Book Week 2016

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…

Your friend­ly cor­re­spon­dent as a pirate for my first ever Book Week, as a kinder­garten stu­dent at Mort­lake Pub­lic School. My fas­ci­na­tion with pirates start­ed ear­ly, it seems, and nev­er abated.

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:

Lore­to Kirribilli

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!