Oakhill College Banquet of Books: Book Week 2019

This week I had the honour of meeting over 500 Year 7 and Year 8 students at Oakhill College in Castle Hill at the invitation of librarian Lynn Revai. The theme of the Oakhill Book Week for 2019 was “Banquet of Books”. This inspired me to reflect upon Norman Lindsay’s famous dictum that the key to a successful book for young readers is “food and fighting”.

Together, we explored depictions of feasting in the myths of Greece and Rome, as well as in more recent tales for young readers, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the Harry Potter series … and, of course, my own Empire of the Waves. We concluded that Norman Lindsay may have had a point! But why?

The students had a number of excellent suggestions why food plays such a key role in our storytelling. We summarised our findings thus: “At the feast we meet friends old and new, talk to our enemies, we fall in love, restore our bodies, mend our souls, enjoy old favourites and perhaps try something new. We gossip, laugh, learn, and prepare for life outside the banquet hall. In other words… much ilke reading.”

I then posed a question. If, as that other famous dictum goes, “we are what we eat”, is it also true to say that “we are what we read”? I challenged the students’ assumption that all books are nourishment by sharing the following quotation: “Books are good teachers and companions for school students! Acquire the habit of reading anywhere, anytime.” Who said this, I asked? One student suggested Albert Einstein, another J.K. Rowling, one even asked if I were the author of the quote. Year 7 and Year 8 were astonished to learn that this was, in fact, a teaching of Kim Il Sung, tyrannical “Eternal President” of North Korea. I added that, in 1951, at the height of the Korean War, Kim Il Sung called for North Korean writers to become, “engineers of the human soul”. As I introduced the students to a number of North Korean children’s books, we noticed that Norman Lindsay’s dictum held true there too… food and fighting are just as popular in North Korean children’s books as in those we love here in Australia. Yet there were some differences as well, particularly the role of the state’s leaders as both subjects and authors of children’s books. The students were shocked to imagine an Australia in which all our books were by or about Scott Morrison. Meanwhile, they could not help but notice the cultivation of hatred for North Korea’s foes, the USA and Japan, even in the simplest children’s fables.

Virtuous Korean butterfly defeats a wicked Yankee rooster in the North Korean fable ‘Butterfly and Rooster’

What now to make of this Banquet of Books? It was clear that, like the White Witch’s Turkish Delight, not all food is good for us. Of course, North Korea sits at the extreme end of the literary spectrum, but I asked the students to consider in what ways – both virtuous and vile – the stories that they read and love have helped shape them. How do the tales we tell help form the world that we create? As one of the students wisely noted, we are vulnerable when we eat…

It was a joy to meet the students and staff of Oakhill College. Teachers and librarians are at the tip of the spear in the battle for the future in any society. At Oakhill College, we are in fine hands.

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