James Dawson's Opening Speech from Taking Stock – the YLG London Unconference

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak this morning and thank you for giving up your Sunday lie-in. Caroline asked me to speak about diversity in young adult fiction, something I’m talking about more and more, and something I’m very happy to talk about. But as I had an audience of librarians I wanted to say something I thought was OVERDUE. I just hope I don’t get fined. I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.

I am going to speak about LGBT representation, but I’d also like to speak about the role libraries played in my life as someone from the LGBT community. Now, I am aware many, many authors have spoken out against library closures, and the removal of dedicated school libraries and I’m only going to add to that ‘whining lefty’ chorus, but it’s something I feel strongly about.

Maybe my colleague Mr Muchamore has a point. In the Internet age, non-fiction books are no longer a classroom essential. I have seen the future, and it is every child with a tablet or iPad on their desk. Many classrooms also have a ‘book corner’ where pupils have access to dog-eared copies of book 2 and 3 of a trilogy, book 1 having long since failed to emerge from under a pupil’s bed. It’s this kind of logic that has seen many schools dispose of the traditional library and librarian set up.

But, in my mind, this is WRONG. Wrong-diddly-wrong-wrong-wrong. First the basics. Number one: the Internet is a swamp of contradictory shit, advertising, and ‘ask anything’ forums with spectacularly misleading information. Much fiction is dressed up as fact. Teachers (remember I was one for eight years) spend half their time teaching pupils how to find reliable sources online (which, to be fair, is a vital life skill), but providing them with quality non-fiction books would have probably taught them more about the subject they were researching.

Number two: librarians are experts. I also know I was a freak in that I was a busy teacher who ALSO had a bang-up-to-date knowledge of YA fiction. This is rare – I think it would be fair to say most teachers aren’t. You ensure that your libraries have the latest, most important, most attractive and most relevant new books. You’re ahead of the game. You can also spend time ensuring books aren’t lost or damaged – something teachers do NOT have time for in their ‘book corners’. Librarians are also responsible for budgeting and ordering new books, another job teachers don’t need.

Perhaps more importantly, teachers will always push To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men (because they HAVE to) and kids tend to stick to what they know (Wimpy Kid on repeat). Librarians are sooooooo vital to newish authors like me because you’re responsible for enticing pupils to new series or new authors. Thanks you guys! You are taste-makers and oh-so-important for gaining the holy grail of ‘word-of-mouth’. What’s more, regional and national awards, the biggest obviously being the Carnegie Medal can establish an author and bring them further success.

But there’s an even more important reason for schools to have a library, something that’s clear to me both as a former pupil, a former teacher and an author. Libraries are SANCTUARIES. Bear with me. As has been widely recorded elsewhere, I had a shitty time at school. Even in the late *mumble*, schools were waking up to how widespread bullying was, but my school did little to protect students at, what I call, ‘vulnerable times’: the shift change between lessons; break time; lunchtime and home time. As a teacher, I now know that this is because the poor frazzled staff needed to eat their ham sandwich or dash to their next lesson via the photocopier queue. At the time though, I dreaded these transition periods.

That was where my school library came in. We had a lovely librarian called Mrs Lythe and she provided a safe space – an island of calm. For a start, a school library is ALWAYS monitored by the librarian, meaning potential bullying is quashed. Nothing too awful could happen in that building under her watchful eye. Unlike the rest of the school, we were encouraged to sit on bean bags and lay around on the carpets. It was a veritable misfits’ paradise. Those who weren’t fast enough, cool enough, tough enough all had somewhere to call home. Although we weren’t strictly allowed to, Mrs Lythe turned a blind eye to us eating our sandwiches as long as we didn’t make a mess. We were safe. It was in that library that I made my friends for life – the people who went on to inspire the gang in Hollow Pike. The scene where Lis escapes from the school bully and heads for the safe haven of the library cushions was my tribute to that time.

Touring the books around dozens of schools and libraries has shown me that nothing much has changed. The outsider kids – the least confident, most vulnerable pupils STILL seek refuge in libraries. They often take on the role of ‘Student Librarian’, giving them a purpose and a reason to be away from the rest of the school. I have met dozens of nurturing librarians who are actively protecting such pupils. A quiet, safe place where nothing bad can happen. You don’t get that in a ‘book corner’.

This is especially concerns vulnerable pupils, and in this group I would include young LGBT pupils. By the time they have reached secondary school, some pupils, gay or straight will have been singled out as targets of homophobic bullying. It’s inevitable, I fear, even in schools with rigorous anti-bullying procedures. This is another way in which libraries can nurture young people. Representation of minority groups, as Malorie Blackman has spoken about many times, is vital. Every pupil deserves to recognise themselves in fiction. What’s difficult is that where young people of colour are often supported by their family and/or community, young LGBT people are often isolated, feeling their family or community are the LAST people they would speak to about their identity. That’s why I feel libraries have, perhaps, an even bigger responsibility to stock books with LGBT characters: young people may well be carrying this sense of ‘difference’ around like a shroud. I believe finding characters who also identify as gay – especially those who are happy and well-adjusted will do wonders for making young LGBT people feel safe, normal and secure.

This is also why I hope libraries will stock my non-fiction titles. I don’t know if many young questioning people will buy This Book Is Gay, but I like to think they might leaf through it in the corner of a library! For the illustrations or sexy bits if nothing else!

Lambeth Academy, where I am writer-in-residence even use their library for student counselling and intervention groups – recognising the dual role of that space. I know I’m singing to the choir but would urge all schools to ensure that libraries remain. It isn’t about a book budget or the English budget – it’s as much about pupil welfare. No student is going to willingly go to a ‘Nurture Room’, but they need a library… y’know – for books – *wink*.

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