The times they are a-changing, and there’s no form of media more affected by the absolute dominance of the digital age than the print medium. So what does this mean for the future of reading in Australia?
“I clearly remember a literature session in the ’80s, where a man declared that he would never write on a computer, and the audience cheered,” laughed renowned children’s author and current Ambassador for Reading Andy Griffiths.
“But it’s just so easy to edit and revise with a laptop.”
Along with Griffiths, whom was hailed by chairperson Meg Vann as “Australia’s most popular kids author, competing with Morris Gleitzman”, the panel was an eclectic mix: author James Cowan, Head of Indigenous Programming at the Sydney Opera House, Rhoda Roberts, and Young Adult writer Vicki Wakefield.
Griffiths, author of books with names like The Day My Bum Went Psycho, was surprisingly constrained and very relaxed in his delivery. Forgive my presumptions, but was I wrong to expect a larger than life character, bouncing around the walls of the tent and performing gross-out comedy?
Of course, this isn’t to say that he wasn’t an interesting speaker. Griffiths’ passion for reading was obvious, as was the joy he felt from sharing that with children.
“Kids brought up on The Simpsons want something funny to read,” he told the listening crowd.
Indeed, his newest offering The Bad Book, “puts the violence back into children’s literature”. His aim is to really capture the imagination of a new generation of readers, whatever medium that may entail, and believes that the current state of children’s fiction offers a greater variety than ever before.
Young Adult author Vicki Wakefield was obviously born to write for teenagers. The way she sat on her chair, slightly slouched, her references to pop culture and troubled family dynamics, and her modern take on suburban tropes and cultural lore was refreshing.
In regards to the future of reading, she astutely pinpointed that literacy and a love of reading don’t have to go together. Referencing her own children, she said that it’s frustrating to see a generation built on knowledge and intellect but with no desire to read for pleasure.
The best of the bunch was Indigenous leader Rhoda Roberts, who engaged well with the audience and was quite expressive. Reflecting on the Dreamtime and how storytelling has developed, she worries that these tales aren’t being told anymore, and Aboriginal youth often cannot connect with something like Dr Seuss.
The digital revolution changes all this, though. It allows new media to educate: recording verbal tales or dances that can be kept in an audio or video format. Most importantly, Roberts believes that the past desperately needs to be recorded now, before these spoken tales are gone forever, and hopes to one day build a huge library on Indigenous grounds. “I’ve always had that dream. I’ve been collecting books of all kinds for decades.”
Finally, James Cowan brought a certain amount of class to the proceedings. Interested in the intersection of modernism and ancient cultural perspectives, Cowan is primarily interested in how the past can influence the present. A man obviously well-read, he connected with several of Rhoda’s comment masterfully.
“We’re all aliens in this land,” he said, reflecting on his own struggle to integrate into the modern Australian landscape. “Some of the most educated people in the world are Indigenous. They understand and appreciate tradition and myth”.
Drawing the panel to a close, Griffiths pulls out a book written by an Aboriginal boy in remote Australia. Illustrated and hand-written, it tells the story of a crocodile that eats naked people. “Clearly, the thirst for reading and writing is still alive and well,” he smirks.
Callan Brunsdon is a Southern Cross University media student.