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Diversity and teen engagement discussed at 2015 Reading Matters conference

International authors Laurie Halse Anderson, Sally Gardner, Priya Kuriyan and Sara Farizan were among the guests at this year’s Reading Matters conference, which ran from 28-31 May in Melbourne. The biennial youth literature conference is presented by the Centre for Youth Literature (CYL) at the State Library of Victoria (SLV).

The 2015 program, which featured 56 sessions and 32 speakers, included a schools day, a two-day professional program and a free public program. The conference also embarked on its first national tour across 16 locations in regional Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, with free public events in Shepparton, Adelaide and Alice Springs.

Reader development and CYL manager Anna Burkey told Books+Publishing that 1000 people attended the public and student programs and close to 400 attended the professional conference, and anticipates the national tour will engage with a further 1000 young adults. Burkey hopes the ‘stellar cast of authors and speakers’ will inspire those who attended to ‘continue the conversations’ that were started at the conference.

The first day of the professional program began with a slam poetry performance from Abe Nouk, followed by a YA discussion panel with teenage readers. The panellists all said they used the internet to discover new books, with review sites such as Goodreads, blogs and ‘booktubers’ (video blogs about books on YouTube) mentioned as sources for recommendations, along with English teachers, librarians, bookstores and friends. The panellists also spoke about the limited range of YA nonfiction; their fatigue with the prevalence of romance and dystopia; and the ‘relatable struggles’ that draw them to a book and a character.

The first day also featured a discussion on the ‘State of Play in YA’ with industry guests. Head of library services at Genazzano FCJ College Susan La Marca observed that among students, word-of-mouth from friends was still the best way to engage readers, but the ‘cycle of popularity [of titles] was getting shorter’ and ‘harnessing that [buzz] would not be so easy’. La Marca was ambivalent on whether ‘mega-sellers’ such as ‘Harry Potter’ were ‘beneficial to the broader list of YA’, noting that ‘librarians can create other pathways through popular culture’ by promoting Australian authors. VCAA curriculum manager Sean Box discussed the criteria for Victorian high school texts—‘literary merit’ and ‘affirming perspectives’ that would be ‘appropriate for the widest audience’—but created a stir when he indicated YA titles would not be suitable for VCE study.

Also on the first day was a talk on ‘reinventing childhood imagination’ from Sally Gardner; Laurie Halse Anderson speaking on the need to make books and book spaces available to vulnerable teenagers; and an announcement by the SLV of its plans to convert the library’s Queen’s Hall into a public reading room.

Diversity and engagement dominated the second day of the program. Ambelin Kwaymullina moderated a panel on diversity, where Clare Atkins recommended publishers address the issue in three main ways: have more diverse authors, more diverse characters, and ‘normalise’ diversity in all their stories. Kwaymullina suggested publishers ‘build up expertise’ so that they have the ‘level of knowledge to know when something is disrespectful’, and Jared Thomas said that the reach of a book depends on ‘the power of publishers and their distribution’. Kwaymullina agreed that smaller publicity and marketing budgets at small publishers meant teachers and librarians had to look harder to discover diverse titles, while Sara Farizan said that school libraries could help bring attention to marginalised stories by ‘displaying different books from outside the curriculum’.

The ‘Hashtag Teen’ panel on engaging teenagers covered a wide range of topics on digital spaces and campaigns, including the UK’s Stan Lee Excelsior Award program, which panellist Tom Taylor felt could be implemented in Australia; fanfiction and digital storytelling initiatives AO3 and Shift Alt Story; and Penguin Teen Australia’s PTAChat hashtag, which generates YA discussion on twitter at set times. The popularity of ‘booktubing’ among younger readers was brought up again by panellist Amie Kaufman, who cited YouTube blogger Little Book Owl’s 120,000 subscribers as proof of the medium’s reach. Kaufman’s recommendation to engage with younger readers is ‘you have to go where the kids are’.

The topic of engagement was continued in the final session of the day between guests Anderson and Gardner, who differed on authors being asked to engage with social media. Gardner cautioned that it disperses the ‘mystery’ of a writer and eats into a writer’s time, while Anderson said authors should ‘find their own comfort level’, but said she ‘personally enjoys the opportunity to interact [online]’. Earlier in the program, Jaclyn Moriarty talked on a similar theme, observing the ‘breakdown’ of the divide between author and reader, with authors now being asked by the industry to ‘give more than just their books’.

In the bookshop

Readings continued its relationship with Reading Matters as the official bookseller for the conference. Readings told Books+Publishing that titles by Will Kostakis, Gardner and Anderson were among the most popular during the event, and that Anderson’s first book Speak and Abe Nouk’s self-published poetry collection Dear Child both sold out. ‘Bravo to Reading Matters for creating such a diverse reading list that will keep us thinking and discussing for many months to come,’ said a spokesperson for the store.

The bestsellers at the Readings shop were:

  • The Door That Led to Where and Maggot Moon (Sally Gardner, Hot Key Books)
  • The Impossible Knife of Memory and Wintergirls (both Laurie Halse Anderson, Text)
  • Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson, Hachette)
  • The First Third (Will Kostakis, Penguin)
  • These Broken Stars (Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner, A&U)
  • Nona & Me (Clare Atkins, Black Inc.)
  • Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel (Sara Farizan, Algonquin Books)
  • Dear Child (Abe Nouk, Creative Rebellion Youth)
  • Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean (ed by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar & Anita Roy, A&U).


Category: Conferences Local news