Talented YA authors Libba Bray, Gayle Forman, Alison Croggon, Andrew McGahan and Myke Bartlett will be among those gathering to celebrate the diverse world of youth literature. The conference will explore storytelling impresarios, graphic novelists, insights into the narratives of games and open a debate on the politics within youth fiction and literature. For the full programme, have a look here; then read on to meet its programmer, Anna Burkey...
Despite having the rather severe title of Reader Development Manager at the State Library of Victoria’s Centre for Youth Literature, Anna Burkey thinks she might have the best job in town. Prior to arriving on these shores, Burkey set the literary world of Edinburgh alight (not literally – that would be very Farenheit 451) by being an ideas woman for Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Her job – both in Edinburgh and now in Melbourne – is to dream up creative and entertaining ways to pique interest in reading.
Her latest epic adventure, now that she's ensconced in the State Library, is the Reading Matters conference. Covering every aspect of young adult publishing, it’s aimed at both industry professionals and young adult readers – including those well over 18, who view YA books as a guilty pleasure.
Anna, you’ve moved from one UNESCO City of Literature – Edinburgh – to another. What does it mean to be awarded the title?
It's a bit like being a cultural version of a world heritage site. So you've got the badge but they can take it away if they feel like you're not doing enough work to be worthy of the status, which would be quite embarrassing!
Tell us about your literary endeavours over in Edinburgh.
I was one of the first two staff at Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature and our job was to come up with really high profile, exciting campaigns around reading. We ran things like One Book – One Edinburgh, an annual campaign in which we got the whole city to read the same book at the same time. Basically it was a massive festival. From an idea of ‘let’s give away free books’ we added events and master classes. The book would appear in a variety of formats, from a graphic novel commissioned by us, to a play, all on a shoestring budget. Then there was the ‘Let’s Get Lyrical’ campaign, spread over two cities, with 86 events about interacting with song lyrics. This included a full school program, so we did a huge amount for very little.
What made you want to move to Melbourne?
When I first visited in 2008 I felt the same sort of buzz around literature over here. Over six years in Edinburgh I’d done a lot of programming and helped set up things like the Edinburgh Literary Salon and met loads of great writers. I was quite spoilt working in a city with the world’s biggest book festival, but I was ready to meet new writers and dream up new ways of doing things. I came back to Australia in 2011 and the very first Children’s Book Festival was on, here on the State Library lawn. It seemed so much fun and I thought, I want to be a part of that.
Other than programming the Reading Matters conference, what is the agenda for your department, the Centre for Youth Literature?
We're there to promote writing for young people – and for those who work with young people. In the past our focus has been on connecting with teachers and school libraries. Now we’re in a period of change so that we're able to still support those professionals but thanks to the rise of technology it’s also much easier for us to reach young people directly. What do they want? How do they want to read?
To this end, the centre has an interactive website called Inside a Dog, in which young readers review and debate the latest fiction. It has a dedicated following of around 150,000 and is expanding to cover different genres and digital models. “We also have writers in residence every month, so at the moment we've got graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier but we also have a teen in residence and they get to post about what they love about books. Then we have the Inky Awards, the long list of which will be announced at the end of the conference, and the short list of which will be announced at the Melbourne Writers Festival in August.
Traditionally the Reading Matters conference has been aimed at professionals, but it’s been adapted to cater to teens, too. We have a schools day, so around 750 teenagers can come and meet the authors. We also have a regional tour, taking authors up to Brisbane and Geelong to met schools, libraries and kids there. We’re very much about breaking new talent, as well as the established names. We’ve got a Parkour poet, graphic novelists, a games writer talking about putting a narrative into video games – we’re trying to demonstrate the idea that writing can take many different forms.
Members of the public are very welcome to buy tickets. You come across the two days, get fed and watered, come to the evening socials with the authors… there was a report published that around 50 percent of young adult titles that are purchased are by over-18s – adults enjoy reading books aimed at teens. Some of these boundaries in publishing are very blurry.
What other projects have you got coming up this year?
We do professional development and online courses that anyone can take part in. The first one will be around digital storytelling – so how do you tell a story through social media and blogs? Then we've got the teen choice Inky Awards so we'll be doing a lot of programming around that, to promote the authors that make the shortlist. We’ll make sure that young people can access those authors, vote for their favourite, and have discussions and debates around these books.
Has there been a slump in sales of children’s books with the advent of the smart phone?
With book reading as a whole, there were statistics out as a part of the National Year of Reading two years ago that 46 percent of Australians have literacy challenges, which is quite similar to the challenge we had in Scotland. The research also showed what anecdotally we still know – which is that come age 12, the traditional reading drops off, particularly with boys. What increases is accessibility through phones, social media and news websites. This suggests that actually children are reading as much as ever, just in very different way.
What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?
When you get comments on Inside a Dog; teenagers saying, “This has made me see the world differently,” or “I didn't know that it was ok to be different and now that I've read this book I understand that it is.”