Here’s what I learned at Readings Matters

A couple of weeks ago I attended Reading Matters. This is a bi-annual celebration of youth literature featuring a wonderful array of international and Australian guests, including authors, publishers, bloggers and more. I had a totally brilliant time and left with a notepad full of ineligible writing and a whole lot of feelings.

Here is what I took away from the conference.

Never underestimate the power of being exposed to stories.

Unsurprisingly, the power of storytelling was a central theme at the conference. Randa Abdel-Fattah described books as being ‘a kind of armour’ for young people. A.S. King said that, ‘giving a student a book is part of the cure to loneliness’. Reading DOES matter.

For me, the most important idea discussed on this topic was how a book can remove some of the burden people from marginalised communities have on explaining themselves. Nevo Zisin spoke specifically about this, even saying that their memoir partly came from a desire to stop people treating them like a walking thesaurus. It does seem inevitable that the long-term impact of having a variety of places where people can encounter stories from marginalised communities (such as in books) would lessen the pressure on individuals to do the hard work of educating others.

This said, Randa Abdel-Fattah also raised some great points when speaking about the danger of a single story (an idea discussed in detail by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie).

So I guess the answer is more stories, all of the time.

YA authors are expected to be more than simply ‘authors’.

YA authors are often seen as having roles beyond writers. They’re frequently viewed in terms of ‘educators’, ‘role models’, or even, in the words of David Levithan, ‘ambassadors of empathy’. Many of the speakers at the conference seemed willing to take on this responsibility.

These same speakers also disregarded the implication they needed to be a moral compass. As Mariko Tamaki commented: ‘Do teenagers want advice? I don’t think they do.’

Instead of offering advice – it seems that the best YA books offer space. Time and time again, we heard how teen readers appreciate being given freedom to explore ideas and come to conclusions on their own. It’s possible to view fanfic as the way that readers respond to this space, and as Zhana from the Dog’s Advisory Board (DAB) suggested – creating art or a story about a book you’ve read and loved, can be just as important as a critical review.

Not only do the best YA books create this space, but they can also exist as safe spaces themselves. A book can be the place a teen retreats to. I especially think that YA books that depict sex are aware of this double-barrelled idea about space.

Science fiction is more important than ever.

Science fiction stories have come to feel increasingly important in today’s world – a trend not unnoticed at the conference.

Jay Kristoff shared his personal definition of the genre (‘the exploration of the possible’) and spoke passionately about its ability for self-examination as a society. I was particularly interested to hear Alison Goodman say that she’d like to see more hope in the genre, though she did say that in some ways sci-fi does feel more appropriate as a warning of where we’re heading with the current world politics. The New Yorker recently published an interesting article on this very topic.

It’s worth noting that two sci-fi books have been awarded major literary prizes this year. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and Naomi Alderman’s The Power won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Take teens and their problems seriously.

Adults are in the habit of blowing off teenager’s problems. Nevo Zisin reflected on how often the word ‘phase’ is used to discredit queer young people’s experiences, while A.S. King talked about how destructive the idea of the ‘silly, dramatic, teenage girl’ can be. Many speakers spoke about the importance of respecting your readers.

The teen years are often intensely emotional, not least because it’s usually the first time in people’s lives that they’re expected to do something serious and important. And for so many young people, high school IS a scary place. And just because it’s going to end one day, doesn’t mean what they’re feeling right now isn’t true.

Randa Abdel-Fattah commented on ‘the courage it takes to show up at school the next day when someone you love doesn’t say hullo to you’. I hope to always remember this!

Teens care about issues (just not politicians).

Lili Wilkinson talked about the two main narratives that exist around politics and teenagers – they were either apathetic, or naive – and then quickly debunked them by drawing attention to groups such as The Harry Potter Alliance and John Green’s Nerdfighters. She argued that teenagers deeply cared about issues (if not politicians) and were usually very aware of how they themselves were politicised, especially teen girls.

Other authors supported this notion. Randa Abdel-Fattah described there as being a ‘strong heart beating for justice in the young adult world’, while A.S. King referred to writing as an act of protest – as well as self-preservation and kindness.

Be LOUD about the stories that are being forgotten, ignored or hidden.

LGBTI+ content is the most likely reason for books to be banned in schools and libraries, and so the need for us to champion these stories is as strong than ever. Both Will Kostakis and Mariko Tamaki talked openly about some of the negative experiences they’d faced – as creators of queer characters and authors who identified as such – while Nevo Zisin expressed gratitude that their school had a queer alliance.

Meanwhile, Randa Abdel-Fattah spoke about the problem with talking about race as ‘a moment in history’ instead of an ongoing part of life. And Jane Harrison shared a necessary but grim reminder that books by Indigenous Australians have only been getting published since the 60s.

It was a reminder that it’s our responsibility to seek out these kinds of stories – the ones that are being forgotten, ignored or hidden. We should find them, read them, and share them as widely as you can.

Always ask yourself WHY you’re recommending something.

One of the questions I kept coming back to was what kind of stories are we telling female readers, but not male.

In a discussion about activism and political engagement in YA, author A.S. King commented on the fact that books about rape are not usually recommended to boys. While in a discussion about teen romance, blogger Danielle Binks asked why we set books at school that promote unhealthy representations of love (Wuthering Heights anyone?) but then dismiss other romances.

On this note, here is a reminder that romance is not just for girls. For inspiration, you might like to check out my colleague Leanne Hall’s great list of YA romances from male perspectives for inspiration.

Best quotes from the keynotes

‘Judy Blume showed me ME.’ – Jennifer Niven on discovering Judy Blume’s books as a young reader.

‘Science fiction is the exploration of the possible.’ – Jay Kristoff shares his personal definition for a genre he loves.

‘To be friends with someone you need two things – to love the same movies, and to hate the same people.’ – Will Kostakis shares his secret for lasting friendship.

'I think little ponies are what lesbians play with instead of barbies.’ – Mariko Tamaki voices her long-suspected theory.

‘You can never, ever have enough picture books.‘ – Some truly excellent advice from librarian Leonee Ariel Derr.

'The best thing about high school is that it ends.’ – Nevo Zisin reflects on their difficult time at high school.

‘Succotash is the loneliest item on the shelf.’ – A.S. King shares some of her earliest writing.

‘I want kids to get excited about science.’ – Lance Balchin on on why he started making books.

‘We are not born to exclude. We are born into systems that exclude.’ – Randa Abdel-Fattah on ‘coming-of-age in the Trump era’.

The top 10 bestselling books at Readings Matters

Readings was the official bookseller at Readings Matters. Below are our top 10 bestselling books from the conference.

The list includes four contemporary novels, two fantasy novels, one surrealist novel, two graphic novels and a picture book. International authors featured here include Jennifer Niven, A.S. King, Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. Australian authors include Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff, Will Kostakis and Lance Balchin. Three of the books were published in Australia this year – Still Life with Tornado, Saving Montgomery Sole and Aquatica.

And all of the books tackle issues that impact teens, from climate change to tricky friendships, from mental illness to school politics.

1. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
2. Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King
3. Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven
4. This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
5. Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
6. Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
7. Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki
8. Nevernight by Jay Kristoff
9. The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis
10. Aquatica by Lance Balchin

Bronte Coates is the digital content coordinator and the Readings Prizes manager.

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All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places

Jennifer Niven

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