Barbara Else, author of Go Girl! – a Who’s who of adventurous Kiwi women, (make that a Storybook of Epic NZ Women), written for young readers – shared some of her own magic tricks on inspiring readers young and old. She followed in the footsteps of another author we knew and cherished; the colourful Margaret Mahy.
Barbara is a great believer in that whatever will inspire a child (or an adult) to read, is a good place to start. Trends suggest that a lot of young readers prefer non-fiction, hence the idea for Go! Girls. Yet this is cleverly disguised as a story book, much like you might hide good vegetables in the mince.
According to National Library, there are few people in New Zealand reading for pleasure (i.e.stories) in the 21st Century. They are responding with a project to entice Kiwis back to the ‘stillness, escapism and replenishment’ of reading fiction and fantasy.
Barbara couldn’t stress enough the importance of reading to children, which in turn becomes an individual pleasure as the child grows up. From the stillness and reassurance of developing listening skills in a mother’s lap (which stimulates brain networks, we were told by a member of the audience), Barbara’s stories are aimed at giving agency to the child protagonist, a voice that affirms their experience of the world. The glow of hope at the end gives the child the courage to imagine for themselves.
It’s important to carry on reading as an adult, remembering that our experience is shared, and a way to escape into considering the big issues, while reading of others’ journeys.
Non-fiction stories help young people to contemplate their own place in the world, says Barbara, fostering their own imaginations to dream beyond the real and everyday, into the future.
Barbara touched on the importance of women in story, citing Fiona Kidman as helping it to dawn on her that using male protagonists was a default for authors. While strong female characters, ‘defending themselves from oppression’ are a feature of Else’s books, characters such as Jasper in The Travelling Restaurant; a vulnerable male lead who uses his wits to care for others, was received with overwhelming interest by boys and girls.
“Each story demands its own audience. I can’t tell the audience what to think.”
Barbara describes the process as an alchemy;
“to challenge, provoke and reassure, as a mother’s voice would do.”