Browsing Tag

ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge

Oh the places you’ll go!

4 December 2017

2017 is the thirteenth year of the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge, but it’s been anything but unlucky. This year saw more students than ever before take part, with 34,000 kids from 91 schools reading their 15 books. Twenty-six schools finished with a 100 per cent completion rate across the school — bravo! And 49 schools with the highest percentage of students completing the Challenge were invited to attend the awards ceremony.

The ceremony is always a wonderful celebration, and this year I was honoured to speak on behalf of the Ambassadors. Our job is to promote reading (could their be a more perfect role?) and visit schools. I was asked to talk about how I became an author, and so I shared how I began writing and making my own books when I was just a wee thing. I remember hours spent on my bedroom floor, writing fairy stories and researching books on hard-hitting topics like the royal family. But I never imagined that I could actually become an author.

I spent my childhood in England and I assumed that authors must be terribly posh people who wore tweed suits and spectacles, and lived in mansions where they wrote in cavernous personal libraries that required a ladder to reach the books at the very top. They definitely weren’t people like me who lived in the suburbs in a noisy, chaotic house with five annoying younger brothers and a dog who liked to eat socks.

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Unbeknownst to me I was living just ten minutes down the road from a real author, one of the world’s most famous writers and one of my personal favourites, Roald Dahl. His writing studio was nothing like my glamorous fantasy. He wrote in a tiny, cluttered hut in his garden where he rested his feet on a battered suitcase filled with logs, and wore a sleeping bag to keep warm. The hut often had goat droppings in the corners, and there were always plenty of spiders to keep Roald company (which he apparently loved). If I could only have stood on tiptoe and looked in on this scene I might have realised sooner that authors are just ordinary people who love books.

But as it was it took me a long time to figure this out. I wasn’t much helped by my high school careers counsellor who declared that journalism was the only profession for a person like me, but I’d already been turned off that vocation by a school visit from a terribly grumpy newspaper columnist who clearly hated her job. These days I tell students that there is an endless list of possibilities for people who love books, everything from editing and illustrating to design and publicity.

I finished my speech by setting the students a challenge to read as widely as they possibly can — to explore characters who are completely different to them, who are experiencing different problems. I am a big believer that books are powerful agents of change. They have the potential to connect our diverse global community and create empathy for those who come from different countries, races, religions, cultures and ways of living. They allow us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand what the world looks like from their perspective, and that is sorely needed in our current climate. So I would encourage you to take up the challenge too, no matter your age!

The Ambassadors being presented with gorgeous bouquets, with Acting Chief Minister Yvette Berry on the left

It’s so heartening that through the Challenge the ACT Government supports and encourages children to explore the pleasures of books. Readers are clever, creative and compassionate thinkers, but the act of reading itself is a pure kind of joy. At least it is for me, and this is what I hope to share with the students as I go into their schools.

The minister quoted some of my favourite Dr Seuss lines in her speech and it seems an apt note to finish on:

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

The Ambassador crew: Tania McCartney, Jack Heath, Harry Laing, Tracey Hawkins, me, Virginia Haussegger

Reading memories

6 June 2017
One of the perks of being Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge is visiting schools to talk about my favourite topic—books (duh). This week I headed to Holy Trinity Primary to meet the Year 1s and 2s. Here we all are getting a bit crazy together.

Talking about reading got me thinking about my own special reading memories, and one teacher in particular. Her name was Miss O’D and she was my Grade 6 teacher. She wore blue mascara and shoulder pads and was every kind of eighties cool. She was young, not that long out of university, and she made everything fun. And I mean everything. It was the only year that I enjoyed maths as we played ‘The Footy Game’ to learn our times tables. It involved an actual footy and four teams and much laughter. That year everyone’s understanding of maths skyrocketed.

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But for a booklover like me it was the literary activities that got me all shiny-eyed. Every week Miss O’D wrote a Poem of the Week on our blackboard and illustrated it with Dr Seuss-style characters. We would copy out the poem (using smelly glitter pens) and create our own illustrations. I still remember the time I got a rare and coveted 10 out of 10 for my work. ‘Perfect!’ she wrote, and my feet did not touch the ground for the rest of the day. She also constructed a haunted house reading corner from a massive crate painted black. It was full of cushions and dangling streamers and clearly sent one message: reading is fun. But best of all, she got us to write, illustrate and ‘publish’ our own picture books. I had been writing stories and making my own books at home for as long as I could remember, so the opportunity to create a shiny hardback (well, more laminated cardboard) had me practically salivating. I still have those two books and I often take them with me on school visits, as I did to Holy Trinity, to encourage kids to make their own.

So as all the Reading Challenge Ambassadors head out for their school visits, I thought I’d ask them about their own special reading memories. Here’s what they had to say.

Jack Heath: At Lyneham Primary School I had a wonderful teacher librarian named Kay Pietsch. When I missed school due to a crippling ear infection, she hand-picked books for me to read during my recovery. Thanks to her I discovered Claire Carmichael, Jackie French, Brian Jacques and many others. When I finally got back to school, I wasn’t behind my classmates. I might even have been ahead.

Harry Laing: There’s a nursery rhyme that’s always stuck in my head with a particularly vivid quality. I think my grandmother read it to me (and I’m sure my mother and maybe a favourite great aunt). I think it was probably just before I was reading properly so the words had that talismanic quality…

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark
Beggars are coming to town
Some in jags, some in rags
And one in a velvet gown.

Listening to this as a child gave me a delicious shiver. Something to do with the wonderfully tight and expressive sounds and rhymes of hark/bark and jags/rags. It was scary to think of the beggars coming to town, and their power to provoke the dogs with their rags and then the really scary last line ‘and one in a velvet gown’. What did that mean? I’m sure I barely understood what velvet was or even a gown but it was such a smooth and sinister phrase. I still get the same feeling 50-odd years later. I can go back and look at Mother Goose and there’s the nursery rhyme with illustration but it’s the sound of the words that lingers. And how precious that is, to be able to go straight back to being five years old with nothing in-between. Mind you I did have to look up the meaning of ‘jags’ (tatters, rags).

Tracey Hawkins: As a child I owned a boxed set of Golden Press books, Wonderful World of Walt Disney. There were four books in the set, Fantasyland, Worlds of Nature, America and Stories from Other Lands. My favourite was Stories from Other Lands. Turning the pages took me to a world far away from the small coastal town I lived in. Books provided knowledge and escapism, and fascinated me. Reading fed my imagination as I unearthed the mystery, myths, legends and cultural diversity of other countries. I read thousands of books as a child, but I believe it was this book led me on my future path as an adult to explore and travel the world.

Tania McCartney: One of my earliest and most precious reading memories is with my mum, reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. The intriguing thing about this persistent memory is that it’s not the actual story I remember. It’s the warmth of her lap. It’s her arms around my shoulders and the rumble of her voice, resonating from her diaphragm into my back. It’s the smell of her clothes and the smoothness of the book’s pages. I can still feel my little toddler fingers poking through the holes in the page as the caterpillar eats its way through a multitude of delicious treats, and how the paper scratched my skin. I can also feel the rumble in my tummy, wanting to join the caterpillar for cherry pie, watermelon and a lollipop. It’s all those tactile elements, yes, but it’s also the less tactile—that envelope of love, that feeling of belonging, that parental attention and sheer enjoyment of story. And that, my friends, is how children fall in love with books.

Just look at all those hands! Such enthusiastic little readers!

As Ambassadors we all hope that our school visits will inspire kids to explore many more books and develop a lifelong love of reading. So I was so thrilled to receive a stack of letters from Holy Trinity with beautiful words of thanks and equally beautiful illustrations. I wish I could include them all here but since there’s not space here’s my lounge room carpeted in them, and one of my favourites from Lachy. His exclamations (‘Your visit…OH! I loved it. Please come again!’) brought a big grin to my face. Also, I am ‘awsem’. That’s the best bit of being an author right there.

 

Take four

15 May 2017

‘I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.’ Audre Lorde

This is what we writers do, in our private corners of solitude. We put words on the page that go out into the world and speak to readers. But a writer’s job also involves getting on a stage and speaking directly to those readers, trying to articulate the thinking behind the messy and elusive process of creating a work of fiction. It can be nerve-racking and exciting and stimulating. In the lead-up to an event I always feel anticipatory nerves, but once I’m on the stage I enjoy myself, and often come away feeling buoyant.

I’ve been part of four very varied events on writing and/or editing in recent weeks and I thought I’d share a little about the experience of each of them.

‘Animal Rights Writing’: Nigel Featherstone, Sam Vincent, Karen Viggers and Irma Gold

Most recently I was on an ‘Animal Rights Writing’ panel with Karen Viggers and Sam Vincent. I’ve never seen a panel programmed on this subject before. (Hit me up in the comments if you have, because it’s a topic I’d love to see discussed more.) This session was chaired by Nigel Featherstone who managed to expertly guide the discussion through our respective areas of interest. Our books deal with kangaroo culling (Karen, The Grass Castle), international whaling (Sam, Blood and Guts) and the exploitation of elephants for tourism (me, a children’s book, Seree’s Story, due out with Walker Books, and a work-in-progress novel, Rescuing Chang). Our conversation covered much ground, but, for me at least, the key idea that emerged was that conservation issues tend to be distilled into polarised positions which don’t necessarily reflect the complexities involved. Life is full of grey, and solutions are rarely of the black-and-white kind. Fortunately, writing can explore the grey. While this event delved into the darker side of humans’ impact on the world, it was a thoroughly stimulating and thought-provoking discussion. And as the icing on the cake, I returned home to an email from an audience member who felt moved to get in touch after hearing me speak about the devastating situation facing Asian elephants. With both my books yet to be released, I’m looking forward to many more conversations like this one.

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Noted: Ashley Thomson, Irma Gold, Alan Vaarwerk, Sian Campbell

As part of Noted Festival, I was on a panel with Alan Vaarwerk (Kill Your Darlings) and Sian Campbell (Scum Magazine), ‘Literally the Worst: Bad Writing and Badder Editing’, with Homer Editor Ashley Thomson chairing. I wasn’t keen on the title’s negative angle, but I guess a feisty premise draws the crowds, and the event was certainly packed. Fortunately the focus of discussion was productive, emphasising ways for writers to improve their craft. We also spoke about the hallmarks of good editing and when to identify ‘bad’ editing. In particular, I spoke about the need for editors to work with the author’s voice, not impose their own. Our own idiom is always what sounds ‘right’, so good editors learn to recognise their own preferences and then set them aside. They essentially become chameleons, taking on the colours of the manuscript in order to help the author make their work the very best it can be. (As you can see, Shauna O’Meara choose to illustrate this part of our conversation; my first time immortalised as a cartoon!) We spoke about a whole lot else besides and the event was podcasted here if you’d like to have a listen.

For the next two events I was the one in the interviewer’s hot seat. It’s such a responsibility being the interviewer. Over the years I’ve seen the way poor interviewers give authors no place to go and leave everyone feeling flat, and conversely the way brilliant interviewers draw the very best out of their subjects, gleaning new insights. Part of the skill is developing a rapport with the interviewees before hitting the stage, which is of course easier if you already know them. It’s also important to be super prepared but then be able to go with the flow on the day, so that the conversation evolves, rather than rigidly following a pre-existing set of questions.

It’s such a privilege chatting with other writers, and the in-conversation event with Marion Halligan and John Stokes about their lives together was one of the loveliest events I’ve been a part of. Marion and John are perhaps best described as Canberra literary royalty. They are a warm, generous and supportive presence in the local community, and our discussion reflected that. There was much laughter, but also tears. Both have written so movingly about grief and loss, and John’s reading of his prose poem about the death of Marion’s daughter, ‘Funeral Address for a Stepdaughter’, had the audience reaching for the tissues. Marion once wrote, ‘Grief does not dissipate, it is something that exists, and must be valued, even treasured.’ Wise words indeed. It was a rich and wonderful hour spent with two marvellous writers.

And finally, I interviewed Robyn Cadwallader about her stunning debut novel, The Anchoress, as part of Festival Muse. I wrote about some of our discussion here, so I won’t rehash it, but Robyn was a delight to interview—thoughtful, insightful and intelligent. Our discussion lingered in my mind long after the event was over.

Next up, I’m heading to Holy Trinity Primary School in my role as Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge. School visits are always heaps of fun, so I can’t wait to meet all those new little readers.

Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge wraps

11 December 2016

reading-challenge-wrapA celebratory event at the National Library saw the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge wrap for the year. It was wonderful to see so many students from so many schools in attendance, and for us ambassadors to celebrate our year of working to get kids hooked on books (not that it feels like work!).

And what a year it has been. 2016 was the most successful yet, with 31,000 kids from 90 schools reading at least 15 books between May and September. That’s an increase of an incredible 5,000 students from last year!

The challenge was launched back in 2004 as a way to encourage and develop a love of reading in students from preschool to Year 8. There is no set reading list which, in my view, is part of the program’s strength. I am a firm believer that if we want kids to fall in love with reading, then we need to allow them to choose the books that they are interested in. So the students participating can read pretty much anything, including books in languages other than English.

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One little star read a phenomenal 240 novels during those five months (I feel quite jealous of all those reading hours!). He traced the spines of every book on a long sheet of paper, and it turns out that he read a whopping 4.8 metres worth of books! I’m betting he cracks five metres next year.

It’s been an honour and a pleasure to be an ambassador for the challenge alongside Virginia Hausengger, Tracey Hawkins, Jack Heath and Tania McCartney. Yay books!

On reading and the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge

2 June 2016

One of the coolSouthern Cross things about being Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge is that you get an extra excuse to do school visits. Last week I headed out to Southern Cross Early Childhood School to meet a bunch of Kinder students. Let’s face it, Kinder is the most adorable school age, and these kids were so enthusiastic about books and reading that it made my heart sing.

Chatting to their executive teacher afterwards it was pretty clear why. The school’s approach to teaching their kids to read is to use as much ‘real literature’ as possible (as opposed to just home readers), and to let the kids choose whatever they want. No limits. The teacher shared that one child who is struggling to read, desperately wanted to borrow a chapter book and was then so thrilled with herself when she could correctly identify some of the words. She was reading a chapter book!

There are two things that I love about this. Firstly, mention home readers to any group of parents and teachers and a collective groan will erupt. The home readers most schools have are years old and deathly boring. They have no plot, two-dimensional characters, insipid illustrations and dull subject matter. Nothing to engage a child on any level. They send children the message that reading is boring, or worse, sheer hard work. For the children who have a home life that is rich in exciting reading experiences they will no doubt come out the other side of home readers. But for many children home readers, at that very crucial formative stage, come to define the reading experience.

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The second thing that I love about Southern Cross’ approach is that they don’t tell the children what they can and can’t read. I am a firm believer that children should be allowed to read whatever interests them. If they only want to read comics or manga or books about zombies, that’s totally fine. As soon as you tell a child that they can’t or shouldn’t be reading what they are interested in, you run the risk of damaging their relationship with books.

Serious readingThere was a time when my daughter obsessively read the Geronimo Stilton series and another series about fairies (the name of which it seems I have deliberately blocked from my memory). This was at a time when I still read to her (now she is 12 and will not be read to, thank you very much), so this meant that I got to share in this never-ending stream of awfulness. But I never let on, because she loved them. She is still a voracious reader (witness the sign she recently posted on her bedroom door during a weekend session, with spelling corrected by her younger brother who clearly has the editor gene). Some of her book choices resonate with me, others don’t. But they are her choices. And that’s important.

When my son was in Year 3 he desperately wanted to borrow books from a shelf that was forbidden because it was for the senior students. The well-meaning school librarian told him that these books were above his comprehension level and tried to direct him to a range of other ‘more appropriate’ books, all of which he thought were ‘boring’. Every week he came home with ‘appropriate’ books that he didn’t read. The forbidden books were by authors like Andy Griffiths and Morris Gleitzman, and we had already read most of them at home. These books were most definitely not outside of his comprehension level, but even if they were that would have been okay. He would have made the choice himself to put that book down and move on to something else. As it was, after several emails he was granted access to these books, though the other children weren’t.

Southern Cross_smlThe worst thing we can do is to censor our children’s choices. When we tell children that they are only permitted to read a certain kind of book that doesn’t appeal to them, we run the risk of turning them off books completely. I liken it to me being prevented from reading anything but Dan Brown novels. Pure torture! If Dan Brown was the only thing on offer, I’d never read again. He is my version of a home reader.

Many schools are adopting the same kind of approach as Southern Cross, but there are still many more that aren’t. We need children to associate books with pleasure. And what we now know is that children who read for pleasure do significantly better at school than their peers who don’t (Melbourne University study, 2013). We also know that the single most important indicator of how well a child will do at school directly correlates to the number of hours that they were read to as a toddler. So books are absolutely fundamental. Thank goodness for initiatives like the Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge which puts a spotlight on books as fun and exciting places to be.

Kids need (good) books. They allow kids to dream big and make new discoveries and go on adventures and grow their imaginations. As adults we need to find ways to get books into kids’ hands as often as possible.