Oakhill College Banquet of Books: Book Week 2019

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.