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Alice Munro, Nobel-winning YA Author? On “Lives of Girls and Women”

Boys’ hate was dangerous, it was keen and bright, a miraculous birthright, like Arthur’s sword snatched out of the stone, in the Grade Seven Reader. Girls’ hate, in comparison, seemed muddled and tearful, sourly defensive. Boys would bear down on you on their bicycles and cleave the air where you had been, magnificently, with no remorse, as if they wished there were knives on the wheels. And they would say anything.

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The things they said stripped away freedom to be what you wanted, reduced you to what it was they saw, and that, plainly, was enough to make them gag. My friend Naomi and I told each other, “Don’t let on you heard,” since we were too proud to cross streets to avoid them. Sometimes we would yell back, “Go and wash out your mouth in the cow trough, clean water’s too good for you!”

- “Changes and Ceremonies”, in Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women

Alice Munro is the most important writer in my life and that makes her hard to talk about. I’ve been trying to find the words since just before she won the Nobel Prize last year. They’ve been piling up in my hard drive, my inbox, in blog drafts and the Notes app on my phone.

Things came to a head when the recent debate about adults reading Young Adult (YA) fiction flared on the Internet. I had no sympathy for people who think YA unworthy of adult readers. But it was almost too easy to take up cudgels against literary snobs without acknowledging the strangeness of a world in which it’s all the rage for adults to read books explicitly not aimed at them.

In the ensuing squabble, I felt that other questions were barely touched.

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Arts and Edges: Australian creativity at the centre and periphery

Arts and Edges banner - from the Regional Arts Summit @raasummit on Twitter

Arts and Edges – from the Regional Arts Summit @raasummit on Twitter

I was sad not to be able to attend the Regional Arts Summit in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia this year – despite best efforts, we couldn’t square it with all the projects currently on the go at Parkes Library.

Earlier this year, I was privileged to keynote at VALA, the biennial culture, libraries, and tech conference which took place in Melbourne. I spoke about opportunity and equity in Australian libraries, trading my Hugo Boss for a miner’s uniform on stage to make a point about arts access outside Australia’s big cities.

Working in Parkes has opened my eyes to the challenges that rural, regional, and marginal communities in Australia still face in gaining access to arts and culture – both as audiences, and as creators in their own right.

In Parkes, we’ve designed events like the Central West Comics Fest to reach out beyond an arts-event circuit that focusses on state capitals, and give regional creators, fans, and audiences their due.

Some of the Twitter coverage from Kalgoorlie was relevant to this work in Australian regional libraries, especially contributions from Curtin University librarian Teresa Bennett – @kalgrl on Twitter.

You can find out more by checking out the #RAASummit hashtag on Twitter, listening to summit coverage on ABC Radio National, and visiting the Regional Arts Summit site.

You can read text based on my VALA keynote here and watch a video of the presentation by entering your email at the VALA website.

The Regional Arts Summit in 2016 will take place in Dubbo, just down the road from my friends at Parkes Library. It’s going to be a great time for Central West New South Wales. I look forward to seeing an Australia where the culture scene goes further in embracing the sharp edges and strange delights of life at the margins.

Celebrate All Monsters! Emmet O’Cuana, Carol Borden, Frank Collins

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in Parkes, and life is grand, so I thought it might be a good day to share three great writers with you. These are all pop-culture pundits whose essays make excellent weekend reading.

Emmet O’Cuana – Challenger of the Unknown

From "The Suburbs" by Emmet O'Cuana, Sean Rinehart, and Tim Switalski, in Outre 3: Xenophobia

“The Suburbs” by O’Cuana, Rinehart, and Switalski

Emmet is a Melbourne-based comics writer, critic, and occasional radio host who has interviewed me on a couple of occasions. Each time he forced me to question my opinions and raise my thinking to a new level. The first time our chat ranged from Star Crash to Kierkegaard; the second he asked smart and challenging questions about the live-action zombie games I’d been running in Australia and New Zealand.

My favourite pieces by Emmet are still forthcoming – he wrote an insightful chapter on comics creator Grant Morrison in Darragh Greene and Kate Roddy’s Grant Morrison and the Superhero Renaissance, plus a great essay for the comics site Sequart which made me re-evaluate James Robinson’s Starman, a comic which I love and thought I knew everything about. Watch out for them next year.

In the meantime, you can read Emmet’s work and find links to all he’s published and recorded over at his own site.

Carol Borden – Nothing Ape Is Strange To Her 

Planet of the Apes image from Monstrous Industry

Carol has featured on my site a few times before. She quietly produces meticulous, poetic criticism, taking apart icons from the past and present to examine what it means to be human. I’ve previously raved about her writing on Mario Bava’s Danger:Diabolik (“If we had a lesbian cinema that took Danger: Diabolik as its starting point, I, for one, would be much happier”) and on Superman as a positive burlesque of masculinity:

I’ve come to see Superman’s greatest powers as not his strength or heat vision, but his restraint and his theatricality both in restraining that power while pretending to fight as hard as he can and in passing as Clark Kent. As I see him now, Superman is always performing one way or another.

Carol is an editor at The Cultural Gutter, a website devoted to “disreputable art in all its forms”. In pulp fiction, old movies, cartoons, and comic-books, she excavates nuances of gender, identity, and cultural power. She compares Adventure Time’s hapless Lemongrab with Frankenstein’s monster; to discuss Planet of the Apes, she paraphrases the Roman playwright Terence: “I am Ape. Nothing Ape is strange to me.” Her latest piece in this vein looks at Dracula and even finds something new to say about the near-exhausted topic of vampires…

Frank Collins – May Not Be Used Where There Is Life

Sapphire and Steel - from Frank Collin's MovieMail column

Frank writes on classic television for British site MovieMail, and at his own site Cathode Ray Tube. I’ve long had a fondness for old television shows, but through Frank’s chronicle of twentieth century telly I discovered obscure gems like the fourth-wall-breaking Strange World of Gurney Slade.

Frank’s current MovieMail series tracing the history of British TV sci-fi showcases his critical strengths: erudition, insight, and elegance. Frank can capture the essence and wider resonance of a TV show in a single descriptive paragraph, as he does here for the wildly different Red DwarfSpace:1999, and Sapphire and Steel:

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That’s all for today: three clever souls thinking out loud about the stories we tell ourselves on the page and screen. Go check them out, if you’re looking for a Sunday read. And have a great weekend!

Comic Book Dice: A Sequential Storytelling Game

Comic Book Dice is a playful 3D adaptation of Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s “Panel Lottery”, a comic creation activity for all ages.

I first trialled this activity at a youth event for the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Manila, Philippines, and subsequently ran it with high schoolers in Parkes, New South Wales, hosts of the Central West Comics Fest.

You’ll need cardboard cubes, drawing materials, and a picture featuring three character models. Abel and Madden use these figures:

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Always Blow On The Pea: Hanging Out, Problem Solving, and Action-Adventure

I’ve just finished running a Fun Palace in Parkes, New South Wales – Australia’s first. Taking place in public venues like museums, theatres, and libraries, Fun Palaces invite people to explore art and science on their own terms. In Parkes, that meant letting the community try their hand at games devised by local kids and teens.

Much like our zombie, time travel, and giant monster events, all the effort was in the preparation. If you set up the activities right, participants don’t need much from you on the day. Their own fascination draws them in – and keeps them engaged.

Preparation for something like this includes obvious stuff – admin, logistics, testing the games. Last year, we even managed to boil down the process to six bullet points. What gets missed in that brief version is the inspiration and writing phase, which involves a lot of long walks, daydreams, and listening to music. As David Mamet once said, writing is to hanging out as tasting food is to cookery.

I’ve always cherished that line. It’s one reason why, alongside Fun Palaces, I recorded a podcast about Transformers with Neill Cameron and Daisy Johnson this month. It let me hang out in the world of pop culture while planning for Parkes. That kind of thoughtful immersion is a vital underpinning of the events I run, because in many ways pop culture is the folk culture of this mediatized world. I think very hard and probably way too much about how to mine the media for ideas when creating events and opportunities to play in public spaces.

Today I want to talk about how action-adventure, that most popular and often least profound of genres, can be a fruitful source of inspiration. That’s not just because even the dumbest slam-bang narrative drips with messages about gender, society, power and culture. It’s because the very business of action-adventure is problem solving.

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Fun Palaces 2014 launch in Parkes, Australia

We’ve had an amazing start to the Fun Palaces weekend here in rural Australia. So far, since our doors opened, over 260 people have come to try their hand at the challenges we devised together with local kids. That’s great numbers for a small rural community.

To see how we got to this point, check out the previous posts on making games with your community and adapting tabletop roleplay for your library.

You can check out pictures from today at Parkes Library’s Instagram account…and there’ll be more from Australia’s first Fun Palace tomorrow!

Parkes Fun Palaces: Tabletop Supervillains

It’s the big day! Three hours from now, Australia’s first Fun Palace opens in Parkes Shire Library, New South Wales.

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Games designed and built by local kids and teens will be on display for the community to have a go over the holiday weekend. There’s also a chance to try Parkes Library classics like Paint Like Michelangelo, a dinosaur dig, and a few more surprises besides.

Events have a supervillainous theme this year because many of our activities were inspired by British author Louie Stowell’s book The School For Superheroes, so we’ll also be rolling out a superhero-themed tabletop roleplaying game. We helped local teens to devise, design, and test this game, which is quick to learn, easy to play, and inspired by the work of sci-fi writer, activist, and journalist Cory Doctorow.

The game will be available for the whole community to play in or out of the library after the Fun Palace closes, and we’ll aim to share both the game and our design process online as soon as possible. In the meantime watch @parkeslibrary and @drmattfinch on Twitter for the latest updates over the long weekend!

In the meantime, let me leave you with a personal favourite from our pre-launch photo gallery.

The Parkes Shire Library is sponsored by a number of organisations including Charles Sturt University…which led to this glorious caption card on one exhibit of the kids’ games.

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Secrets of the Parkes Shire Fun Palace: Testing Supervillain Games

Preparations for Australia’s first Fun Palace are well underway in Parkes Shire. Today, PRIME TV news visited Parkes Library to interview local kids and teens who were designing fiendish supervillain games. Over the Fun Palaces weekend, 4-5 October, local people will be free to come in and try their hand at the challenges the children have devised.

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The games are inspired by British author Louie Stowell‘s book The School for SupervillainsIt follows the adventures of Mandrake deVille, daughter of a villainous family, who wants to join the forces of good despite being sent to a supervillain boarding school. Parkes kids on their school holidays, helped by staff and teen helpers, have been challenged to make games and activities based around three different elements of Louie’s book. These are the Mutant Maze, a Giant Robot room, and the sinister Nightmare Chamber.

Children are free to interpret these themes however they wish. But to encourage and inspire them, Parkes library staff each created a prototype in the run-up to Fun Palaces 2014.

Building on the principles of play-based storytelling and open-ended learning, three staff members each chose a theme which they would bring to life. Craft whiz Sandie got Giant Robots, early childhood specialist Debbie got Mutant Maze, and branch boss Tracie got Nightmare Chamber.

I asked them about their activities just before events kicked off this week.

Sandie – Giant Robots

Sandie orchestrates a giant robot game

“I was reading Viv Schwarz‘s Welcome To Your Awesome Robotand Matt had told me about a pirate-ship game he’d played at Britain’s National Maritime Museum. I combined these inspirations and made a game where players had to run a gauntlet of cardboard robots, all the while carrying a delicate tissue flower across the room. The green “flower” represented a vital radioactive element.  You had to put it into a special box to shut down the robots! The robots themselves were played by other children – they had to try and knock the tissue paper out of your hand. One was allowed to throw scrunched-up paper balls at you. One could attack you with paper streamers. And the third could blow the tissue out of your hand! By putting cardboard buildings and rocks in your path, players had to think and move fast to get through the giant robot obstacles and shut down the threat to the city!

“I’m a perfectionist and very focused on visual design. My background is in hairdressing and I’m always being asked to tart up the library displays and make them look ‘just right!’ It was great to understand that these games were prototypes and didn’t need to be obsessed over to the tiniest details. The whole point was to inspire the children to make their own things, so a sketched-out, rough draft version of the activity was actually better!”

Debbie – Mutant Maze

Parkes Library Fun Palace Preparations

“Sandie’s activity is really clever and involves a lot of tactical thinking. I went down a different route – games of chance. I remembered the old funfair games of my childhood, where you put a ball in the slot and it came out in a random spot. If you were lucky you won a prize! It was great fun figuring out how to replicate this in cardboard.

“To make the game more compelling and tense, we added a further challenge. If you got an odd score, you were a supervillain, if you got an even one, you were a superhero: players had to say before they started which one they wanted to be.

Mutant Maze

“This kind of work has made me feel free to be a new kind of librarian. After so many years tending the shelves and the office, you realise that this kind of play is also about helping people to learn whatever they want to learn. It’s pure libraries, and lovely to know that we’re supported in exploring this kind of activity with children and young people.”

Tracie – Nightmare Chamber

Parkes Library Fun Palace Preparations

“My inspiration started with TV and movies: Monsters, Inc; the Doctor Who episode ‘Listen’, with the hands under the bed; and Sid’s Room of broken toys in Toy Story. We brought a bed into the library and made it look beautiful – but underneath lurked something more sinister.

“Players had to roll dice and their score let them choose from one of six boxes. Each box contained body parts from old broken toys. Working in teams, the players used their body parts to make a new hybrid creature – creepy and weird!

“I was worried my game was too simple, but Matt pointed out that this is a ‘sandbox game’ in the spirit of Minecraft or Lego. It’s open-ended and based around building whatever you want to build. Following our instincts, Sandie, Debbie, and I had developed one tactical game, one sandbox game, and a game of chance – different ways to play for different players! And the children were free to do something different even after they’d seen our prototypes.

“It’s funny, because at library conferences you get a lot of buzzwords like ‘gamification’ or talk about ‘the maker movement’. For a little country library it can seem intimidating – like you MUST have a 3D printer or you’re not “21st century” enough. We just won a national award for innovation, but what we do here – play, and letting people learn on their own terms – is really what community libraries have done all along. We’re just less focused on shelves these days!

“As a manager, the last few years have been about developing my staff’s confidence and skills to design, deliver, and support children’s play and the great learning families get from playing together. Whether it’s dads building boxcar racers for their toddlers, teenage zombies in a country showground, or taking part in the Fun Palaces movement, we’re pleased and proud to know that Parkes Shire sees its library as the place to come for programmes that are surprising, fun, and a little bit different.”

Parkes Fun Palace opens 10am-2pm on Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th October at Parkes Library, Bogan Street, Parkes 2870 NSW. Stay tuned for a few more surprises before the big launch at the weekend!

Neill Cameron and Daisy Johnson – Transformers Podcast

Something different here at my website today. A podcast instead of a blog post. A podcast discussing that most profound of subjects… TRANSFORMERS!

What can giant fighting robots teach us about stories? What can they teach us about love? Are glorified toy commercials of interest to anyone other than kids, scholars, and nostalgics?

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Today’s discussion takes us from 1984 and the origins of the Transformers brand through cartoons, toys, and movies to the latest comics published by IDW. Daisy and Neill also discuss the mythic resonance of children’s television, the medium of comics, and the way pop culture shapes and is shaped by our own relationships with others. It runs for just under 30 minutes and you can find it below.

Daisy’s currently researching her doctorate in literary tourism and children’s literature at the University of York. She’s @chaletfan on Twitter, and you can also find her at Did You Ever Stop to Think.

Neill’s new book How To Make Awesome Comics is available now – you can find him on twitter as @neillcameron, and also at his own website, neillcameron.com.

Parkes Fun Palace Preparations Kick Off

Today was the first day of our school holiday events leading up to Parkes Fun Palace on the weekend of 4th and 5th October. Local kids came in to design and build games based around Louie Stowell’s book The School for Supervillains.

Photos and videos to follow – you can sneak a peek at the Parkes Library Facebook page if you like – but until then, here’s a radio interview I did with ABC Central West, speaking about Australia’s first Fun Palace and its basis in the work of British theatre director Joan Littlewood.

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