt ready to tackle her own book, ‘Smile.’

Then came the (now infamous) teeth photos that everyone had heard about when Raina spoke at the Reading Matters schools day. . . 

‘Smile’ is an autobiographical account of Raina’s dental dramas, after she fell over and broke her two front teeth. ‘Smile’ also became a love letter to her hometown, San Francisco, and to the 90’s (acid wash denim!) 

When she had braces it was a real struggle, her friends teased her and didn’t really understand all that she went through; “There's a very thin line between friend & bully when you're 12” (YESSSSSS!!!) But ultimately she wrote ‘Smile’ “just to get the memories out of my head.”

Likewise, her second novel ‘Drama’ was inspired by her own experiences as a “theatre nut” in school. In writing 'Drama', Raina wanted to capture that electricity right before the curtains part – and she also included two gay characters because they’re based on two friends she had (and okayed the story with them!)

It was mentioned previously that ‘Drama’ was meant to be set in high school –but her publishers wanted her to pitch it younger, to the same 8-12 age range as ‘Smile’. Raina ended up being totally okay doing this because, honestly, there wasn’t a whole lot of graphic novels being written for those young girls and she’d already established that fan base. She also wrote this “for the 13-year-old theatre boys of the world.” 

Raina then went into the finer details of how she draws her comics, and this is her final stack of finished pages (which takes *years* to create). She said it’s hard to hear that someone read her book in half an hour when it takes SO LONG to create (so she, kindly, asked us to read it twice if we get through it so quickly!)

Audience questions and someone asked if winning the Eisner award (“the Oscars of comics”) changed how people perceived her as an author (no more of those “it’s just a comic” comments?). Raina said it was wonderful, but ‘Smile’ won Best Publication for Teens, so lots of people in the industry still saw it as “just a children’s book”. 

Someone else asked; because Raina doesn’t do her own colouring, does she still have any say in the representation of minority characters in her books? Raina said ‘yes’, that’s all up to her. She definitely makes it a point to include characters from all different backgrounds because, growing up in San Francisco, she was the minority and that’s normal to her.

What’s yours is mine

Alison Croggon, Andrew McGahan and Gabrielle Williams explore creation through adaptation.

Chaired by Tim Coronel

Alison Croggon kicked things off, as her ‘Black Spring’ is inspired by ‘Wuthering Heights’. She ‘stole’ the structure of ‘Wuthering Heights’, but didn’t re-read the book while writing ‘Black Spring’ and sometimes she went against Emily Brontë. Ultimately you can’t borrow/steal from an original work unless you hear voices of your own characters that you actually imagined. . . Alison ended on this thought; 'All writers are magpies and steal from all over the place.'

Andrew McGahan said that the young boy running off to sea was a common trope, but he was actually inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe short story. Andrew also grew up in the country and rarely saw the sea, but found family vacations terribly exciting ('even if it was the Gold Coast.’) For Gabrielle Williams, the starting-point of ‘The Reluctant Hallelujah’ was ‘Deltora Quest’, and debating with her fourteen-year-old son about going on a quest at such a young age – she thought her seventeen-year-old would be far better suited to a quest, because you’re “foolish-brave” at that age. 

Gab also spoke about how, when she had the idea for Jesus, she wasn’t intimidated by the Messiah because she’s Catholic herself, and felt confident in treading (not breaking!) a few Catholic protocol toes. Gab later said; 'There is something funny about Jesus in the basement. But I tried to be respectfully irreverent.' At this point Alison Croggon chimed in to say she had to re-read *that* page in ‘The Reluctant Hallelujah’ at least 3 times: “oh, it is Jesus Christ!” 

Gab also spoke about how; 'Aside from the Jesus element, there's no fantasy in my book...' Jesus also has a deliberately minimalist role in ‘The Reluctant Hallelujah’, and the story is more focused on the kids (and their interactions with him).

Tim made an interesting parallel, that Jesus is a staggering figure for Gab,  just as ‘Wuthering Heights’ was for Alison Croggon. . . 

Gab spoke about faith as a motif in ‘The Reluctant Hallelujah’, and she wanted to communicate that; 'Sometimes you can go on an adventure that isn't about *you*. Something can be bigger than yourself.' In speaking about how ‘The Reluctant Hallelujah’ has been received . . . Gab admits that (without even reading the book) some people are turned off by the Jesus thing – and, fair enough, they don’t want religion shoved down their throats (not that she does that, at all!) But, Gab said; 'I thought it would be quite a fun one for Catholic schools’ (the audience cracked the heck up at that!) Gab finished off by discussing how she decided to include the drains of Melbourne because she thought it would be quite tricky for kids to transport the body of Christ (without a driver’s licence) and it was her editor who suggested she actually meet the Cave Clan and take a trip down the drains (herein followed a *hilarious* interlude about Gab putting her life in the hands of a 17-year-old.) 

Gender less

Myke Bartlett, Libba Bray and Fiona Wood unbox identity.

In discussion with Jordi Kerr

So, both before and after Reading Matters the topic of sex and gender roles was fuelling discourse in YA land. First, a (terrible) Sydney Morning Herald article came out, written by an MJ Angel called ‘Is young adult fiction too sexy?’ Those of us in the know instantly discredited this article when Ms Angel said YA was a term coined in 2009 (as of a few days ago the article has been correctly amended to replace ‘young adult’ with ‘new adult’ – but that’s not even the biggest issue with this unethical trash). Over the course of the Reading Matters conference, Fiona Wood made it abundantly clear that she was not interviewed for that article (though her “quotes” are the only good part of it). Turns out, Fiona’s “quotes” are actually lifted from a separate pitch she wrote (like a press release) – and they’ve been altered to make it sound like MJ Angel conducted an interview with Ms Wood . . . yeah. Not cool. 

So, that’s one article that brings up a sort-of gender question. Then feminist blog, Jezebel, released this article on how to write a feminist YA novel. I don’t hate this article, but after the ‘Gender less’ discussion I've decided that anyone from the Reading Matters author panel would be absolutely fabulous to write an article or opinion piece on this. 
Exhibits A-Z: 

Libba Bray kicked off the awesome; by saying it bothers her so much when books are categorized as being a “boy” book or a “girl” book. 

. . . And then Libba unfolded a piece of paper she had with her, and seemed to take a deep breath. Libba just wanted to get this little speech she’d prepared right; because at another author event someone once asked her “do you experience sexism in your job?”, Libba replied ‘yes’, and then proceeded to give a very incoherent answer (though I simply can’t believe that of the incredible Libba Bray!). So she spoke to us, saying; “When we talk about these things we get so defensive and we don't end up moving the needle. . . ” She said that boy/girl books, and discouraging boys by saying “oh, this is a girl book” is a problem – because that implies boys don't need to be concerned with the female experience. She said that categorising books as one gender or the other limits each gender from sharing their experiences. It negates them. She said there are real-world consequences that stem from reinforcing gender stereotypes: it’s anti-woman legislation that develops into a “low-level virus for girls.” Libba was adamant; "There are no boy books or girl books. There are just books." Libba concluded her small speech by asking us to; “Push down the barriers of Them and widening the circle of Us - stop - ask - let's change the conversation,” furthermore she asks teens to question the status-quo, question THEIR status-quo. 

*Cue & hold for rousing applause, maybe even a bit of feet-stomping...*

Myke Bartlett spoke about ‘Fire in the Sea’, and how he hoped that writing a strong, female heroine wouldn’t exclude male readers; "I just wrote a story for human beings,not a gender." He said he’d now quite like to write a book with a male protagonist, to explore what it is to be a man... Myke added that, *growing up in small-town Perth as a well-dressed, articulate young man; he definitely saw stereotyping (the word ‘gay’ was thrown at him a fair bit, being used in a derogatory way). 
*Myke then wanted to apologise for always seeming to reference his Perth background like it's an affliction. He also added that one portrayal of an articulate and sensitive young man that he really loved was Michael in Fiona Wood’s ‘Wildlife’. 

The question was then put to Fiona if Dan’s father coming out as gay in ‘Six Impossible Things’ gave her the opportunity to rail against put-downs such as “that’s gay”, or using ‘girl’ in a derogatory way. This was definitely a big deal for Fiona, and Dan certainly brings people to task towards the end of the novel when he starts standing up for his dad. Fiona then said something really beautiful; 'inclusive normality' – which embraces everything; if it's human, it's normal. 

Chair, Jordi Kerr, then asked hot-button topic of ‘gender flipping covers’ – which has been something of a project for YA author Maureen Johnson (Libba Bray interjected that Maureen is “one of the bright lights of YA. SHE WILL SAVE US ALL!”) Myke said the 'Fire in the Sea' cover tries to tell boys that 'it's OK to read even though it has a girl as a main character.’ Libba said the issues of genderized covers is absolutely a big deal, and she wishes that publishers would start moving the needle in this discussion – she threw out the idea of gender-neutral covers. Fiona actually made sure that both ‘Six Impossible Things’ and ‘Wildlife’ had very gender-neutral covers; ‘Wildlife’ is actually based on the idea of selfies, and owning your experiences. Libba practically shoued; “Publishers! Move the needle. Come up with covers that reflect that inclusive normality.” 

‘Why is the gender question still even being asked?’ – Myke Bartlett mused that maybe it’s because young adults are still working out who they are. Libba was disturbed that; “For boys, what is masculine is the absence of the feminine,” in relation to gender-questions. 

Myke then spoke about creative writing at a high school – he found that the boys were so focused on plot and action that he had to steer them towards questions of emotion. ‘How would your character react to that?’ 

On the topic of genderized covers, you can’t go past Libba Bray’s ‘Beauty Queens’ as this perfect trigger-point for discussion. Fiona says ‘Beauty Queens’ is a “ripper read” for young boys (though Libba mentioned an instance of a mother telling her; “my son can’t read that!” because the cover had a VAGINA on it!). At first, Libba about hyperventilated when she saw the ‘Beauty Queens’ cover with a girl in a bikini . . . but then she stepped back and realized the designer was passing commentary on all those headless-female covers that overpopulate YA. She did request something else to communicate the satire (hence, lipstick bullets). 

At one point Libba Bray said this wholly perfect line; ‘being a southern female is the kabuki theatre of femininity.’ She said this in the context of discussing how drawn she was to Holden Caulfield in her youth . . . because he was *so* angry, he tapped into an anger that she couldn’t express (until she started writing herself). 

Mention of the ‘frigid or lezo’ conversation between the teens of Myke’s ‘Fire in the Sea’ – which he said he actually overheard while travelling on the tram one day.

Discussion about young feminist, Sibylla, in Fiona’s ‘Wildlife’; particularly how she rails against misogynistic rap lyrics. 'Girls in the readership are surrounded by these message that are hateful towards them. They need an antidote to those lyrics.'

*interlude: for Libba Bray to give high-fives to both Myke and Fiona for writing utterly believable characters. To Myke, Libba also said “I’m a girl and I loved your book!” * 

Libba ended the talk by noting the TENSION in the audience, after very heated gender discussions . . .  but she said that was a GOOD thing! 

I sing the body electric 

Paul Callaghan

Paul’s talk was inspired by a Walt Whitman poem.

This talk was so interesting, and the same way I think there were a few naysayers in Raina’s audience on comics, I think there were some gaming-sceptics in Paul’s audience . . .  but he definitely got them thinking differently by the end! Especially when he said this: “We temporarily fuse our bodies with technology, the same way that we share ideas with books.”

A lot of Paul’s talk was based around this idea of Steven Shaviro’s: “We tend to equate virtual with disembodied, even though it would be more accurate to use it as an equivalent for prosthetic.” The prosthetic imagination is such an interesting concept – and as an extension of ourselves. Paul said that with technology “we lose a little bit of ourselves – but again, like with books, we come back to reality.” 

Also, in Paul’s previous session (“is there an app for that?”) the question was asked where *good* games can be found. Well, Paul gave some fine examples – and these were further examples of how gaming does create empathy. 

First was ‘Proteus’ – this is a virtual island where children are encouraged to become explorers in a new world. 

dys4ia’ is an abstract autobiographical about a trans-woman. 

Unmanned’ is a game in the day of the life of a drone pilot. 

All of these games were, to some extent, unsettling but compelling. Paul pointed out that all of the above games “ask questions that I didn’t know to ask.” 

Outsider, outside

Garth Nix, Tim Sinclair and Vikki Wakefield navigate the outside perimeters. 

In discussion with Lachlann Carter

Noted that in Garth Nix’s ‘A Confusion of Princes’, the protagonist is from a position of power and privilege, until he finds himself an outsider. All of Garth’s books are about outsider existence – all his characters are outsiders, and maybe that’s a default of fiction. Tim Sinclair notes that Dee in his verse novella ‘Run’ is a white Australian – so is he really an “outsider”? Tim says that Dee deliberately pulls himself away. 

Tim Sinclair then defined Parkour (for those not in-the-know) as 'moving through the landscape using nothing more than your body ... and your mind.’ Garth Nix, rather beautifully, summarized it as; ‘never going the easy way.’

On her novel ‘Friday Brown’, Vikki said she thought about it in terms of; ‘When you lose someone that you love, who was instrumental to who you are, you ask yourself: “who am I now?”’

Garth Nix pointed out that 'you can be an insider/outsider, depending on context' – and he gave the *great* example of, when he was a publisher, receiving many manuscripts from disaffected, middle-aged male lawyers. These were people with privilege and probably wealth, but something was missing from their lives – something they’d probably been working towards for most of their life just didn’t satisfy in the end (so writing was an escape?); "What you think you want when you're growing up changes completely the closer you get to it - an insider wants out." Garth also pointed out that you can be an outsider for all of 3 minutes in your life (getting picked last for sport!) and that can affect you in very deep ways.

On the flawed characters in her books, Vikki said 'we're attracted to flaws because we all know we're not perfect...' (audience shuffled uncomfortable in their seats – she was certainly on to something!) She added that writing is one of the few creative endeavours where people strive for imperfection

Garth as a 'white, Anglo-Saxon, educated male' isn’t necessarily an outsider, but that doesn’t mean he can't draw on things he's seen or felt for an outside perspective. Tim Sinclair chimed in that he lived in Japan a bit as a child, and that experience of being a usual insider turned into an outsider was valuable. 

Vikki had such an interesting story about what kick-started the idea of ‘Friday Brown’ for her – when she uncovered some family history that proved she was related to a great Welsh warrior; 'you find out something that happened centuries ago to your family, and that affects how you see yourself...' Suddenly her life “seemed bigger.” Garth then pointed out that there’s a bit of the mythic to ‘Friday Brown’.

Garth Nix says he’s selfish and writes stories for himself, what he’d like to read. Tim Sinclair said "I write these stories half for myself and half for my characters. Once they are half drawn they demand to be written,” which was so beautiful. 

Garth and Tim concluded by giving thanks to libraries (Vikki said she ought to give penance, because in her youth she stole books from libraries!) 

Inkys Longlist

Then came the interlude to announce the titles longlisted for Gold and Silver Inkys! I had so much fun judging the 2012 Inkys, and this year’s longlist is absolutely phenomenal – I’m glad I’m not tasked with choosing between them!

I thought I'd sneak in a hero-pose with longlisted author, Myke Bartlett; 

Unleashing YA

Gayle Forman, Morris Gleitzman and Keith Gray on adult encroachment in YA

In discussion with Adele Walsh 

First question was “Who does YA belong to?” Morris came back with his usual eloquence; 'Whoever is YA at heart!' But he then wanted to point out that he was at Reading Matters under false pretences – because he has not, and will never be, a ‘young adult’ author – he’s a children’s author.

When it was pointed out that Keith Gray has previously said he writes books for boys (clashing with the previous ‘Gender less’ panel and Libba’s call for “no boy/girl books!”) Keith then made the bold statement that he thinks boys are underrepresented in publishing industry & YA in general . . . a show of hands from the (few) male audience members certainly seemed to confirm this. He gave a further example, when he said that one year a press release for the Carnegie Medal highlighted the fact that they were having a male on the judging panel – because it was such a rarity. Keith concluded; 'I write for boys - I hope I don't alienate women but the 13 to 14 year-old boy is my ideal reader.'

Gayle Forman then lobbed back, saying; 'There is acceptability for girl readers to enter a boy book,' but not necessarily the other way round. She further asked us to think how different Harry Potter would have been if Hermione had been the protagonist (she later clarified on Twitter that she is a Harry Potter fan)

Also, can’t go past this quick discussion I Twittered (?) with Myke Bartlett after Gayle said that.

On the previously talked-about ‘gender-swap-covers’, Gayle asked us to note that a John Green book cover looks very different from a Melina Marchetta cover (and we should question that!) The chair for this discussion also pointed out that between them; Gayle, Morris and Keith have very different covers . . . asked for a show of hands from the male audience members who’ve read Gayle’s book (*no hands went up – all but confirming that there is a barrier in the gender packaging of women's books.)

* Not true - Kevin Lee can attest to being one of the male audience members who put his hand up as having read (all of) Gayle's books. My apologies!

Morris chimed in that this notion of love stories only being for girls is wholly wrong; "There is not a boy on this planet that does not understand love gone wrong!" 

Aaaaaaaand then talk segued into this newfangled ‘New Adult’ (something I've very recently written about – and am still no closer to grappling). Gayle summarized perfectly, saying it’s basically ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (I think I felt the entire building shudder at that one!) Morris chimed in; 'New adult is a totally useless and meaningless piece of media jargon I've met plenty of 11 yr olds who are new adults.'

Then talk moved on to ‘click-bait’, and how many articles written about young adult books often get it so, so wrong (Exhibit A). Normally they’re about fear-mongering on topics like ‘dark-lit’ and ‘sick-litand the cycle continues over and over again (next year it will swing back to ‘is young adult too sexy?’ like clockwork). Gayle pointed out that; 'Youth literature is always scary for adults, but then also so many adults are reading it now.'

Talk then shifted onto the online nature of YA. Gayle said this is something adult authors just don’t ‘get’, that fans of YA are evangelical about their books (and she thinks that’s *lovely*). Morris actually discussed the power of YA bloggers – citing an example of one UK author who was able to sell international rights to their book because of the hype the blogging community provided (that mainstream media then paid attention to!). 

Asked asks 'why do you love YA?', Keith Gray said that he thinks teenagers are fascinating creatures. Keith also said this: “YA is the HBO of fiction.” I think the audience was stunned by the sheer awesomeness of this statement (I, for one, would quite like it on a t-shirt). Keith also admired the fact that, while adults read books that bolster beliefs they already hold, teenagers study/read books to argue/challenge/deconstruct; 'It's rare for adults to read books we don't want to read, whereas teenagers are forced to every day at school.’

Gayle said what she writes about are issues she’s currently grappling with; ‘but the people I want to tell these stories to are 17 to 25.'

One of the final questions was ‘where would you like to see the needle of discussion move to next?’ Keith would quite like acceptance of children’s & YA; “'We're all just writing about humans” (gave the example of him not being allowed to sit on Writers Festival panels with adult authors). Gayle argued that YA is the readership that’s continually moving the needle; 'Maybe because we operate outside the boundaries, and always we need to push those boundaries, but we do a good job' (gave the example of David Levithan, whose new book is ‘Two Boys Kissing’). Morris wants that needle & dial taken away completely, and for us to all stop worrying about what kids are reading; "When we trust the story and we are available for the conversation afterwards, then we are doing the right thing for readers."

Question time – and Morris hinted at something HUGE . . . UK television company has optioned ‘Once’ for miniseries. OH MY GAWWWWWD!!!!! 

Gayle had BIG news too – the ‘If I Stay’ movie is a GO! Chloë Moretz is cast, R.J. Cutler is directing (Gayle said she knew he was the right man for the job, when he told her; 'God is everywhere in this book. Not God, but spirituality') 

That was a wrap. 

 I did not want it to end . . .  and, in a way, it didn’t because I was thinking on all those panels for days afterwards (still am). HUGE thanks to the Centre for Youth Literature. In particular; Anna Burkey, Nicole Armstrong, Jordi Kerr & Adele Walsh – because they Rocked the Casbah!  

The 2013 Reading Matters Professional Program was incredible, and I hope I've managed to communicate in these recaps what a pleasure and privilege it was to hear these people speak – and if you have any take away from these posts, I hope it’s that you’ll go to the next conference in 2015 because it will be worth it. I found it to be an invaluable experience; I made new friends (BLOGGERS UNITE, Jess!), got to put faces to Twitter handles (*waves at Zac!*) and this happened . . . 


  1. "asked for a show of hands from the male audience members who’ve read Gayle’s book (no hands went up..."

    I'm male and my hand went up Danielle! :-D I've read all Gayle Forman's books, and "If I Stay" is one my favourites. But I agree with your point - I saw very few males raise their hand, and gender packaging makes a difference, particularly for boys to read books by women / featuring female main characters.

    What you've written recently are much more than summaries of Reading Matters. These are fabulous detailed accounts. I took notes too, and you've helped me remember some of the finer details of the discussion that escaped my note-taking. And then there's your tweeting and photo-taking - no wonder your phone kept needing recharging!

    Thanks for these great accounts of Reading Mattters :-).

    1. Ha! I do apologize, I was sitting up the front and didn't see all those (male) hands go up - but I thought from Adele's reaction that it must have proved her point. I shall amend!

      Thank you & you're most welcome - I'm glad I could help (makes me think the text-cramps and power-suckage was well worth it!)

      See you at the next event ;)


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