As we look back at the 10th annual Australian Reading Hour, which occurred last month, we should acknowledge that reading is one of the foundation stones of our educational and creative lives. We must support Australian writing to ensure our kids and their kids can see themselves and can hear our distinctive stories and greater diversity in the years to come.
Mr Wilson (5:48pm) — I’m very glad to speak to this motion and to speak up for the joys and benefits—and, I’d say, the necessity—of reading, to speak up for the centrality of stories and storytelling and everything from identity to entertainment and from problem-solving to politics, and to speak up for Australian writers and Australian publishers.
If I were to make a list of things that have been essential to me, reading would probably rank just behind the basic human needs of food, water, shelter and love. Without reading, I would have struggled in terms of my education and my happiness, especially when I was young. I attended five different primary schools in three countries by the time I was 12, and reading was the glue that held together all the pieces across all the gaps. It was the mainstay of my sense of self, my confidence and wellbeing. It was the main line linking my imagination and curiosity into the wider world. It was occasionally, as the motion describes, a refuge—not from anything particularly terrible but as an escape from the noise and awkwardness and isolation or sadness that many of us feel from time to time.
My fascination with reading became my aspiration, with respect to writing. Unlike the member for Moreton, I never managed to produce anything book worthy. I still believe the efforts I made on the road to being a failed novelist are amongst the most productive, creative and crafty hours that I have spent.
As a dad, I don’t know that I’ve done many things of greater value than to read to my kids and tell them stories. One of my favourite memories is sitting on the carpet with my girls in their bedroom, telling a story, and seeing my son, our eldest, crawl out of his bedroom in the dark to be close enough to hear. My wife, Georgia, surpasses me in everything that I have mentioned, in reading, writing and storytelling, by mentoring writers and by editing and publishing their work at the mighty Fremantle Press. I’m lucky to live in a wordy household and I am blessed to represent a community that holds writing dear. I know I am lucky to enjoy reading. That is a lot easier when you can find yourself represented in stories. It’s easier when your folks pass on a love of reading, as mine did. It’s easier if you have access to teachers who are supported in their vital work. It would be easier for kids who face disadvantage if we could ensure schools are enabled to respond with the right resources and time for those who need it most.
As part of the broad effort to ensure we welcome diversity and difference, we need our stories to reflect and cherish diversity—to cherish our First Nations heritage and our multicultural and LGBTIQ+ communities and to reflect the experience of all ages and all abilities. Right now it’s still the case that the world of published stories, like so many aspects of life, is skewed towards a narrow range of identities and experiences. This is particularly limiting in the form of children’s literature. There are people working to change that—people like Jessica Walton, a queer disabled writer and teacher whose latest book, a graphic novel called Stars in Their Eyes, is published by Fremantle Press. Jessica has spoken about her experience: ‘As I became disabled and then later as I came out as queer I felt the lack of representation. Later as an adult, when I did get a lot more representation, there was that emotional feeling of, “Oh, I didn’t have this and now I do,” and I am sad for the kid that I was.’ Jessica says: ‘Your child might not be disabled now, but they might develop a disability at some point in their life or acquire a disability. Let’s give them the space to be exposed to disability in literature and film and TV so that when they interact with disabled people in the real world they’re not doing so from a place of fear.’
One of the effects of the pandemic has been to spotlight what is most precious to us all: our health, our connection to family and community, our environment, and also books and reading. While writers and publishers and bookshops may have felt that love through this time because book sales have risen, there has nevertheless been harmful impact with the cancellations of festivals and especially with the brutal hit on universities. This affects the livelihood of Australian writers and, as with other workers and businesses in the creative sector, writers and publishers have not been properly supported through the pandemic.
As we look back at the 10th annual Australian Reading Hour, which occurred last month, we should acknowledge that reading is one of the foundation stones of our educational and creative lives. We must support Australian writing to ensure our kids and their kids can see themselves and can hear our distinctive stories and greater diversity in the years to come. In what has been a difficult time, I give a shout-out to all the writers in Australia—not just the famous and successful ones but all the hundreds and hundreds of writers who toil away in the hope of being published one day and who ultimately underpin our vital and diverse Australian literature.