10 February 2009

New year, new resolution!

Welcome back to westword and the second year of the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature project.

I was a bad blogger last year, and I am determined to update westword far more regularly in 2009. I will be adding posts soon about some of the highlights of 2008, and will also start listing forthcoming events and plans for the project.

I also plan to use this blog as a bit of a resource hub. In the past few months I have finally got myself organised with google reader, and have now added more than one hundred blogs, most of which deal with children’s and youth literature, literacy, publishing and related topics. (Also I am also now on Twitter, using my personal blog name (misrule_au) and am using it to post links to articles I have read of interest (as well as other bits and pieces of sense and nonsense). But I will also be putting those links here, starting with this post.

First of all is this interesting article  from new Zealand about a new approach to literacy that is having enormous success, especially with Maori students:

In the first South Auckland study, involving seven schools, each child’s reading leapt ahead by an entire year. The technique also pushed far more children into the average or above categories – 40% made these top slots before the study started, and in three years that jumped to 70%. Maori children again did particularly well. The second group of seven different schools showed similar results.

The article doesn’t go into enormous detail about the program, but it’s been written up in Reading Research Quarterly, which I was able to access through ProQuest via Blacktown Library’s database.

Over in England, the battle is on to save the school library. Spearheaded by authors Philip Pullman, Alan Gibbons and the wonderful Michael Rosen, the campaign is against closures of school libraries as well as changing their name (and focus away from books) to “learning resource centre”. Frank Cottrell Boyce, author of the brilliant Millions, has also had his say on the matter:

Mr Cottrell Boyce said: “When I visit many schools, I see a big, fat, glaring, expensive anti-reading for pleasure signal.

“It stands where the library used to stand and it’s called the learning resource centre. To turn your library into a learning resource centre, you generally have to chuck out a bunch of valuable, durable assets – books – and replace them with sub-prime computers which will quickly date.”

From time to time I hear people say similar things are happening in Australian school libraries: can anyone comment? Are our school libraries in danger of refocusing away from books? Are we losing teacher-librarians from our schools? Please add your thoughts to the comment section. (Ditto public libraries, by the way—are we losing specialist children’s and youth services staff from our public libraries? We need to be really vigilant that we protect our libraries and the specialist support they offer young readers.)

Speaking of supporting young readers, and of the delightful Mr Rosen, read this article about Michael Rosen working in a school in Wales to encourage a love of reading. The BBC has made a TV show out of it (here’s the link, but we can’t watch the video outside of the UK), a la Jamie’s School Dinners. What do you reckon the chances are the ABC will screen it here? Should we start a campaign?

(And before I forget, I found this when I was looking for links to Frank Cottrell Boyce. Liverpool, where he lives, did one of those whole city reads the same book things with Millions. Isn’t this fantastic? If we did a Sydney Reads (or even a Western Sydney Reads), what book would you choose? And if you’re looking for resources to accompany Millions, don’t forget this official site from the publisher, which also happens to be very entertaining.)

Also from the UK is this rather scathing assessment of the way secondary school crush creativity, especially in boys. This is author Joe Craig speaking:


I’ve visited over 200 schools in the last couple of years, which means I must have run workshops for over 40,000 boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 13. By the time the students reach Year 8, I can predict almost word for word what their story ideas will be, from any given starting point. Even if they think they’re being subversive, in fact especially when they think that, the older the student is, the more predictable the ideas.

The biggest change comes in Year 7, which statistically is also when there’s the biggest drop off in reading – especially in boys. Now, it perhaps seems obvious that the withering of originality is greatly caused by reading less. But I think it’s also the other way round: they read less because their creative spark is consistently doused. Their connection with stories, with ideas and imagination, is stifled by the school environment. If the fun has gone from stories, why read?

I imagine if I were still in the English classroom that I’d be a bit affronted by this article, but I actually suspect there be more than a grain of truth to it. We hear stories from time to time of boy students getting into trouble for things they have written—I think it’s partly teachers’ reasonable concerns about their legal responsibilities to report potential threats or child endangerment, but I do think that Craig is spot on when he suggests that boys’ “wacky ideas” need to be celebrated. Girls’ too, for that matter. (The stuff this article raises about gender as it pertains to reading, writing and classroom practice are, I think, fascinating.)

This is a very UK-centric post, for which I don’t apologise—I think it’s important we keep track of what’s happening with our colleagues, and with education and books and authors and so on around the world. Having said that, I popped over to the Sydney Morning Herald to see if there were any articles of interest in their Education section, and I got a “page not found” message. Humph.

More soon!


22 May 2008

westword has a busy week!

Filed under: Uncategorized — westword @ 11:53 pm

It’s the Sydney Writers’ Festival this week, which makes it a very busy week for me—which paradoxically means I am not going to make it to many Festival events, alas!

The week kicked off for me with the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards dinner, held on Monday night at the Art Gallery of NSW. I was thrilled that James Roy won the Ethel Turner prize for young people’s literature for his marvellous collection of inter-related short stories, Town. Town is one of my favourite YA books from 2007, and I’m glad that it has received its due recognition by this award. (Town is also a CBCA Notable Book.)

The Patricia Wrightson prize for children’s literature went to The Peasant Prince, a picture book based on on Li Cunxin‘s Mao’s Last Dancer, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas.

Tuesday night I chaired a Sydney Writers’ Festival session at Max Webber Library in Blacktown. The panel was on speculative fiction, and featured writers D.M. Cornish (Monster Blood Tattoo), David Kowalski (The Company of the Dead—not intended for younger readers, but many teens will enjoy this lengthy and complex alternate history) and editor of Aurealis magazine Stuart Mayne.

I wrote an account of the Premier’s lit awards dinner and the spec fiction panel on my personal blog: follow the links if you’d like to read about both events in more detail.

My days have been busy too. On Tuesday, I attended the Western Sydney region‘s primary principal’s meeting with Terry O’Keefe, the children’s services librarian from Blacktown City Library. Terry spoke about the work of public libraries, the changing nature of young people’s use of libraries and future directions for the way the library might work with and for young people.

It was also an opportunity for me to talk to the principals about the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature project, the first time many of them had heard about it. They were very positive and supportive in their response, and gave some good suggestions about how the project might work with their schools.

Terry and I also had the chance to talk together about some joint projects—we’ve got a very exciting idea we hope to get up in Term 4 this year—too soon to publish details, but we’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, I spoke about the project at a teacher librarian’s network meeting (also Western Sydney region). There were about 80 TLs at the meeting, and again, the response was overwhelmingly positive. These, of course, are the people at the coalface of bringing young people and books together, and they had a lot to say on a number of issues: the value of access to arts programs for their students, but also the problems associated with the cost of bringing authors and illustrators into their schools. The affordability and sheer logistical challenges associated with organising excursions. The hole left by the end of the Nestlé Write Around Australia creative writing competition. That an interactive website would be both welcomed and made use of—we all agree that schools and libraries need to embrace Web 2.0 in ways that adhere to principles of child protection and safety, but also reflects young people’s engagement with technology and multi-media.

The teacher librarians also had some really practical suggestions about communication and promotion of events and programs, and were very clear that this blog would be a useful resource and information centre for them, at least until the project has its own website, and I am able to set up better communication systems. I have taken that in board, along with a few specific requests for author resources, which I will be posting here very soon.

Tonight (Thursday) was the launch of the project’s advisory board member (and mover-and-shaker!) Libby Gleeson‘s new novel Mahtab’s Story. This wonderful novel was inspired by the stories of young Afghani refugee women, who Libby met at Holroyd High School, and was launched by the NSW Governor, Professor Marie Bashir.

As we have come to expect, Professor Bashir spoke with great warmth and sincerity about Mahtab’s Story, about the renewed optimism and positivity in Australian public life, and the potential our country now has to have an influential voice in world politics regarding dispossessed and oppressed peoples. She spoke about the quality of Libby’s writing, and the way Mahtab’s Story demolishes stereotypes we in the west may have about Muslim people—women in particular. (Here, she referred to the fictional Mahtab’s admiration for her great-aunt, a doctor, in whose shoes she hopes to tread.)

Libby spoke strongly about the dignity of the young Muslim women she worked with in the research and preparation for her novel, and this was made evident by the speech made by Nahid, the young Afghani woman whose story most informed and influenced the writing of the novel.

But as moving as Libby’s and Professor Bashir’s comments were, the words of the Nahid actually had me in tears.

Nahid, who is now 21, arrived in Australia in September 2001—as she said, the historical, social and political nadir for Muslim Australians. Nahid and her family were held in detention on their arrival—now, after graduating through the intensive language centre and then the mainstream educational program at Holroyd High, Nahid is now studying medical science at the University of Western Sydney.

Nahid said that from her the earliest years of her childhood in Afghanistan, she believed in equality for all people, especially women, and spoke about how she intends to fulfil all her personal goals—not primarily for herself, but for those young Afghani women left behind who at this point in time cannot hope to pursue any kind of formal education.

Such grace, such compassion and empathy.

Mahtab’s Story is, I think, a wonderful example of the aims of the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature project, and I recommend it, both as a fine novel and a lucid expression of the true heart of multiculturalism and inclusion in Australia.

Finally, if any westword readers are at a loose end around 7 pm tomorrow night (Friday 23 May), can I suggest you make your way to the Workshop Showroom in St Peters in the inner west to attend the Sydney launch of Leigh Rigozzi and and Benny Walter‘s “Below Tree Level” project. Leigh is the artist who conducted the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature project’s first event—the zine workshop previously blogged here at westword.

More soon—but here’s a photo from the Mahtab’s Story launch:

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