Supporting Australian book creators

By Daniel Hughes

Daniel Hughes, ELR Project Manager, speaks to Australian Children’s Laureate Ursula Dubosarsky about the importance of school libraries.

Each year, Educational Lending Right (ELR), an Australian Government cultural program, makes payments to thousands of book creators and publishers across Australia. These payments compensate them for income potentially lost as a result of their books being available for loan in educational lending libraries. As numerous Australian authors and illustrators have attested, ELR enables them to continue doing what they do best — creating great books!

In February 2020, Ursula Dubosarsky was announced as the Australian Children’s Laureate for 2020–2021. Ursula is the winner of nine Premier’s Literary Awards and the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Award. She has been nominated internationally for both the Astrid Lindgren and Hans Christian Andersen awards. Daniel Hughes, ELR Project Manager, speaks to Ursula Dubosarsky.

How has the COVID-19 situation affected your work as both a writer and Australian Children’s Laureate?

Well, in a practical sense it’s meant all the public engagements that I was going to be doing as Laureate were either cancelled or turned into various kinds of online events. Strangely, that has made things quite hectic — I’ve never made so many videos in my life! I haven’t really had that calm headspace to do much of my own writing. I think the lockdown has highlighted beyond question how tremendously important libraries are in the lives of children and families. It was so impressive to see the libraries making such strong efforts to connect with children through things like storytimes, book clubs and the promotion of digital resources. And then many libraries wonderfully began to offer ‘click and collect’ or ‘click and deliver’ services so that children (and adults!) could get hold of actual books to read. When the libraries re-open there may be a stampede!

In the media release announcing you as the new Australian Children’s Laureate, you are quoted as saying, ‘My intention wherever I go as Laureate over the next two years is to make an inspiring call to children, parents and teachers to encourage children to join their local library and get their own library card’. Were school libraries an important part of your childhood? Do you have any favourite memories?

Ursula Dubosarsky

Ursula Dubosarsky, Australian Children’s Laureate 2020–2021.

I remember all my school libraries, primary and secondary, and school librarians extremely well, with great affection. They were pivotal influences in my life. I can picture both the particular rooms and the librarians inside them very clearly. I was in the library every day in all the schools I attended — or as often as I could be! As soon as I walked out of the playground or classroom and into the library my tension levels dropped immediately, and I felt a sense of physical and psychological safety. And when you are safe, you feel very free. I have always associated the school library — any library — with a profound sense of freedom.

By a lovely coincidence, when I was ten years old at Chatswood Primary School in Sydney, my school librarian happened to be the mother of the future wonderful Australian children’s writer Anna Fienberg. Mrs Fienberg was archetypal early seventies glamour — beautifully dressed, very funky and bejewelled, very charismatic and also a wonderful, warm and demanding librarian.

By demanding I mean she encouraged me to stretch myself, to find books outside my desperate Enid Blyton comfort zone. I remember she presented me with a list of alternative titles, which I worked my way through, and she also gave me a log book to write a few words of response to each book in, if I felt like it. It set up a model of experimental, exploratory reading which I’ve continued with and been grateful for all my life.

I think the lockdown has highlighted beyond question how tremendously important libraries are in the lives of children and families.

Have you encountered particularly memorable ways in which teachers and school librarians have engaged students with literature?

I visit mainly primary school libraries, where I’m endlessly impressed with the inventive and dedicated teacher librarians.

You step into libraries that are living, three-dimensional works of art, filled with imaginative communal and individual responses to books and reading. Often, because I have been invited to visit, there will be a focus on one of my books — I’ve seen elephant houses, artificial lakes, stuffed koala colonies, spy hideouts, giant palindromes.

I’ve seen plays, dances, heard songs and recitations. The enthusiasm of children and librarians is simply bountiful. It is very clear that the continuing warm personal presence of the librarian and library staff are fundamental to how comfortable and connected the children feel to the library and the books. School librarians are, of course, in the unusual position of being able to develop relationships with all the children in the school, and so the library is a focal shared point of creativity and personal mental freedom. I think that’s tremendously valuable.

In this digital age of online games, mobile devices and streaming services, books are competing hard for children’s attention. Can you suggest ways in which parents, teachers and librarians can enthuse children about books?

It is a huge challenge. It will take us all a great deal of stamina and patience to keep our children reading. After all, we all, adult and child, love our phones and devices. But phones by their nature are disruptive of our trains of thought, and to read a book requires a level of sustained concentration that cannot survive too much interruption. Yet, despite the compelling attraction of devices, children do still unquestionably love books. But they don’t read books on their devices. When they read, they prefer to read paper and cardboard books. So if we want them to read, we have to provide those books and make a quiet, free space so that they can read them.

The powerful work of creating that new generation of readers is chiefly done by
the steadfast and ardent people who staff the school libraries and are there every day bringing children and books together.

I have been to libraries that are device-free and these are libraries full of children at lunchtime, sitting, lying around, reading, chatting, wandering through the shelves, asking questions, listening, wondering — doing all those things that a library is made for.

Every year school librarians are invited to participate in the Educational Lending Right School Library Survey, or ELR. The survey is part of a process that determines how much recompense authors and publishers receive for revenue lost because their books are available for free in school libraries.How important are ELR payments to Australian authors, and what are the benefits of receiving them?

The ELR payments are, along with the PLR payments from the public library system, the only regular source of income for many if not most writers. Being a writer is a precarious life — one which writers embrace voluntarily, of course, but that doesn’t make t any easier. The ELR/PLR payments are certainly the only ones I can rely on each year! Apart from the benefit of the money, it is also fascinating to see which of my titles are kept in school libraries and which are not. It is a way of knowing the journey your books take, once you release them into the world. It is something tangible and very meaningful for authors.

Do you have a final message for the thousands of hardworking school library staff who work with students and books every day?

Authors like me, by and large, sit at home and write books that we hope the young people of the future will read. But the powerful work of creating that new generation of readers is chiefly done by the steadfast and ardent people who staff the school libraries and are there every day bringing children and books together. I hope you are all aware in how much respect you are held by authors everywhere, and how we are all, not just authors, indebted to you and your dedication to the future of reading.

Ursula Dubosarsky’s work has been published widely throughout the English-speaking world and translated into 14 different languages.


Image credits

Image supplied by Ursula Dubosarsky

ELR — Encouraging the growth and development of Australian writing and publishing.

Daniel Hughes

ELR Project Manager

Education Services Australia