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From Alibrandi to Old Tom and everything in between: getting to the heart of children’s literature

Before me sat the most comprehensive representation of the Australian young adult fiction publishing identity and let me tell you, my inner child was jumping for joy.

The impressive panel consisted of Libby Gleeson prolific writer of picture books and young adult fiction, winner of the 2011 Dromkeen Medal for her extensive contribution to Australian children’s literature, Philip Gwynne author of international success Deadly Unna? and increasingly popular The Debt series, Leigh Hobbs well-known author and illustrator of children’s picture books such as Old Tom, Horrible Harriet, Mr Chicken and Mr Badger, Judy Horacek cartoonist, artist, writer and children’s book creator, and Melina Marchetta author of Looking for Alibrandi, The piper’s son and The Lumatere Chronicles.

The marquee, filled with hopeful future children’s authors, adoring fans and the young at heart, all asking the same question: How do we, as adults, get inside the minds of the younger readership and keep them captivated and engaged?

“An enormous part of what we do, I think, is intuitive,” said Libby Gleeson. “It either feels right, or it’s not.”

It certainly wasn’t a case of picturing your audience during the writing process and having that image shape the creative process. This was a practice that none had used throughout their own writing careers.

Melina Marchetta added, “I just write what I want to write. I just want to tell a story, I just want to entertain.”

The forum highlighted that you had to capture what it is to be a child and to explore the interiors of a child’s mind in order to captivate and encourage the young reader to continue to turn the pages.

Master of action and suspense, Philip Gwynne discussed the power of sex as a central theme in young adult fiction.

Placing this in context, Gwynne said that “unresolved sexual tension is the engine that drives the story”.

He said that the life of a teen is often sexually charged and it was helpful for an author to gain a better understanding of the way the teen feels.

Although author and Illustrator Leigh Hobbs  said that in the case of picture books, this is most definitely not the case.

After all, who would want to place sexual tension and Old Tom within the same narrative?

Not to mention Mr Chicken.

When it comes to maintaining children’s attention within picture books, Hobbs said that “it’s a bit like a child running and leaping into a puddle, I like to get cracking right from the first page.”

What could be said of the conversation was as clear as the laughter that filled the marquee: when writing for young people, telling your story is the single most important task set before an author.

Hobbs said that “the world of Old Tom, Horrible Harriet, Mr Chicken, is in my head all the time”.

This statement lies testament to the presence of an author’s creation as part of who they are, a reflection of their imagination, their gift to the world of children’s literature.

Ashley Colhoun is a creative writing student at Southern Cross University

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