Patrick Ness
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That speech I gave in full...


Okay, I wasn't going to publish this anywhere, because a speech is a speech, not an essay. You publish it and it loses all intonation, tone, improvisation, jokes, etc.  But as the discussion about the speech I gave Monday to open the Imagine Festival keeps coming up (along with certain folks reactions to it), I give it to you here without comment (except to say that Putin line is, let's call it, "satire").  All the bold words and underlines, by the way, are visual references as I'm speaking to keep my eye moving along; I don't write prose quite that emphatically:


Thank you very much. 


I’ve been asked to talk about How not to drop the baton of reading from age-group to age-group as it reaches the YA crowd.  How best to help try and address our literacy rates, how to keep reading a vital part of the growing-up experience.


And as I was thinking about this, I was struck by something:


Writers for children and young people seem to be asked and even expected to be activists, to be advocates, to be campaigners, more than any other group of artists.


Think about that.  It’s true.  You know, you never hear of “Sculptors for the Environment” or “Opera Singers for Veganism”.  Rock musicians, I suppose, are probably second after children’s writers, but even then, if they get too boring about it - like Bono - we criticise them and send them back to their poor, empty lives of hedonism and wealth.


I mean, adult writers do get involved; there are great organisations like PEN and Writers for Liberty, which I’m a part of, but even then, the expectation behind that is one of avocation, between tomes, and it often only involves putting their names to “open letters” that achieve pretty much nothing except a mention in the Guardian.


But children’s writers.  We’re different, aren’t we?  People seem to expect us to be activists.  On behalf of reading, on behalf of literacy, on behalf of libraries.


And on the whole, great.  I’m happy to talk about the things I believe in: 

1)      I think Gove’s adversarial approach to schools and teachers is appalling, ignorant and damaging to the country. 

2)      I think he clearly fancies himself Margaret Thatcher and teachers as the miners. 

3)      I passionately believe that education is far too important to be left in the hands of a career politician, because Gove is only the latest in a series of disasters and won’t be the last.  What exactly are Tristram Hunt’s qualifications for having the arbitrary authority to change an entire nation’s curriculum on a whim?


I’m also happy to call attention to things like the drastic destruction of libraries under this government, and support charities like Booktrust or ones close to my heart like The Siobhan Dowd Trust.


And you’re the same.  I know you are.  I see you all the time speaking and tweeting and holding events and fund-raising and constantly, constantly not letting those in power forget that there are those who oppose them.


We are an activist group - again, and I think often asked more than other groups of artists, so here’s my central question:  is that our primary job?  Is that, in fact, the best way we’re going to pass the baton of reading to YA readers?


Maybe.  Partially.  And I’ll absolutely keep doing it and I know you will, too.




Consider the young adult reader

If you try to hand them a baton in that way, won’t they just say, No, thanks, I’ll find my own baton, you life-ruining fascist.  And why shouldn’t they?  That’s what I would have done.  That’s what I did.


But that’s a good thing.  Look up on the batons they pick up on their own. I’ve just been on a tour of the US where YA is huge beyond huge.  John Green sells millions.  Neil Gaiman attracts crowds of thousands wherever he speaks.  YA writers are rockstars over there, even when they’re someone like Veronica Roth who’s very shy and does very little publicity.


And here?  I think it’s kind of the same.  There are still, if you can believe it, still occasions where I - and I am very sure - you get patronised by adult writers for writing for young people.  You know?  Where you tell them you write for children, and they say, “Good for you.”


It’s about that point where I say that yeah, we have to struggle on and make do with merely outselling adult writers twenty-five to one.  It’s a burden.


Because we’ve got the best readers, don’t we?  The way they talk about books on social media.  The way they’re passionately dedicated to the characters - just think of JK Rowling when she mentioned Hermione and Ron.  Teen readers are almost cult-like in their devotion to books they see as their own. 


And that’s brilliant.  And that’s an advantage we have over other writers out there.


Kids read.  Teens read.  A lot. 

1)      Should we keep being activists for better and more opportunities for them to read whole books in schools instead of just joy-killing excerpts?  Absolutely. 

2)      Should we keep advocating for better press coverage of all those millions of teens who do read and instead get told by a political system that they don’t?  Absolutely. 

3)      Should we keep campaigning to keep public libraries open and school libraries properly staffed and funded so that the great democracy of reading has a chance to thrive and not be choked to death by a government with an interest in keeping its electoral population ignorant?  Absolutely.



But there’s always a risk in activism, isn’t there?  I’m not talking about reputation or anything like that.  I’m talking about despair.  The feeling of powerlessness.


I thought of this during the Olympic Opening Ceremonies last week.  I didn’t watch them out of my own tiny protest that was, nevertheless, important to me.  The anti-gay laws of Russia and the continued ascendancy of Putin fill me with the worst feelings of powerlessness.  Despair that it’s only going to get worse.


Then I thought of all the young gay readers out there, the ones who write me letters about their lives and about how reading More Than This meant something to them, for example.  And I thought, No, I’m not going to despair.  I can’t.


Because I also have a say in how the world is going to be.  Putin is clearly a very powerful, deeply-closeted man.  But I have power, too.


And this is my only concern for children’s writers expected to be such regular activists.  Gove, for example, would very much like you to think you have no power.  Why do think he acts the way does?  Why do you think he ignores every single one of his critics?  Why do you think Blair did it when the nation said we don’t want to go to war and he said, we’re going anyway?


Power wins by convincing you that you’re disempowered.


And so the only really effective way that I could think of to pass the baton of reading to YA readers is to remind you (and myself) of our power.


You notice I’ve kept calling us artists?  Yeah, totally cringey, isn’t it?  I know.  But it’s for a reason.  If you think of your job as that of a functionary, filling up pages for a factory machine, churning them out impersonally for the consumption of anonymous readers…  well, I reckon you probably wouldn’t be here in the first place.


Do I consider myself an artist?  Yep.  It’s hubris and bit poncey, I know, but all art is hubristic and a bit poncey.  I try not to call myself an artist in front of any internet trolls, but still.


It’s what I am before I’m an activist, before I’m an advocate, before I’m a campaigner.  I’m a writer.


And that’s where my power is.


The baton of reading is not an event, it’s not a program, it’s not a government scheme, it’s not a poster campaign or sponsorship or social networking.  As vitally important as those things are, they’re not the baton.


The baton is the story.  The baton is the book.  The baton is the novel that a young reader finds and says, “Yes, this is mine.”


What keeps a young person reading?  The story.


Think of the power in being JK Rowling and the one to say, “I know your life is difficult, but who would you be if you could be anything?”  Anyone under the age of 25 will have an immediate answer to the question, “Which Hogwarts house would you be?” That’s amazing power.


For the record, I’d like to say Gryffindor, but let’s face it, I’m Ravenclaw through and through.


But think, too, of the power of that first Twilight book - and yeah, they go pretty batshit by the end and yes, there are some serious gender problems as they go along - but think of the power of being Stephanie Meyer and the one to ask, “What if those world-shattering feelings you have right now aged 12, 13, 14 could be expressed by an immortal love?”


And the Hunger Games, too.  “Yes, you currently live in the dystopia of high school, but what if you had the power to be the victor over that?”


Who gets to ask these questions?  We do.  Michael Gove doesn’t.  We do.


The story MUST come first.  That’s where our power lies.


And that’s what I think when I start to feel hopeless.  What I think of when I feel powerless in the face of things I disagree with.  I think of what story I can tell that hasn’t been told before or told in my way before.  What questions can I ask?  How can I show a new world, a new future, and new possibilities to a young reader?


Because they’re listening.  Don’t ever think they’re not.  They listen because we ask the right questions and tell the best stories.  That’s power.


And so absolutely shout against injustice, shout against stupid and venal government policies, shout against the politicisation of education, shout against opportunities being denied to poor students in state schools.  Be an activist against all of that.  Be an advocate, be a campaigner.


I will until the day I’m no longer able.  But do all those things after you’ve spent the day writing to your fullest, to the wildest stretches of your imagination.


Because just remember, when you look at Gove, when you look at the grasping politicians who came before him and the ones who’ll come after, just remember:


He isn’t Sauron.  He isn’t Voldemort.  He isn’t even Putin.


He’s the temporary Mayor of Hamelin.


And me?  And you?  And you?  We’re the fucking Pied Piper.


So pipe loud.  Pipe the best story you’ve got.  And that song will still be playing when the Mayor is long gone.


Thank you very much.





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This page contains a single entry by Patrick published on February 12, 2014 1:20 PM.

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