Interview with Australia’s children’s laureates: Alison Lester and Boori Monty Pryor
Australia’s inaugural children’s laureates Alison Lester and Boori Monty Pryor are looking forward to their two-year literary adventure. They spoke to Lucy Stewart.
Alison Lester and Boori Monty Pryor are regulars on the schools circuit, but over the next two years the popular authors will be travelling the country as official ambassadors for children’s literature after being named Australia’s first children’s laureates last December.
Over 2012 and 2013, the duo will spend 60 dedicated days travelling to every state and territory in Australia.
Lester, the author of popular picture books such as Are We There Yet? and Noni the Pony (see the review of her latest book, Sophie Scott Goes South), sees her new role as ‘getting around the country and talking to kids, teachers and adults and trying to be an ambassador for reading and writing’.
‘Reading is the thing that, when you’re young, can really make you see that there’s another life outside your world, no matter what sort of world you’re born into,’ says Lester. ‘And sometimes it reflects your own life—you get your own situation into perspective.’
Both Lester and Pryor see their new role as an extension of work they already do.
‘In a way we’re probably just doing what we’ve always done—helping kids tell their stories. But now it’s a bit more public,’ says Lester.
Pryor agrees: ‘Mainly I do it anyway. I’ve just got the laureate tag now.’ The storyteller, performer and award-winning author (his most recent book is the picture book Shake a Leg), spends every day of the week visiting schools, ‘telling stories and sharing and dancing and talking about books and writing’, as well as teaching children what it means to him to be Indigenous. Pryor estimates he’s worked with over one million children so far.
Both authors are ‘very dedicated to the cause’, says Justine Alltimes, program manager of the Australian Children’s Literature Alliance (ACLA), which was established in 2008 to promote reading among young Australians, and in particular, to develop the Australian children’s laureate program.
While the program was inspired by its counterparts in the US and UK, it hasn’t been modelled on overseas programs, says Alltimes, ‘because there’s a very distinctive literature culture in Australia and authors and illustrators are very connected to both Australian people and country’.
One of the priorities is ‘to ensure that the laureates’ reach is as far as it can be across Australia, so that as many children as possible can hear them speak and be inspired by their creativity to want to tell their own stories’, says Alltimes.
Postcards and docos
In addition to their travels, each laureate will undertake a special project of their own choosing, which is linked to the idea of belonging and place.
Lester will encourage kids to make a postcard of a place they love, with the aim of creating a book in which ‘kids from all over Australia write and draw about their place’.
For his project, Pryor will spend a week in Townsville ‘to make a short movie, using the book Shake a Leg, about storytelling and the kids’ reactions to storytelling that evokes stories of their own’.
‘We do the honey dance, the crocodile dance, then we go through the book and talk, make croc pizzas, croc milkshakes, then we do art. I ask them to draw what their “croc” is in life, then I get them to draw eggs underneath with them breaking out of their crocodile eggs, and what they’re going to do when they’re broken away from what scares them. The culmination is to write—to start the fire within them to write.’
The aim of all this ‘pizza and dancing’, says Pryor, is to encourage participation from ‘kids outside the circle of literature’, including kids with Asperger’s and other conditions. These kids will be the focus of the documentary.
Overall, Lester hopes ‘to make a difference to kids in Australia and try to get the love of reading and love of writing, especially about their own lives, to kids who haven’t had it before’. She adds: ‘And if I was thinking really big, I’d like it if every kid in Australia had a bed to sleep in and a book in their bed. It’s a terrible thing that all the kids in Australia don’t have that.’
Lester urges any school or community who would like to be part of the program to get in touch with ACLA. She also stresses that ‘it’s possible to be involved online even if we can’t get to their special place’. Both authors will blog about their experiences, and there will be chances to replicate some of the projects and participate in discussions via the website.
Pryor believes that the laureate program ‘really gives credence to literature for kids’. ‘In reality, it crosses over, because a lot of the younger kids read stuff older people read anyway, a lot of the time. When we write something it’s for everyone and everyone can have a go, so that’s why I think the laureate post is really amazing and beautiful. I feel very privileged to be one of them but also that it’s actually started. It’ll kick-start lots of minds across the country.’
The Australian Children’s Literature Alliance (ACLA) has developed a number of online resources based around the children’s laureate program: website, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube channel and blog.