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Narelle Oliver Lecture 2023: Gabrielle Wang

Report by Zewlan Moor

A large audience of teacher-librarians, authors, illustrators and community members interested in children’s books was honoured to have the Australian Children’s Laureate, Gabrielle Wang, give the 2023 Narelle Oliver Lecture at St Aidan’s School on 24 May.

Wang shared stories about her role as Children’s Laureate, and her meeting with other Laureates from around the world at the Bologna Book Fair earlier in the year.

She also shared photographs of her parents and showed how their stories inspired some of her books. She described her journey from non-academic child to illustrator and then writer. And the obstacles she faced growing up feeling white on the inside – she was born in Australia and her family on one side had been here since the goldrush, after all – but Chinese on the outside. She also described the racial vilification she experienced in childhood, including from a grown man who hollered out the window of his car, “Go home to where you come from!”

One of the themes of her talk was that “We all deserve a chance to tell our unique stories.” She noted that white kids are growing up not knowing where they come from. She explained that “subconsciously, it’s almost like a privileged class.” For this reason, she urged the audience to encourage the family history projects of all children, so they can see that, unless they are of First Nations heritage, they all came from somewhere else.

Otherwise, the implication is that only certain kids feel they can be proud of being Australian. Wang talked about a school where 90% of the students were Asian. Even there, a teacher reported that the kids were ashamed of their heritage. “Where does this shame come from? Not from within the school. From the racism outside.”

At a Harmony Day assembly at another school, the principal introduced all of the children in national costumes. Then he introduced the others, “And now the Australian kids.” As if all the kids in national costume weren’t Australian too.

Another of Wang’s themes was “hidden potential.” Wang started writing when her children were 8 and 10. She acknowledges that there are many talented people who have not had the opportunity to write yet.

Her aim with her time at the ACLF has been to find the people who don’t value reading. In her most recent book, Zadie Ma and the Dog Who Chased the Moon, the illustrations break up the text, making it more accessible for reluctant readers.

Wang also bravely wondered at the difference in diversity between the shortlists in the 2023 NSW Premier’s Literary Prize for Children and Young Adults and the CBCA Award.

She mused that the publishers are doing their part, by publishing diverse voices. However, other gatekeepers, such as the CBCA, might need to do more to ensure diverse books are represented at shortlist level.

Wang did not elaborate, but a possible solution might be more diversity across age, gender, sexuality and ethnicity within the judging panels.

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