As every educator knows, reading books leads to a multitude of social and emotional benefits for young people. “Reading helps kids to understand their world and teaches resilience, empathy, kindness,” says Robyn Donoghue, library and IT technician at Tucker Road Primary School. And the best way to encourage a child to read, suggests Robyn, is to make reading fun.
“If you want kids to be lifelong readers, you need to make the world of reading exciting,” says Robyn. “Bringing authors to them, discussing favourites, personalising books. YABBA basically gives all this to schools on a platter.”
The Young Australians Best Book Awards (YABBA) is a Victorian-based not-for-profit organisation established in 1985 by a group of volunteers looking to give students’ voice and agency in relation to Australian books. Still run by volunteers, the awards encourage children from Prep to Year 9 to recommend their favourite contemporary Australian books, read all the recommendations, and then rate and reward them.
Thanks to partnership funding from the department, YABBA is currently able to offer free membership for all state schools in Victoria, which includes access to the Virtual Author Program (VAP). While many schools, and particularly those in regional and remote areas, can’t afford to engage authors for in-person visits, YABBA’s virtual program brings Australia’s most popular children’s book authors and illustrators straight to the classroom.
“The kids are able to direct questions, via an administrator, to the presenter,” says Robyn, who, alongside her multiple union rep roles, volunteers her time as the YABBA VAP Coordinator. During lockdown, when all the kids were dialling in from home, she would have to ‘administer’ up to 4,000 comments and questions during a virtual event.
“I don’t think there’s a student or a school out there that wouldn’t benefit from engaging with YABBA.”
“We generally have about 30 to 60 schools logging into a VAP. The regional schools are particularly engaged, and before COVID the kids would be on screen in their different classrooms and would really enjoy connecting with each other across the virtual space,” says Robyn.
“Omeo Primary School would have its 20 kids on screen and our students would love seeing them, amazed by the idea that that was the size of the school. Sadly, with new privacy laws you can’t see students’ faces online now.”
Grades 4–6 teacher at Omeo Primary School, Judith Wong, says that regional schools tap into a resource like YABBA because they get less access to face-to-face author visits. “The class really enjoys having their questions answered during the virtual author chat and the program allows us, as teachers, to introduce books and authors that the kids probably wouldn’t have read otherwise. Certainly, it has helped me become more familiar with books that are currently popular with the students.”
For Virtual Schools Victoria, having author and illustrator presentations delivered in the space in which their students work is a gift. “We make so much use of the VAPs,” says Helen Stearman, Grade 3/4 teacher at Virtual Schools Victoria. “A large number of our primary school students have social and emotional issues, and these are kids who may never go to a classroom or even a library, so with the VAPs they feel safe to engage.”
Other students live remotely, and relish the chance to access a live event with their fellow pupils. “We had a Grade 3 student who was in India and set his alarm to wake up at 3.00am to join a VAP session,” Helen recalls. “Some kids get excited about the session because they already love the book or the author, and others get excited about the book after the event.”
Either way, says Helen, it encourages students to read and get excited by “exceptional” Australian authors. “Books expose kids to bigger ideas than just the story within the book – and the great thing about YABBA is we’re talking Australian stories. I don’t think there’s a student or a school out there that wouldn’t benefit from engaging with YABBA.”
Robyn heartily agrees, as she lists some of the most memorable VAP sessions – including the much-loved Andy Griffiths and the late, great Archie Roach – and her trips to the glamorous YABBA awards night with a busload of starry-eyed students.
“Any state school that hasn’t yet engaged with YABBA can contact me for a password and watch previous VAPs. Then signing up for next year is as easy as connecting through the YABBA website or via Arc.”
Q&A with YABBA award-winning author Nova Weetman
You won a YABBA award last year in the Year 7–9 category for Sick Bay. Was it a nice surprise?
It was really lovely! Awards can be so loaded and it’s so great that it’s an award judged by kids. It means it’s not about the worthiness of your story, or the perceived importance of what you’re writing. It’s just about: ‘Do I like this?’ Kids are brutally honest, and I love that.
You delivered the first Virtual Author Program session this year. How was that?
The sessions are a lovely chance to talk about your work with kids and explain why you write the sorts of stories you write, and what you hope they take from it. Because of COVID, I was in my loungeroom delivering it online. It’s an odd new arena, but there are advantages to it. I’ve noticed that some kids who aren’t vocal in classrooms are the ones who are vocal online; the kids who are quieter are prepared to share in this way, and that’s a really good thing.
Your books must resonate with your readers – do you think there’s a key to writing a successful book for young people nowadays?
I think I write what I would have wanted to read when I was young. So hopefully they’re honest and they’re about things that are age-old themes. When I was 13, it was about friendships, identity, fighting with my parents, not knowing where I belonged, worrying about my body changing… and I think they’re the same things kids are thinking about now. I try to keep social media out of my books – my characters are scared of it, or aren’t allowed to use it – so it’s really about those timeless issues.
What are your thoughts about children’s and young adult literature at the moment? How has it changed over the past couple of decades?
It’s really exciting to see middle-grade literature boom. It’s so important for those kids to be reflected in more and more books. We do need more diversity in publishing – a recent report talked about the lack of books by people of colour in this area, still – but we are at least getting this engine of publishing ramping up in Australia, which is great.
Why are awards like YABBA important for our kids?
I think reading has been hit hard by lockdown. Education shifted to screens and a lot of kids weren’t as actively accessing books at home. When you lose school libraries and having librarians put great books into kids’ hands – which they’re so good at – reading is going to suffer. Getting kids back to reading once the habit has been eroded is really hard, so it’s even more important to create some excitement around books at the moment.