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2019 Ray Mathew Lecture with Morris Gleitzman
Stories Create Our Future
Ray Mathew Lecture
Stories Create Our Future
14 November 2019
Listen to the 2019 Ray Mathew Lecture as Morris Gleitzman explores how stories create our future. Morris believes that young people need stories now more than ever. “Stories to delight, stories to beguile, stories to inspire and stories to move deeply. And through these experiences, stories that equip young readers to embrace an often dark and uncertain world with optimism, resolve and creativity.”
Morris has been a bestselling Australian children’s author for more than thirty years and is the current Australian Children's Laureate. His books explore serious and sometimes confronting subjects in humorous and unexpected ways.
2019 Ray Mathew Lecture with Morris Gleitzman 14-11-2019
*Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres (M), Tyrone Bell (T), Morris Gleitzman (G)
*Location: National Library of Australia
M: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Marie-Louise Ayres, it’s my privilege to be the Director General of the National Library.
Before we begin this evening I’d like to ask our friend, Mr Tyrone Bell, to welcome us to his country.
T: Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Tyrone Bell, I'm a descendent of the Ngunawal people and it’s my privilege this evening to welcome you to the country of the Ngunawal people. To begin with I would like to let you know that traditional Aboriginal law requires any visitors to the country being made welcome. This customary tradition has been passed on by all our generations. This ritual forms a part of our belief system, its purpose is for visitors to acknowledge whose country it is and then in turn being acknowledged as visitors and made welcome.
This welcome custom has happened for thousands of years and we use it as protection for country against bad spirits. The country on which you stand this evening is that of the Ngunawal people. Being a Ngunawal traditional custodian it gives me pleasure to invite you onto the country of my people.
[Speaks Aboriginal language]
In the language of my people means this is Ngunawal country, welcome to our meeting place. Please enjoy. We acknowledge and pay our respects to the elders past and present.
We call country the mother because as a mother cares for her children so does the land cares for us. This is why Aboriginal people have such close ties with the land. On behalf of myself and my people I send a warm welcome to everyone here. I’m proud to be Aboriginal and one of the traditional carers of this land. I want you to feel welcome while on our country.
Firstly I would like to acknowledge those that have come to this area for the first time and warmly welcome you. For those that have been here before welcome back and of course for those that live here please continue to enjoy and behave. We want you to feel welcome while visiting Ngunawal country and ask that you respect the land that we have done for 60,000 years plus. So in keeping with our Ngunawal tradition in the true spirit of friendship and reconciliation treat everyone and everything with dignity and respect and by doing so it is our belief that your spirit will be harmonised with your stay on Ngunawal country.
It is our belief that our ancestors will then in turn bless your stay on our spiritual land. May the spirit of this land remain with you today, tomorrow and always? Once again on behalf of the Ngunawal people I welcome you to our traditional country. [Speaks Aboriginal language]. Thank you and goodbye.
M: Thank you, Tyrone, and particularly in this, the International Year of Indigenous Languages it fills my heart with joy to hear language in this hall.
It’s a pleasure to see so many of you here tonight for the 2019 Ray Mathew Lecture, celebrating the achievement of Australian writers and honouring the memory of Ray Mathew. Chiefly remembered as a playwright Ray Mathew was also an accomplished poet and author of short stories, novels, criticism and nonfiction. He published three anthologies of poetry, numerous poems in magazines, many short stories, plays including the much performed Spring Song, a novel, studies of Miles Franklin and Charles Blackman, radio plays and film scripts. Now that sounds like quite a lot, doesn’t it? But despite high praise from his contemporaries such as Mack Harris who said that Mathews could write like nobody’s business his promise as a writer was never fully realised and although he kept writing until his death he had no new work published after 1967. It’s clear that after he left Australia in 1960 in some way the wellspring of his creativity dried up when he left the country.
But he left Australia and ended up in New York and life in New York brought him the friendship and patronage of Paul and Eva Kollsman whose New York apartment he shared from 1968 until the end of his life in 2002, aged 73. The Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust is a generous bequest made to the Library by Eva Kollsman in honour of her friend to support and promote Australian writing. I’ve been here long enough to actually remember when this cheque arrived, quite a large one, arrived totally out of the blue and it was terribly exciting for us because we really wanted to do more with Australian writing.
So this legacy has enabled the Library to support Australia’s writing community, it’s brought to light some of Ray Mathews’ unknown work, it’s bolstered our events program, it’s funded a project to make accessible to researchers the papers of Australian writers by upgrading and publishing rich finding aids for some of our very best archives.
The bequest also supports two fellowships, the National Library of Australia Fellowship for Research in Australian Literature and the National Library of Australia Creative Fellowship in Australian Writing so it’s certainly a gift that keeps giving in the literary sphere.
Here at the National Library we see ourselves as keepers of Australian stories and we do not take this role lightly. Stories allow us to explore what it is to be human, they help us to make sense or make meaning of the world and in a very real sense stories create our reality and they also of course shape our future.
This year’s Ray Mathew lecturer, Morris Gleitzman, is no stranger to telling a ripping good story. It’s safe to say that he is one of Australia’s greatest storytellers. Morris has been a bestselling Australian children’s author for more than 30 years and is currently our Australian Children’s Laureate.
Morris’ books explore serious and sometimes confronting subjects in humorous and unexpected ways. I’m sure you are familiar with some or all of them and I certainly remember reading most of these to my children when they were young. Two Weeks with The Queen, Puppy Fat, Doubting Thomas, Bumface, Toad Rage, Give Peas A Chance, Help Around the House and the series, Once, Then, Now, After, Soon and Maybe, all of which of course are held right here in this building in our collection.
In tonight’s lecture Morris will explore how stories can help us to create our future and why both children and adults need stories now more than ever before. Please join me in welcoming Morris Gleitzman to deliver the 2009 Ray Mathew lecture, Stories Create Our Future.
G: Thank you very much and I’ve decided to start with my thank yous because time management, I finally have to concede after decades – or is it hours? I can’t remember but time management is not my strength and I usually end up when speaking to an allotted time in a big rush and I don’t have time to say thank you so I’m going to start now. Obviously the person I should thank first is Ray Mathew.
Now I believe – well I hope that writers never die so I think it’s appropriate for me to say, Ray, I’m so glad to be here and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. Thank you. But I also want to thank, and you’ve heard a little about them in the introduction, I want to thank two of those exemplars of humanity and civilisation that are the sadly small number on our planet of literary patrons. Paul and Eva Kollsman did a remarkable thing, they allowed into their lives somebody who wasn’t actually a family member, wasn’t connected through any other avenue than friendship and they made I like to think a huge difference to his life.
I also want to thank all of you for being here tonight, here in person physically when with all the attendant inconveniences that I know such a thing involves, when you could so easily right now at this moment be in the jacuzzi watching this on livestream.
A couple of other thank yous. I must not forget the Board of the Australian Children’s Laureate Foundation. My life was changed more than I could have imagined a couple of years ago when they very kindly offered me the temporary use, a rather grand title that has given me access to places where children’s authors aren’t usually allowed to go. I’m not just talking about the members’ bar – well I am, actually, quite a lot but I’ve had some conversations in the adult world, in the adult community over the last couple of years that have been really worth having, I think, and I’ve sort of made them the centre of my work as Laureate because it seemed to me that one of the many things a Laureate can be is an ambassador and I felt that I was an ambassador from the world where children’s imaginations rule to a world where perhaps they are largely underestimated as sometimes are the books that stimulate those imaginations.
The conversations I’ve had in our adult culture around these areas have given rise to a number of ideas and avenues of thinking that I’d like to share some of with you tonight. But before I do I also want to say a very big thank you to Dr Ayres and her team who of course have endeared themselves hugely to me by inviting me to be here tonight but that endearment was only slightly more than the endearment they’d achieved through their care and their nurturing and protecting of this, our National Library.
Now I'm actually someone who doesn’t particularly like the word, national, very much and in fact I think perhaps our world would be better off if it was used a little less often in a few lesser places but standing here tonight I’m suddenly aware that - and this is one of these magic dimensions of language, isn’t it? That this word national used, I would venture to say for not always the best that we might hope from any of our words juxtaposed with one other single word, library. Suddenly the word national takes on a more benign – like an elderly, kind and attentive relative whose presence does nothing more than add quality and significance. So I’m very happy that this place is called the National Library. Thank you, Dr Ayres, work placement skills.
I also need to start with a quick confession. I weighed up whether I would do this or not but honesty – well it’s not my middle name but it’s something I take seriously. So I confess that until I was invited to do this lecture I had never heard of Ray Mathew and Ray, that was entirely my fault, okay? Absolutely, totally my fault. Ray, I hope you’ll feel better when I say that as soon as I took steps to reduce my ignorance you quickly became more inspiring to me than almost any other Australian author.
As you’ve heard tonight, in 1968 at the age of 39 Ray found himself in New York and quite quickly got himself two lifelong patrons. Well I can’t tell you how inspirational I found that. Because I'm 66 and I still do not have a single New York patron and I was starting to give up but Ray, you have inspired me to hold onto my dream. Thank you.
Apart from the slight New York patron disappointment, though, I have to say I’ve been a hugely lucky person in my life, in my career. I spent the last 36 years doing exactly the thing that I most want to do which is to write stories for young people. Quite often over those years I’ve been asked almost entirely by adults but why? Why would you want to spend your life doing that? Well I can sum it up like this. I write for and about young people who are experiencing what I think is the most special time any of us ever have in our lives. We all have this special time. It comes to us at slightly varying ages but it would be for some of us seven years of age, for some of us eight, nine, 10 and it’s that time where we start for the first time to really think for ourselves.
If we’ve been lucky in the earlier part of our childhood we’ve had caring, loving adults who’ve been always more than happy to share their knowledge, their views of the world, their beliefs, even their political persuasions with us should we ask our young and innocent questions. So they’ve provided our context as we move up through those first few years of our life. Our world largely is their world and then we step over an invisible threshold and it’s a threshold that is perhaps the most important one we ever step over because suddenly we’re starting to see the world through our own eyes. Suddenly we’re starting to find that some of the things we see bring out of us responses to do with approval or disapproval, a sense of does this seem right? Does this feel fair or not? Slowly the world becomes ours, slowly we lay the first small parts of what will be our lifelong uniquely personal moral landscape.
Well it’s a wonderful time but it’s quite a short one because within a few years at most of us crossing that threshold there’s another of course very significant development in our lives, the hormones start to flow. The biological imperative takes us in its grip. For its many wonders, for its complexities, for its sense that this truly is part of our human destiny, to be in the grip of these hormonal and chemical changes, it's distracting. No matter how we choose or find ourselves mandated to respond to this biological imperative, no matter what path it takes us down in our lives, it will always be there. Whether we actually do this or not we will spend the rest of our lives either strategising and putting a lot of time and effort into behaviour that in a purely neutral biological sense is about perpetuating our species and for many of us eventually we will live the rest of our lives with the consequences of having done so. All wonderful, wonderful dimensions of life but very distracting.
So we have this quite small window, three, four, five years when I think as members of our species it’s our opportunity to be exactly who we are in a very unique sort of way. It’s a time as we get to see the world through our own eyes that we are really in a position to respond fully, passionately, intelligently, caringly and with fascination and a little bit of our own personal anarchy to things that in some cases are very important, not just to us but to our human community. It's I think the reason that all of my main characters are between the ages of about nine and 12, almost all, it’s because I can’t bear to leave that time. I enjoy occupying that time. My time there has gone but my imagination can keep me there for as long as I like.
The things that go on there and the things that go on inside, in the inner worlds of the young people who are in that time, to me they are endlessly fascinating and also I think hugely important in terms of the adult individuals they will eventually become.
Another reason I think I’m very lucky is because it turns out my job – I didn’t realise this at first – it turns out my job doesn’t involve just sitting at a desk week, month, year in, year out. That’s part of it but I get to do a very contrasting part of the job and for several months each year I get to go out and meet and spend time with and listen to and have conversations with the young people that I write for. This happens most in schools.
Last year I looked at some old diaries and did a bit of rough arithmetic and realise that in my life I’d been fortunate enough to go to more than 2,000 schools and I’ve learned many things in school, not too much in the first two schools I went to, the compulsory ones but in the other 1,998 plus I’ve learnt a lot of things. I’ve found in recent years that when I’m in schools my desire to learn and my curiosity is increasingly focused in a particular area and it’s to do with the thoughts and feelings that young people have about the world around them, the world today, the world that they are starting to encounter and mediate largely for the first time. And the thoughts and feelings they have about their future in that world.
I invite you now to step into my shoes briefly and do something that I’ve spent a lot of time doing over the decades. Imagine you are once again 11 years old, 11 years old today and you’re one of the lucky ones. You have parents present and loving, you have siblings and with them you have just the right amount of character-forming sibling rivalry, you have good friends, you have a loving pet. In no area of your life are you on the receiving end of any toxic, narcissistic manipulation, not even from the cat so life is good and now you’re in your special time. It’s starting to feel that it could be your world and you look around at your new world and what do you see? Do you see or at least get a glimpse of problems in this world, so big, so scary? They must be because adults don’t even seem to want to talk about them that much.
You catch other glimpses. Sometimes when your parents are watching the news, things that pass across their faces, slight changes to their body language and occasionally you ask questions and you can see them doing their very best to give you an honest answer but also an answer that isn’t going to upset you, isn’t going to hurt you. So these things, these problems, they must be terrible. Just at the age where with loving encouragement from your parents you’d come to understand that if you sleep in a strange house overnight at some distant relative’s and there are noises in the night that you're not familiar with, and you start to imagine because at a young age we discover that our imaginations have many powers and one of its powers is to scare the pants off us, you imagine what nameless, faceless fear might be under that bed.
But now you’ve been tutored in the paths of rationality and you can now do a quick checklist in that bed. Is there perhaps a branch scratching the window? Could the wood of the house be changing as the air cools down inside the house? Etc. Just when nameless, faceless fears had become manageable you suddenly get a horrible suspicion that actually that world is fuller of nameless, faceless fears than you’d ever imagined and you can see your parents blanching and wincing in their presence and it scares the pants off you.
You also notice something quite perplexing. Having been well brought up you have now come to understand that there’s a range of behaviours available to all us humans that by and large are best kept in check because quite often they make other people feel hurt and unhappy. But what you’ve started to notice the more you look around is that some of the most prominent members of the adult community, people in some cases vested with huge amounts of power by entire populations to be their leaders and their representatives, they seem to be behaving in ways that would have you sent to your room. Bullying, name-calling, blatant lying, shifting of blame transparently to other people, disrespecting anybody who challenges them in any way and so on and so on.
How could this be? Why, when you know that these people in most cases have their power as a result of a collective decision made by adults like your family members who are intelligent and reasonable people, how has this come about and what does it actually say about the true nature of adult society? Perhaps most disturbing of all, just as you’ve reached the time in your life when you are starting for the first time to really get a sense that you’re prepared to express in words some things that you would regard as your own truths newly discovered, newly minted.
Just as you’ve come to understand what an incredibly important and useful part of our human discourse is our capacity to share these truths that may not be the same person to person but so interesting to compare them honestly, you’re starting to get a horrible sense that this very currency, this new gleaming currency that’s come into your life seems to have been devalued terribly. Now you hear adults talking about whether truth exists anymore and this is really disappointing ‘cause a lot of what you’d started to hope for and assume about the future was connected to the notion that we would have and share truths and our versions of truths.
Well this of course leaves you with questions and these are questions I hear from young people a lot. Questions like but why can’t people just talk together and listen to each other? Why can’t people tell the truth? Why can’t people be nicer?
Last year one of the privileges my slightly pretentious title of Children’s Laureate brought to me was the opportunity to speak down the road to a group of Parliamentarians. I was out in the bush at a primary school the week before and I mentioned to them I was going to have this evening and I said to them did they have any messages they’d like me to deliver from them to the people I’d be meeting? They said look, could you just tell them, why can’t you be nicer? Well I put that to them and I saw they heard but actually I don’t think it did any good.
I know some of you are thinking, isn’t that charming? Nicer. How naïve. But I think a mistake our adult culture makes a lot is to see how simply and how completely free of cynicism and world weariness are many of the heartfelt things that young people say and to assume that just because they’re coming out of a diminutive body that they are themselves are diminutive in every way.
What I think those seven and eight and nine-year-olds who say things like why can’t people be nicer, what they’re really saying is I’ve just reached a stage where I'm discovering there is a human conversation, there is a conversation to be had and it has been had often in the past between members of not just a local community or a national one but a global community, a human conversation. Even as I’ve come for the first time to realise the existence of this wonderful medium through which so much of what I hope what happened in my life can be achieved, I’m getting a sense that this human conversation is damaged, it’s broken, it may even be badly broken and that’s not fair because I have a need for that conversation.
Now what a lot of these young people haven’t yet fully realised, although many are on the way, is that in 10, 15 years, once they’ve stepped across another important threshold into young adulthood, they will become members as are all of we and as has every generation been before, they will be members of the generation that for a couple of decades will have the responsibility that every generation before them has had to keep our human endeavour, to keep our show on the road.
I don’t think it’s overdramatising to say that the kids that we have in our families, that we work with today, when it’s their world fully, when it’s in their hands that the future of our human endeavour rests, they’re going to be facing a bigger range of global challenges than any human generation before them. Yes, there have been pockets through history, we all know there have been smaller sections of our human community who have faced incredible problems but there’s some stuff going on on a global scale now that I think is going to create or has already created challenges that is going to require this next generation to be as equipped as they possibly can be. We can make a contribution to this but it’s ultimately in their hands. We can make tools and ideas, attitudes and opportunities available but it’s in their hands.
It's a toughie because I think that wonderful innate optimism that young people if they’re lucky they never lose but we all do a bit. This is a very hard time to keep optimism alive. Well for decades now I have felt not just a personal responsibility but a professional responsibility to work as hard as I can to remain an optimist and I will proudly declare tonight that I am an optimist. You can probably tell that from those patrons wanted ads I place each week in The New York Times.
But I’m also an optimist because one of the things that my job has allowed me to be reminded of regularly is that within our human, our global community, we have smaller communities who are the guardians of our human conversation. Now I’m a member of such a community and I know all of you are too, you wouldn’t be here tonight if you weren’t and we have special places in our communities where the human conversation can repair and flourish. This has always been true, this has been true for as long as we’ve had a human discourse and the name we have for these very special, very important places is stories.
Stories of course have been at the centre of our human discourse for as long as we’ve had one and there are many reasons for this but probably the most obvious and the biggest reason is that stories give us things we need. I don’t have time to make a list so I’ll just generalise and say that almost all the things we need from stories are to do with opening up possibilities. Somebody at a writers’ festival I think a few months ago said to me so Morris, what is literature? I’ve never really been asked this question before and I said well we generally understand that literature involves the written or the spoken word but I would say that literature is a cultural form using words that opens up possibilities.
I’ll touch on this a bit later if I’ve left myself time but there are plenty of stories that satisfy some of the other defining characteristics of stories but they do not open up possibilities. I hope I do have time to come back to that. I want to talk a little bit more about the importance and the implications of this opening up of possibilities, particularly of course – I’m sure you’re there ahead of me already – to young readers. I’m going to slip in – I’m going to look at my watch, okay – I’m going to slip in a quick autobiographical example.
Quite a few years ago now I had a new book published. The wonderful people at Penguin Random House in the marketing and publicity department had a creative vision. They called me in to tell me. Morris, they said, on your publicity tour - this was back before we did a lot of this stuff online so the authors physically toured the country – we’re going to call your tour the Book at Bedtime Tour, Morris, because we’ve noticed that you bang on endlessly about the importance and value of people reading out loud to each other, bedtime being a great time for it to happen in families, kids to parents, parents to kids etc, etc. So to give visual emphasis to your Book at Bedtime Tour you will do the entire thing, public appearances, interviews on radio, TV, newspapers in your pyjamas.
I felt I should mention there and then in the meeting room that I very rarely wear pyjamas. The room kind of went ashen for a while but we quickly agreed that pyjamas could be bought and they were. I had only one other condition, a decent pair of slippers. You know those big fluffy black and white cow slippers? Those were the ones I insisted on and off I went. Well I wish I had another two hours to tell you some of the anecdotes that happened to a middle-aged man in his pyjamas out on the road in Australia but I just want to quickly mention one night towards the end of the tour. Lovely evening in a community hall in a Victorian country town, the local community responded wonderfully, came along in their pyjamas, nighties, dressing gowns, the whole thing. Being Victoria, hot water bottles as well.
Very close to the end of the proceedings there were only about four people left at the signing table and I felt a tug at my pyjama elbow and it was the local bookseller who’d organised the evening, a woman of great professional passion and capacity but she said Morris, look, there is only really one restaurant in town and the kitchen closes at 9 and it’s 10 to 9 so if you can just quickly finish off we better get down there. So I signed quickly, I was whisked away and the timing was perfect, we arrived at the restaurant door at about four minutes to 9.
As we stepped in every person in the restaurant glanced up – bit of icy wind had come in – glanced up and what they saw – I could see on their faces – what they saw of course was a slightly dishevelled and slightly out of breath middle-aged man in his pyjamas and cow slippers, each arm, elbow being held by a woman in a business suit, very professional-looking. Every mind in the room I saw had the same thought, isn’t that nice? They’ve let him out for the night. Now very quickly they thought – and quickly I could see no, they thought no, this is something else. The last person to realise was the waitress who took ages to give me cutlery but once we got that sorted.
I’m telling you this because I reflected on it afterwards as I often have done, it’s one of those gifts that comes along out of the blue. It was such a useful reminder, such a useful example of something that we are all destined to have to deal with in our lives and it’s simply this. Even those of us who live in relatively small communities, let alone those of us who live in large cities, on a typical day every day of our lives hundreds, maybe thousands of other members of our human community pass through our gaze and we just don’t have the time, the energy, the brain power to do any more than if we register them at all make a fleeting assessment based on surfaces.
Of course fleeting assessments take us so quickly into our unconscious biases so already we’re getting into dangerous territory. Now would that it be other but it can’t be and those of us now who go to the footy or who watch even sport on TV and we’re seeing tens of thousands of people some Saturday afternoons and if we notice them at all it’s just a surface, a most fleeting and therefore stereotypical response. Like all habits in life, particularly the ones that we never really have a choice about, it’s been like this since each of us was a very young child and there is no way around it, really. The days are long gone when most people lived in small, valley-secluded communities of maybe dozens or no more than a couple of hundred people, that’s just not how it is anymore. Even for those who do there’s a small oblong in the hand that will bring as many tens of thousands of other fleeting presences as we might wish.
This habit I think - well again I don’t have time to go into too much detail but I think you can readily see that a lot of the big problems that we are grappling with, particularly the ones to do with the ways individuals, small groups, larger groups, communities, nations and whole sections, socioeconomic, cultural, religious sections of our global community see each other and what they think and feel about each other and how they consequently behave. A lot of this is flowing from this ingrained habit of just only seeing the surfaces.
Well lest the 2019 Ray Mathew Lecture be on the verge of plunging you into terminal depression there is an antidote we have at the centre of our culture, at the centre of our human discourse, something that I think partly exists there to remind us that there is always more than the surface. I’m talking of course about stories. And that the most interesting and important part of anybody lies beneath the surface. When we connect with a story, particularly one that we’re reading from a page full of the sort of spaces that just don’t seem to exist on the screen into which our imaginations and empathy is invited, we’re not going to keep turning the page, we’re not going to keep flicking the tablet screen for more until we have gone beneath the surface. Until we’ve gone to that place where we know we will find things that are exactly the same as us and things that are as different from us as our enquiring literary minds could ever wish for. So every time we read a piece of fiction we’re reminded that habit notwithstanding, it’s beneath the surface that is really where the action is.
Now for young people this of course is or should, can, should be a very important part of their voyages out into this world. The voyages inside themselves, a sense of what’s going on inside other individuals and well I think the book in the hand will take them more time efficiently into the inner worlds of many more people than they would have time, given the sometimes troubled social contexts of young life, stories are where they’re going to truly meet as wide and varied a range of individuals as they’d like.
I’ve come to believe that when we look at what stories are and why they are and have remained so important to us, young people’s stories, even for us older folk, are very useful because stories for young people, no matter how of the moment their surfaces might be, the architecture, the skeletal structure, the energy of a story for a young person is usually quite traditional. One thing that I’d be happy to generalise about is to say that stories for young people are almost entirely forward-looking. So much of our adult fiction, understandably so, is to do with dealing with the past and in particular the personal past.
Well that’s understandable, particularly for readers who have reached a stage in their lives where there’s probably no more ahead than there was that’s already been experienced and it’s just part of the human condition, isn’t it? That things don’t always go well and we are always at every moment conscious of the other paths that our inability to tread 87 paths at once leave untrodden. So there’s an awful lot of regret on we, bitterness, fantasy recreating of pasts that we could have had but didn’t in adult fiction.
Young people are much less interested in looking back, they want stories that are looking forward, stories not of the wry acceptance of atrophy, stories of growth and of possibility and of potential. Let me quickly try to tell you how I think a typical story for young people works in the terms that make them I believe absolutely valuable in all sorts of not immediately apparent ways to young people.
So we have a young protagonist who finds himself unexpectedly facing a problem that is huger than anything they think they would have to face. I don’t see any point in writing or reading a story about an individual who is facing anything other than the biggest problem that exists in their life at that time. Why? Why go for number 2 or number 3? This problem is so big that our human tendency when a problem comes along is to stick our head under the duvet or blame it on someone else or rationalise that it doesn’t really exist as a problem or start fantasising about some sort of saviour of whatever type coming along and fixing it for us. None of that’s going to work ‘cause this problem is big, it’s immediate and it has to be confronted.
But it’s more, it’s bigger, it’s beyond the previous experience of our young protagonist so the first thing our young protagonist needs to do is find out as much as they possibly can about the problem and this may well involve developing their research skills, their information-collecting analysis and organisational skills. They have to for their own survival become better researchers than they’ve ever been before and the more they get to know about the problem the more it takes some honest and brave thinking about themselves and their place in their immediate world and any way that they perhaps are contributing, even unwittingly to the problem.
The more they get to know the problem they have to make another tough decision. Are they going to be capable of solving or surviving this problem individually or are they going to need some help? Do they have to form alliances? Do they have to make new friendships perhaps? What will often be the case, almost always in my stories, is that the individuals that have come for the first time into their orbit who seem to have some of the experience, some of the skills, some of the character that might help make this problem solvable or at least survivable, they’re not actually the sort of people that our young protagonist would normally feel comfortable forming a friendship or an alliance with ‘cause they’re a bit different and they’re a bit scary in some ways. But the problem’s too big for niceties like this and so our young protagonist, developing all the while new ways of thinking and feeling about interpersonal relationships, forms those alliances.
Now equipped with understanding, with knowledge and with new relationships, with a team, with a gang, the time has come to do something that our young protagonist didn’t even know until this story started could ever be a necessary part of life, to create, to formulate a problem-solving strategy.
Well first of course it has to be learned what a problem-solving strategy is and there’s a few stumbles along the way there but finally the theory is mastered, the resources are gathered and the problem-solving strategy is conceived, it’s designed, it’s constructed and around page 47, 49, 53, that first problem-solving strategy is put into action. This is a moral quandary for me, the author, the friend, the companion, the supporter, the guide, the advocate for this young person because from page 1 I’ve known something that they haven’t known and yet I cannot allow myself to tell them that that first problem-solving strategy, there is not a hope in the world that that first problem-solving strategy will be successful because I, their friend, companion and supporter, am contracted to write 250 pages and we’re only about a fifth of the way through the book.
What this means is that for my benefit the young character fails, not fails so much that they are destroyed by the problem. I don’t let that happen and that’s partly because by this stage I care deeply about the character and partly because, self-interest again, I want them around for another 200 pages. They fail, they are plunged as we all so often are into a pit of shame and of despair. This is where I can redeem myself a little bit by helping them out and by allowing them, if they haven’t already done so, to meet a person or two who’s been in that situation and has themself discovered that if we’re brave enough we can stare our failure firmly in the face and we can learn some stuff from it. So they do and they marshal the resources and a second problem-solving strategy is devised.
Bearing in mind that problems aren’t inert lumps that just sit there unmoving for 250 pages, saying well come on, do your best, try and solve me, they are as organic and ever-changing, they are as alive and they morph in a way that characters do as well. Our character’s going through a process of rapid change, of learning and developing all sorts of new skills and learning things about themselves, abilities and the problem is as changeable as well. So everything I’m describing is not being done in a relaxed situation in a living room or in a laboratory, its being done on the run. The protagonist, looking over their shoulder all the time to see if that problem has got even bigger and more urgent. But they stay one step ahead. Second problem-solving strategy. The best effort yet informed by what they learn from the first mistake. They put it into action. No way, it’s not going to happen, it’s still only page 102 and that’s still a long way from the 250.
So you're starting to see the pattern, there’s another and another and another. Maybe the last one is successful, maybe not. I like to write about the biggest of the problems that my young readers will ever face in their young lives and some of those problems don’t have easy solutions, some of them will never have a solution. I’ve written several stories about children in wartime and once a war starts that war can never be totally solved and what it’s caused to happen.
So the ending of a story sometimes is just that the struggle will continue. I’ve written quite a few books like that. But the guilt that I used to feel in the early days when I look back and think well look at that, I have just put that character through hell and the one seeming reason for it didn’t come to pass ‘cause the problem’s still there and I’ve just written the end. It took me a few books to realise that actually something else goes on in those stories and it’s to do with the one immutable law I impose upon myself as a writer which is this, that I will never write a story in which a young character feels worse about themselves and their world at the end of the story than they did at the beginning of the story. That’s a pretty grandiose claim ‘cause I’ve written six books set against the terrible events of the holocaust of the mid-20th century.
But I believe I’ve obeyed that law. I tend in my life if I ever am presented with an immutable law, except for the two laws of thermodynamics which I accept don’t have any exceptions, I always try and find an exception. Well this is the third one where I don’t think there should ever be an exception.
Now those of you who are engaged in parenting of kids of the age that I’m talking about or perhaps working with professionally may have spotted something inherent in what I’ve been saying which is that this process that the young protagonist goes through involves the development of research skills, interpersonal skills, honest self-examination, the ability to empathise not just with people that we like but people that we need to understand for other reasons including our enemies. The creation and the application of problem-solving skills, the ability to get out of that pit of shame and despair and carry on, resilience.
I think everyone would agree that that little list I’ve just run through, they are among the most important of the life skills that we would hope our young people leave their years of education with and the life skills that a generation that is going to be facing what this next generation is going to face, that they will need those life skills.
Now I’ve had conversations about all this with people who remain at this stage, as some of you perhaps are, sceptical. All well and good, Morris, it would be great if all our young people could be equipped with such personal abilities and resources but how does reading stories actually change their lives? Well I alluded earlier just briefly to the fact that when we receive a story from a flat surface covered in small but decipherable black marks something happens that doesn’t happen when we watch that story on the screen. It’s to do with the fact that a story in text cannot tell you everything.
Even if the most boring author in the world didn’t trust their readers to make even one little mental or emotional connection for themselves and tried to explain and provide everything the books would be too big, life is too short to read a book like that. You take a frozen frame from just any movie and if you render all the information in that frame into text it may well be hundreds of pages and they would be hundreds of pages that people really wouldn’t want to read most of. So to be readable and manageable, our stories, and this has always been the case, our stories that use words, they give us just enough information – the best ones do, I think - just enough information for us to step into the spaces and to start creating the things that we aren’t being literally told.
Some of this is just expositional stuff. I very rarely describe the characters in my books, I only have to give a few clues about socioeconomic and other culture or whatever circumstances and then I leave it up to my readers to decide for example what the characters are wearing. Only if it’s vital to the story do I even identify a particular garment and that’s just a very prosaic sort of expositional or a physical description level.
But more importantly with emotion, for example, I almost never use words like scared, angry, happy. I saw an opera the other day and I’ve never liked opera that much but there are some reasons why I was really keen to see this one but I was reminded that because operas were written really for the poor people up the back who couldn’t see the characters, everything to do with the emotional journey of each character is being described to us in full detail. A person is standing over the dead body of their one true love, oh, he sings, I am so incredibly, unbelievably, unprecedently unhappy. Unhappy, you’ve never seen unhappy. Don’t ask me if I’m unhappy, I’m so unhappy.
Look, I’m being unfair there but it’s a useful little reference point because if ever I catch myself being operatic on a page the knife is out because you only need to know how the character has felt about that person up ‘til now and the fact that they’ve stepped into the room and that person is on the ground dead. None of us need to be told, we cannot be stopped from stepping into that space and sharing that feeling that never has to be defined with that character.
Those points of entry, those intimate via the imagination, via the powers of empathy, via the individual experience of each reader, those points of entry and connection, you do not come away unchanged by this. If as a young person you’ve been lucky enough to have a childhood rich with hundreds, maybe thousands of different story journeys with different protagonists but all necessarily following the same process and you’ve shared with that character the development of all those personal insights, all of those personal capacities and new understandings, new ways of looking at the world, new assumptions and new degrees of self-belief and confidence, you will not come away from those spaces in those unchanged. I believe you will come away with some of those changes having become a part of you.
There is another part to this process of what we can do for young people with stories and really I’m mentioning it now because it sort of brings us full circle because stories are not only themselves one of the most potent form of human conversation we have, and that connection, that interaction that I’ve just described between young reader and young protagonist is a profound and I think wonderful form of conversation.
But when young people read as I hope they do as often as possible stories and they connect with characters whose experiences are expanding the young readers’ sense of what is possible in life for good or worse, they will want to talk about the new experiences of understanding of emotion, of adjustment to their world view. They will want to have conversations about it, actual conversations with people they love, they trust, they care about who are prepared to listen.
These crucially important conversations, and I mean that because well you can see standing in front of you somebody who is personally vested in every possible way in the stories he writes from an ego, from a financial, from a reputational, from a philosophical, every way. But I’ve come to absolutely firmly believe that the conversations that young people need to have with the right conversation partners about their reading, those conversations are as important as the books themselves and the story is not over, the book has not finished its work until the conversations have been had. But they can be difficult conversations, I know.
I speak to thousands of parents, I’m one myself and I know that when we perhaps for the first time get a sense that that child we care about so much, when that child is curled up with a book changes are happening that are beyond our control and that perhaps we haven’t experienced changes quite in that way ourselves. I was lucky, I did but I speak to thousands of parents who could not control the circumstances of their own childhood and sometimes didn’t. So it can be threatening because young people, they don’t want stories about the small problems. They can quickly get a sense of just how big are some of the problems waiting for them out in the world, of course they can. We’ve bequeathed them a world that is full every day through this medium we call news of thousands of decontextualised fragments, thousands of decontextualised examples of the worst we humans are capable of.
We made this clear to the news industry 200 years ago. We’re busy people, we said, please, we haven’t got time for the best, we want to survive, we want to prosper and we need to know the worst for that, not the best. Stories have the ability, and I think therefore the responsibility to show both and that’s really been one of my touchstones through all my books. The only reason I contemplated writing about the holocaust of world war 2 for readers from about eight years and up is because I wanted to tell the story of friendship and love and I wanted to show that friendship and love can be put to the test. We know in life there are forces like the forces that created the holocaust that can crush and destroy individual experiences of friendship and love. But not always.
I think it’s very, very important that our young people, if we expect them to step up in 15 or 20 years’ time and face what they have to face, if we have tried to shield them from the worst that could possibly happen, we’ve condemned them quite likely to be frozen, immobile in horror at some of the things they see and some of the possibilities they sense in the hearts of their fellow human beings and that’s not fair. They have got too much work to do and it has to be done too quickly for them to spend any amount of time frozen in horror.
So our young people want to read stories and they want to learn to face the worst but why should we ask them to do that in a story if we’re not also letting them experience at the same time the very best? That I know from thousands of conversations and from all the things I hear back from young people about their reading, that’s what they want.
So I know we fear that intimate experiences that we cannot police for the young people that we care about or have professional responsibility for, we fear that they might be harmed. But I offer a reference point. If positive possibilities for the future are being opened up by that story even in the context of how none of that comes easily and none of it can be taken for granted.
Remember my rule. I’m not unique in having this rule. I’ve never met a writer for young people who would say that they’re prepared to do the opposite, that they like writing stories in which young people have been crushed and shrunken and made permanently despairing by their experiences in the story.
Now there is just one thing I quickly want to say. I’m quite proud of myself so far, this has been a largely apolitical talk and I think it’s reasonable and fair that it should be. I just want to touch on something that does have political connotations although I do not offer it with any party political agenda because it transcends party politics.
One of the tough things that young people will have to discover and do with what they will is that some stories are created and told for all the wrong reasons. A lot of them are created and told to merchandise products that might be relating to a movie or a video game or some other franchise and that’s a relatively benign wrong reason. But there are other stories and we just seem to be seeing them and hearing them more and more these days and I know young people are too. These are stories that are knowingly created not to open up possibilities but in the thinking and the feeling of their readers and listeners to shut things down, to reduce possibilities in many cases down to just one choice, one feeling, one conviction, one prejudice.
I think this again, just as young people, how tough for them to find the very essence of truth being questioned when truth has just entered their lives in a sense of personal power and now the stories, the very stories that I’ve stood here for who knows? Three hours, I'm sorry but have so much to offer young people and increasingly we see people of influence and significance and high visibility telling stories for the very, very worst possible reason. That’s why I recommend to the young people that I am privileged to spend time with when we talk about stories, I urge them to ask three simple questions of every story that they encounter.
The first, who is telling me this story? The second, why are they telling me this story? The third, what is this story really about? What does this story really mean? On balance, because I am an optimist, I still feel that stories have much more to offer young people, crucial, vital things to offer even though there’s the danger that some of this will be undermined by the very form that brings so much richness and crucial development in the lives of young people is being misused in these terrible ways.
I had a reason last year to have a peek at the mission statement of what then was a relatively new national curriculum. Every teacher in the room wincing, I can see some of you and that’s not because it’s necessarily a wholly bad national curriculum but we just don’t like to be told what to do to quite that degree. Here’s the mission statement for the Australian national curriculum. Every child you care about, their life is partly being shaped by this. It’s not all bad.
Quote, the Australian curriculum has been written to equip young Australians with skills, knowledge and understanding that will enable them to engage effectively – I’m reading here – to engage effectively with and prosper in a globalised world. Students will gain personal and social benefits, be better equipped to make sense of the world in which they live and make an important contribution to building the social, intellectual and creative capital of our nation.
Well that’s good. As it happens, and I’ve mentioned to many a school principal contemplating stripping the resources out of that school library the better to buy new sporting equipment or whatever, and these aren’t evil people, these principals, they are desperately trying to get the best bang from the buck for the educational outcomes for their kids. But they have just forgotten or perhaps they never knew how many of those missions will be helped like nothing else that happens in a school by a rich diet, a rich and varied diet of good stories in print.
For those kids lucky enough to be in schools and homes where they have that rich and varied diet I would add to those missions, those aims that with a rich diet of stories and reading young Australians will also be true, strong, kind and not take any shit.
Libraries. If I had another hour I would talk for an hour about libraries. It amazes me sometimes how once a cliché gets its tentacles around us it’s hard to shake. I still meet people, you mention libraries are so important, they’re so wonderful and people say things like oh yes, it’s so nice to have a quiet place where people aren’t allowed to speak in loud voices. I think you’ve gone through your whole life, you adult person, thinking that a library is primarily about silence and what a mistake.
We are here tonight in a precious place of stories and stories are never silent in our imaginations. In the imaginations of our young people, as they chart their own journey into their own future, which is also the future as I’ve said of our entire human enterprise, in those young imaginations stories are the loudest of all.
Just up the road from here there’s a place with some people in it who really like the idea - they’ve been telling us about this quite often recently – they like the idea of quiet Australians. Well if they peek down to this place they must think we here are the neighbours from hell because libraries and books and reading and stories produce Australians, in particular young Australians, who are not quiet at all. Thank you.
M: I was just thinking while I was listening to the end of your talk, Morris, that those of us who work here in the library, we know that the stories talk to each other at night too, that there’s conversations going on but actually I think also libraries are institutionalised optimism. We are collecting now because we believe that people will read these stories in the future, people we can’t see or touch and it’s that actually that drives our work so for my library colleagues here I think you’ve struck many chords.
Now nobody will complain that Morris did go a little bit over his time. We do have some time for probably two or three questions before we adjourn for drinks. You know the routine, you need to put your hand up and wait for a mike so that those using the hearing loop and listening in the Jacuzzi at home – talking to you, Facebook person - can hear.
A: Thank you, Morris, for such an enlightening discussion this evening. I’m a teacher at a local girls’ high school. But my question is as the writer of stories what stories are you reading now?
G: Oh how I wish you hadn’t asked that question on livestream global internet. I’m just about to hang up my ermine-trimmed robes as Laureate and get back really for the first time in about 20 months to my writing desk as my publishers would grimly agree. I’m long overdue with a book and one of the less attractive parts for me of my job is that while my head is in one of my own stories I can’t read anybody else’s stories. So I won’t be reading any fiction probably for the next three or four or even five months. I’ve just been on the road almost nonstop and because I wrote a first draft of this book – somebody may be interested to hear that it’s actually the final book in the Once series - and I finished a first draft about nine or 10 months ago so I’ve never left a first draft for so long.
I’ve just come back. I read it a couple of weeks ago and I realised that it’s a pretty good first draft but I have changed in those 10 months and the story I now want to write is slightly different. I had a sense that this might be the case so the reading I’ve been doing on the road is actually nonfiction reading set in the time and the place of the book to keep me connected to it. So now I’m desperately on live to air broadcast trying to think of the last really good piece of fiction I read and my partner’s not giving me a hand signal so this is not helping me. But yeah, there’s been some, definitely has.
A: I think you’ve really touched profoundly on this malaise young people are facing, the future that none of us really know what will – well people never did know but it seems monstrous at the moment. Regarding climate change, the best young adult junior fiction book I read was called The Carbon Diaries by Saci Lloyd and it has all those qualities you mentioned but since then I haven’t – The Carbon Diaries, 2015, that was a future novel and since then I haven’t noticed much for young people that isn’t dystopian. Can you speak to that?
G: Well you won’t be surprised to hear me say that I haven’t read a huge amount of climate emergency fiction but I know a lot of writers, it’s absolutely at the front of their minds, a lot of writers for young people. It’s difficult because we actually don’t know what the solutions are in practical terms. We know some of the directions that absolutely we should be going in or we should be led into and that’s not happening. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last couple of years and I’ve decided to take an approach that rather than trying to model for young people what they should do in terms of practical solutions and I’m doing this through a project that will be in a kind of sense for the next couple of years at least my Laureate legacy. I’ve got a project going with a group of theatre professionals and some educational experts as well and we’re developing a workshop which is really designed over a series of workshops that we will make available to every school in Australia.
We’re starting with Year 6 because the secondary curriculum’s a bit tricky for saying can you whack this wee extra hour in a week. It’s a series of workshops designed to help young people develop a range of skills of speaking skills, thinking skills to do with I guess a form of democracy that we may have to reexplore, a democracy that is not entirely dependent on a small group of elected representatives struggling as they so often are with conflict between their own self-interest and the reason that they’re in the job in the first place.
It's about helping young people feel that their voice deserves to be heard but in a context of debate, discussion where people with opposite ideas to you are not vilified and dismissed. I mean I know as somebody who started life preferring to sit in a quiet room with a book or a pencil and paper to discover that doing what I’m doing now had to be a part of it, you can learn aspects of it. So I mean part of what I’ve been saying tonight, a lot of what I've been saying tonight is about ways in which young people can be equipped and empowered to then look at the world a decade down the track and make their own decisions about what needs to be done but to have some of the personal resources to work together to have even half a chance of doing it.
I guess one could write stories about that process but I’ve chosen, because I had the opportunity as Laureate, to actually do it in a more sort of concrete and actual way. I think that’s certainly the approach that I’ve been channelling my energies into.
M: I think we may need to leave the questions there so that we’ve got an opportunity to go into the foyer and have more conversation and some refreshments and also so that you’ve got the opportunity to go and look at our beautiful Story Time exhibition including a typescript of Bumface on loan from the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature – thank you, Belle. But I think that everybody either in this room or actually, Morris, hundreds of people do watch from their Jacuzzis - and then over a week or so or two weeks, it’s wonderful for us to know that thousands and thousands of people around Australia are hungry for stories like this and even if they’re not here they can have the opportunity to listen later on. So thank you for amplifying our sense of story. We wish that that patron in New York comes your way, I love your optimism there, and I hope that you’ll all join me in thanking Morris Gleitzman.
G: Thank you very much. I would also like to thank the Jacuzzi people very much. It’s only just occurred to me that it’s well within the bounds of technical possibility and I think only fair that at the next lecture - I’ll be recommending to this to the board – at the next lecture not only can the Jacuzzi people see the speaker but the speaker can see the Jacuzzi people.
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