Reading Matters 2017: Introduction (#YAmatters @CentreYouthLit)


Image Courtesy: Centre for Youth Literature.

Some twenty years ago, a young friend of mine asked: “If you had a choice, would you rather be deaf or blind?” She was young and fierce, and loved music so much that she would rather lose her sight than hearing. As for me, I would rather be deaf, as I was by then old enough to just want to enjoy the sunset and its many splendid colours.

That young friend is now a woman with a brilliant life and career, and I am happy for her. Then, just a couple of days ago, I faced the same question from a new generation, someone who is almost a teenager. It is perhaps no surprise that she, too, wants to enjoy music. My answer remains the same, but for a different reason this time – I would do all I can just to keep on reading.

Looking back, I realise there was no such thing as “reading for pleasure” in my younger days. Having spent my junior high school years (aged 13-15) preparing for the local senior high school entrance examination and then the following three years (aged 16-18) studying hard for the national university entrance examination, I had always been a student, not a teenager or young adult. Whatever reading done intensely and sufficiently for the tests was soon forgotten afterwards. Even literature was all about memorising the authors’ names and birthplaces and specific passages of their writings deemed politically, socially or culturally significant in the eyes of those in power.

So, it was only in university that I started reading for the sake of reading. The first so-called YA story I encountered was Stephen King’s “Apt Pupil” (collected in Difference Seasons, 1982). It was closely followed by Christine (1983), which inspired my choice of an English name. Since then I have been lucky to pick up a myriad of classic and modern YA novels celebrated by readers worldwide. From The Little Prince (1943) to Lord of the Flies (1954) and The Book Thief (2005), from The Secret Garden (1911) and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) to The Hunger Games (2008), and from The Little Women (1868) and Anne of the Green Gables (1908) to the Harry Potter and Twilight books – I learned to be young at heart from these and many other titles. It is a world whose colours are wild and bright, yet its barbed wire is sharper and its darkness much more terrifying than ours.

I am keen to remain young, so I am grateful to have attended the Reading Matters 2017 Conference organised by the State Library of Victoria’s Centre for Youth Literature on June 2-3. The conference brought together a diverse range of Australian and international authors, illustrators and publishers to discuss, debate and celebrate books for young adults. It was recommended for librarians, teachers, booksellers, publishers, YA authors and YA fans, but I was fortunate to have received an A$550 Early-Career Scholarship to learn from everyone.

The event was well organised and promoted, and the facilities and catering at Melbourne’s renowned Arts Centre were excellent. This great City of Literature continues to refresh and inspire, and as I admired the many majestic buildings along Collins Street and then crossed the Yarra River in the early morning, I felt like Jonas in Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993), who saw the colour red in an apple for the very first time in his life in a black-and-white world. An apple can provoke revolutionary thoughts in a fictional teenager as it once did to Issac Newton in real life, and it can unlock a cryptex containing secrets of the Holy Grail in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003) as it once revealed knowledge and temptation to Adam in the Bible. What will I discover in the world of YA literature as I keep on reading? I cannot wait to find out.


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