The Auckland Writers Festival fires up young readers

Over the period of three days, some 7,500 students and teachers from schools as far away as Kerikeri (they got up at 5am) listened in rapt attention as national and international authors shared their collective wisdom at the Auckland Writers Festival Schools Programme. Some schools brought a whole year group, while others brought selected groups of readers and writers.

People queuing for signatures at the 2019 Auckland Writers Festival
Queuing for signatures at the 2019 Auckland Writers Festival.  

Failure is the way to success

Common themes and messages arose such as: ‘failure is the way to success', ‘know yourself’ and ‘write what you know’.

Sally Gardner, who has won both the Costa Children's Book Award and the Carnegie Medal, spoke of her remarkable journey to becoming a writer and illustrator. Gardner didn’t learn to read and write until she was 14. Being dyslexic, she had spent years at the school for ‘maladjusted children’ listening to teachers tell her she was ‘unteachable’ and would ‘amount to nothing’. From the age of 6 to 11, she’d endured 'the most boring reading scheme in the whole world' … 'Janet and John'. The most exciting thing that ever happened in Janet and John’s world was that they got a dog. To keep herself entertained, Gardner made up alternative stories about them. Her message, like that of the other writers, was that 'imagination will take you further than all things you possess.'

Gardner’s YA dystopian novel 'Maggot Moon' features a 15-year-old dyslexic hero Standish Treadwell. It is his unique perception of the world, vivid imagination, and friendship with Hector that allow him to keep hold of hope in a world where violence and bullying is the norm. When she’d finished writing 'Maggot Moon', Gardner’s publisher had told her to put it in a drawer as it would ruin her reputation. It’s now published in 27 languages.

If you ever had doubts about the importance of reading aloud to teenagers, they would have been crushed once you’d heard Gardner in action. While reading a particularly gruesome scene from 'Maggot Moon', she drew audible gasps of horror from an otherwise transfixed audience.

Student favourites

Services to School’s Facilitator Emma Smoldon chatted to a selection of students at the festival about their experience. A group of girls from Alfriston College said they liked how Cally Black, who wrote 'In the Dark Spaces' (and 'How to Bee' as Bren MacDibble), talked about how her books 'illustrated the poverty traps of characters'.

Other favourites included:

  • Akala put Shakespeare quotes and rap lyrics/quotes on the screen and asked the audience to guess whether they came from Shakespeare or a rapper. Most guessed Shakespeare when it was a rap lyric, or vice versa — lots of surprise. He got the whole audience to understand iambic pentameter and rhythm by a rap ‘round’ of ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day / Thou art more lovely and temperate / Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May / And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.’
  • Markus Zusak entertained by telling his own detailed and funny family stories, which he then used to illustrate techniques used in the art of storytelling, such as providing detail and using the unexpected.
  • Renee Watson read her poetry and from her books, her messages reinforcing the importance of confidence, body image, kindness, feminism, and activism expressed through the creative arts.
  • Craig Philips was a hit with the younger students, prompting them to draw as they listened – they were still illustrating into the next session.

The power of the Q&A sessions

There are varying views on the value of Q&A sessions at sessions for adults at writers' festivals. However, the Q&A sessions at the schools' programme allowed for unrehearsed, insightful, and often the most heartfelt responses. It’s no small matter standing up and asking questions in front of hundreds of teenagers, yet students queued patiently to take their turn at the microphone. Their questions were eloquent, personal, and courageous, touching on marginalisation, experience, identity, or writing.

At the end of Renee’s session, a boy asked what she thought he and other immigrants could do to keep their cultural identity and language while struggling to assimilate. His question drew cheers, claps, and the slam poet convention of finger clicks. Renee talked about the importance of reading about your history and of oral history, mentioning that she had become her family’s recorder. She also thanked the audience for supporting the boy’s question as it’s important not to be erased:

Don’t let people erase you. Don’t be erased — find who you want to be in this world.
Students queue for Q & A during the schools' sessions
Students queue for Q&A during the schools' sessions. All rights reserved.

The Book and Beyond guides

Read about and download The Book and Beyond guide, a tool developed to help teachers of all subjects and librarians facilitate discussions about books. We partnered with the Auckland Writers Festival and developed examples of the guide based on works from a selection of writers who attended the Auckland Writers Festival Schools Programme.

By Jo Buchan

Jo is the Senior Specialist (Developing Readers) for Services to Schools.

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Pauline Kumar June 18th at 10:01AM

Hi Jo
Just to let you know, to commemorate Refugee day in our school, we will be having a "refugee reflection". Our students will give an account of how "it all began". It will be done in our staff room at morning tea and two lunch time slots in the Library.
regards, Pauline, Librarian.

Jo Buchan June 24th at 9:43AM

Hi Pauline
That's a lovely idea, would be keen to know how it went?