When I was in primary school, Book Week competed with Christmas and Easter as my favourite time of year. La Semana del Libro felt sacred to this child, for whom stories and story-telling were indeed a form of religious observance. Certainly, I studied my favourite books like scripture, searching for meaning, perhaps even for a voice talking back that knew me.
Only in Book Week did my private devotion became public ecstasy. For one thrilling week, the thing I loved most – reading and writing and storytelling – was at the centre of the universe. (Or the centre of the school playground. Which is, after all, our universe for a time). Like Christmas, only the most Scrooge-like teachers and parents and children could resist the joy of Book Week parade, the warmth of a library resplendent in glitter and bunting, and – perhaps above all – the thrill of visiting authors. Sometimes these great wizards came to school to visit us, whilst other times we leapt into a rattling bus, to join children from other schools in a common euphoria. It never occurred to me then that authors were only mortal after all, and that one day soon I might become one…
Book Week 2016 has thus been a great joy for me (and for the pirate-boy within). My first as a published author – but alas no sort of wizard – this year I had the privilege to visit a number of schools around Sydney, and also – thanks to the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge and Dymocks Children’s Charities – to participate in Authors Online, reaching schools that might not otherwise have the chance to host such visits, and contributing to an online record for future use by other students. It was a fascinating challenge, this, beaming out like an astronaut from the International Space Station, and an important means of meeting a wide audience of readers in our wider land.
The highlights of Book Week 2016 are too many to list entire, but here are some memories and moments:
Santa Sabina College
At Santa Sabina College on Monday, I spoke to Year Ten about North Korea. The topic: North Korea as Dystopia?
We began with an investigation of popular perceptions of the North Korean state and people. Then, we explored ways dystopian literature might illuminate aspects of the politics and culture of the DPRK, and the ways North Korea might – in turn – illuminate aspects of dystopian literature. We looked at examples in novels and films, from George Orwell to Ray Bradbury and Suzanne Collins, pondering the ways authors of dystopian literature both understand and misunderstand the way totalitarian systems rise and fall.
Returning to Santa Sabina on Wednesday, I met with a small group of volunteers from Monday’s session, for a creative writing workshop. Continuing the theme of fantasy worlds and dystopia, we looked at the ways authors create dystopian worlds and characters. We sought ways to avoid dystopian cliche, whilst maintaining the integrity of the political, philosophical and social themes we hoped to explore.
On this special occasion, I also cracked open my vaults (okay, the box under my bed) and shared some of the earliest drafts of Empire of the Waves – from way back in 2003 – to show my fellow writers that nothing comes into the world fully formed. (Although, judging by the quality of the students’ writing, there may be new evidence to the contrary!)
The Hills Grammar School
At The Hills Grammar School on Tuesday, I had the opportunity to meet with Year 6 and 7. With the Year 6 students I discussed how I came to write Empire of the Waves and had the chance to answer many thoughtful questions from an engaging and enthusiastic group of young readers and writers. With Year 7, I ran an intensive workshop on creating fantasy worlds, and shared many of the historical and cultural influences on my novel. A wonderful school with a great ethos of learning and a beautiful campus!
Newtown Public School
On Wednesday evening I had the opportunity to join fellow Penguin Random House author and a writer extraordinaire, Belinda Murrell, at Newtown Public School. Light Up The Night! was the name of the event, and we certainly did! It was a night of almost Biblical rains in Sydney, so it took all our storytelling efforts to rise above the deluge … and we succeeded!
So wonderful to meet Belinda, along with so many excited children and parents and teachers. Also great to be joined at the signing table afterwards by our good friends from Better Read Than Dead.
Here’s a nice atmospheric shot of me reading in the rain-swept library:
On Friday, I headed to Loreto Kirribilli for three wonderful and varied sessions. The first was with Year Ten, for an intense and fascinating discussion of North Korea. The questions from the students afterwards demonstrated a keen intelligence and a desire to look beyond the headlines to understand life inside the DPRK. This was followed by a lunchtime discussion with staff and older students. The ethics of tourism to the DPRK was debated, along with the challenges of providing humanitarian assistance to a state that demonstrates precious little concern for its citizens’ well-being. I talked about the linkages between Empire of the Waves and my academic research, and admitted that they were there to be found! After lunch, I met with the students of Year 8 for an Empire of the Waves workshop. We explored the creative process, and the fusion of inspiration and persistence required to finish any writing project.
NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge & Dymocks Children’s Charities Authors Online
Book Week continued into the following week, becoming Book Fortnight. Thanks to the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge and Dymocks Children’s Charities I had the opportunity to participate in The Arts Unit’s Authors Online series. Although I had the unenviable challenge of following immediately after Andy Griffiths, I was thrilled at the chance to reach schools I might not be able to visit everyday, whilst leaving a video record of an author talk that might be used in classrooms for all eternity. That being the case, I probably should have bought a better sweater to wear on the day!
Participating in Authors Online was a wonderful experience, a technical triumph despite my anxieties, and a great opportunity to share my love of reading and writing with so many students, teachers and librarians.
Ultimo Public School
It was fitting that my Book Week should end at Ultimo Public School. There I joined an inspiring teacher-librarian named Wendy Bull to discuss Empire of the Waves in two jam-packed sessions with Years 5 and 6, and then Years 3 and 4. I had met Wendy at a Teacher-Librarian conference at the University of Sydney almost a year earlier. Wendy was thus one of the very first to hear me speak after the publication of my novel, and had booked me in for Book Week then and there, a whole year in advance.
As ever, I was astounded at the insight and wit of the young people I met, and Wendy and the other staff said they enjoyed the way our discussion ranged from the sublime science of the pre-Copernican universe (one of the Year 5 students knew the name of Ptolemy!), to my own happy and ridiculous memories of Book Weeks past. Like the best holidays, Book Week is indeed that, both sublime and ridiculous.
I loved every moment!