Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post by Lisa from ANZLitLovers

When I started this Monday musings series, I said that I’d have the occasional guest post. The first one, I decided then, had to be Lisa at ANZLitLovers. Not only did she give me a lot of encouragement when I started blogging (thanks Lisa!) but she is one of our most committed bloggers on Australian literature. In her day life she is a primary school librarian, and so she decided to do her Guest Post on a subject dear to her heart. Read on …

How do we raise the next generation of booklovers?

In recent weeks there’s been a lot of chat in the blogosphere about the impact of eBooks in the marketplace, but I think reading is under more pressure from the diversity of entertainment choices that are available now, than it is from the method used to deliver the book.  I grew up without TV, so weekly visits to the library with my father were an essential component of my life from the time I first learned to read, and I’ve never lost that reading habit. Children now have so many choices, it can be hard for them to find time for a book.

So how do we raise the next generation of booklovers?  If you’re a booklover yourself, it’s important to you that your kids are too, but it’s important for all of us because reading books makes better people of us.  The world needs better people, right?

As a booklover myself I think children are deprived if they don’t have access to lovely books, so all the children in my life get books for presents until they turn into sulky teenagers, and then they’re on their own.  But getting books for presents doesn’t necessarily turn a child into one who loves books…

Remember little Scout, in To Kill A Mockingbird, when her foolish teacher forbids her to read with her father anymore? Scout is appalled.  ‘Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.’  She learned to read not with pretty picture books but by reading the most boring of texts over her father’s shoulder.  She loved to do it because she was with him.  However that was in a different age, and there’s nothing to tell us that Scout went on voraciously reading books into adulthood.

As a teacher-librarian, it’s my job to share books with children.  Primary librarians don’t just manage library acquisitions and book processing, or guide students with their book borrowing and research.  We teach as well.  I have 17 classes for an hour each week.  I’m supposed to teach them research skills, and I do, but I think the literature part of my curriculum is much more important.  The kids I teach might not remember how to takes notes for a project but they will always remember the meaning of the word ‘perfidy’ – and the moral issues that lie behind it – because I read them Kate DiCamillo’s Tale of Despereaux.  They’ll also remember joining in that pleasurable gasp of woe at the end of the lesson because they have to wait till the following week to find out what will happen next.  Suspense is good!

Our definition of literature is ‘those books that you always remember, forever and ever’. What are the ones that they apply this definition to? Here are some of them:

Dragon Keeper book cover
Cover image from Black Dog Books


DragonKeeper by Carole Wilkinson is a compelling fantasy/adventure series about a nameless slave girl in Ancient China whose job it is to feed the dragons.  Most boys past a certain age won’t put up with female central characters, but they sit still and listen for this one.  When the evil dragon hunter turns up to kill the last dragon for its body parts, she flees with it on an epic journey to protect a mysterious stone.  The book won the CBCA (Children’s Book Council of Australia) Book of the Year and took out a host of other awards, and my students and I went on to become keen fans of this wonderful Melbourne author. The sequel, Garden of the Purple Dragon, was shortlisted everywhere in 2006, Dragon Moon won the CBCA Award in 2008, and now there is a prequel – Dragon Dawn – which shows us Danzi as a young dragon, a mere 1000 years old.  A great favourite.

Sticking with dragons for the time being, I always read Lily Quench and the Dragon of Ashby by Natalie Prior to lure Years 3 and 4 students to reading.  Once again there is a female hero plagued by self-doubt, but she rises to the occasion (literally) when Queen Dragon lands in the grey, miserable town of Ashby and challenges the evil Black Count who has taken over everything and rules with an iron fist.  This one is rich in opportunities for discussion too, but it also features droll humour which eight and nine year old students can appreciate.  This is one of a series of seven, so the other six books are whisked off the shelves by borrowers before I’ve got to the end of chapter two…

The Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda series is a blockbuster.   Three trusty companions travel across Deltora to retrieve magic artefacts and defeat the evil Shadow Lord.  It’s a particular favourite with kids who play computer games involving collecting artefacts to fight off the Bad Guys.  No matter how many of these books I buy there are never enough, and I’ve given up trying to shelve them where they belong on the R shelf.  They have a tub of their own where the kids can riffle through looking for the title they want. (There are 15 in the series).

Another favourite is Truck Dogs, A Novel in Four Bites by Graeme Base.  He’s a picture book author and first editions of this book have full colour artwork, showing the bizarre creatures featured in this SF adventure.  It takes place at some time in the future in outback Australia when dogs have mutated into hybrid vehicles, part canine-part machine.  The hero, Sparky, (a Jack Russell/ute cross) is a scamp forever in trouble, but when a gang of Rottweilers come into town to steal all the town’s petrol, he leads the Mongrel Pack street gang to defeat Mr Big, (a Chihuahua/BMW cross) and save the day.  It’s an exciting romp with tongue-in-cheek humour and kids love it.

Do-Wrong Ron by Steven Herrick is completely different.  It’s a novel in free verse, and it tells the story of Ron who is good-hearted but manages to do almost everything wrong.  He tries to help Isabella’s grandmother who is too sad and lonely to go out of her house, and as usual things go wrong – but turn out right.  This is a great book for those under-confident kids who think they’re never going to belong, and the gentle humour is lovely.

Billy Mack’s War by James Roy is a great antidote to boys’ enthusiasm for war.   It’s set in 1945 and it tells the story of how shamefully the POWs were treated when they were evacuated back to Australia from Japan.  Billy doesn’t know his father, and he’s embarrassed and his loyalties are tested when he hears people talk about the POWs ‘sitting out the war’ while others fought.  His father’s experienced such horrors that he’s not coping with freedom very well. Not a book for under 11s, but a book that will intrigue older readers around Anzac Day…

Finally, although it’s British, I can’t resist including my favourite, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, retold brilliantly by Michael Morpurgo, Britain’s Children’s Laureate.  This ancient tale from the 14th century takes place in Camelot, where on New Year’s Eve the feasting is interrupted by a strange green man who confronts the reputation of King Arthur’s knights with a fearsome challenge.  It is Sir Gawain who has to prove that he has courage, determination and honour, and it is this one that has my students pleading for me to read the finale even after the bell is long gone for them to go out to play.  We talk about the seven knightly virtues, and whether they still apply today; we talk about why Gawain says his life is less important than his king’s, and we talk about why flirting with your best mate’s girl is so wrong.  I read Michael Morpurgo’s version of Beowulf to Years 5 & 6 too and they love that as well (especially the gory bits), but it is Sir Gawain and his quest to do the right thing when tempted not to, who speaks to them across the centuries.

While nearly all my students love listening to stories in the library each week, I know that they don’t all turn into booklovers.  However some kids, who never used to borrow, now do so regularly and they’re in the library before school pestering me to buy new books as well.  I wish I knew the secret that makes this happen for more of them…

Back to Sue … Thanks Lisa for this inspired and inspiring guest post. Now, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue …

14 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post by Lisa from ANZLitLovers

  1. In the 1960s, the junior secondary students at Ungarie Central were bussed (separate buses for each gender) 40 miles across to West Wyalong once a week. There the boys did Farm Mechanics and the girls Domestic Science, followed then by a joint music/singing lesson – the long term benefits of which include me still thinking that “Blowing in the Wind” is the same vintage as “Greensleeves”.

    My highlight however was the Library lesson, and raiding the West Wyalong School Library for books to borrow for the next week. Arguments raged between me and the Librarian about whether this should be limited to only 10 books, and whether Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage” was too adult for an eleven year old. Simon Black with its Australian SF was fine, along with Mary Grant Bruce’s “Billabong” series.

    Loved it – by the time I reached age 12 and went off to Boarding School at Yanco, I was up to reading at 1200 words/minute. I used to have to break into the Library there so that I could read the new books that hadn’t yet been accessioned. This stood me in good stead for moving to Canberra after Uni, where I found that you could just march into the Stacks at the National Library and shortcut the request system if you looked confident enough. Had to stop when I started dating one of the Librarians there (not Sue) and risked embarrassing her if I got caught (but never was).

    Both my daughters now read books as young adults, although I’m not always sympathetic to their tastes (nor they to mine). It will be interesting to see what happens to the next generation!

  2. Welcome Peter and thanks for commenting. You’re lucky that other librarian didn’t get fired … just as well she’s retired now, eh?

    Did you win out over Riders of the purpose sage. The Billabong books were good but by 11 I reckon most readers would have pretty much grown out of them. As for daughters’ tastes, the main thing is that they are readers isn’t it?

    • Sue – I did get to read Riders of the Purple Sage, although I was more impressed by the idea of having a secret home in the canyons than by the romance. Other people may have finished Mary Grant Bruce by 11, but my earlier reading was limited to what was available: viz Reader’s Digests (Kate still thinks most of my jokes come from there) & the Condensed Books, and trying to read the Encyclopedia Brittanica from cover to cover. I agree that the main thing is that people read, whatever & however they manage it.

      • Fair enough, Peter … I reckon secret homes in canyons are pretty exciting too (and of course you did get into romance when the time was ripe didn’t you!). Must say that Readers Digests and Condensed books were part of my early reading too.

        Good for you on attempting the Britannica – that’s pretty dense stuff. I started writing an encyclopedia once – didn’t get far though!

      • Hey, I tried to read the Britannica too. My father had a set from about 1945. It was just great for browsing through, though not in bed. Which is probably why I never got past B.

  3. As the lucky daughter of Whispering Gums, I have to say that some of my happiest childhood memories (which I believe helped create my love of reading) are of mum reading to me every night before I went to sleep. I remember lying in bed while stories washed over me, then I remember growing older and reading the books while she read as I rested my head on her shoulder.

    In this way, books became tangled up with love in my mind, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    (Although I can’t help adding that I think the Rowan of Rin series outdoes Deltora Quest. “Seven hearts the journey make / Seven ways the hearts will break / One brave heart will carry on / When sleep is death and hope is gone…”

    • There you go Lisa … what say you to Rowan of Rin?

      Must say that sharing books by reading aloud is one of the many really great things about parenthood. Glad it was a good part of childhood too Hannah …

      • Yes, the kids love Rowan of Rin too.
        You’re right, Hannah, as Scout was, about the power of love being tangled up with books, but most of the kids I teach don’t share that experience. For whatever reason, their parents don’t read to them.
        But I’ve read enough memoirs to know that for some people, nostalgic memories of their teacher reading to them is what they remember best about school. I aim to be that teacher!

  4. Hannah is onto it I reckon. You know that good stuff comes in books long before school if your parents read (with enthusiasm) great stories to you every night. Then there’s the elating discovery that you don’t have to wait till night but can read anytime and anything!
    Peter, I loved the Billabong and Biggles books too, and kept discovering new ones well into my early teens in among Dickens and such. I hated having to grow up and leave them. Possibly never quite made it.

    • LOL Sue … I loved Billabong too as politically incorrect as we now see they are. I never got into Biggles and adventure though. I loved all the school stories – Our girl of the chalet, the Noel Streatfield ones, and so on. All those wonderful midnight feasts with your friends sounded so wonderful.

      You make a good point about growing up and leaving books behind. It is a bit of a painful process isn’t it – making that transition. You know you have to, but you don’t want to…

      It’s great seeing such a wealth of high quality books written for children now … better, really, on the whole than we had.

  5. How fortunate are the children at Lisa’s school. I am not sure that
    such roles even exist in the UK these days.

    I believe that the best thing to encourage a child to read is to see his/her parents reading. Then the culture of reading seems natural and “what people do”. Our grand-daughter is only 22 months old but always seems to have a favorite picture book around

    • They are aren’t they Tom. I think school librarians are still recognised as valuable in Australia though small schools struggle to retain them. I was horrified to find a school of 1200 plus in the US did not have a qualified teacher-librarian managing it. Sounds like UK may be similar.

      Kids with reading parents are lucky … at least they have modelling at home as you say. My son, who is teaching primary school (this is his first year and he’s teaching grade 3 – 8 year olds) reads to his class. He enjoys it a lot.

  6. Such a great post Lisa, I can’t believe that I’ve fallen so far behind, and missed this for a couple of weeks. I’m sure you are that teacher for many kids every year. They are very lucky to have you at their school. I’m curious about your reading aloud- are you often reading the same book to different classes? If so, how do you maintain the enthusiasm for repeated re-readings? Or do you stagger them, so that you’re not reading the same book 8 times in a week?

    Reading aloud to children at bedtime is certainly one of the best things about parenthood. I’m still reading aloud to my soon to be 10 year old son. It’s not every night now, as he will want to watch some shows on tv, but probably three nights a week. We’re slowly reading through the first series of Deltora. One or two chapters a night. He absolutely loves it. I don’t quite see the fascination I guess. Certainly I find some aspects very imaginative and clever, but the writing is downright clunky at times- although my son never seems to notice. We’re reading book 6 now and she has suddenly brought back characters from book 4 (who weren’t in book 5), and I’m finding it rather confusing. I haven’t read any Rowan of Rin, but will some day.

    There’s lots of other inspirations in your post. I was very interested to hear your positive thoughts on Dragonkeeper. It’s a book I’ve seen around, but not one I’ve heard of all that much. It’s included in 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up. (as is Rowan of Rin, but not Deltora).

    I’ve not read anything by Steven Herrick or James Roy, but am coming across them more and more, and feel that I must get to them sometime soon. I know we’ve spoken about your love of Morpurgo’s Gawain before. I really must order that sometime. Perhaps it might make good bedtime reading next year, whenever we finally finish Deltora. I’ve already warned Lachlan that I will need a break from Deltora and will not launch head first into the second series.

    • Thanks Louise – it’s never too late to comment. I read aloud to Hannah until she was 11 or so, even though as you say it was not every night by then. We both loved those times … they are to treasure I think. My son loves reading aloud to his grade 3 class.

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