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Award-winners Parkes Shire Library share the secrets of their library programming

Last night, Parkes Shire Library won the Australian library association ALIA’s Bess Thomas award for innovative work with children and young people.

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It’s great for Parkes’ librarians, serving a community of just 15000 out in Central West New South Wales, to have their daring work celebrated by peers at a national level.

If you want to steal some of the Parkes magic, you can find “how-to” articles and resources for some of their most exciting programmes online:

Keep your eyes peeled for more surprises as Parkes kicks off the 2014 season of activities this month…

First light in Parkes

Parkes Library Coffee Cups

I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. [...] And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular . . . Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.

- Toni Morrison, interviewed in the Paris Review

I’m writing this at 5.30 on Monday morning in Parkes, New South Wales. The sky’s just going from bruise to blush, and five hours from now we’ll be holding our first team meeting after months of preparation for “Readtember”, a family festival of literature, literacy, and play.

It’s been a huge honour for me to join forces with the team at Parkes. They’re brave and creative souls who give the lie to tired assumptions that nothing exciting happens beyond the city limits of Sydney or Melbourne. Our track record in devising and delivering mad, wonderful, compelling play and learning events for all ages is getting so long that it makes me laugh.

Yesterday I had my first takeout coffee in one of the library coffee cups which are used by every café in town. I suggested the idea based on a project that had run in Melbourne a while ago, but it only became real to me when I finally drank from one. I hadn’t even thought about the fact I’d be getting one when I placed my order; I just asked for a latte and suddenly I was holding a piece of local literature in my hand.

The texts chosen for the project remind readers that Parkes is a town of stargazers and poets, as well as farmers and miners. With both feet planted in red rural dirt, they still keep one eye on the cosmos. The coffee cup stories conjure early morning routines, the special camaraderie of the outback, and a world where we “listen to the gossip of the galaxies / trying to catch the whispers of how it all began.”

This year we’re challenging ourselves to go further than ever before. Parkes is the first Australian community to host an outpost of the global Fun Palaces movement; our famous interactive storytelling events are going to explore the dastardly world of supervillainy via a collaboration with British author Louie Stowell; and after challenging the biggest Australian arts organisations to push their own boundaries in February, we’ll be reaching out to new communities and new audiences on our own patch.

We’re proud when colleagues and allies, at home and overseas, share the fabulous ideas that we’ve tested out here in rural Aussie; most recently, New Zealand’s capital delivered a swathe of play-based sessions developed from programming devised in Parkes.

But as the sun rises on a new day, here in Parkes we’re sipping our coffee and looking forward to uncharted territory.

For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives.

More adventures in Parkes, New South Wales

Well, as the Super Secret London Project (more on that later) winds down after a near-perfect summer, it’s time for me to pack my bags one more time. I’m heading Down Under for a brief visit.

Elvis and friend behind the wheel of a large automobile

From September to December, I’ll be back with my friends at Parkes Shire Library, NSW, building on our legacy of play-based learning and community outreach.

Since I first got to know the Parkes gang, we’ve battled zombies on two occasions, travelled in time, used robots to fight off monsters, and entered the world of cinema and urban myth. We’ve also run teen book publishing workshops with professionals from Australia and the US, and hosted Australia’s first rural comics festival.  The team have demonstrated the sustainability of these projects by creating immersive activities like Paint Like Michelangelo, which then inspired Wellington Libraries in New Zealand, and carrying out the long-term Coffee Cup Stories project.

(That’s not even to mention the ninjas, werewolves, and Angry Birds. Or Barbra Streisand).

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In the forthcoming season, beginning with Parkes’ READtember festival of literacy, we’ll be seeking to challenge ourselves further and reach out to new communities within our territory. After all, it’s important to practice what you preach.

If you want to know more about the Parkes way of doing things, a good place to start is the 2015 Library as Innovation Toolkit from ALA editions, which you can preorder today. I co-wrote the chapter on youth outreach with Parkes’ Tracie Mauro.

Wonderland in Metroland: Doyle, Blake, and Clive Barker’s WEAVEWORLD

WEAVEWORLD paperback cover

I just finished rereading Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, the 1987 fantasy which sees a world of magic, concealed for a century in an enchanted carpet, unleashed on contemporary Britain. It’s timely: I’ve been writing about the borderland between adult and YA literature lately, and I read the book when I was just starting high school.

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The Sun Comes Out At Night, Feed The Fever: 2014’s Perfect Summer

Dawn over Galicia

As I write this, the rain is streaming down on an August bank holiday in the UK — but I think I’ve just had the best summer of my adult life. One of those childhood summers that seem to go on forever. As if these months of 2014 had opened a gateway from adult mundanity into the eternal Dream Summer.

For me, that summer’s epicentre lay somewhere around 1989 or 1990. I was about ten years old. It’s not precise because events, details, things I imagined and things I later learned, have all since run together. They slip beneath the calendar’s boundaries in both directions.

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Am I Still Cooking? YA and ‘Adult’ Literature

The Eleventh Doctor played by Matt Smith

My friend, the children’s writer and editor Louie Stowell, was having Big Thoughts about Young Adult (YA) Literature on Twitter this week…

I collated the ensuing discussion using Storify – you can read it at this link.

Trying to respond to Louie, I find I’m a terrible critic. I lack perspective. I can’t formulate a consistent position, although I’m curious about the trend for adults to read YA literature. I feel like there’s something going on right now with adulthood and youth that’s fascinating – that really matters, even more than usual. The best I can do is wander around the borderlands between those categories. Maybe Louie’s right: maybe it’s some kind of strange intergenerational schadenfreude.

Ruth Graham tried to question adults reading YA at earlier this year, but her piece fell into genre shaming – making readers feel bad for picking up a YA book as they might have once been for reading science fiction or romance. (Graham states: “Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.”). I don’t have a lot of time for people who demean YA literature as simplistic or unsophisticated, unworthy of serious attention.

And yet…I’m fascinated, and bemused, by this vogue among adult readers for a genre defined by its position as adulthood’s other. Louie’s Twitter correspondents expressed boredom with an adult literature obsessed with middle class neuroses, contrasted with the hope and opportunity represented by adolescence. YA then got compared to superheroes, sci-fi, and fantasy, those other great genres of freedom and possibility. All this chimed with the things that have been troubling me about “adult” and “YA” literature.

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Adventures on the Front Lines of Modern Librarianship – Guest Post from Adrienne Hannan of Wellington City Libraries

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Over the past couple of years I’ve run a number of projects testing the limits of the 21st century library – from online interactive storytelling to retail partnerships, live roleplay, and play-based learning for all ages.

With many community libraries in crisis, facing cuts and ignorance about their vital role in public life, the aim of these projects was to swiftly and dramatically push the boundaries of contemporary librarianship, setting precedents that could be exploited and developed after the first flowering.

One of my favourite places to visit during these adventures has been Wellington, New Zealand. Aotearoa’s capital city is small but lively. Its library ranks include the formidable Adrienne Hannan.

NZ Army reservist Adrienne invented the notion of the “Strategic Librarian” – a doctrine which sidesteps old-school leadership thinking to encourage innovation and accomplishment at all levels of a library organisation. Such an attitude is sorely needed if Australasian libraries, sometimes worryingly centralised, are going to avoid the fate of their kin in the UK.

In this guest post, Adrienne discusses some of Wellington City Libraries’ recent adventures on the front line of modern librarianship.

Getting back to human basics with our school holiday activities

At Wellington City Libraries we are intent on bringing stories alive for children and creating interactive experiences with them, so have embarked on a different way of running our school holiday activities recently.

We recognise that books, long seen as the bread and butter of libraries, are just a conduit to literacy, and children may require some kind of stimulating experience with the book to give it memorable context.

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Remembering Jules: Joint Street and the Grave of the Green Man

My friend Jules' grave

Often, this blog is full of libraries and literacy and museums and comics,  and in recent weeks I’ve also been using the site to point out a few of the books I’ve been working on – but it’s not all work, work, work!

One of the reasons I walked across Spain earlier this year was to commemorate ten years since my friend Jules killed himself in London. Still hard to make sense either of my experiences on the walk or what Jules did, though I wrote about it once before on this site. I’m probably thinking about it again because of the latest celebrity death in the news.

Click here to read “Joint Street and the Grave of the Green Man” over at my Tumblr.

Write and Draw Your Own Comics Available for Pre-Order

Usborne Write and Draw Your Own Comics by Louie Stowell


Blimey, between this and the pre-orders for the 2015 Library Innovation Toolkit, it’s getting to be like the Home Shopping Channel over here.

Earlier this year, I was a consultant on the new Write and Draw Your Own Comics, created by the talented Louie Stowell and a range of brilliant artists for the children’s publisher Usborne.

Some of the activities in the book got field-tested by the kids and teens of Auckland, New Zealand, during my stint there last year and I can vouch for the finished work as being pretty freakin’ awesome.

Write and Draw Your Own Comics is out this October, but you can pre-order the book via the Forbidden Planet website now – looks like they’ve dropped the price by a couple of quid for early birds too.

The Library Innovation Toolkit Available for Pre-Order

Library Innovation Toolkit cover image


The Library Innovation Toolkit from ALA Editions, the publishing arm of the American Library Association, is now available for pre-order online. I co-wrote the chapter on youth outreach, “Monsters, Rockets, and Baby Racers”, with my colleague Tracie Mauro from Parkes Shire, New South Wales.

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From zombie sieges to boxcar races, gaming, art, and immersive storytelling, we offer practical tips on how libraries and other organisations can deliver inspirational, unconventional, and locally relevant cultural programming for kids and teens.

The book is out in Spring 2015, but you can pre-order your copy online today!


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