At the annual Qld Branch Book Week dinner, Lisa Shanahan gave an inspiring and thoughtful insight into her reading journey, and the ways in which it has impacted on her own reading, her writing, and her life. She has generously agreed to share it here with everyone. Thank you Lisa.
The CBCA Queensland Book Week Celebration Dinner
On Finding Treasure
It’s a wonderful privilege to be here tonight, to have this chance to chat about books, reading, writing and treasure. It’s an absolute joy also to have this opportunity to publicly acknowledge and thank the Children’s Book Council of Australia and in particular the Queensland sub-branch, to pay tribute to the judges and the army of volunteers of this amazing organization, both now and in the past. I want to declare, without reservation, that you are the great, great treasures of the children’s book community and that so many of us—writers, illustrators, publishers, editors, agents, librarians, teachers and parents and most importantly every single reader in Australia over the past seventy-two years, owes a debt to you.
It’s a debt that can never be realized or even fully comprehended, perhaps because the beautiful, complicated work of connecting young people to books, of growing readers, of promoting a whole canon of distinctly Australian children’s literature, is so often worked out in hidden, behind-the-scene places. Sometimes late at night, on kitchen tables, over dirty dinner plates, folded in between the relentless demands of day jobs and family responsibilities. The work is fueled by passion and sacrifice and possibly caffeine—Diet Coke, coffee, chocolate, you name it—but no doubt, mainly by the fact that at one point each one of you encountered a book that illuminated your whole life, a book that tipped you upside down and left you never quite the same. Which is probably the very thing we all share in common tonight.
Which brings me to books and to the treasure they were to me as a kid. I grew up in in the late 1970’s and 80’s, which meant I basically wore matching homemade terry towelling tracksuits with my younger sister for the whole of my childhood, she pretty in pink and me, bitter in blue. I smoked a lot of lolly fag cigarettes back then, at least two packs a day and sniffed plenty of Perkins Paste. Like most kids of that era, I had a lot of freedom. I roamed the local neighbourhood, without restraint. Now, if my parents had known how often we bashed through the bush to an abandoned railway bridge, where my younger brother, my sister and I leapt from rotten wooden sleeper to sleeper, high above the river, they might have revised their rather loose boundaries. But fortunately, they remained blissfully ignorant, mostly because they were working long hours. Which is how I also got away with pretending to be a Catholic priest in the kitchen after school when I was ten, celebrating communion on my own, with Sunrise toast bread and my mum’s Coolabah cask wine for the blood of Jesus.
I spent a whole chunk of my childhood making up stories. I used to imagine that aliens had landed on earth and invaded all the bodies of all the humans I came across, particularly the humans I loved and especially the ones I didn’t. Like Terry Cole, our local bus driver. I’d watch that man with a fixed, determined gaze, taking in his squat mole and his chunky knees and I’d know, without doubt, that he was the leader from Lorg, the big boss from that grey distant planet. Now Terry Cole no doubt thought I was some weird kid and maybe my fierce glare was the real reason he drove his claptrap bus down Wyong Street, like he was on a suicide mission every afternoon. But when I wasn’t scrutinizing him, I was staking out my mum, waiting for the moment when the alien inside her was going to come popping out of her body like a giant seed from a pod. Of course, my mum knew nothing about any of this. She just ate her toast and presumed I was staring at her because I loved her so much.
When I wasn’t imagining aliens landing on earth or pirates floating down the Georges River in their Spanish galleons, loaded up with gold, I was reading. I was reading, voraciously and indiscriminately, discovering over and over again what Tim Winton describes as the ‘angelic,’ the unique way being fully engrossed in a book can make angels of us, lifting us right out of the confines of our own lives; the tight limits of culture and gender and even space and time.
Later on, I went to high school at Kings Cross. We were officially banned from walking down the main street of Kings Cross, because of the the painful things we might see, the troubled people we might meet. But sometimes we saw painful things and met troubled people anyway, on the train station platform, in the blue light of the Kings Cross toilets, spilling out of the dilapidated covert brothels on Victoria Street, in the shocking, exhilarating moments when we were chased down the street by people with precarious mental health. Like the bloke who was very fond of dressing up as a cat and who we very originally called Catman, who enjoyed leaping out unexpectedly from lanes and who once hotfooted down the street after my sister, waving a real live giant crab at her head.
We entered our school through a side gate and spent most of our days behind tall brick fences, learning how to write and count, how to dissect a rat in biology and sometimes each other. The immense physical beauty of the world pressed in on us. There were the hazy blue glimpses of the harbour; the sleek mirrored skyscrapers, the arch of the harbour bridge, the tips of the pearly sails of the Opera house, the cruise ships gliding on by. But it was a peculiar place. There was no way you could be cloistered from it. Beauty and chaos, sorrow and joy, jumbled together, side by side, lapping at our very school walls.
But this is not to suggest that the suburbs were immune. Even as a kid, I was curiously alert to the hidden sorrow of others, like that of my silver-haired grandmother, who strove so ferociously to conceal the truth that she had been abandoned into Burnside Children’s home, along with her four siblings for the entirety of their childhood, after their parent’s marriage broke up in the 1920’s, despite the fact that her father was wealthy enough to care for them all. Or like the wistful sadness of Mr Andrews from across the road, who wore a pale blue cardigan and lived at home with his parents, tending the chrysanthemums in their immaculate front garden on the weekends and who was so painfully shy, that even a tiny conversation about t weather, might send him into a state of shock.
When I think about the kid I was and the way I read, I realise now I read books like my actual life depended on it. I read books hungrily, like I was near the point of starving, like they held some key to my survival. I think they did. Because nobody in my world was talking out loud back then, about the reality of what it meant to be human. Nobody was talking out loud about how you might survive the wild oscillations of joy and sorrow, the beauty and chaos jumbled together, side by side, not just lapping outside for goodness sake, but right through the middle of your own heart. Nobody was talking honestly about that.
Except for writers and illustrators. Writers like Eleanor Spence, Hesba Brinsmead, Ivan Southall, Colin Thiele, Katherine Paterson. E. B White and L. M. Montgomery. Illustrators like Ron Brooks, Robert Ingpen and Maurice Sendak. Too many writers and illustrators to name in fact. And too many books. But all of them bearing a kind of collective witness to the tender, bruising, beautiful reality of what it means to be human, even as they were mostly writing about invented characters, some of them ironically, even animals. Even though I couldn’t have articulated this at the time, I sensed the hospitality of those authors and illustrators, their refusal to be dismissive, the serious regard they offered their readers.
The American author Kate Di Camillo once said this incredibly lovely thing. She said, ‘This…is the work of stories, bookmaking, art. It is the work that we are all writers, illustrators, librarians, publishers, editors, agents, booksellers engaged in. We have been given the sacred task of making hearts large through story. We are working to make hearts that are capable of containing much joy and sorrow, hearts capacious enough to contain the complexities and mysteries and contradictions of ourselves and each other. We are working to make hearts that know how to love this world.’
How do you love this world? What do you do when your own courage fails you? When the complexities and the mysteries and the contradictions are too much? When your heart feels like it’s going to bust right open. Time and time again, like many of you here, I return to books. I go to story. I push my way through the mink coats of an old wardrobe and discover the crunch of snow beneath my feet and the bright light of a lamp in the woods. I feel reality, as the writer Marilynne Robinson once so magnificently described it, ‘on a set of nerves somehow not quite my own.’ And so often I come back from these worlds, spending time in the company of those characters, strangely consoled and encouraged. Sometimes I come back overjoyed and undone. Sometimes I come back hugely convicted, but mostly I come back restored and in some peculiar way, commissioned.
Commissioned to pay attention.
To be on the look out for the small, ordinary, moments in my real life. To hallow those tiny, messy moments up and to see them for what they really are. Like the time a very old woman cycled tremulously past me on a pink bicycle, with her front wheel wobbling, just as I stepped out onto the road outside of my house. ‘I’m practising,’ she cried, smiling exultantly right into my astonished face. Or like the dark-haired man in a busy coffee shop, reminiscing about the joy of picking up his son from preschool. ‘Now,’ he sighed, ‘he’s fifteen and speaks three words a week.’
Or like the time when my oldest son said to my husband, ‘You must take after me, Dad.’ To which my husband replied, leaping with alacrity at a teachable moment, ‘Look, Bryno, genetics don’t work that way. The son takes after the father, not the father after the son.’ To which my son retorted, quick as a whip, ‘Well, that’s a shame, dad, because you could have been awesome!’
Or like the time my youngest son, a short time after the sudden traumatic death of our second dog, which had come fast on the heels of the death of our first dog, said to me, ‘I don’t know why God created the tortoise and gave it one hundred and fifty years, just so it can take one step a day and why he allowed dogs to have such a short life.’
Or like the time a little girl in my son’s kindergarten class, one of the inspirations for Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee, came bursting into the classroom after a bathroom break, flinging water from her fingers, announcing, ‘I have just washed my haaaands!’ just as if she were the lead in a grand opera.
It was reading that taught me how to look for the tiny ripe moments that sometimes might constellate into stories or at the very least the textures for them. But it was also reading that taught me how to keep on looking past the first glance. To keep on looking past the moment when I might naturally want to turn my head away, when I might want to avert my gaze, because I was troubled by what I saw. It was books that first taught me courage. It was books that taught me how to hang in there. How to tune into joy, sadness, hope, curiosity, fear and wonder. How to tune into the world and into other people and how to treasure what I found there.
Which brings me back to love. And cheeseburgers. And cheap suede boots.
Not so long ago, I had to go to the shops to buy a new pair of boots. Being a little bit scabby about shoes, my usual practice in recent years has been to buy a cheap pair at the beginning of winter, flog them to death and then throw them in the bin on the last day of the season. Unfortunately, thanks to winter rain, my most recent cheap boots didn’t even last a third of the way through the season. I despise shopping with a vengeance, so when I finished hunting down a new pair on this day, I wilted in the food court and had some lunch, in the hope I could muster the necessary energy to later locate the car. When I had recovered, I got out my writing notebook and just started to look around and jot down some observations.
Not long after, I noticed a man and his very elegant girlfriend, buying a chicken wrap and a salad from a nearby shop. The man was young, tall, burly, bunchy at the shoulders, with an aggressively confident strut. When he came sauntering towards me, I could sense a sort of fury seething just beneath the surface and when they slid behind a table, I was relieved that he actually sat with his back to me.
At the same time, I was aware of an Asian family sitting nearby. They were eating McDonald’s. And the mum was breaking off tiny pieces of cheeseburger to feed her son, who was sitting in his wheelchair on one side. The boy wore a beanie and had fuzzy sideburns and he was obviously in his teens. He was gazing at his mum, with this deep, abiding trust. It became apparent that his disability was profound and that he couldn’t move his arms at all. He just sat so still, gazing at his mum, waiting patiently. Every now again, the mum leant the other way, to smile and check up on her five-year old daughter, who was sitting on her other side, bouncing up and down in her seat, eating a drippy chocolate sundae. The dad sat directly opposite his daughter, diagonally away from his wife and his son, somehow a little separate from them all, munching away on a Big Mac, with a single-minded Get Smart cone of silence.
Around this time, I began to realize that the angry man was turning around a lot, to glare in my general direction. At first I thought it was because he was still waiting for his chicken wrap and his eyes were grazing across my table towards the sandwich counter. But his eyes were also straying a lot to my journal and to my pen, to the point that I began to feel uneasy. It began to dawn on me that as much as he was disturbing me, I was disturbing him. So I stopped writing. I dropped my pen and tried to look harmless and ditzy for a moment, like a slightly fluffy Miss Marple, except in cheap suede boots.
I glanced back at the family and noticed the boy. He was chewing away on a mouthful of cheeseburger and gazing about and I saw that his front teeth popped out over his bottom lip. When he finished, he turned back to his mum, expectant again for the next mouthful. It struck me then that all his good rested on her. All his good rested on her willingness to keep on choosing him. To keep on choosing him, even though he could never reward her with smiles, cute conversations, funny dances and certificates of merits of his achievements from school.
Shortly after this, the angry man stood up suddenly. He jerked his head at his girlfriend.
‘Let’s go,’ he said.
‘What?’ she said. ‘Already?’
He shot a sharp suspicious glare my way and hightailed it, fleeing like he was being pursued. I have to admit that I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite so freaked out about my writing, aside from my mum. I’ve never felt the truth of the saying more though, that sometimes the pen is mightier than the sword, even accidentally. He and his girlfriend waited at the counter for their chicken wrap and then when a couple of other blokes turned up, they all beat it out of there quick smart. It was only then that I wondered whether he had mistaken me for an undercover police officer? I mean, who else would be looking around so surreptitiously and writing in a little notebook?
By this time, the little girl had finished her sundae and now she wanted to eat some of her brother’s cheeseburger. And the mum tore off a piece and gave it to her. I found myself wanting to cry out to that little girl, ‘Hey, no, that’s his! You’ve had yours!’ I felt the hot dart of injustice. But the boy didn’t seem to mind. And in that moment, I recognized that for his mum, this was a long-practiced dance. That the dance had begun early and would continue on right up until her death. How to balance her kids’ needs and capacities, how to balance her attention and time, how to give them the very best, how to be as fair as possible.
I watched her lean this way towards her boy and then that way towards her girl, breaking up the cheeseburger between them. And it was about then that I started to weep into my chicken wrap. And I was weeping not because I was overwhelmed with sadness for that family—far from it, but more because I had been sideswiped by beauty; by the terrible, glorious, almighty goodness of long-suffering love.
I saw it in them all. In the patient mum, with the streaks of grey in her hair. In the quiet dad, eating his burger, hanging in there, even if just by a thread. I saw it in the bubbling curiosity of that bouncy little girl, wanting a bite out of her brother’s cheeseburger. And especially in that beautiful boy. That vulnerable, trusting, non-violent, hope-filled boy.
When you see beauty like that, when you see something so fierce and true, you want to write it down. You want to store it up. You want to capture it forever. You want to respond in some way. And before I knew it, I was reaching into my bag, snatching up a letter and tearing off the bottom and I was writing a small, weird note to a stranger, saying something short like, ‘I noticed what a beautiful family you have and how lovely and tender you are with both your beautiful boy and your beautiful girl. In a world that is sometimes harsh, I want to thank you for the astounding reminder of what true love looks like.’
Then I packed up my bag and picked up my cheapskate boot box and went over to them. And the woman turned and smiled and she took my hand and held it in hers, as I gazed down and garbled out what felt like a bag of Scrabble letters, which may or may not have featured the word ‘beautiful’ multiple times. For anyone eavesdropping that day, it would have been hard to believe I had ever spoken a single coherent sentence, let alone written one. I thrust my wrinkled note towards her and rushed away, keeping it together, but only just, because I didn’t necessarily want to be picked up by security as the crazy lady, weeping with joy, in her cheap suede boots.
How do we hold the complexity, the mystery and the contradictions? How do we sustain the intensity: the joy and the sorrow, the hilarity and the sometime terrible turmoil? They’re the unsaid questions that preoccupied me as a kid and they’re questions that preoccupy me still. But I’m endlessly grateful to those writers and illustrators of my childhood, that took those questions seriously, who never presumed that a lack of capacity around language somehow meant a lack of capacity to feel.
How do we love this world? Well, perhaps we start by spending a season in the company of Old Pig and Granddaughter. We fly with Magpie, as she clings to Dog’s back, the air creamy with blossom. We backflip with funny Cedar B. Hartley and cheer on brave Annabel Grey and the wild girl Kitty. We hang out with Herman and Rosie, making music in New York, or peruse the second-hand books with Rachel and Henry. We make room for Mr Huff and delight in Florette as she transforms her whole neighbourhood. We watch Captain Jimmy Cook live up to his namesake. We wait out the rain with Francie and her mum and her unborn sister Grace. We listen to Milo, and laugh our heads off at witty Ishmael, to name but a paltry few. We allow ourselves to be transported time and time again, only to find ourselves returned to the real world over and over, longing to see through and further and longer and wider, and more willing to bear the cost.
Lastly tonight, if I could tear off a scrap of paper from the corner of a bill from my bag right now and write a small, crumpled weird note to each one of you, this is what I’d say; to the writers and illustrators here tonight and to those on the way to being writers and illustrators, thank you for the gift of your characters; for every Henrietta, Olive and Arthur, Joey and Marsh, Rodney, Peony and Quil. For all the ways your books will be both safe havens and springboards. Please keep going, especially on the days when you feel uncertain, tripped up and entangled by your own sentences or line work, because we need your capacious stories.
And to the publishers, editors, designers and agents here, thank you. Thank you for all the ways you make our stories stronger and more delicious, thank you for all the risks you take to bring Australian stories to the world. And to the booksellers, librarians, teachers and parents, thank you for being the bridges to those books. Thank you for your enthusiasm and for your trust and thank you for reading the same book over and over, even when it takes you to the brink of insanity and thank you for valuing books and thinking up sneaky ways to get kids to read them, even when it might be easier to take the path of least resistance.
And to the judges of the CBCA and to those CBCA volunteers, especially those that have worked on the frontline for sometimes decades, behind-the-scenes, getting books into the hands of kids, particularly those books that might otherwise escape attention—well, it’s going to be tough for me to get out a single coherent sentence about you. But thank you. From the bottom of my blue terry toweling track-suited heart. There will never be enough accolades for the almighty goodness of the work you do.
L. Shanahan August 2018