Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Paint the Town Read - Interview with Rhonda Brain, Part 1

Find the latest on Paint the Town REaD at 
Dr. Matt Finch's new website is at

‘I hope you’re reading to the baby, Mum, ‘cause I don’t want a dumb sister’

When a child in a New South Wales kindergarten met his newborn sister for the first time, he knew just what advice to give his mother.

The young boy wasn’t even in primary school yet, but he had been brought up to value literacy thanks to ‘Paint the Town Read’ (PTTR), an Australian campaign to raise awareness of children’s need for a language-rich environment right from birth.

It seems that no-one does ‘Books and Adventures’ quite like Australians. We’re back down under on the blog this week to talk with Rhonda Brain, a former headteacher from New South Wales who has seen the PTTR scheme, which she devised, take her homeland by storm.

Teaching in Parkes, New South Wales, Rhonda and her team realised that there were a growing number of children coming to kindergarten with delayed language development. Rhonda decided to target every new parent right at source – in the maternity ward!

She continues the story: “I wrote to every school and pre-school in Parkes, asking them to donate an agreed amount to purchase books for every new born, with a message in it from the schools ...and later from the Shire Library.”

Government funding allowed Rhonda to think even bigger. She recruited a team of movers and shakers in childcare and literacy, including teachers, maternity nurses, and the local speech pathologist. With a motto of “We don't want your money but we do want your co-operation!”, the team quickly secured the support of the mayor and other town leaders.

Rhonda explains: “It is wonderful, the town really do have ownership of the scheme, even to the point of being annoyed when TV reports the latest person as coming up with this wonderful idea of reading to your children from a young age.

“We held our launch in August 1996, gave the first baby born after the launch many books and prepared for our first Reading Day, held in 1997. We had many out-of-town guests from educational institutions and from parliament. The mayor held a civic reception for them and our committee and principals. Special education expert Dr Loretta Gircelli spoke at our launch and at our first reading day.”

PTTR activities today fall into three categories: on-going, one-off and annual.

Communities involved in PTTR arrange for books to be given to every child throughout their early years. The first of these on-going gifts is given to every newborn baby by their maternity nurse, complete with a personal message, and is followed by age-appropriate PTTR-designed story booklets, given out at immunization days, antenatal bookings and high school events.

One-off events included the clever appropriation of Y2K media panic to create the Millennium Reading Bug in 2000. This mascot has become increasingly popular, even generating its own fun dance at school socials and PTTR events. (When the Reading Bug laid an egg in 2004, children were encouraged to visit it and read to it just as their parents read to them!).

Along with a human chain of readers stretching more than a kilometre down Parkes Main Street, a 12-hour overnight “readathon”, and other attention-grabbing activities, Rhonda’s team have worked hard to keep literacy in the spotlight across New South Wales. In 2005, a Reading Relay saw a book passed, like the Olympic torch, from town to town across over 60 communities and 5500 kilometres in just two weeks. The message to ‘Paint the Town Read’ travelled by hot air balloon, motorbike, fire engine and even on horseback in a striking celebration of the communities’ dedication to encouraging children’s literacy.

The highlight of the PTTR calendar is the Annual Community Reading Day. Now in its fourteenth year, this event sees schoolteachers rise early to literally ‘paint the town read’, decorating shopfronts and streets throughout the town. Pupils, teachers and local workers all dress up according to a theme, and storytelling events take place in the town’s stores before the local park plays host to a celebratory ceremony that has over 2000 people in attendance. Guest speakers have included sports personalities, writers, government ministers, and even the Governor General of Australia.

Next time on Books and Adventures we’ll follow Rhonda as she takes the message of Paint the Town Read to communities across Australia.

You'll find Part Two of this Interview here:

Friday, 12 November 2010

NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program – Chris Angotti Interview

It’s been hard to miss it this month – in caf├ęs and libraries from Vancouver to Vienna, you’ll have seen them hunched over laptops or notepads. The Internet is resounding with their hopes, dreams…and occasional frustration as they battle on towards a final word count.

Over 250,000 people worldwide are participating in this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which sets contestants the challenge of producing their own novel between 1st and 30th of November.

Among those thousands of dedicated souls are 50,000 under-18s who have signed up for NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program, setting their own word count goal for the month. The Program provides a wide range of resources and support for budding novelists and their classroom teachers – available here.

Chris Angotti, who runs the Young Writers Program for NaNoWriMo’s parent organization, joins us today for an interview on Books and Adventures.

What was the aim of setting up the Young Writers Program at NaNoWriMo? Was it hard to get schools on board initially?
The Young Writers Program was originally set up as a way to support teachers who wanted to implement NaNoWriMo in their classrooms. In the beginning, many of them were participants or friends of participants. So it wasn’t hard to get schools onboard; these folks were already aware of the potential of NaNo. Since then, we’ve done some outreach, but most of our expansion has been through word of mouth, with more and more young writers and educators excited by NaNo every year.

What has been the Program's greatest success to date?
I think our greatest success has been how much we’ve evolved. We’ve gone from a few classrooms to thousands. Our materials have gotten better, and we’re seeing the results of the hard work we’ve put in.

In terms of specific successes, I get those when I ask for stories from our participants. My greatest satisfaction is when I hear about kids—sometimes whole classes—who have gone from writing simple sentences to entire, involved novels. All because of the Young Writers Program.

What else does the YWP teach apart from creative writing skills? How does it affect students’ broader outlook?
I’m very proud of what we do for students’ self-esteem. In our surveys, almost 100% of educators agree that the program has made kids look at themselves as more capable and accomplished. They tell us that their students are ready to take on far more in life than just writing.

In addition, the program teaches time and project management skills—life lessons that are well conveyed through this challenge.

Is there a danger of pupils taking away a message of quantity not quality from the Young Writers’ Program? Are there educational benefits to a ‘quality not quantity’ approach?
We’ve always said that what NaNoWriMo helps with is a first draft. We definitely think it’s important that writers edit and revise their work. By the end of November, students are so attached to their novel that they want to do this. It’s no longer the chore it might be during standard grammar lessons. These young authors are proud of their work, and they want it to shine.

There’s a lot of pressure on teachers to fill an already packed school day with all the curriculum activities demanded by education authorities. How much time should they make for NaNoWriMo each day and why?
It’s really up to the individual teacher to determine how NaNo can work with his or her class. Some teachers simply introduce the challenge, and then students work on it individually at home. Others make it a major part of November, with time spent in class for planning, sharing, and editing. I think it depends most on students’ needs, and nobody knows that better than good teachers.

Have there been any memorable ‘Thank Goodness It’s Over’ parties held by the YWP groups?
We hear about people doing all kinds of stuff: prizes—quills, crowns, certificates—for writers; presenting students with finished copies of their novels; even just eating lots of pizza and celebrating. The TGIO party is an important part of the process—to acknowledge what students have completed and to make a special time to celebrate it.

One of my favorite parties is the one the Washington School for the Deaf throws every year. That’s a great inspiration.

What have been your own experiences as a ‘Wrimo’?
This is actually my first November as YWP Director, and my first year doing NaNoWriMo. So far, I’ve been keeping up the best I can with my word count. It’s not as hard as people think! The support I’ve gotten from the office, and from my local region, has been invaluable. I love it, and I’m happy to be forced to write. I know that even if my book is not perfect (or even close to it), I’ll have accomplished something that most others haven’t.

What are your favourite books?
I like most anything by Fitzgerald or Hemingway. They’re my go-to authors. Two more recent books that I really love are Jim the Boy by Tony Earley and Underworld by Don DeLillo. Each is epic and evocative in its own way—one more simple and restrained, the other sprawling. I’m always reading, though, and have too many favorites to list.

You can find out more about NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program at

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Patricia Wrightson, Part 5: Looking To The Future

You can find the first part of this feature here:

We've made it to the fifth and final part of our discussion of Patricia Wrightson, and it's time to look towards the future.

The challenges of Wrightson’s legacy, the power of her storytelling, and the undeniable literary quality of her writing, make it an absolute shame that her books are so hard to get hold of today.

I was lucky that Judith Ridge’s notice of Patricia Wrightson’s death led me to pick up old paperback editions online, and lucky once more that Claire Massey of the Fairy Tale Cupboard led me to Katherine Langrish’s blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.

A post on Seven Miles, ‘Cultural Appropriation and The White Saviour’, addressing Katherine’s own use of Native American myth in her fantasy writing, brings us forward to the 21st century. It pointed me towards the Australian government’s protocols on using Aboriginal culture in literature – a valuable initiative which nonetheless raises further interesting questions about how legal and governmental bodies regulate the imagination!

But ultimately, as Katherine points out: ‘While I find it terribly sad that Wrightson’s books were shunned, I can see also that when so much has been stolen, people are going to feel strongly about ownership of their own stories. Stories are the signature of a culture. And sometimes stories are all you have left.’

I recognise the limits of what we’ve done here at Books and Adventures this month. All I can hope is that, for readers as new to Wrightson as me, these few instalments on the blog have gone beyond the obituaries and given a little more attention to the issues, and existing discussions, surrounding Wrightson’s work.

Let's give the last word to Mark Macleod, who talked to me about the prospects of a reissue for Wrightson’s works:

‘A very few publishers have shown that they are willing to republish Australian classics, but the problem is that the 'classic' presentation they choose has almost no appeal to young readers today, and the sales that result create a self-fulfilling prophecy about the likely level of interest in such writers. Maybe some enthusiast will find ways of making them work in the digital space, by focusing on readers who are not the traditional supporters of literary fiction.’

Next time on Books and Adventures: an interview with Chris Angotti, Director of the Young Writers' Program at NaNoWrimo...

Monday, 8 November 2010

Patricia Wrightson, Part 4: Shadows of Time

Patricia Wrightson’s Shadows of Time (1994) is a strange and powerful novel. It recounts the journey of an Aboriginal boy and English colonist girl who, by the gift of spirits, ‘travel in a timeless dimension’ – drifting without ageing or changing through Australian history. En route they are chased as devils, encounter various supernatural creatures and even come across a mysterious stone figure who may be the protagonist of the earlier Wirrun books. Although Wrightson had to some extent ‘let go’ of indigenous subject matter by this period, Shadows unmistakeably revisits some of the themes of her earlier novels.

Mark Macleod links Shadows to the Australian bicentenary of 1988. ‘That itself was a problematic anniversary. Indigenous Australians had already renamed Australia Day (26 January, the day when Captain Phillip took possession of the country in the name of the English king) 'Survival Day'. And as the Bicentenary approached non-Indigenous Australians were increasingly asking 'What is there to celebrate?'

The timeless quality of the children’s journey in Shadows, ‘given the privileges of water – to flow wherever is natural’, allows for a meditation on Australian history and, thereby, on Wrightson’s concept of culture.

As Mark Macleod explained in our recent interview:

‘In Shadows of Time, Wrightson invents a spirit character that seems very like those she borrowed from Indigenous culture in earlier works, but is in fact her own. For a writer who speaks repeatedly of borrowing only the equivalent of European 'fairies' and being careful not to touch the spirits of creation mythology, and who speaks of her terror of misrepresenting the spirits she does borrow, this is almost a defiant move, coming as it does after she has acknowledged that time has overtaken her whole project. The novel is therefore a coda to her major work, reasserting the mutability of cultures and her right as an artist to let her imagination flow where it will. Her readers and Wrightson herself might have changed their views over time - but not entirely.’

As time continues to flow, and Wrightson becomes a posthumous figure to be considered primarily through her legacy, there are challenges ahead for those who wish to preserve her work and circulate it for a new generation.

Mark Macleod comments, ‘I think we are still vaguely embarrassed or guilty about the idea that she might have been just another one in a long line of exploiters of Indigenous people.’

But it is precisely the encounter with Wrightson’s texts which dispels that idea, while at the same time forcing us to consider the complex and uncomfortable connections between storytelling and the legacy of colonialism.

A fantasy writer ‘cannot restore the original context for mythic stories, but she can create new contexts – as living cultures themselves do constantly. The fantasist can use all the resources available to the contemporary novelist to fill gaps within and around the story, and at the same time can alert the reader to some of what was lost.' - Brian Attebery
Brian Attebery makes a distinction between a fantasy writer like Wrightson and any self-appointed white spokesperson for Aboriginal people: ‘Her job, as a writer, is to work out in fictional form her own relationship with Australia’s troubled history and haunted landscape. Her strategy has been to bring in Wirrun and other characters to share the task, going where she cannot go. These fictional collaborators remind readers that we need to invite other collaborators, fictional and real, to help us extend the quest for understanding beyond the boundaries of the text itself.’

Attebery’s comments raise so many questions worthy of debate. That fantasy writer ‘alerting the reader to some of what was lost’ sounds like those white 1930s poets busy writing on behalf of the Aboriginal culture they perceived to be dying, which leads us back to asking: Who set Wrightson the task of ‘working out in fictional form her own relationship with Australia’s troubled history and haunted landscape’? And what do we make of the notion of a ‘fictional collaborator’?

These are questions to which there’s no final answer, but they are thrown up by the challenge of Patricia Wrightson’s legacy today – which forms the basis of our final instalment, next time on Books and Adventures.

You can go to the fifth and final part of this feature by clicking here.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Patricia Wrightson, Part 3: Outsiders and Indigenization

Patricia Wrightson was born in 1921 and grew up between the two World Wars of the 20th century. Publisher Mark Macleod points to her childhood in the 1930s as setting the context for her relationship to indigenous culture. The interwar years saw Australia disillusioned by the sacrifices of the First World War and turning away from ‘Old Europe’ towards the cultures of its own continent: ‘This was the Australia that Patricia Wrightson grew up in: with some sense of loss of its connection with Europe, and some sense of impending loss of its Indigenous culture and the need to 'save' it.

‘The devastating loss of young Australian lives in a war that had no geographical imperative for us, but was wholly motivated by the political connection with the UK, and the resulting destruction of European society on a massive scale produced a turning-away from Europe by many Australian artists. It seemed to many that European culture was moribund … So writers and visual artists particularly began to look to Indigenous Australian sources of energy for the imagination … The artists - having been brought up with the general belief that Indigenous Australian culture was dying - thought they were preserving it.’

John Murray locates Wrightson’s work within a tradition of literary ‘indigenization’ – fiction that seeks to bring European-descended inhabitants of countries like Australia ‘into imaginative contact with the lands in which most of them were born but in which, by comparison with their indigenous peoples, they are aliens.’ To Murray, Wirrun himself becomes an explicitly indigenizing figure, unifying Australia: by the final book of the trilogy, he has taken on heroic responsibilities to the entire spiritual and material ecology of the continent, from spirits to the white urban population and the animal kingdom besides.

Mark Macleod told me: ‘It is possible to read Patricia Wrightson’s emphasis on 'folk' as a romantic reverence for simplicity or innocence. This comes dangerously close to the racist construction of indigenous cultures generally as childlike … We understand now that we can kill the thing we love, but it is too easy to approach this difficult and complex issue ahistorically and condemn it out of hand.’

An alternative, Mark suggests, is to look at the overlapping experiences of outsiderness between indigenous Australians and other groups. He points to the poet Les Murray's early interest in Indigenous subject matter in the 1960s and 70s: ‘With his Scots heritage and his upbringing in rural Australia, he sees a natural empathy between the marginalising of Celtic Australians, non-Anglo migrants and Indigenous Australians. They have all been colonised by the English.’

Brian Attebery, writing on Wirrun in 2005, chimes with this perspective when he discusses George, a white ‘Inlander’ who helps Wirrun at the climax of the first book by distracting other white Australians who threaten to interfere with our hero’s plans. George, a farmer of harsh and isolated country, is an outsider in the mainstream society of white Australian ‘Happy Folk’, figures who feature only in the margins of the Wirrun books.

Attebery suggests that the Australian continent is the real protagonist of The Song of Wirrun, and all the other characters are defined by their relationship to the land – a sliding scale from the ignorant, superficial Happy Folk with their air conditioning and service stations, graduating through the Inlanders to the Aboriginal People, heroes like Wirrun, and finally the spirits whose actions trigger Wirrun’s quest.

Mark Macleod writes, ‘The reality is that there are Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and they need to find ways to coexist. Their histories and mythologies are different; their values often seem diametrically opposed. [Wrightson’s] project to try and create a pan-Australian imagery therefore rests finally on the idea that all they really have in common is the land.’

‘There is a sense of loss by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. But what they all have in common is the land. Wrightson says repeatedly throughout her career that her books must not be read as 'good vs. evil' stories. The real issue is ecology: the rightful place of all beings.’ - Mark Macleod
Seen in this light, George the Inlander is an outsider, too – like Les Murray’s Celts. Although he’s not directly allied with Wirrun on his quest, he obliquely helps by keeping other white Australians away. He does this, tellingly, by taking on a number of roles which satirise relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, pretending to be first an anthropologist, then the producer of a hippyish Aboriginal ‘happening’, and finally a snake collector who has hired Wirrun and company to collect poisonous reptiles.

Mark Macleod suggests that for Wrightson, the key figure was always that of the outsider, be that the artist in Australian society, or the child in the adult world. In their different ways, George and Wirrun, and Wrightson herself, are all outsider figures.

Wirrun was Wrightson’s first indigenous main character. As Macleod points out, ‘He is a city boy, who travels to the central Australian desert and reconnects with the Dreaming. He is marginalised in his own culture.’ Brian Attebery takes this further by pointing to the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children who were taken from their families and raised in homes or adopted by white families. The white-educated Wirrun is likely either a member of the Stolen Generation, or a child of that generation – although this is not confirmed explicitly by Wrightson’s text.

Mark continues: ‘By the mid-70s, when the Wirrun books started to appear, Indigenous Australian voices were becoming a powerful political and cultural force … So Wrightson's desire to alert non-Indigenous Australians to the need for a new vision was becoming increasingly irrelevant … She did realise it, and from the mid-80s she lets go of the Indigenous subject matter for which she had become known around the world.’

This idea of letting go of indigenous subject matter from the mid-80s is the line that is taken in Patricia Wrightson’s UK obituaries…but one of her most interesting and challenging books is the unusual, dreamlike Shadows of Time. This novel, published in the wake of Australia’s bicentenary, seemed almost to revisit the world of Wirrun, with both an indigenous main character and seemingly indigenous spirit characters.

We’ll be looking at Shadows next time on Books and Adventures. To go to part four of this feature, click here.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Patricia Wrightson, Part 2 - The Representation of Aboriginality

Clare Bradford’s 2001 Reading Race: Aboriginality in Australian Children’s Literature was one of the key academic texts to question Patricia Wrightson’s use of Aboriginal myth.

Bradford’s study was a clear-headed critique of Aussie writing for children, with lasting value. Reading it now prompts us to consider, for example, that this year’s Australian movie Tomorrow, When the War Began, adapted from the 1980s novels by John Marsden, is also implicated in the period of colonialism by harking back to the ‘frontier spirit’ in a tale of white teens fighting back against Asian invaders.

For Bradford the key question was how children’s texts try to position their readers with regard to aboriginality. From 1950s books, where Aboriginal Australians ‘appear, if at all, as a melancholy presence, doomed to extinction’, to more recent appropriations of Aboriginal myth, she diagnoses a tendency to represent Aboriginal people as an undifferentiated ‘Other’ to the white Australian readership.

Bradford questions the image of Wrightson as an advocate or defender of Aboriginality. She writes: ‘To look closely at the discourses which inform these texts is to recognise how the warm glow of Aboriginality conceals its appropriating and controlling strategies.’

In Wrightson’s later Shadows of Time, Bradford suggests, the novel’s Australian spirits are merely mapped on to Western notions of hobgoblins, mermaids and dragons.

Brian Attebery and Mark Macleod have both emphasised that Wrightson was always careful to use figures from Aboriginal superstition and myth rather than sacred religious beliefs such as creation myths, trying to focus, as Attebery writes, on fantastic creatures ‘without explicitly invoking religious ideas.’

This was an attempt to show respect by populating her fantasies with the creatures of folk tale rather than figures of religious significance, but Clare Bradford questions the legitimacy of such a sliding scale, where all supernatural tales are assigned a value – sacred or trivial – according to the writer’s judgment: ‘Cinderella and ‘How The Kangaroo Got Its Hop’ jostling in the lowest level, Adam and Eve at the top with the Rainbow Serpent … Wrightson’s use of the term ‘superstitious’ degrades the narratives that she claims for her own purposes.’

Against this, we can read Attebery: ‘No amount of care can make [Wrightson] into a tribal elder, nor can her use of Aboriginal folklore ever be fully ‘authentic’. However, she can become... a participant in the reshaping of tradition for a modern world in which authenticity is an inaccessible ideal.’

So why was Wrightson looking to participate in these traditions at all? Next time we’ll go back to the 1930s, the time of her childhood, to look at the impulse by some white Australian artists to ‘save’ a culture they saw as threatened with extinction.

For part three of this feature, click here.