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Karys McEwen: Why you should meet your heroes

In her first column for 2019, high school library manager Karys McEwen argues that young people have much to gain from interacting with authors in person—but authors need to be supported.

A few years ago I was contacted by an author who was interested in visiting my school library for free while promoting their latest book, an anthology of young adult stories. I jumped at the offer, especially since working at a public school meant there wasn’t much of a budget for visiting authors. The author brought along another writer friend who happened to be in town, and the two of them regaled the student book club with stories about their creative process, getting published, and making a career out of writing. The kids asked endless questions. Some of them also purchased the anthology and had it signed, while others borrowed it from the library—the reserve queue was at least a couple of students long for the rest of the year. For months afterwards they spoke about how great the visit was, and begged me to get more authors to come to school. The experience opened their eyes in a way that exceeded my expectations.

There are myriad opportunities for this type of engagement between authors and young people to take place: school visits, writers’ festivals, workshops, holiday programs, launches, storytimes at bookshops or libraries, and online connections too, through blogs or social media. The pay-off is invaluable in terms of introducing children to the possibilities of the creative industries, getting them to appreciate the art of storytelling, and hooking reluctant readers who are given a chance to better understand the stories they read by meeting the person that exists behind the words on the page. Since realising this, I have started taking my students to the local writers’ festival each year, and each year without fail, they leave feeling enthused and inspired. My favourite thing is to hear them chatting excitedly on the train home about everything they experienced during the day.

However, it is vital to recognise that from an author’s point of view, this side of their job is not necessarily the easiest. Many children’s authors in Australia and beyond rely on the extra income that school visits and festivals can generate, and the travel and type of work can take a toll. We need to ensure that authors are being paid appropriately and that services exist to support them in this task.

It is also important to understand that class and locality play a part in access to these types of activities—private schools often have more funds to pay for visiting authors, and children that live rurally are less likely to have festivals and events within a reasonable distance. It is not as simple as declaring that all young people should have the chance to meet authors. But there are ways around such obstacles.

Sometimes an author might be in a position to negotiate their fee for school visits, though this should never be expected. There are, however, events and workshops available for free, or at reduced prices for disadvantaged youth, such as the State Library of Victoria’s Story Camp or the slew of children’s events at this year’s Perth Writers Week. Online platforms like Goodreads and the recently relaunched Inside a Dog website allow young people to engage with authors and other readers online. Often young people just need showing that these opportunities exist.

Recently some of our English classes were undertaking a literature circles project, and a group of rowdy boys chose Brendan Lawley’s young adult novel Bonesland (Text). Although they were excited by how much they could relate to the themes in the book, they were all very reluctant readers and were having difficulty finding the motivation to read. I tweeted Brendan and asked if he would mind if they got in touch with him to chat through some things, and he kindly agreed. The boys were blown away by the fact that they were speaking to the author of the book they had to read for school, and every time I saw one of them in the hallway, they would excitedly update me on their most recent interaction. At the end of the project, the quietest boy of the group approached the library desk, thanked me for helping them get in touch with the author, and told me what a huge impact it had on his learning.

Engaging with a book is a powerful and crucial experience for every young person. However, the extra step of being able to meet or speak with the storytellers and creators themselves adds another element that can make all the difference. We need to continue providing the opportunities for authors to do just that.

Karys McEwen is the library manager across both Prahran and Richmond High Schools in Melbourne, as well as the vice president of the Children’s Book Council of Australia (Victorian Branch) and the treasurer of the School Library Association of Victoria


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