Clunes Booktown Recap 1: Exploring Teen Reading Culture

Last weekend I joined thousands of booklovers, writers and creatives and headed to Clunes for the annual Booktown Fesitval. Clunes is a small regional town just outside of Ballarat which averages a population of around two thousand people. When it comes to the Booktown time of year, poor Clunes gets so flooded that a lot of places will accept cash only as payment, even at the pub, because the EFTPOS machines just can’t cope with all the traffic. A rather agitated looking bartender was explaining this to a customer in front of my sister Georgia and I, as she placed a pot of lemonade on the bar, sloshing the smallest amount over the sides of the frosted glass.

I’ve been to a few Booktown events before, but this year I was encouraged to make the trip to Clunes again to attend a few panels. Clunes Booktown always makes an effort to include different authors every year on their panels. In 2017, I attended a talk with Clementine Ford, Hannah Kent, Melissa Keil and Jane Harrison, which was fantastic. This year, the authors I saw speak included Jaclyn Moriarty, Ellie Marney and Anna Snoekstra. Here is my recap of the first panel I attended on ‘Exploring Teen Reading Culture’.  

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Seated from left: Zana Fraillon, Ellie Marney, Jaclyn Moriarty and Ernest Price.

For a session that began at ten a.m., this panel was very well attended. I shuffled into a seat beneath the wall mounted heater and noticed happily I wasn’t the only person stifling a yawn. Yes, a ten o’clock start isn’t that early, but when you factor in travelling time to Clunes (for reference sake, Clunes is close to a two-hour trip from Melbourne and Geelong), finding a park and making your way into the town centre, I thought we’d all done pretty well for a Saturday morning.

The chair of this panel, Ernest Price, is a high school teacher with an interest in reading. He started by asking the authors to explain their own experiences of growing up with books. Jaclyn and Zana both had access to plenty of books in their childhood, with Zana recalling walls of books at home to choose from. Ellie admitted that her parents weren’t very big readers, but she was very shy, so she’s spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over books.

Jaclyn, Ellie and Zana all made a point of saying that they didn’t remember having access to Young Adult books in the same way we have access them today. They went straight from middle grade fiction to adult books, and I remember doing much the same thing. The only books I read as a teen that were written specifically for teenagers were books from the Harry Potter series or Twilight. Otherwise I was trying to get into contemporary adult books, reading descriptions of broken marriages and the changes that happen to a woman’s body after having kids… they weren’t very relevant to my age, and I lost interest pretty quickly.

As the speakers continued to discuss the fantastic #LoveOzYA movement that’s happening on social media, they really drove home the fact that we are very lucky to be living in a time when Australian Young Adult novels are gaining a lot of attention, and that it is up to our teachers, librarians and educators to get involved in the Australian YA community. All the writers on the panel are mothers, and they’ve all faced their own challenges trying to encourage their children to read. Ellie mentioned that when she is trying to find reading material for her fifteen-year-old son, she looks for material that is specific to his interest, not books she thinks he ‘should be reading’. Encouraging a teen reading culture means offering a wide range of choices and leaning away from this idea of ‘highbrow’ versus ‘lowbrow’ books. All members of the panel agreed (emphatically!) that reading is reading, it doesn’t matter what the material is.

One suggestion that was made by the panel is that there needs to be a change in school curriculum, so more Young Adult books can be included for teens to study and engage with. There is of course this idea that Young Adult novels aren’t ‘meaty enough’, or that they don’t have enough serious topics to warrant academic study. However, a glance through some of the current young adult titles available shows that this is untrue. These books cover issues ranging from the darkest end of the spectrum, such as suicide, domestic violence and drug use all the way up to issues such as fractured families and bullying.

When it comes to the topic of their writing process, the answers vary. Ellie laughs when she explains that her latest book, White Night, was ‘a pain in the arse’ to write due to the fact she felt very vulnerable when writing it, and it dredged up a lot of memories and experiences for her. However, Ellie did say if it were the last book she was to ever write, she’d be happy with it. Her writing process is to sit down at the blank page and see where it takes her. Jacklyn is the complete opposite. A planner by heart, she maps out her novels before she starts them. For her most recent book, The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, she actually wrote it in cafes she visited, making an effort to get to a different café for each chapter (when she explained this, I actually wrote the word ‘swoon’ next to my notes…pretty sure this is the dream!). Zana was different again, but she said she doesn’t especially think about who will read the completed book, she just writes.

There were so many ideas and topics discussed on this panel that an hour almost didn’t seem like enough time to address them all, but the members of the panel agreed that to encourage teens to continue reading once they’ve finished their schooling, we need to keep talking about books they can recognise themselves in. We need to keep supporting, reading, buying and borrowing Australian Young Adult books and encourage teens to discover the joy of reading for pleasure, instead of simply reading and responding to a text in terms of a rubric and being marked on their responses.