This weekend I went to my happy place – the 11th biennial Reading Matters Conference.
Created by the Centre for Youth Literature, the conference is ‘Australia’s premier celebration of literature and storytelling for teens’ spread across 2 days and featuring some 15 writers, illustrators and creators from Australia and overseas. And on the third day they opened the conference to the public (for free!).
So I’ve come back rejuvenated from a very bookish weekend listening to some of the sharpest minds in our industry talk about books, writing, stories and teenagers and now I’m going to attempt to give you a brief run-down of the awesomeness that was #YAmatters!
The Inheritors of Language
– Abe Nouk
Abe Nouk is an author, slam poet, spoken-word performer, and hip hop artist. He is also the Director of Creative Rebellion Youth Enterprises.
Abe helped open the conference with a slam poetry performance and talk – he left the room in collective chills after his poignant and fearless poem, and then when he shared some very wise words with the audience.
Abe started out by telling us a bit of his background as a refugee from South Sudan – and how he couldn’t read or write just a few short years ago. It was a book of Disney stories that prompted him to want to learn to read, and now he’s a national award-winning poet. "I don't think you become a writer, you've got to earn your story,” he said.
Abe is also Director of Creative Rebellion Youth Enterprises, which has the ethos of “youth taking actions, speaking for themselves rather than being spoken for,” and that’s the best thing ever. Abe says that his experience from teaching creative workshops, he always gets people telling him; "If you teach me something I'll forget it, but if you tell me a story I'll remember it."
Abe Nouk’s poem book Dear Child is currently available to buy at Readings Books and I cannot recommend it highly enough; "Speak child. Tell your story."
I also suggest you check out Abe Nouk on YouTube and prepare to be blown away.
Young Adult Panel of Teens
– Talking to the Experts
The first panel of the conference belonged to teens – as it should – Kellie, Chris, and Ina tackled some tricky questions and spoke about their reading habits.
The books they’re currently reading (and loving) are:
· One True Thing by Nicole Hayes
· The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey
· Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
And on another note, these were some of the titles bandied about throughout the panel that the teens had much love for:
· The Sky so Heavy by Claire Zorn (who got a kiss blown at her when one of the teens realised SHE WAS IN THE AUDIENCE!)
· The First Third by Will Kostakis
· Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick
· One True Thing by Nicole Hayes (seriously – much love for this one! Must read ASAP!)
The majority of their reading recommendations come from online (much love for Goodreads), book-tubers, vloggers, bloggers, school librarians & English teachers. And with these teens in particular, they found that they’re the ones recommending books to their friends – rather than the other way round. One of them said; "If it's not the library, it's the bookstore for me,” and said getting reading recs is, “a solitary activity.” They also had much love for Inside a Dog and local bookstores (like Robinson’s!)
Onto more nitty-gritty discussions of books – one teen said they would love to see more books where there doesn't have to be a love story (serious *applause* for that one!). Generally romance doesn't need to be central or there for the sake of it (because it’s trendy to have love-triangles, for example).
There also seemed to be a lot of fatigue around Dystopians (with the exception of Claire Zorn’s more realistic take in The Sky so Heavy). The teens also said they were over the bandwagons that are created when one book does well and then there are a slew of similar reads (i.e.: the Dystopia trend created after The Hunger Games).
In discussing the label of “Young Adult”, one teen said; "My mum reads more young adult fiction that I do! ... Does that make her not an adult?" Another observed the broadness of the readership now; "Harry Potter is read by eight-year-olds, if they can handle it ... and people as old as they can get." The general consensus was there's no longer a label needed for Young Adult because we all read all books, and 'YA' is less a definition of readership and more a definition of protagonists/issues/content.
The topic of young adult non-fiction was bought up and how unpopular it’s perceived to be to young readers. "I don't read much young adult non-fiction but I don't see a lot of it for us,” one teen said, while another explained; "I go to school for six hours, I don't want to learn more stuff!" on her dislike of non-fiction.
One of the #1 things the teens would like to see less of in YA is “perfect people protagonists”. "It's upsetting, makes me feel bad,” observed one teen – who queried that because she’s not blonde-haired, blue-eyed, tall and skinny does that men she won’t ever get a boyfriend (on unrealistic expectations these sorts of characters convey in YA). The teens love imperfect protagonists – they’re drawn to them first and foremost it seems.
The teens are also very anti making-out in survivalist stories where the romance feels forced; "You're making out in a life or death situation? There's more important stuff ... Like finding food!”
A question from the audience was about “suicide books” which the questioner said “seemed to be in a genre of their own now” – she wanted to know how the teens felt about them. One perfectly observed; "I don't read books about suicide. They don't make me happy. It never ends well ..." Overall there was varied response from the teens about the topic, and an acknowledgment that it's both a serious issue and a very real one for lots of teens, but a concern that maybe portrayals in so many YA books normalises the issue. But when it came time to get reading recs, one of them “apologised” but said she’s like to give a shout-out to a “suicide book” in Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock.
I actually think the questioner was veering towards talk about a lot of death in YA books and her perception of too much darkness … which, for what it’s worth, I have written about my thoughts on the faults of such debates.
This teen panel was one of my favourite things at Reading Matters, and they had so much insight and quick wits to boot! Listening to them talk got me thinking about how so many programs about youth literature are lacking in – y’know – actual young adults. Teenagers are so goddamn clever – I think adults who write for/about them forget that sometimes and it’s better to come from the mouth of babes, so to speak.
The Hard Stuff: Courage and the real conversation
– Laurie Halse Anderson
Laurie Halse Anderson – one of the queens of YA. If you want to read one of the most inspiring interviews with Ms Anderson, check out this 2014 one from Book Riot and pay special attention to the mention of a Penguin Imprint being created in honour of Laurie’s debut novel Speak – because that is AMAZING!
I did not live-tweet Laurie’s presentation because I was too busy absorbing her words and being inspired. I seriously suggest everyone go and watch/listen to her talk when CYL make the recording available, because she was brilliant and had some real zingers, like; “Teen fiction, or as I like to call it: Well written literature …”
Laurie spoke about her not always happy childhood, and teenage years and what got her writing books for young adults. She spoke about her father who was a soldier and suffered the demons of his time in the army, and how when she was a teenager she went on an exchange program to a pig farm in Denmark (she suggests to any teenager not happy with their life to “get out of dodge”!)
She described her debut young adult book Speak as a “funny rape story,” which publishers/booksellers/teachers in America did not like, but it’s true. She said that teenagers use wit and humour as weapons against the world – and making sure her very serious story of a girl learning to speak about her rape had to include a lot of humour, because that’s communicating to teens on their wavelength.
Laurie said one question she gets asked a lot is “why don’t you write a Dystopia?” to which she thinks, “teenagers lives are Dystopian enough!”. So true. But her 2000 novel Fever 1793 is as close to a Dystopian as she’ll probably get, and it’s based on real events.
Her 2007 novel Twisted she wrote for boys she encountered on her school tours talking about Speak. She said there’d always be one boy who’d put his hand up and say he didn’t “get” why Melinda in Speak was so upset – to which a very smart girl would always whip around and yell “WHAT?!” So Laurie spoke to some very smart scientists about the testosterone levels in boys as a way to get into their head – to know why they go from ‘0 to 1000’ on the aggressor scale when puberty hits, and writing in that mind really made her realise “she didn’t understand boys.”
Wintergirls – her 2009 novel about anorexia nervosa – came from the realisation that anorexia is the most deadly mental illness. And Laurie always thinks she’d rather have a kid that’s a drug addict than anorexic – because society has done a pretty good job of telling us “drugs are bad!” but advertising, film and TV is constantly telling young girls in particular to “be thinner, you’re not pretty enough, buy this product to make yourself prettier” etc. It’s a lot more insidious.
Laurie shared some of the communication she receives from young readers about all her books – but in particular Wintergirls has been the one that young people write her and tell her reading that book prompted them to seek help, and that’s incredible. What more could you ask for as an author? She shared one beautiful photo of a tattoo one of her readers got, with the last lines of that novel – “I am thawing” – written in her mother’s handwriting, across her collarbone. Heartbreakingly lovely.
Laurie’s Seeds of America was borne from the realisation that her “history boyfriend” Benjamin Franklin owned slaves. She didn’t believe it – so went looking for primary source material that confirmed the horrible truth, and when she found ledgers that included the names of his slaves they became real to her and she decided to write a trilogy about Northern slaves. Laurie said that in an audience of predominantly white people, talking about the shame she feels for America’s history of slavery has them wishing she’d “go back to talking about rape” because it’s still such an uncomfortable subject for lots of Americans.
Laurie’s pointy end of the talk was about censorship (her books are pretty much constantly banned). And she just wanted all the librarians in the room to know that they’re angels because, for her personally, she probably wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for libraries giving her a safe space to explore. She said the rule in her household with her kids has always been “we can deal with anything except you dying” – which is why she’ll never freak out about anything less than that.
Laurie concluded by saying she doesn’t think she writes dark or depressing books for teenagers – she said; "I write resilience literature."
I had tears in my eyes throughout Laurie’s talk. She’s one of the best bullshitter-cutters I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to, and she’s just so generous with the giving of herself and her arguments/thoughts/feelings. I really think that if a Laurie Halse Anderson talk was required-listening/reading for every human being we’d all be a lot better off.
I got my books signed, and Laurie was also happy to chat to everyone in her signing line (no, seriously – can Australia just keep her?) so we spoke about what books kids are being taught in the classroom, and I came away with a reading recommendation from Laurie Halse Anderson which is very good for the soul - From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges between Young Adult Literature and the Classics.
The Weight of the World: Adult responsibilities, teen sensibilities
– Erin Gough, Jared Thomas, Sean Williams
This panel was brilliant and included;
Erin Gough is a Sydney-based writer whose debut novel, The Flywheel, was a winner of Hardie Grant Egmont’s Ampersand Project. On a side-note, I first encountered Erin in writing this essay for Kill Your Darlings: ‘We Read To Know We Are Not Alone: Examining the Lack of LGBTQI Characters in Australian Youth Literature’ and I just can’t say enough good things about her – was so happy to finally meet her in person at Reading Matters!
Sean Williams is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, who has written over 40 novels for readers of all ages. His latest is Crash, book two of the Twinmaker series.
Jared Thomas is a Nukunu person of the Southern Flinders Ranges. His novel Calypso Summer was shortlisted for the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Award for Indigenous Writing.
Erin kicked off talking about The Flywheel and how she set out wanting to write a YA book with a lesbian protagonist because she didn't have a lot of those books growing up. Erin reflected on a childhood in which the one instance of homosexuality in her life was a friend of hers whose dad came out and subsequently left the family – so there was an association of trauma and heartbreak with being gay – from a young age Erin was led to believe there was something not right about it. For Delilah in The Flywheel, she wanted her protagonist to be comfortable in her own skin and to have a healthy and safe family environment in which her homosexuality was accepted. Erin wants The Flywheel to speak to kids who don't necessarily see diverse sexuality normalised in their society. About Delilah, Erin said; "I wanted her to be self-determined, fierce and flawed."
Jared Thomas in discussing his character of Calypso in Calypso Summer said he wanted to examine the appropriation of plants and medicines, have him engage with culture and carve a space of subculture. He also wanted to explore masculinity & identity of young men in Aboriginal communities. He spoke very eloquently about how he sees people in his own family being treated differently to him because they have darker skin.
Sean Williams said he wanted to explore embodiment with teenagers in first book Jump of the Twinmaker series, and wanted to present teen readers with a viable alternative to the world we're currently living. Williams also said; "I like writing girls because I don't understand boys," and he wanted to write a non-superhero girl whose "power" is that she's stubborn and loyal. And some parting wise words on writing from Sean Williams were to strip back the orchestra to one good song - same goes for writing - take out the explosions & good story should still remain; “play it acappella!”
Nowhere Boys: Interactive Storytelling Engaging teen audiences in new ways
– Beth Frey, Harry Ravenswood, Matt Testro
Nowhere Boys is an Australian teen-oriented television drama series created by Tony Ayres. The series was first broadcast on ABC3 in 2013. It follows the adventures of four mismatched teenage boys – goth Felix Ferne (Dougie Baldwin), nerd Andrew "Andy" Lau (Joel Lok), golden child Sam Conte (Rahart Adams), and alpha jock Jake Riles (Matt Testro).
This was a really interesting panel discussion about the TV show Nowhere Boys and the interactive storytelling it has borne – in the form of an integrated computer game and TV tie-in books. We also learnt that a TV-movie is also going to be screening very shortly.
My big take-away from this session (and there were lots of brilliant ideas being bandied about, so my live-tweeting was abysmal trying to keep up!) was how much the show’s creators pay attention to fan talk online. The producer said she reads people’s conversations about the show on Twitter and in fan-forums, and she even said that one 21-year-old “super fan” who writes extensively about the show was invited to sit in the writer’s room and brainstorm for season 3!
I also loved that the creators (and actor Matt Testro) noted how the four protagonists started out as clichéd archetypes – jock, goth, nerd – but have become subversive as their back-stories emerged, which really made audiences question their judgments and assumptions.
Love Me, Love Me Not: love lust and heartbreak
– Sara Farizan, Amie Kaufman, Will Kostakis
Sara Farizan (US) is the daughter of Iranian immigrants, living in San Francisco. She is the acclaimed author of If You Could Be Mine and Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel.
Will Kostakis is an author and freelance journalist. He was 19 when his debut novel Loathing Lola was released. His latest release, The First Third was shortlisted for the 2014 CBCA awards (Older Readers category) and won the 2014 Gold Inky Award.
Amie Kaufman is the co-author of the Starbound series. These Broken Stars (Starbound #1) won the Aurealis Award for Best YA Novel, was shortlisted for the Gold Inky Award, and was the Huffington Post’s Best YA Book of 2013.
After the readers on the teen panel were so down on romance, Amie Kaufman wanted to put a finer point on it and say she agrees with their dislike of "insta-love", but that there's a difference between insta-love and "insta-lust". She said growing up she totally felt the insta-lust, and often for more than one person at a time (pointing out that love-triangles are not that bizarre).
Will and Sara started talking about how they got into writing romance … for Sara, she said she’s not a romantic person generally ("romance looks better on other people”), but she wanted to write books that she couldn't find easily in her library growing up - lesbian romances in particular.
For Will, writing starts; "I always go to the place of 'okay, when have I made a huge ass of myself'?" and it just so happens to normally be around romantic endeavours. He also loves the "YA readers are on the edge of the rest of their lives,” so emotions – especially love – are so heightened.
About the spectrum of sexuality, Sara said; "It's not one thing for every person.” But at the end of the day; "A soul is a soul, and a crotch is a crotch." (can I get that on a tee-shirt?) Sara also spoke - hilariously - about her Kylie Minogue appreciation, saying that watching her play Sergeant Cammy in Street Fighter was one of her fondest memories (Cammy's go-to move was to disable people by wrapping her thighs around their head ... which Sara thinks is not a bad way to go, all things considered).
Will’s secondary character of Lucas ‘Sticks’ in The First Third is a gay teen who also has cerebral palsy – he’s actually inspired by a friend of Will’s who, upon first meeting (and realising he used crutches) Will thought “I’m glad I’m not his friend,” and he was so disgusted with himself for thinking that, that the character of ‘Sticks’ was written to try and atone for that mistake he made.
Sara spoke about how she doesn’t want her characters to be a mouthpiece – she’s writing about Iranian lesbians and there are just not a lot of characters like hers out there – but she doesn’t always want to be the only writer of them; “There's an internal universe going on that we don't always share.”
Amie and Will both said that romantic plots are not in their books for the sake of it (as Will said, it's not as though they're chortling over getting away with putting "a boner" in their books). For Amie in particular who writes grand space-opera books, romance comes in to explore differences in cultural and societal status between her characters (who really are star-crossed in so many ways). And she uses romance as another way to create her ideal future - where there's more marriage equality, for instance.
The Talk That Will Lead to Where
– Sally Gardner
Sally Gardner (UK) is a multi-award winning novelist whose work has been translated into more than 22 languages. Her novel Maggot Moon won both the Costa Children’s Book Prize and the Carnegie Medal 2013. She is also an avid spokesperson for dyslexia.
Sally’s talk is another one – like Laurie’s – where I didn’t live-tweet because I was busy admiring the words. Like Laurie’s, Sally’s talk was about her not always great childhood struggling in school as she had dyslexia (and on that note – she hates the word ‘dyslexia’ because it’s hard to write/pronounce/remember so the worst possible word to describe people who have it!)
Sally’s talk was also very emotional – I had tears in my eyes – as she said how teachers made her feel worthless and stupid because she wasn’t seeing the world the way they wanted her to. She stressed that dyslexia is not just about mixing up letters – it’s a different way of seeing the world entirely. And it’s not a fucking disease, just because you don’t see the world the same way as everyone else!
Sally’s “agenda” (if she has one – “leftist agenda”) is to question the age at which we send children to school instead of letting them be children for a little bit longer. Sally said she would have been a lot happier if she didn’t have to go to school until she was 14 – which was also when she eventually learnt to read. She really excelled when she left high school and got into arts school – that set her on a path to becoming a set designer.
The only reason Sally started writing and illustrating books was because her husband went on a trip to America and never came home – she had to support herself and her children.
Sally finished up with a brilliant poem she wrote for Dyslexia Awareness Week – you can read it at The Guardian, but hearing Sally recite in person was really something else! Here’s a snippet;
I challenge you – see the words as I do
feel them sting your skin
the meaning often shocking
the way the nib goes in
to relish discombobulate not to moderate your passion
not to murder language in an artificial fashion
words are our servants
we are not their slaves
it matters not if we spell them wrong it matters what they say
But I don’t like the little words they always disobey me
the does doses dope and is higher than a dough should be.
Speaking Stories: Oral storytelling culture: different ways into words
– Creative Rebellion, Youth poet Jayden Pinn, Stig Wemyss, Fresh Ink, ATYP
Following Sally’s poem it was fantastic to listen and watch some oral storytelling – from hip-hop slam poetry artist Jayden Pinn’s spine-tingling honesty, to a performance piece and talk from audiobook narrator Stig Wemyss about Bolinda Audio.
The How of Reading Now: The changing reader in the 21st century
– Sally Gardner, Abe Nouk, Jaclyn Moriarty
Abe and Sally came back to the stage – joined by the wonderful Australian YA legend Jaclyn Moriarty, bestselling author of novels for young adults and adults, including Feeling Sorry for Celia. Her latest acclaimed series is The Colours of Madeleine.
One of the big things discussed was how authors have been forced to change with increased social media. “There’s a lot of asking authors to give a lot more than their books these days,” said Jaclyn. Sally agreed and said that though she is on Twitter she really has no time for it.
Abe and Sally spoke very eloquently about how they came to reading – Abe, as a refugee who couldn’t read/write or even speak English, and Sally for how her dyslexia saw her unable to read until the age of 14 (when she discovered Wuthering Heights!). In a very different case, Jaclyn came from a family of readers and writers (um, the Moriarty’s are kinda a powerhouse now!) and her sisters grew up passing stories amongst themselves.
This was such an interesting session for how all three of them came to reading and writing via very different pathways – Abe’s words were ringing in my ears – “If you have something to say, say it! If you have a story to tell, tell it!”
… I also just want to share a little factoid I learnt while at Reading Matters when I got my (very old, beaten-up and beloved copy of Feeling Sorry for Celia signed) Jaclyn told me that’s actually her sister (now author, part of the Moriarty powerhouse!) Nicola Moriarty on the cover. From the time when she wanted to be an actress. Rumour has also been confirmed via Twitter (not that I didn’t believe Jaclyn!)
Fresh Meet: The household names you don’t know yet
– Clare Atkins, Erin Gough, Priya Kuriyan
Erin came back on stage for a session with …
Clare Atkins’ debut novel Nona & Me was written while living in Arnhem Land. She has worked as a scriptwriter for successful television series including All Saints and Home & Away.
Priya Kuriyan (India) is an independent animation filmmaker and illustrator based in Delhi. She has directed educational films and a short animation film for the Children’s Film Society of India, and illustrated many children’s books and comics.
Priya spoke about her illustrating Kate Constable’s short story in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, of envisioning a feminist utopia. She made it a point to illustrate women of varying ages and body-types, because we see such little diversity of women’s bodies everywhere else. Priya left off by saying her one wish for readers everywhere is; “I want more people to read comics!” Amen.
Erin said it might have been a childhood spent watching Cheers (where everyone knows your name) that influenced her creating a café setting in The Flywheel. Erin said she’s had readers telling her she can’t have “a straight boy character who likes musicals” in her book – why not? She wants to dismantle that and many more stereotypes in her writing. And she said she wanted to write a YA book with a lot of humour in it, mixed with serious stuff, because two of her favourite YA books growing up – Looking for Alibrandi and Hating Allison Ashley – did that so well.
Clare Atkins wanted to transport young readers to a remote Aboriginal community – an experience many adults won’t even get to experience in their lifetime. She said that growing up she’d always imagined having adventures overseas in faraway lands … but was pleasantly surprised to find one of the greatest adventures of her life happened in Australia, in Arnhem Land.
State of Play in YA:
Reflections on the industry
This session was interesting, but I have very little memory of it beyond the mood-shift when Sean Box, Curriculum Manager of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) was asked if he could “speculate wildly” on a time when young adult books could be set-texts on the VCE list … to which he replied, “No.”
Okie dokie then.
Seriously – I think there’s a lot more to it and Sean probably could have been in a session all on his own to cover how big a topic this is. But he did tell the audience that if they want to be on the selection panel (and help to make changes!) they can do so by visiting: http://www.vcaa.vic.edu.au/Documents/bulletin/03octli2.pdf
But the best drop-mic response to what Sean was saying of course came from Laurie Halse Anderson (best bullshitter-cutter there is, remember?)
Glimpse into teen reading habits
It was so great to hear from teens again, but by this point my brain was overcrowded with all the Day 1 goodness, so my predominant memory from this video was a spatula and …