A response to the question Why Don’t Kids Read NZ Young Adult?

Tonight I have read an article in the wonderful The Sapling which has made me cross.  I’m responding here because I’m forming my thoughts and this is my blog and therefore my opinion.  This is a bit stream of consciousness, so apologies for it’s rantishness.

In the article, promoting her book review site, Eirlys Hunter makes the argument that NZ kids don’t read young adult fiction written by New Zealanders. She asked teenagers if they had read Margaret Mahy, and they hadn’t heard of her.  I can assure her that she is right in supposing that teenagers currently at school right now will never have read Mahy or Tessa Duder or a heap of other NZ writers who were popular in the 90s. This is for a really good reason.  These books will have been weeded from libraries long ago. We have to keep our collections current, they have to cater to the tastes of our current students.  If we cater to students by providing the books they should read, we will have no readers.

Now, I’ve been working in school libraries for nearly 18 years now, I have never read the Tricksters, The Catalogue of the Universe or Memory, in all honesty I’ve not even heard of them. While they might be admirable books, they are not books that I would ever attempt to pitch at a 14 year old in 2017.  But maybe a movie of The Changeover will start a Margaret Mahy resurgence, but maybe not.  Books and authors are not perennial in the YA world.  Despite the marvellousness they might have, they fade.  It is totally the same as with adult books.  20 years ago everyone was reading Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy, now they are not (I do understand that they are not literature!)

If you ask some students now if they have read some of the common crop of New Zealand authors, people like Mary Anne Scott, Brian Faulkner, Fleur Beale and Melinda Szymanik you will find that there are quite a few who have.  Definitely not lots of them, but definitely some.  These are students who have either had a book sold to them by an awesome librarian, or they have come across the book been attracted in some way, in some cases this is definitely because of the cover!  There are certainly some dreadful covers floating around the NZ YA world.

I don’t think it is true that NZ YA is better than other places, there is some pretty ordinary stuff published here sometimes, but there is also some excellent stuff.  It is the same in every country.  The Self-publishing boom is getting even more books out there, and a few of those are great.  But when the Council tell us that only a small percentage of teenagers read, and some of the borrowing stats around the country would bear that out, you need to do more than just tell people that they should be reading books ‘from the olden days’.  Our teenagers want the cool stuff.  They are totally influenced by social media and librarians who are purchasing books are equally impressed.

It is a strange thing that reading, which is supposed to be pleasurable and a lovely thing to do, can so often be treated as a ‘should’ kind of thing by some of us.  That students are asked to write ‘proper’ reviews, of at least 500 words.  Surely that just turns something that could be fun, into something that is now work.  A surefire way to kill a love of reading is to make it a chore. Or worse, to make it homework.  Kids are already doing all kinds of other stuff which is drawing on their time, they don’t need to be guilted into writing pedantic reviews.  There are kids who yearn to be published authors, there are heaps who are writing for fun in their spare time but forcing it, taking away the joy and insisting on terms which are outdated and irrelevant to their lives.  We old people have to accept that the world has changed.  And engage with what youth think is cool.  Want to see some decent reviews by the target audience.  Go to this Goodreads List.  Read the reviews of people who read YA.  Who are the target audience for YA.  And then go and check out this You Tube channel.  There are lots of people who do this stuff.  They are not the book reviews of old, they are much more likely to be read by teenagers and they are the opposite of ‘proper’ book reviews, but I can guarantee the books are more likely to be read by teens when they are recommended in this way.  So yes, peers are the way to sell books to teenagers, But don’t discount librarians working in their libraries recommending books to readers, selecting great books and chatting to readers every day.

I want to address a comment in the article:

A side issue: how is it possible that, in many secondary schools, a student can study English for five years without meeting a single New Zealand book on the curriculum?).

Well that is simple.  They haven’t been set as prescribed texts.  Schools can teach whatever books they like.  They tend to go for books from which they have seen great exam responses in previous exams.  Some of the books they do read are amazing.  In our school we have class sets of books by David Hill, Denis Wright, David Hair, all New Zealanders, while some students might not encounter those books, lots will.  And there is another thing, you need to get teachers to read the books.  In every school, in every English Department, you struggle to find a bunch of teachers who are reading YA, let alone those reading NZ YA.  There is a lot of good talk about reading and it’s importance to literacy by English teachers across the land, but very little in the way of reading the product and .  It constantly amazes school librarians!

And while I’m ranting, were you aware that it is considered in literacy circles that school librarians are inherently connected with literacy in schools! Yes, I know.  Ridiculous, but it is a fact.

I could go on.  But it is late and there is a leaders debate to watch.

 

 

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19 comments

  1. Ermergerd, so much yes in this!
    One of my personal bug bears is teachers turning reading into something that has a task attached. Especially if it’s a written task. Like, why in 2017 are we still insisting reading logs are filled out?? Take a photo on instagram or Snapchat. Create a goodreads or Litsy account. Or make a video. Or best yet, allow them time in class to talk to their peers about what they’re reading! Trust that the students are reading rather than requiring proof.

    1. Absolutely. Completely agree. This whole article on The Sapling just felt to me like lets make them all conform to what we think they should be doing and have them do everything like we thing they should. Not a thought to how young people behave in the world. Just like their English teachers do. Damnit, turns out I’m still cross about this.

    1. Haha, no argument here Bridget. As a writer myself, I sometimes hear my fellow scribes lamenting the lack of NZ fiction being read. As a Librarian, I often have an internal struggle going on when weeding NZ books (full discloser: I try very hard to promote/sell NZ authors, but often to no avail!). It’s all about supplier and demand – the kids will read what’s well packaged (covers), great stories and well written.
      And don’t get me started on English teachers not reading. Many aren’t reading AT ALL, let alone YA, let alone NZ YA. Wouldn’t it be nice if we required them to write review for us each term to prove that they read and are up to date with children’s literature. Can you image!! IN all honestly I’ve got some great English teachers at my school who are furious readers and promoters of books. And others who are more ‘meh’.

      1. Maybe we should set an English teachers challenge! Got my thinking cap on now! Good to hear this from an author perspective too Christine.

  2. TOTALLY agree Bridget. Now I’m cross too, for the same reasons you outline above. I was shocked when one of my son’s friends in Year 11 told me that they have to do a reading log of their personal reading! Where is the fun in that?! As you say, there are enough demands on today’s teens as it is, without turning reading (which should be for pleasure) into yet another homework task. And as for NZ YA I do think it is better now than it was 10 or so years ago, but actually there is still a lot of pretty average stuff around (as there is in any country) and the teens just aren’t attracted to it. The mere fact that it was written by a New Zealander does not make it worthy. I too wish that teachers would read more – it’s my experience that very few English teachers will read any type of YA fiction at all. If you combine that with a lack of communication with the school librarian, the students are really missing out.

    1. Yep Carole, a reading log is a) outdated and b) tedious. What are they thinking?!? I also think that the marketing money going into local books is a tiny amount compared to what publishers spend on big name stuff. If it is invisible nobody is going to read it.

  3. I thought I was alone!!! – I am constantly amazed at English teachers not reading – go figure!!! and if you want to kill a book let’s make it a class set and ruin it for a whole generation.
    Covers are so important and it is a bit of a failing with some of the NZ books but the talent is there!! As for reading logs …. don’t start me…..

  4. But it isn’t just teachers. Some librarians don’t read what their students are reading either. I can’t understand that!

  5. Well said, Bridget. I’ve had several situations lately where I’ve visited a school and been asked not to talk about the content of Coming Home to Roost, because of the sex scene. When I think of what teenagers are viewing at home this makes me very sad.
    I believe many High School teachers are unnecessarily running scared. Discussing that scene is a chance to talk about so much: consent, respect, pressure etc. These issues effect our boys just as much as the girls.
    Some English teachers have proudly told me they’ve taught the same text for 30 years and intend seeing their careers out on their one choice. I think getting English teachers to write reviews of new books would be a wonderful idea. Keep up the passion, Bridget.

    1. I’m horrified at this Mary-anne, really aghast. I’m wondering if we need to get this discussion going with English teachers. There is a conference next year, I’m wondering if I am brave enough to speak at it on these issues.

      I’ve just been on their website though and see little at all about reading. The focus seems to be all about writing and oracy! Maybe we are being unrealistic when we think of them as being readers and promotors of reading.

  6. The other thing that really annoyed me about the article is that there are NZ organisations out there trying to bring NZ children’s literature to the children, e.g. Storylines. The Storylines Notable Book Awards have a category for YA that I use on my limited budget to make sure that I have NZ YA of good quality ready and waiting.

    Gosh writing this there is so much more I want to rant about myself after reading her article.

    1. I hear you. It was really shocking to me. I’m anxiously awaiting a response from her or The Sapling. Yes, Storylines is fully awesome. Yep, much to rant about in this area.

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