We need another Harry Potter.

It is nearly sixteen years since the publication of the first Harry Potter novel and few would argue the immense impact of J.K. Rowling’s series in every corner of the globe. Indeed, there are some young Muggles who cannot remember a world without the famous boy wizard. Whilst the success and cultural influence of the Harry Potter series is undeniable, of late there has been a noticeable shift in the place young Harry and his friends occupy in the hearts of the young.

Harry Potter

The first hint I had of a waning preoccupation with Harry surfaced upon the release of the final movie back in 2011. During a wide-reading lesson, my class of Year 7 boys were discussing the upcoming film release with much anticipation. During the ensuing discussion, I discovered the majority of boys had not read the final book in the series and furthermore, had no intention of ever doing so. They all reported quite cheerfully that they had been waiting for the film’s release to “see how it ended”. Thank you, Hollywood.

Apparently this reluctance to read the actual book is not restricted to boys. A recent change of school now sees me enjoying wide-reading lessons with girls and, much to my dismay, I have discovered a similar avoidance of Harry. The prevailing reason given for not bothering to read the books is “we’ve seen the movies; we don’t need to read the books”. Again, thank you, Hollywood.

Regular readers will know that I am a fan of the movie tie-in, as it frequently sparks eager interest in a book. A fortunate side-effect of the hoopla surrounding certain blockbuster films is often the rush of fans to the bookstore, impatient to read the book and/or series. The Hunger Games is a recent example of this movie-inspired hype.

Sadly, the rush to read Harry Potter appears to be at an end. The story has reached saturation point and as such has created a disturbing predicament for both educators and parents: like Neville Longbottom’s cauldron in potions class, Harry Potter has gone off the boil. The exhilarating whizz-banging blast of spells has faded away to a sad fizzle.

At the height of its popularity, the Harry Potter series was nothing short of a phenomenon. Rowling’s imagination, clever characterisation, warm wit and resounding themes captured the hearts of readers and non-readers around the world. Children ran around playgrounds shouting Expelliarmus! and Wingardium Leviosa! College students created their own Quidditch league, Hermione made going to the library cool, and the word Muggle entered our lexicon forever.

Indeed, there was a time back in the early part of the 21st century where it was hard to find anyone who hadn’t read some or all of the Harry Potter series, or at least expressed the desire to read it. In short, Harry got both kids and adults reading. And as my Reading Rules explain, often all it takes to trigger a lifelong reading habit is enjoyment of and engagement in one book – and Harry Potter was certainly the trigger for a generation of readers.

The majority of these Harry Potter readers are now in their twenties, members of the so-called Generation Y. They grew up reading the print editions of Harry Potter, eagerly anticipating the release of each subsequent book. Later, they were the first fans at the midnight screenings of the films, resplendent in their Gryffindor scarves and Death Eater masks.

Despite receiving bad press for various traits, Gen Y is an incredibly smart and articulate group. I am constantly blown away by the intelligence and critical thinking abilities of this generation – the Harry Potter generation. Of course Harry Potter didn’t create these smart kids – but maybe their habit of sustained, deep reading had a profound influence on the way they turned out.

The world of reading has undergone significant changes and challenges since these Gen Y readers were children. Today’s children often read from a screen and not from the printed page. Whilst I maintain that any reading is good reading studies are beginning to discern a difference between reading from a screen and the printed page, as this Scientific American article reports. Indeed the National Literacy Trust in the UK believes that children’s reading progress is hindered by Kindles and e-books.

Further studies into the long-term effects of reading from non-print sources are clearly needed. But it is irrefutable that a child reading an e-book from a connected tablet such as an I-pad or Kindle Wifi has to compete with many distractions whilst reading – checking social media sites, online chatting and gaming. The ability to become totally immersed and absorbed in a good book is lessened by constant distraction – and this must detract from the enjoyment of the reading experience. Does this lack of immersion and subsequent lesser enjoyment of the reading experience explain the decline in reading among our children? What will be the societal result? Will reading decline to such an extent that we become a post-literate society?

Since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007, the final book in the series, there has been a void in the reading world. Yes we’ve had the Twilight craze, but this was far more popular with girls than boys. John Green is arguably the most successful author for teens at the moment, in large part due to his clever marketing via social media (a big hello to any nerdfighters out there). Green is undoubtedly an exceptional writer. His novel The Fault in our Stars is being made into a movie, and there is a currently great deal of online hype about this. But few adults will have heard of either the author or the book. Perhaps the nearest rival we’ve had to the Harry Potter phenomenon in recent times is The Hunger Games. But with sales of 26 million against the 400 million of Harry Potter, the comparison is almost embarrassing.

It’s clear that nothing comes close to Harry. And that is a problem. Because anecdotally most educators will tell you that this generation is not reading as much as previous generations. And when they do bother to read, many of them are reading e-books. More studies need to be done on the effect of reading from screens and personal devices, but all teachers will tell you that nothing beats sustained reading and it is difficult to become immersed in an I-pad when Facebook, Twitter and Angry Birds are beckoning.

We need another Harry Potter! We need a new series which will tap into the imagination of children (and adults) around the world. And we need a few years between the publication of the book and the release of the inevitable movie so that kids have to make an effort and read the damned book first! Will the next J.K Rowling please step forward?

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For your reading list.

Two wonderful books have recently crossed the bigbookcase desk. Both have been at the centre of publishing industry hype via strong sales, awards and/or film options.  Having now read these books, they clearly both deserve every second of hype and more. If it is time for you to spoil yourself with a new book, head to your local bookseller for one (or both) of these titles. And don’t walk, run.

rosie projectThe Rosie Project

by Graeme Simsion

Text Publishing, 2013

 

Professor Don Tillman is a quirky man: logical, organised, intellectually brilliant yet utterly socially awkward. Don clearly displays elements of Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism, a fact which is evident to everybody except him. The premise of The Rosie Project is that a very logical Don realises he is lonely and sets about to rectify this problem in a very scientific manner, devising a questionnaire to screen future candidates for the position of his wife. Yet love is the least scientific of all the human elements and Don finds himself in all sorts of bother, especially when he meets Rosie.

Simsion began this book years ago as a screenplay, and after a somewhat roundabout voyage his project ended up as a novel and the feel good hit of 2013, with the rights being sold in over thirty countries. After its original inception as a screenplay it is ironic that after the success of the book, the film rights have been promptly optioned by Sony Pictures.

The Rosie Project is utterly charming, heart-warming and laugh out loud hilarious. It is a novel about human relationships in all their forms, and about the power of love to overcome almost anything.

 

harold fryThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

by Rachel Joyce

Black Swan, 2013

 

Harold Fry is a retired Englishman, barely existing in a repetitive and melancholic fashion with his wife Maureen. One ordinary morning he receives a letter from an old colleague Queenie, who informs him that she has a terminal illness. On his way to post a reply, Harold decides to walk to the next post box, then the next and suddenly he has embarked upon a pilgrimage to walk from one end of the country to the other. He believes this act of faith will save Queenie.

As he walks, Howard slowly comes to life. This gentle and, as we discover, damaged man undergoes a significant transformation as he methodically puts one foot in front of the other. The reader becomes aware of many Christian references as the novel proceeds: faith, pilgrimage, discipleship, love and redemption. Howard revisits the painful aspects of his life, including the troubled relationships with his son and wife, and we share his grief. During his journey Harold meets a succession of eclectic characters, and eventually word of his pilgrimage leaks to the media and suddenly Harold’s humble journey turns into something more. Yet its ultimate purpose remains unchanged and the final scenes will bring more than a tear to your eye.

As a debut novelist, Rachel Joyce has achieved something very rare – a novel examining the very core of human existence which still manages to be joyous, inspiring and utterly exhilarating. No wonder it was long listed for the 2012 Man Booker prize.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will make you laugh yet it will break a little piece of your heart. Touching and ultimately uplifting, Joyce’s prose is deceptively simple yet utterly moving. If you read just one book this year, make it this one.

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Top 10 Australian books.

Australian Books JellicoeLast year the First Tuesday Book club conducted a survey to discover Australia’s favourite all-time books. These were the top ten Aussie books to read before you die:

1. Cloudstreet – Tim Winton
2. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
3. A Fortunate Life – A.B. Facey
4. The Harp in the South – Ruth Park
5. The Power of One – Bryce Courtenay
6. Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey
7. The Magic Pudding – Norman Lindsay
8. The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas
9. The Secret River – Kate Grenville
10. Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

These books were vigorously debated by the panel on the show and like many readers I question a couple of the inclusions, but I am more astounded at some of the omissions: books by Peter Carey, Geraldine Brooks and Nobel Prize winning Patrick White.

Since the announcement of these top ten Australian books I have been pondering my own favourites and have come up with my Top 10 Australian books. My choices are based on the memories these books evoke (something I wrote about here) and the pure joy they have elicited. So, after much deliberation and angst, here are my Top 10 Australian books:

1. A Town Like Alice by Neville Shute.
I have long been intrigued by all history regarding the Second World War. Perhaps this is because growing up I heard many stories from family members relating to that era. For me, the World War Two era is history within touching distance – only one or two generations removed from my reality. I remember reading A Town Like Alice as a teenager and I simply adored it. I loved the history, the scenery, the romance and most of all the characters. Joe Harman is the quintessential Aussie digger and Jean Paget remains one of my all-time heroes, featuring in my list of Top 10 heroes from literature, where I wrote “As a teenage girl I was mesmerised by Jean in A Town Like Alice. She spent three years as a POW being marched around Malaysia, surviving the brutalities of war. Later when she finds out Joe Harman is still alive, she travels half way around the world to a very foreign country to find him. She endures the harshness of outback Australia with dignity and humour, and shows entrepreneurial skill in an era when women garnered little co-operation or respect in doing so. She is one tough lady”.

2. On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta.
This features in my Top 10 favourite books of all time, where I wrote: “Whilst she is better known for her other works such as Looking for Alibrandi, for me Jellicoe Road is Marchetta’s best work. The plot is original and the narrative structure is perfect. When I first read this book I was so moved and excited by it that I wanted to share it. I gave it to an English teacher at my school, who returned it unread. I promptly gave it back to her, insisting “you must read this book”.
She returned the book to me with tears in her eyes saying “thank you for making me read this book”. Years later she met Melina Marchetta and told her the story. Marchetta signed a copy of the book for me with the inscription “I’m glad you thought it was worth the journey”. It was and I treasure that signed copy”.

3. The Women in Black by Madeleine St John.
Published in 1993, I only discovered this book a couple of years ago. I love it for the magic and romance it evokes. Set in a Sydney department store in the 1950’s The Women in Black provides a snapshot of a more innocent city, with brilliant observations of the human spirit, underscored by St John’s superb wit.

4. Grand Days (The Edith Trilogy) by Frank Moorhouse.
I read this book within the last year (you can read why here). Set in the 1920’s amid the establishment of the League of Nations in Geneva, the story centres around an ambitious young Australian woman named Edith Campbell Berry. She is quite simply one of the most entertaining and engaging characters I’ve ever read.

5. For Love Alone by Christina Stead.
This was one of my English texts during my final year of school. As a teenager, I found the protagonist quite intriguing: Teresa Hawkins, a strong-willed young woman willing to defy societal norms to follow her heart to London. Though her passion may have been misguided, the book for me was about the ability of a woman to reject expectations in order to discover her own fulfilment. Way ahead of its time (first published in 1945), I probably didn’t fully appreciate the strength of Teresa as a young girl, but this book always brings back memories of my before school English classes with my brilliant English teacher Mrs Wade.

Australian Books Alice

6. A Fortunate Life by A. B Facey.
I read this book as a teenager and I believe it captured my imagination due to my own grandfather’s story. Whilst I have written about my grandfather’s rich reading history here, I failed to mention his days as a young man in the Depression traipsing around the countryside looking for work. Much of A Fortunate Life made me think of my own Pop and as a teenager living a comfortable life, reading about the hardships of others is a humbling experience (which is why I believe so many teens have embraced Ahn Do’s The Happiest Refugee). At one stage the sum total of my grandfather’s possessions was his bicycle and swag, and he had to rely on the generosity of strangers or the luck of his rabbit trap for a meal. Yet like Mr Facey, my grandfather believed he lived a fortunate life.

7. The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville.
This is another inclusion in my Top 10 favourite books of all time. Set in a small Australian town Harley and Douglas have some serious self-worth issues and both are full of their own inadequacies. I think I love this book because there is something really affirming about thoroughly decent yet less-than-perfect characters.

8. For the Term of his Natural Life by Marcus Clarke.
Published in the 1870’s this is a remarkable story of convict life in early Australia. Following the life of wrongly convicted Rufus Dawes, the book provides a rich history of convict life in the early years of settlement which, as a teenager when I first read this book, I found utterly intriguing.

9. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey.
This was another hotly contested book by the panel of the First Tuesday Book Club, specifically as it has been referred to as Australia’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I believe this reference does not do justice to the richness of Silvey’s work. Yes the novel explores racism and bigotry, but there is so much more to Jasper Jones than the division of a town. One of the joys of Silvey’s work for me is the beautifully crafted friendship between Charlie and Jeffrey, and the wonderful humour injected by Silvey into this partnership. And I love protagonists who are well-read like Charlie.

10. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin.
Published in 1901 and set during the same era, this book about the headstrong and entertaining heroine Sybylla Melvyn and her rural upbringing thoroughly captivated me as a young teenager. I was also intrigued that Miles Franklin was herself a teenager when she wrote this semi-autobiographical novel and that it was published with the help of Henry Lawson.

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Family holiday reading.

This time of year is a joy for avid readers. Here in the southern hemisphere we are blessed with summer holidays where we visit the beach, laze around the pool, or enjoy the test cricket during these long, relaxing summer days – which all adds up to the perfect environment in which to indulge in a little reading.

It is a time of year where I can read for pleasure, not work. In my Christmas stocking this year there were two very different books, both of which I requested and both of which I have already devoured.

The first was by my favourite holiday reading author: Maggie Alderson. everything changesHer latest book, Everything Changes But You did not disappoint. Set in England, it investigates a problem experienced by many individuals and couples in the modern world: the tyranny of distance. The plot revolves around families, relationships, love and secrets and as is usual with Maggie Alderson’s work, I devoured her book in two days. Bravo Ms Alderson. (For those who would like to read more of Maggie Alderson’s work, I would highly recommend one of my favourite summer reads of all time: Shall We Dance? which is mentioned here).

The second book in my Christmas stocking is one which I have been eagerly anticipating: the sequel to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall: Booker Prize winner Bring Up the Bodies. bring up the bodiesI finished this late last night and feel bereft at the end of this reading experience. This is one of those books where the reader savours every word, every nuance, every morsel offered by the author. Bring Up the Bodies is the second book in the trilogy exploring the life of Thomas Cromwell. This volume covers the fall from grace of Anne Boleyn in the court of Henry VIII. Though dense in its subject matter the tension is palpable and Mantel manages to neatly convey all the treachery, danger and subterfuge of Henry’s court.

During this holiday season my family has joined me in indulging in my favourite pastime. Husband has finally discovered Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series and is speeding through each book faster than I can supply the next. Teenage daughter no. 1 has just finished the sublime Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey (this will feature in a future post about Australian novels) and teenage daughter no. 2 is currently knee-deep in Rick Riordan’s The Mark of Athena.

Happy holiday reading.

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The great reading drought of 2012.

Books have played a major role in my life for as long as I can remember. They have been my friends in times of loneliness and my solace in times of suffering. They have accompanied my on every holiday and their pages hold the treasured memories of my youth. So it was rather unnerving earlier in the year to find that I had lost the desire to pick up a book and I virtually stopped reading.

The reasons for this still remain unclear. The logical explanation of course is that as I am surrounded by books all day at school, and as I read constantly for my work and this website, I finally became overwhelmed by the surfeit of books in my life. Perhaps like the chef who comes home and makes a simple sandwich for dinner or the plumber who can’t be bothered to change a leaking tap, this teacher librarian finally came home and decided she couldn’t bear to open the cover of yet another book.

Strictly speaking, I did actually open the cover of a book. Many books. I even started reading numerous books. The trouble was I could not develop the slightest interest in any book, leaving countless novels discarded, unfinished and heartbroken. Like a shallow flirt I casually read a few chapters before tossing each and every book aside. Alarmingly, the number of books I discarded began to outnumber the books I actually finished reading.

There were a couple of successes. In September I read and finished The Reluctant Hallelujah (you can read the review here). In the October school holidays I read Anna Karenina, but this was no true victory. I first read Tolstoy’s masterpiece some twenty years ago so re-reading it was more like catching up with an old friend rather than forging a new relationship. For just as there is no need to establish an old friend’s background and history at a reunion, the same can be said of a re-read: the plot, characters, language and even the rhythm are stored somewhere in the recesses of your reading past. Reading and finishing Anna was a hollow victory; meanwhile the pile of books I began and failed to finish kept on growing.

Beginning to despair, I turned to an as yet unread author and page by page my dejection was cautiously transformed into elation. Success! Within a couple of a chapters I was thoroughly hooked. With eager joy I began to look for stolen moments in my day when I could sneak away with my new friend and at night I read far too late, eagerly turning the pages to inhale more of the story. And when I eventually turned the last page of the book, I felt bereft and mourned the loss of my latest literary companion.

The bewitching book that broke my reading drought was Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper.

Kate Morton is an Australian author who has had international success beginning with The Shifting Fog (also known as The House at Riverton). The Secret Keeper is best described as historical mystery, alternating between the story of famous actor Laurel Nicholson in 2011 and the life of her mother during the Blitz in 1941. Despite the historical label, Morton does not weigh the story down with historical detail; the perfectly researched history simply adds a natural supportive structure to the narrative. And the narrative is superb.

I became absorbed in the intertwined lives of the characters and the secret which is introduced early in the piece. About two-thirds of the way in I thought I had solved the mystery, but to my delight I was totally wrong and the twist was surprising yet totally satisfying, allowing all the pieces to fall into logical and satisfying place.

Morton is a discerning and gifted writer who cleverly unravels the plot, piece by piece, displaying an astute insight into the foibles of the human character and the secrets hidden deeply in the past of all families. This was my first taste of the sublime Ms Morton’s talent, and it has whetted my appetite for more.

Bless you, Kate Morton for breaking my reading drought.

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An intelligent and entertaining read.

The Reluctant Hallelujah

by Gabrielle Williams

Penguin Australia, 2012.

 

There’s something quite irresistible about a road trip novel. The metaphorical journey is addictive, resplendent with road trip antics and thrilling adventures. The Reluctant Hallelujah ticks all these boxes and more. Equally as enjoyable as all other road trip novels, this book has a distinct trump card: one of the passengers on this road trip is none other than Jesus Christ.

Dodie  and Coco are sisters; two Melbourne teenagers living in a happy family with their thoroughly decent and down-to-earth parents. Things start to go awry and this seemingly perfect existence is threatened with the sudden disappearance of their parents. The girls are consequently befriended by Enron, the boy from across the road, who holds the answer to their predicament: a secret lies in the basement of the girls’ house. This secret is so big it has led to the disappearance of their parents and will forever change the lives of everyone: beneath a concealed trapdoor lies the perfectly preserved body of Jesus Christ.

It becomes the responsibility of the girls, Enron and two other boys called Jones and Taxi to safely deliver Jesus to Sydney. The road trip is resplendent with evil bad guys, unexpected miracles and enchanting teenage romance. And despite Jesus being the star passenger on this adventure-packed road trip, the tone is never irreverent. The characters are cleverly developed as authentic, typical teenagers whose reactions to their precious cargo and dire predicament are both believable and endearing.

This is an intelligent and entertaining read from the very talented author of Beatle Meets Destiny. Most of the novel’s value lies in its ability to entertain, however, there is scope for religion classes to ponder passages from this book and debate their own hypothetical reactions to the responsibility of transporting the Messiah’s body in a modern world.

Recommended for ages 15+

 

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The role of the family in the reading habits of children.

Earlier this week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released an interesting report which examined the important relationship between the family and the reading habits of children.

Photo by Alec Couros

This article used data from Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) which is a major study following the development of 10,000 children and families from all over Australia. The study began in 2004, looking at families with 0 -1 year old children and 4- 5 year old children. These same families and children were the studied six years later in 2010.

Data from the LSAC indicates that there are three major influences in the development of a child’s reading habits: having books in the home, visiting the library and reading aloud.

The children in the study had their engagement in reading measured using a time-diary which recorded the sequence of all activities the child engaged in during the day prior to being interviewed for the study. Various factors affecting the reading habits of children were mentioned in the report, such as the education levels of parents, family type and the language spoken at home. You can read the full report here.

The most interesting part of the report for me is that of the Family Reading Context, which discusses the influence a child’s family can have in determining their reading habits later in life. The following factors were most relevant:

  1. Children who lived with 30 or more books when aged 4 – 5 were more likely to enjoy reading at age 10 – 11 years than those who lived in households with fewer than 30 books.
  2. Visiting a library when aged 4 – 5 years was positively associated with children’s engagement in reading at age 10 – 11 years. Children who had visited a library when aged 4 – 5 years were more likely to enjoy reading than those who had not.
  3. Children aged 10 – 11 years who were read to when aged 4- 5 years were more likely to enjoy reading.

Whilst this study does not really provide us with any new information in children’s reading habits, it helps to reinforce our beliefs about the important strategies in how we get children to read and become readers. Interestingly the above three findings relate well to the Reading Rules, especially Reading Rule no. 1 Create the right environment; Reading Rule no. 2 Be a role model; Reading Rule no 3. Read to them and Reading Rule no. 8: Ask an expert.

Every day in my work I am reminded of the power of reading. Just last week there was a public speaking competition in the library, and one of the speakers, an articulate and confident young lady, gave an impassioned speech about her love of books and reading. This made me quickly scan the faces of the entrants from my school and I noted that every one of them was a regular library user and regular reader. I have no doubt that there is a direct correlation between their reading habits and abilities as confident public speakers.

Developing positive reading habits is the key, and as the LSAC report illustrates, it all starts with a few simple routines in the home.

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