Libby Gleeson shares the ‘Power of Story’ at this year’s Narelle Oliver Children’s Literature Lecture
On the 15th of June, 2017, the Narelle Oliver Lecture, previously named The Book Links Lecture in Children’s Literature was held at St Aidans Anglican Girls’ School.
The lecture has been renamed this year to honour author and illustrator Narelle Oliver.
Robyn Sheahan-Bright introduced the Lecture with a short background of Narelle and to share some of her personal memories.
In 1989, Narelle’s first picture book, Leaf Tail, was published and illustrated using Linocut prints. Many stories followed and her last two works have been released this year, ‘Rock Pool Secrets’ and ‘I Want to Be in a Book’.
The Narelle Oliver Exhibition will be on display in September at the Story Arts Festival Ipswich, and will be touring across Australia after this.
Robyn Sheahan-Bright shared the memory of Narelle’s brother on one of Narelle’s favourite paintings ‘The Flow’ which, he says, mirrored Narelle’s energy and her boundless horizons.
This year’s lecture, ‘Books, the Possibilities for Change’, was presented by esteemed author Libby Gleeson who has published over 30 books, has received three CBCA awards, the Dromkeen medal, and is a Member of the Order of Australia for service to literature as an author and an advocate for the development of literacy and learning in schools, as a mentor to young writers and through a range of executive roles with professional literary organisations.
Libby’s lecture was infused with the ‘Power of Story’. As I was listening, I wondered how I could absorb this message so that I could implant it is every person I meet, as Libby says, ‘… the power of story creates possibilities of change. Change within the reader, the community and the writer.’
Through Libby’s research in the development of the brain in relation to reading and writing, (such as the BBC documentary ‘Why Reading Matters’ by Rita Carter), Libby discovered that even though the brain is hardwired and has specific areas that neuroscience has identified as corresponding to specific areas in the brain (such as the senses), READING is NOT hardwired.
When it comes to reading, the brain is a cerebral internet, lighting up in many places at the same time, connecting across the brain requiring a combination of parts.
And when it comes to a single word as it is spoken, there is not a particular language or speaking part of the brain that lights up, but instead it is the part of the brain that mirrors the action of the word. E.g. the word ‘run’ lights up the areas of the brain that mirrors the action of ‘running’ and when it comes to the words ‘fear’ or ‘romance’ is the parts of the brain that connects to those feelings that light up.
Libby found that this knowledge demonstrates, how, through reading books, we learn about the other, we can walk in someone’s else shoes and connect to their emotions.
She acknowledges that this may also happen in film or video games but there is a greater direct engagement in books because of the close connection between the writer of the story and the reader.
It follows then that Libby advocates to ‘give children the best books, and then give them more.’
Libby talked about Bibliotherapy, not to be confused with self-help books, but instead books that save or define a person.
She referred to, The School of Life, established by Allain the Botton which is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through using culture, offering a variety of programs and services concerned with how to live wisely and well.
One of their programs offers a bibliotherapist. Having acknowledged that life is too short to read a bad book, a bibliotherapist will gather a tailor made reading list, depending on who you are and what you are going through at the time.
Libby talked about Dr Paul Brock, who among other skills and achievements, was a demanding and inspiring teacher. Libby equally sees that good (demanding) writers write ‘… the best expressed (books) in the richest possible ways.’ Good stories connect humanity through mirroring feelings of story and character.
Even when children read above their cognitive or emotional level, they will still be making sense of the story on their own terms, even if they can’t identify yet with the author’s intention. Libby talked about how she started reading Mills & Boon stories at age 13, not able to identify with exactly what the author intended BUT being able to identify with what it feels like to have your first crush.
In contrast, there is the ‘serendipity of reading’- finding meaning in story where you weren’t expecting it.
The benefits of children losing themselves in story is more important than children fearing reading and writing because it is something you can fail at, such as is the case when preparing for NAPLAN tests. There should instead be a focus on the importance of reading for pleasure.
Libby talked about censorship, how people in power like to control what people read. There has been a tradition, through the ages, of restricted reading and of states trying to control people’s thinking. Again, this shows what and enormous power books have, and the importance of teacher librarians and well-stocked libraries.
From the perspective of the writer the process of writing itself equates to a process of illumination. Often a writer will start writing one thing only to find it has changed into something else, and the reader finds something different again.
Libby used her picture book ‘The Great Bear’ with Arman Greder as an example. This story came to her in a dream with a jigsaw of sentences. However, during the illustrative process, half the story was chopped as the illustrations themselves told the story more effectively.
Libby’s book ‘Mahtab’s Story’ was inspired by a true story after meeting a group of young Muslim students and refugees. As Libby learned more about the students, and their experiences, this story changed.
The book, 1918, was commissioned by Scholastic as part of a series. Her brief was to write for the pre-adolescent, with an Australian central character. Around this time, she spent a month in Belgium and France visiting war memorials. Her inspiration for the story started with the real-life story of Leslie Greenleaf who enlisted in the army through the Coo-ee March.
Libby concluded with a reading from, 1918, and its main character, Ned. Reminding us how a story has the power to share experiences with children who have never been in a similar situation.
Libby has found that the act of writing brings new ideas; it changes thought.
But above all, Libby taught us today, that when it comes to books for children: ‘Give them more, give them free choice and give them a myriad of possibilities.’
Post by Yvonne Mes, children’s author and illustrator from Brisbane. She writes fiction and non-fiction including picture books, junior fiction and short stories. Her stories playfully expand perspectives and invite feelings.