Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading Australia

You know how when you go to a conference you pick up all sorts of pamphlets and brochures advertising this and that? Well, at the Writing the Australian landscape conference I attended back in August, just before I went overseas, I picked up an interesting leaflet from Australia’s Copyright Agency. The leaflet is titled: Reading Australia: Sharing great Australian stories. I decided then that it should be a Monday Musings topic so, here I am, nearly three months later telling you about it.

Reading Australia’s aim is “to promote the study of Australian works in the classroom”. It has kicked off with “the First 200” works selected by the Australian Society of Authors. The selection includes

stories from Indigenous Australians, from the colonial past and rural epics through to the cosmopolitan melting pot of the cities … classes and new favourites

The list, which is available on the Copyright Agency’s website, covers fiction and non-fiction, drama and poetry, and includes selections for primary and secondary schools. From these they have selected a subset of 20 – split 50-50 for secondary and primary schools – and created teacher resources which they say will be trialled “later in the year” (which must presumably be now).

English: Chloe Hooper.

Chloe Hooper. (Photo credit: Ottre, released to Public Domain via Wikipedia)

The selection for secondary students, which is the area that most interests me, is nicely diverse, and is not dumbed-down. It includes the major forms (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, short stories), classics and contemporary titles, and works representing indigenous and multicultural Australia. The ten are:

The project is an initiative of the Cultural Fund of the Australian Copyright Agency, with the Australian Society of Authors and the Association for the Study of Australian Literature as partners.

I was disappointed by the dearth of Australian literature taught to my children at school and so am delighted to see this initiative.  I don’t know, however, how well it is being promoted, how easy it will be for teachers to incorporate into their existing curricula, whether schools can resource providing the books, but I do hope it gains traction.

19 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading Australia

  1. What a splendid post. Of the above I am looking forward to reading The Tall Man (on my list of to-be-read) and Swallow the Air (I have already read a review somewhere)! But your despair at the situation for your children – of some years back I guess – perhaps mirrored my own back in the 1980s as I gathered together stories and writing of various genres for study with my students – adult and secondary – as I worked in the TESOL fields in Sydney – and then more broadly with secondary students at middle and senior levels – till OUP invited me to turn my collections into anthologies. It’s true that my initial focus was to reflect aspects of the cultural diversity of Australia as a kind of mirror to my students relatively recently arrived in Australia – and so deeply-interested in making sense of this land – but the connections lay right across the native-English speaking students, too – to know the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous richness of perception and experience here. And so OUP published the two volumes in 1990 – even as I was racing onwards to my nearly two decades in Japan and other engagements with teaching and learning – as much for me as my students – there. And on other matters – I have just read Michael PEMBROKE’s excellent biography of Arthur PHILLIP! What an excellent choice as foundation governor by Lord Sydney (Tommy TOWNSHEND) was this extraordinary man!

    • Oh, do read The tall man Jim. It’s an excellent read. My kids were at high school from mid 1990s to mid 2000s. I never forget my disappointment when the first book my son was given in high school was Steinbeck’s Of mice and men. A very good book, a great novella, but we have great novellas and novels here. I’m sure it was partly economic – they had the books and will use them till they wear out!

      Good for you for compiling those anthologies. Were they used well do you know?

      I’ll look out for Pembroke’s book. From what I’ve read of Phillip he does sound to be an interesting and complex and humane man.

  2. A bit surprised that the Australian education system does not seem to have dealt with Australian literature enough – hence this initiative. I do remember that we had few Scottish books or writers when attending secondary school – so perhaps this is a problem for all Anglophone countries other than USA and England! I don’t think that nationalism is what creative writing is really about but surely education systems should enable pupils to explore writers from their own literatures.

    • You’ve said it well Ian. I don’t think it’s about nationalism either, but people do need to have a foundation in their own culture as well as have their eyes opened to others don’t they? I’d never, for example, say ditch Shakespeare (or Jane Austen)! I suspect it is a problem for non-US/UK English-speaking countries.

  3. I seem to remember reading quite a lot of Australian authors at school and falling in love with their work (Randolph Stow, Miles Franklin, Ruth Park). There were a lot I guess I read myself (Patrick White, Christina Stead, Shirley Hazzard Helen Garner, Janette Turner Hospital) but I must say that the interest was established there. Perhaps we had great English teachers? Very happy to report that eldest son (24, Australian but grew up in Ghana and Italy) is currently reading Tall Man with much enthusiasm.

    • Oh that’s great Catherine, that he’s reading and enjoying that book.

      Yes, I read quite a bit of Aussie literature at school. It was particularly so in my first year of high school interestingly. We did Frank Dalby Davison, Vance Palmer, Australian poetry. I did Voss in my last year of high school but I must say I don’t recollect a lot in between that. It was Dickens, Austen, Brontes, Hardy – mostly – as I recollect. My first year of high school was in Queensland, and the rest was in NSW. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if we’d stayed in Queensland.

  4. Have been thinking about this all morning at yoga when I should have had my mind on higher things. Yes, it’s a great initiative and it will be interesting to see the teacher resources. We’d all have our own ideas about what we’d like to see included. I would have thought Les Murray or Robert Adamson would have wider appeal to today’s students than Gwen Harwood, and poetry is such an endangered species… The really interesting thing is the implementation. I have the impression that most schools these days are already including a number of these authors at least at earlier levels, but there will be battles fought when it comes to the syllabus for year 12. And of course in the end it comes down to how well the texts are dealt with in class. We’d all hope that English teachers are getting their students to pay very close attention to the skilful use of language, not just to themes, and are able to relate the work to the wider world, not just immediate personal experience. There is a bit of a danger I think when a booklist is selected with a view to representing Australian experience that books will be “taught” in relation only to their themes.

    • Oh you’ve made me laugh Joan. I do yoga in the mornings at home and for a while – naughty me – was doing it to Radio National Breakfast show! I now try to do it in silence but I don’t always manage to keep the mind quiet, even so.

      Anyhow, thanks so much for engaging with the topic. Like you, I’d have my favourites for inclusion but overall I did like the nature of this list. Adamson and Murray are in the list of 200, but like you I was intrigued that they chose Harwood for this subset. As you say, the main challenge is the implementation. I’ve gathered that Aussie lit might be on the increase again in schools which is a good start. I take your point about books chosen this way being taught to “themes” though I have a feeling that a lot of literature these days is taught that way, particularly in schools? That courses are often framed around themes? Or am I wrong? I’m not (wasn’t) a teacher and my last child finished high school in 2005.

  5. I’m curious about how anyone would know what literature is being taught in Australian schools. We surely can’t judge practice across 12 years of school by year 12 reading lists, because we would surely expect a year 12 list to range across a wide diversity of books and cultures.
    What I do know is that there is a thriving Australian publishing industry devoted to YA and children’s books and it wouldn’t exist unless there were enough sales. My guess is that school libraries are buying a lot of those books, and that many of them are multiple copies being read in group work in English lessons.
    What we also have to realise is that reading is competing with a much greater variety of leisure opportunities than in the past. It is not surprising that there are fewer children reading after school than formerly. Their parents aren’t reading as much either.

    • Oh yes, very true Lisa re competing activities. I’m generally aware of the health of YA-children’s literature publishing here from what I see in the bookshops and read in blogs, because of course I don’t have any involvement in this area these days, personally or professionally.

      I certainly don’t know what’s being taught in schools – other than what I’ve heard anecdotally – but I’m guessing that peak bodies have done some research? I’ve read some concerns regarding teaching older works versus contemporary works – but this list of 10 mostly contemporary works doesn’t really address that, if it is an issue.

      Are you suggesting that the Copyright Agency is tackling a problem that doesn’t exist? The media release suggests that they are doing it in response to research that time-poor teachers need help finding “quality resources”. Your school I reckon has you! But am I right in understanding that not all schools have teacher-librarians these days?

      • Maybe I didn’t make myself clear: I was responding to the claim that schools aren’t doing much OzLit rather than the idea that time-poor teachers need quality resources. That’s probably true, and I’ve promoted the RA website too ( to help spread the word.
        But as to whether OzLit is neglected in schools, well, as I say, how would anyone know? CAL samples photocopying in schools, and ELR samples library databases to see what’s in the catalogue, but that doesn’t tell us much about what’s being taught. Are they using school booklists? Are they using the Neilsen Bookscan to tally the number of Oz books sold? Are they sampling schools which have documented a Prep-Y12 literature program, listing the titles they use? They can’t be asking primary teacher librarians because they’re an endangered species; maybe they’ve surveyed secondary TLs? And there’s not much point in asking the children: (as you would expect) most of what I read to my students is Australian, but I bet if you asked them they wouldn’t know because it’s not something I talk about much – we’re too busy talking about the book not where its author came from. …

        • Ah, I’m not sure that anyone explicitly made that claim, though I certainly said I was disappointed in the small amount my kids did. Oh – I guess Ian’s and my comment above implied it, though I didn’t want to be categorical about it. It is, however, the assumption I think that one would make, rightly or wrongly, from the initiative. My reading suggests that some university researchers have looked at the issue, but how they do it I’m not sure.

          I agree that looking at the book itself is the important thing, but I also think that getting to know your own culture through literature is an important part of being “well-rounded”. I can imagine you wouldn’t talk about it so much in primary school, though.

        • There was some explicit Twitter commentary at an ASA conference on the weekend along the lines of teachers ruining books for kids at school, not using Australian books etc. We do get a bit tired of it, I guess.

        • Fair enough … I can imagine, and can see now where your comments came from. I hope this initiative does what it aims and saves teachers time (and money). I know how much of his own money my son spends to create good lessons and experiences for his students. Honestly! Poor teachers.

        • Oh well, I guess it goes with the territory *rueful smile*
          So do reports! I’ve just finished doing another lot tonight, and I’m off to bed now to read a good book. It’s called Not the Same Sky by Evelyn Conlon, and it is gorgeous!

  6. I’ve only read two of those ten. Amazing that Black Rock remains relevant – it was dated but with still strong themes when I was at school (10 years ago). Great starting point and good initiative.

    • Thank inthetaratory! That’s one I haven’t read. I’m a little – ha! – older than you and so have read many of them. Give more a go next time you’re trying to decide what to read …. Between going to restaurants and further exploring our lovely city, that is!

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