Underline Magazine

The question I've been asked most over the past few weeks (apart from how do you spell laureate and do you get robes) is, OK Morris, congratulations and all that, but what exactly will you be doing as children's laureate?

A good question, and one which I'm grateful to be able to answer in the cultured and economically-friendly pages of this fine magazine.

Please picture, if you will, the following.

A child reading. Curled up comfortably, engrossed in a book. A parent enters, slightly frazzled after a demanding day. Carrying a phone, staring at it, perplexed.

'Come on, love,' says the parent. 'Time to get your head out of that book and do something useful. I need help here. I think Siri's selling my personal data to the Russians.'

The child sighs sadly. I am doing something useful, she thinks. Useful beyond compare. Useful in countless precious ways. If only my dear frazzled parent could appreciate just how useful to my developmental processes me reading this story is.

The parent takes the book and closes it. The child turns away, bereft. She stares out the window, as if beseeching the night sky for assistance. And there, silhouetted against the moon, appears the figure of a paunchy bald man in glasses with the word Laurie emblazoned on his lycra bodysuit.

'My laureate,' breathes the child. 'My laureate has come.'

OK, I have slightly exaggerated that bit, because I'll be travelling mostly by bus and wearing a sensible raincoat. But as I go into bat for misunderstood young readers, my resolve will be as lycra-clad as I can make it without voiding my travel insurance.

'She reckons reading stories is developmental,' the frazzled parent might say. 'But that doesn't help with the household chores. Our smart fridge has been trying to make souffle again.'

'Actually,' I say, 'reading good stories is developmental in more ways than even your smart fridge might think.'

'Really?' says the parent. 'Well sit down and tell us about it then. You look a total idiot standing on the kitchen table with your arm in the air.'

Once seated, I gently remind the parent that stories for young people are some of the most gloriously varied and imaginative filaments in the literary light bulbs that illuminate our lives. And that amidst their innovation and luminescence, most have certain traditional elements, tropes and plot points.

A young main character, for example, confronted by a problem bigger and more threatening than any they’ve faced before. To solve or survive the problem, the character must develop skills and qualities beyond their previous experience or homework. They must think bravely and honestly about themselves and the problem. They must hone their research skills to better understand what they’re up against. Big problems require teamwork, so the character needs to form friendships and alliances. Understanding enemies is a help too. All of which requires development of interpersonal skills, in particular empathy. Creative thinking is a must because the young character needs to develop problem-solving strategies, and resilience is essential because big problems never get solved first time round, particularly when an author is contracted to write 250 pages. Which gives the young character plenty of opportunities to experience just how useful mistakes are.

My hope is that when I talk about this classic character journey with even the most frazzled parents, their eyes will light up. They'll spot how many of these key elements are also crucial stages in a young person’s education and personal development.

They'll remember that every young person has to begin, at some stage in their primary school years, the most important and challenging journey of their life. The journey from somebody else’s world to their own world. From the world that belongs the adults who have nurtured them, to the world of their own dreaming and their own making.

And they'll know that rarely in our human history have young people had to contemplate a more anxious and angry global nervous system. Rarely have they had a greater need for stories that will help them embrace an often dark and uncertain world with optimism, resolve and creativity. Stories that look unflinchingly at the past mistakes of humankind, and that celebrate the potential of every young person to do better. And to find happiness, love and fulfilment in the process.

It's at this point, I hope, the parent will turn tearfully to the child.

'Keep reading, darling,' the parent will say. 'Read like the wind. Read like a mountain lion. Don't ever stop reading. I'll do your chores. Siri and the fridge will help.'

'Thank you, Laurie,' the child will say, her eyes already slipping back to the life-transforming squiggles of ink (or pixels) and through them to realms that her imagination has already helped create.

Actually I've exaggerated that bit too. Sadly I'm not allowed to visit individual homes. It's a contractual thing to do with a couple of kitchen tables that may have been damaged in the past. But I will be meeting huge numbers of young readers, sometimes I hope with their parents and rellies, in schools, libraries, festival venues, community halls, sports ovals with good PA systems and amphitheatres at wineries (hint).

I'll also be having conversations with a range of adults in their non-parenting capacities. Policy-makers, purse-string holders, curriculum assemblers, architects of our economics and productivity, would-be managers of our social contexts and psyches. Reminding them that stories don't just make us as individuals. They help make our relationships, our communities, our nations and the future of human society.

I know what you're thinking. Grand ambitions for a bloke in a sensible raincoat. Well you're right, but the characters in my books have taught me that when the stakes are high, you don't hold back.

You're probably also thinking that this laureate caper sounds like a demanding and busy couple of years. You're right again. But I'm resolute. As a very smart fridge said to me recently, 'You've been given a rare opportunity. Don't get cold feet.'

I won't.


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