Here is my summary (to the best of my abilities!) of Professional Program Day 2 of the 11th biennial Reading Matters Conference.
And here’s my chance to say how great the program was – wonderful authors from diverse backgrounds and nationalities celebrating youth literature. The Centre for Youth Lit programmers really outdid themselves (I’m looking at you Adele Walsh! You superstar!) and the whole Conference was simply marvelous – my hat is off to you, everyone at CYL (Adele, Jordi, Anna and Bec!!)
It was also wonderful to catch up with the Aussie YA crowd – both those on the program and everyone who came along to soak up the #YAmatters goodness.
And Jess, of The Tales Compendium fame, was my Reading Matters buddy again! We met at the 2013 Conference (the first one for both of us) and we decided then & there that it’d be our book-blogging-buddy tradition – so far we’re 2 for 2 and I look forward to attending Reading Matters 2017 with her!
Representation Matters: Diverse voices for all readers
– Sara Farizan
Sara Farizan called her talk: 'People Are More Than One Thing: intersecting identities and writing with anxiety' and she was simply marvelous. She treated her talk like a “first date” with the audience.
Sara took us on a time-warp to 1984, to the first cartoon she became obsessed with – FYI, her favourite Ninja Turtle was Donatello because all he needed was a stick. Steve Jobs was also sowing the seeds for a career in computers, a young Sara was liking Michael Jackson (she can do his famous high-kick!), Ronald Reagan had yet to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic and Iran–Iraq War was raging. Though Sara is Iranian-American, she’d never been to Iran but her parents, "Taught me that they are more than the country of their origin."
Sara spoke about her younger years and what an anxious child she was – case in point, she became worried every time she watched the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood intro, hoping he’d get dressed before the intro music ran out.
"Television was everything & I know I probably shouldn't say that on a day about education,” Sara said – before professing her love for Belle from Beauty & The Beast who helped her begin to figure out her sexuality; "I didn't want to be Belle, but I was jealous of brutish Beast for winning her affections." Sara then played one of Belle’s solo songs from the Disney movie, and I’ve gotta say, she’s kinda a great feminist heroine: "I want much more than this provincial life!"
Sara then showed more pop-culture examples that started her on a path to articulating her sexuality and embracing her cultural identity. Sara referenced the famous Whoopi Goldberg story about seeing Nichelle Nichols playing Uhura on the original Star Trek: “Well, when I was nine years old, Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, hum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t a maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
Something similar happened for Sara when she read Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden. Further to this, she said; “The library helped me learn about myself with dignity and in a safe space,” because at school; “there were no examples of who I could be.” Sara even mentioned one eighth grade assignment on same-sex marriage and equal rights was the first time she had her eyes opened, and a parent tried to have it scrapped. She also referenced the ‘Day of Silence’, which is a national day of action in which students across the country vow to take a form of silence to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools – this was another initiative that started to familiarize Sara with this world she’d never otherwise been exposed to.
As for Sara’s debut novel If You Could Be Mine – it started out as her school thesis, and she never thought it would get published. She wrote it for herself, partly to fill the gaps in her own reading growing up.
Sara is an Iranian-American writing about Iranian lesbians, but she’s never been to Iran and is very conscious of appropriating other people’s culture and stories, she always tries to be respectful. She said she won’t always write about lesbians, because she doesn’t want to be a mouthpiece – and she actually hopes that people come along who are better writers than her, and keep telling these stories.
"The more connections I make with people who are not like me, the richer my life becomes,” Sara said. And as for other people writing diverse characters, Sara asked them to please consider that; "Everybody wants to be the hero sometimes."
We Need Diverse Books: Under-represented voices
– Clare Atkins, Sara Farizan, Abe Nouk, Jared Thomas
This panel was chaired by Ambelin Kwaymullina, author of one of my all time favourite Aussie YA series – The Tribe. I’d actually interviewed Ambelin for Junior Books+Publishing ahead of the conference on this very topic, and you can read the article here, but there is a pay-wall.
Jared Thomas kicked off this discussion with a truth bomb: "Race doesn't exist. Racism does,” he said we are just the human race. Clare Atkins talking about her book Nona & Me said she didn't want to write from an indigenous perspective - given the history of colonisation in Australia, Clare didn't want to join that list of people taking. Clare ideally would have liked to co-write the book with an Indigenous author, but those in Yirrkala (Northern Territory) who would have been the best candidates (for their English literacy and interest) were already stretched so thin, helping their own community that they just didn’t have the time. The compromise was working closely with Merrkiyawuy, who was extremely generous with her knowledge and time.
Sara Farizan wondered if writing on a topic that is seen as “taboo” automatically makes an author “controversial”? But she probably had the best summary for reasons we need diversity; "Nobody is better than anybody else - we all have to go to the restroom." Sara said that upon being published, author Malinda Lo (of ‘We Need Diverse Books’ fame) said; "Welcome to the club. There's three of us." [lesbian women of color].
Ambelin quoted Malinda at one point - "Diversity is reality. Let's stop erasing that." And I thought it was very heartening that the day before this Reading Matters conference, Malinda had been sitting on a panel at Book Expo American discussing the exact same thing. As to that – here are just a few Tweeted thoughts from Malinda, but I highly recommend you read through the #BEA15 live-tweets of her session too!
Abe Nouk said he finds connecting with an audience “magical and mystifying,” and said in telling your story, "People have to step-up for themselves first and foremost. And that is terrifying." Abe is so eloquent, he also dropped this truth bomb: "We strip away people's dignity when we tell them where to stand …the only way to evolve a culture is to respect it.” And then he spoke about ‘the myth of ownership,’ in our society.
Ambelin summarized beautifully, when she said; “If all the images of people like you are absent/negative, you never see yourself as positive … When you don't hear those [diverse] voices in books, it's a false perception of reality.” Ambelin also suggested that publishers should think about what’s happening behind-the-scenes, establishing fellowships and building up expertise so you have someone in-house who can pinpoint when something is disrespectful etc.
Jared Thomas made a great point about how buoyed the Australian film and television industry has been because it tells Indigenous stories (off the top of my head: Redfern Now, The Sapphires, Black Comedy and so many more) … and book publishers should take note!
Sara Farizan said she was frustrated by children's books in which there are more animals than people from diverse backgrounds – an example of how this insidiousness starts young.
Clare Atkins noted that we; “Also need diverse characters whose diversity is incidental, not the whole plot - many accessible levels of diversity.” She thinks tackling diversity comes in at three levels; more diverse authors, characters and to normalize their stories.
A question came from the audience about “how do we get these books into schools?” Ambelin acknowledged that it’s going to be harder – it just is, sorry. The publishers who are producing these books tend to be independents, so they don’t have the same sales reps and publicists and accessibility that big publishers do. But that’s no excuse not to become familiar with the likes of these incredible publishing houses and the books they are gifting us;
Jared Thomas also suggested that teachers and librarians link these books to things like Reconciliation Week. It’s a way to build communities, and you can invite authors to come speak! He asked teachers/librarians to be proactive in getting these books & authors into your schools – be proactive, do research – it’s going to be a little bit harder but we all need to work together to make a difference (I’ll refer to Malinda Lo’s Twitter call-out to bloggers/vloggers doing their part too!)
I also found it very heartening to hear that the Sydney Morning Herald 2015 Best Young Australian Novelists were a fantastic mix of diverse voices; Maxine Beneba Clarke, Alice Pung, Ellen Van Neervan, Omar Musa, and Michael Mohammed Ahmad.
Ambelin asked the authors to finish this sentence: ‘We Need Diverse Books, because …’ Sara said; “because I don't want any kid to feel ‘less than’.”
– Abe Nouk
Abe Nouk gave us chills again with a stirring poetry slam performance. I said it in my Day 1 post, but I can’t say it enough: buy his book, watch him on YouTube and if you’re a teacher/librarian – reach out to him to learn more about his Creative Rebellion Youth Enterprises!
Comic Culture: Stories among us
– Tom Taylor
Tom Taylor is a multi-award-winning and #1 New York Times bestselling author, playwright and screenwriter. He is best known as the writer of the bestselling DC Comics series Injustice: Gods Among Us and Marvel’s Superior Ironman.
Tom Taylor’s talk was called 'Comics: the single greatest storytelling medium on earth (really)' he began by asking for a raise of hands to show who has and has not read comic books. I’ve got to say – I was shocked and disheartened to see how many in the audience have never read a comic book … but I think by the end of Tom’s talk, they were all changing their tune.
Tom explained that he got his start in comics because he had a story about a suitcase at Flinders Street, and he appealed to the Internet to help him find an illustrator to go with his story. The Internet bit back, and pretty soon he found himself with a job writing for the Star Wars comic series. Then he got jobs writing Injustice: Gods Among Us and Earth 2 series for DC Comics.
"Comic books aren't just for kids anymore!” Tom said (which was partly why he decided to write his The Deep series for kids!). And Tom wanted the audience to know that comic books aren’t just for boys anymore (if they ever were) either – with 48% of comic book readers in the US being female. Comic books have come such a long way – and Tom said for him, he was allowed to push the envelope with the series’ he was writing; "Injustice was weekly. So they didn't have time to edit me!" - on having female superheroes marrying each other etc … He wrote a black Superman & Filipino Aqua Woman too.
"The higher your brow goes, the smaller your brain gets,” –Tom summarized people who don’t or won’t read comic books, and “Ignoring an entire storytelling medium is insane!” He also said it’s a shame that comics are read widely around the world, but there’s still such a stigma in Australia: "Comics are for everybody!"
Tom asked for a raise of hands from librarians if they have lots of comic books getting stolen from their stacks (so many hands went up!) and he said “When people are stealing things, it's a good sign,” and asked librarian to please consider those kids who feel bad that maybe they don’t have $2 for a late fee (so maybe scrap it completely?)
There was a totally legit question/concern from the audience, about the history of comic books sexualizing women and Tom tackled it brilliantly. He reiterated that 48% of female comic book readers in the US are women and because of that we're seeing less sexualisation of female comic book characters (because the industry just won’t stand for it anymore). He name-checked the new Batgirl who doesn’t have a skimpy costume, and the first Muslim female superhero in the new Ms Marvel.
More to this point about how female-friendly comic books are now (and I’ve written about this before) – after Tom’s talk I was thrilled to discover news in my Twitter-feed that a fantastic comic series called Lumberjanes would be adapted into a live-action movie. AND another great comic book series called The Wicked + The Divine would be heading to TV! It’s a great time to be a female comic book fan, people! There are still problems – case in point was an all-male panel at Denver ComicCon who were bought together to talk about Women in Comics (yes, really) … BUT they were raked over fiery hot coals for the serious insult – because like Tom said, the industry just won’t stand for that kind of rubbish anymore.
And because I love comics and want everyone to love them too – here are some more female-friendly comic books/graphic novels that you should definitely look up:
· Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
· The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
· anything by Alison Bechdel
· Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
· everything by Raina Telgemeier
· Rat Queens by Kurtis J Wiebe
· The Dreamer online comic by Lora Innes
· El Deafo by Cece Bell
· Through the Woods stories by Emily Carroll
· Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff
· This One Summer written by Mariko Tamaki illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
· Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
AND if you’re in Melbourne you should definitely come along to the monthly All Star Women's Comic Book Club!
Comic books rock!
Science vs Magic: Realities of a different kind
– Jaclyn Moriarty, Sean Williams
This was a great debate between sci-fi writer Sean Williams, and Jaclyn Moriarty who loves a touch of magic in her books … Sean bought along a sonic screwdriver, while Jaclyn was armed with THREE wands!
"I'm aware of the problems but I don't know how to fix them,” said Sean Williams on the science in his books – and more to that, science fiction (good science fiction) should have more questions than concrete answers.
Jordi Kerr was moderator of this session, and she had some great questions like - "Does technology make us more human or less human?" To which Sean mused, "The day we run out of questions we may no longer need to live.”
I loved this debate, but Jaclyn Moriarty won me over with her recitation of the Lamia poem;
Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.
Our Forgotten Rebels: Writing non-fiction for teens
– Clare Wright
Clare Wright is an Australian historian, author and broadcaster. Her latest nonfiction release, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, was the 2014 winner of the Stella Prize.
I think Clare Wright came in with a really tough job after the teen panel of Day 1 pretty collectively said they’re not interested in non-fiction YA. She is adapting her Stella Prize-winning non-fiction novel The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka into a YA edition called We Are the Rebels: The Women and Men Who Made Eureka (available from Text Publishing in August).
I think she really swayed the crowd when she spoke about her ten-years worth of research investigating false gendered roles in Australian history. She stressed that her research into the Eureka Stockade has uncovered new human history, not just women’s history – and she highlighted this through artwork that was so blokes-heavy to the point of ridiculousness. She was prompted to look differently at this slice of Australian history by asking the question “Where am I in this story?”
Quite frankly – Clare Wright’s book asks us to move beyond the blokes, blokes, blokes history of Eureka, to think critically of all the women who are erased from human history - I want to read that!
Drawn to You: Imagery and imagination
– Priya Kuriyan
Priya began by saying that, growing up, "I didn't think that a person like me had a place in a book” – on the lack of representation in the books she read as a child. As such, when she started drawing her own comics they were full of blonde-haired, brunettes called Andi (because that’s all she knew!) "Diversity should be looked at as an advantage, rather than a disadvantage!"
About her book Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean (Allen&Unwin) which is edited by Australian author Kirsty Murray, Priya said the idea for the collaborative work was prompted by the awful 2012 Delhi gang rape case that sparked feminist outcry in India and around the world, including in Australia. As such, the book is a celebration of feminist speculative fiction (it’s incredible – BUY IT!)
Priya likes to tackle tough topics through her illustrations – she makes it a point to "Shake up what is normal ... a princess can be goofy, not traditional thin/fair." And because India is so divided by class, she tries to portray diversity in her novels because issues of caste and class are internalised by children at a very early age – and picture books can change this.
Priya spoke about the initiative ‘Room to Read’ - Indian company that creates picture books very cheaply for impoverished children living in remote areas.
A final message from Priya was, “A good image brings good luck.”
Literary Landscapes: Place, space and everything in-between
– Clare Atkins, Sean Williams, Kyle Hughes-Odgers
This was a great talk that included Kyle Hughes-Odgers – a visual artist, exhibiting artwork across Australia and internationally. Kyle and Meg McKinlay (author) won the 2013 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for Australia/New Zealand for the children’s book Ten Tiny Things. (seriously, follow him on Instagram – he’s incredible!)
My big take-away from this session was Clare Atkins moving to Yirrkala in 2007, Arnhem Land – and discovering that she could have an adventure in Australia after growing up thinking adventures happened anywhere else but here.
I loved Sean Williams line about, "The world is not permanent. You can change it, and it changes you,” and discovering as a teenager that the world is impermanent.
Hashtag Teen: Engaging teens and young adult advocacy
– Amie Kaufman, Tom Taylor, Kyle Hughes-Odgers, Will Kostakis
This was an incredible panel, moderated by the fabulous Adele Walsh! I think she best summarized this whole panel halfway through, when she said "Being along for the journey is much more important than telling them [teens] what the journey is." YES!
Amie Kaufman said she prefers the back-and-forth interaction of Twitter. “Go to where the kids are - that's how engagement happens,” Amie said.
Adele said Will probably does the most school visit of any Aussie author, and he said he levels with kids by being honest, admitting to them that when he was their age: "I couldn't catch a ball to save my life, but I could hold a pen and sort of form a sentence!" But he’s always a little deflated by teacher’s attitudes to how he connects with kids – they’ll turn around and congratulate Will on getting the kids to write so much, but in the next breath they’ll chastise him “because you said ‘crap’ and that’s unacceptable.” You’ve gotta give a little, is Will’s message to teachers.
On the inherent engagement of comic books, Tom Taylor said; "You turn the page and something happens EVERY SINGLE TIME!"
Adele put some images up on the big screen – showing all the authors interacting with kids in person and online. Will Kostakis actually had a great story of an English teacher who couldn’t afford to bring him out for a school visit, so he did a creative writing class via Twitter with the kids – it got to the point where the teacher couldn’t type fast enough for how many questions the kids were firing at him … that was great, but Adele made a point of reminding the audience to ‘Pay the Writers’ (and don’t bombard Will for freebie online tutorials! lol)
Adele threw up a lot of social media logos on the screen and asked the audience to consider how many of them they recognized –Twitter, Instagram, Facebook were some obvious ones – but others like AO3 Status were a little more obscure for the audience (all about fanworks – fanfiction and fanart!) Educators need to know the importance of these online communities to teenagers. But Adele also reminded us that not every teenager has acsess to a personal tablet, iphone, laptop – which is why libraries are so important!
Tom told us about the awesome Stan Lee Excelsior Award - the UK book award for graphic novels and manga - where kids aged 11-16 decide the winner by rating each book as they read it. Would be great to get something like this in Oz!
There was a big shout-out to Penguin Teen Australia for how they’re engaging teen readers online – especially through the weekly #PTAchat that happens on Twitter! Amie name-checked Dear Teen Me, as a great website full of truly heartfelt letters from YA authors who were teens once too. And the Centre for Youth Literature has developed an invaluable resource in ‘Shift Alt Story’ – a unique way to engage with storytelling in the digital era!
In conversation: Continents collide
– Sally Gardner, Laurie Halse Anderson
Listening to these two literary heavyweights talk was a real treat. Again, I didn’t live-tweet because I just wanted to listen and let it all soak in.
A big take-away from this talk for me was:
#1 – Laurie Halse Anderson hates the term “reluctant readers” (they’re just "readers with very high standards")
#2 – Sally Gardner says the way we teach (in Australia, US and UK) is "We teach for accountants basically." (tick-boxes, anyone?)
#3 – Sally and Laurie differed on the age at which they think children are turned off reading. Sally guesstimated age 2 (possibly because of her horrid experiences, compounded by dyslexia) while Laurie guessed it was around age 12 that kids no longer read for pleasure (which is when they start to be told “read this – not that!”). To combat this, they both agreed that you should never tell a child “you can’t read that!” or “you can’t write that!” Laurie in particular addressed the room of “gatekeepers” and said she understands there will be times when you pause, and question a book or an author and whether or not children should have access to it. That’s okay – fear is okay, but just sit with it for a little while and ask yourself what it is that’s scaring you about this topic/author etc. Laurie stressed that it’s often when these decisions fall on one person’s shoulders – with nobody to turn to for a second opinion – that those fears double. So she encouraged everyone in the room to have a “conference buddy” – someone you met and connected with and can reach out to in the future to talk these things through. And Laurie also said that she understands wanting to have some say over your child’s reading habits (and you absolutely should!), but there’s no way in hell she’s going to have somebody else telling her kid what they can and can’t read.