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.