S*x and cars

by | Aug 22, 2008

Well, I survived my speech to the Western Australian Children’s Book Council, although I was so nervous beforehand I could barely eat (now that’s nervous!).  There was a bit of the blind-man-and-the-elephant going on: the next day one person said, ‘I hear you were talking about the need for teacher-librarians in this country’, and another said, ‘I hear you were tlaking about s*x and cars.’  Both, in fact, are true.

I also went ‘yippeee’ at the wondrous Matt Ottley winning the CBC Picture Book of the Year for his powerful Requiem for a Beast.  (I also had a brief whinge about James Roy not being shortlisted for the Older Readers’ category for the superlative Town.)

Here’s an excerpt from the teacher-librarian bit of my speech.  The s*x in cars is strictly for a live audience.

Judith Ridge recently commented that YA literature in Australia is not as ground-breaking as it used to be.

And I think she’s right – there’s a kind of cautiousness at work, a hesitance perhaps – not in all work, but in enough to be noticeable. 

Perhaps this is cyclical – a more conservative phase following the lively period of the 90s, where people like John Marsden and Sonya Hartnett and Gary Crew and Margaret Clark and Glyn Parry redefined YA literature in this country.

But perhaps it is also the effect of the haemorrhage of teacher-librarians from high schools in this country – something people like Agnes Nieuwenhuizen has been decrying for years.

Teacher-librarians are the ones who are able to argue – to nervous principals or snappy parents – why we need, for example, to have books on the shelves about gay teenagers, or drugs, or abortion, or whatever topic it is that’s frightening the horses this year.

Without well-trained, well-resourced and well-supported teacher-librarians – librarians with budgets that are robust and expanding, budgets that don’t get cut every time the school needs a new computer, or the gym refurbished – it is too easy for hesitancy to creep in.

But we need to convince parents, principals and governments why losing or under-resourcing teacher-librarians is a national crisis.

We need to communicate why books matter, from kindergarten to university and beyond.

We need to have more reviews of young adult and kids books in the mainstream newspapers.

We need to have a national advocacy organisation for reading – a coalition of the willing – to get out there and argue the case, and to get books, libraries, writers and readers in the media more often, to lobby those who need to be lobbied, to put in submissions to Senate committees, to push for inquiries into reading, literacy and literature. 

We’ve got the Children’s Book Council, English Teachers’ Associations, School Library Associations – surely we could get together and find a way to present a consistent, coherent message to the people who need to hear it – those who write the policy and hand out the money.

If we had a robust and growing reading culture, to which teacher-librarians are absolutely essential, it follows that we would create more daring, more boundary-testing literature.

Because writers cannot be fearless unless there is a culture that supports them – that allows and fosters lively debate, a culture that is alive and vigorous – a culture that is the opposite of hesitant.

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