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Month: August 2015

In celebration of Book Week; my long-standing love for books, libraries, and librarians.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s annual Book Week, which runs from August 22 – 28. The following post was originally published by RendezView

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My love affair with libraries began when I was 10 years old. My parents both worked until late, so after school I’d take myself off to the local library to pass the time until we could all head home.

I vividly recall selecting the books I’d escape into for the afternoon with a level of childhood intensity usually only reserved for selecting the mixed lollies that would go into my bag.

Thrillingly, as I was such a frequent visitor, the librarians allowed me to have both my child borrowing card and an adult card so I could also devour the nonfiction books on dollhouse design and history they had seen me eyeing off. My heart would flutter every time I stalked the adult nonfiction section; I felt so grown up. Trusted. What new worlds were suddenly open to me to explore!

I’d then curl up on the carpet surrounded by my chosen titles and devour them all. Not just the words, but the smell too.

The scent of well-worn pages still makes me giddy and explains why, despite my love for books, I just can’t bring myself to embrace ebooks. I loved then, and love now, the mysterious connection to other readers who had also turned those same pages. An unexpected scribble in a margin. A shopping list left in as a bookmark. All were treasured bonds forged with others who also shared my passion for libraries; “I am not alone!”

When my sister and I changed schools later that year I was very much alone. I was shocked to find not everyone wanted to play with the “new girl.” I’d always taken my ability to make new friends for granted and wasn’t quite sure how to break into the existing circles of girls.

So I found refuge in my school library. I’d sit and spend time with fictional teen girls who seemed far more exciting anyway; Nancy Drew. Trixie Belden. These were my tribe. What would they have made of that note in the margin? I’d wonder. Could that shopping list be in fact a clue?

By the time I was in high school I’d found a real-life girl gang (of the non-detective variety) and was surprisingly rather popular. My recess and lunch breaks were still filled with words; but now it was all talking, whispering, gossiping.

Yet still I’d occasionally head to the school library when the politics of girl world seemed too intense. Sometimes I wouldn’t go to read or study; but rather to gently torment my poor library teachers. I’d pair up with some of the other library-loving-lasses and pose, as if dead, between the book shelves waiting for the librarian to find us.

This amused us far more than it did them; yet I recall them being rather patient. I suspect now that they knew for some, libraries serve not only as places that offer escapism between the pages of the books they house, but as safe havens to escape increasing adult responsibilities.

It may come as no surprise then that when I became a high school English teacher at a school with a high percentage of young people at risk, one of the first things I did was open an after school study centre at our school library. Any student who wanted to could stay back after school and have afternoon tea, then do their homework in the library with support from myself and the other teachers who joined the initiative.

What kind of kids put their hands up to stay back after school and hang in the library? Hungry kids.

Some were literally hungry and stayed back to eat peanut butter sandwich after peanut butter sandwich. For these kids, this was their only meal of the day and if the price they had to pay was books? Then so be it.

Some were genuinely hungry for learning. Many had been refugees and as English wasn’t their first language, they’d want to talk, and ask questions. “Miss, why is this? Miss, how do you say that? Miss, what does this mean?” Feed me, Miss. Feed me.

Some were simply hungry for attention from a safe adult. They’d sit next to me and just enjoy the quiet and calm. And I’d hug them extra hard when they left.

I read today about a wonderful librarian in San Francisco who has started a “Books on Bikes” outreach program. Alicia Tapia peddles around on her bike fitted with a trailer laden with books to areas that don’t have easy access to libraries and offers titles for borrowing. “Books do something for the human brain that nothing else can,” she says. “With books comes happiness, and people build empathy for one another. “

Oh how I love Alicia’s creativity and commitment. How vital it is that all young people have access to quality reading materials.

But oh too how I hope that we don’t ever see the demise of the bricks and mortar library.

Because it’s not just about the books. It’s about a space one can go to that asks not about your social standing or financial status.

Rather, it simply says: “All are welcome here.”

 

Sex-obsessed. Boy-crazy. Annoying. Not so fast — teen girls are much better than that.

This post originally appeared on News Corp’s popular online opinion site RendezView. 

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“Lies, scams and deceit — just your average teen girl.” “Lost innocence: Why girls are having rough sex at 12.” ‘Drug toll … A generation of teenage girls riddled with fear and anxiety is overdosing in record numbers.” “The Invincible — A startling exposé on this generation of young women who show no fear about the dangers of sex, booze, or even the sun.”

Another day, another media headline urging us to view adolescent girls as either vulnerable victims in need of protection, or as a wanton and wild demographic we need to be protected from.

Worrying about the younger generation is nothing new. An inscription found in a 6000 year-old Egyptian tomb highlights the enduring nature of our fears that youth are lost: “We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self control.”

But thanks to this digital age the hand-wringing dialogue that surrounds our daughters in particular — no matter how well intentioned it may be — is now forming the running commentary for the lives of many teen girls.

Author and feminist Emily Maguire, in her essay “Sugar, Spice and Stronger Stuff” asks us to consider how the teen girls who see and hear these discussions might feel:

“Teen girls are not a separate species — they walk among us. They see and hear and read the same things we do, including all those features about sexting and raunch culture and under-age sex. They notice how those articles are always illustrated with photos of teenage bodies in tiny skirts or low-cut tops, the faces blurred or heads lopped off. They are aware of the way serious news sources and trash media alike use their bodies to sell papers even as they express deep concern about how girls are using those same bodies — their own — for pleasure …

No wonder so many girls feel misunderstood and alienated … And when loving parents buy into it they end up either alienating their daughters or infecting them with their own fear and panic.”

There is in fact a longstanding tradition of using scare tactics as a means of controlling women and this starts early. Fairytales are some of the first cautionary tales told to girls. These stories provide clear messages about obedience, adherence to traditional gender roles, beauty and virtue, and the dangers inherent in being an ambitious woman who seeks any form of power (cue wicked witches). They also often emphasis the need for girls to have male protectors; whether these be handsome princes or kindly kings.

There is also a longstanding tradition of omitting the bravery and resilience of young women from our cultural narratives. We tend not to share stories of girls who thrive and strive, or broadcast statistics that highlight the positive.

Here in Australia teen pregnancy, cigarette smoking, illicit drug use and alcohol drinking rates and all down. Meanwhile school retention and academic performance rates have significantly increased for girls. It seems we have a generation that are not as self-obsessed as we’d like to paint them as being. 80 per cent of Girl Guides over the age of 10 commit two or more hours each week to volunteering; almost double the amount of time contributed by adults.

Anecdotally, as an educator who works with thousands of teen girls every year across Australia I’ve observed that girls are doing remarkably well in a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much, or have much faith in their decision-making capacity.

And when we are not choosing to ignore, we sometimes choose to conceal. Historically, we have attributed the achievements of adolescent girls to those of much older women. Case in point, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin who in 1955 was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Colvin’s act inspired the civil rights movement that followed as nine months later middle-aged Rosa Parks became the public face for this movement. Colvin has since explained “[t]hey (the leaders of the civil rights movement) thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa.”

None of this is to say that there are not very real issues teen girls struggle with that we do need to address; body image angst, disordered eating, self harm, binge drinking, navigating technology safely, developing and maintaining respectful relationships. These are some of the issues I’ve devoted my career to supporting girls to manage. But the answer lies in education — not moral panic, or policing and patronising. We must give girls the skills they need to make informed choices and encourage them to turn their critical gaze on their culture, not themselves and each other. We must present them with more positive role models. We must actively seek out opportunities to celebrate their wins. Importantly, we must also make it OK for them to take risks and make mistakes.

Dr Briony Scott, Principal of girls’ school Wenona, in her essay on “Women and Power” called too for a change in perspective:

“In the years that I have been a principal, it is abundantly clear to me that families are doing a magnificent job but they do so in the face of cultural expectations that would lead them to think otherwise. There is a social and cultural normalising of the belief that raising girls is an almost impossible task. Along with this comes a presumption that when anything does goes wrong for girls, it must be because they are depressed, mentally fragile, and/or prone to anxiety.

Such a view, apart from being inherently presumptuous, trivialises those young women (and men) who genuinely struggle with their mental health, and pathologises what is fundamentally, a normal developmental path. It does an extraordinary disservice to young women who are simply navigating the road to adulthood.”

Let’s not feed the self-fulfilling prophecy that teen girls are either troubled or trouble.

Because the real picture? It’s far brighter.

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