Vale Agnes Nieuwenhuizen

Shortly after I graduated as a high school English teacher in 1995, I bought this book:

I can’t recall why – maybe I was looking for books to include in my class library or as suggestions for a new class text. Now, almost 30 years later, I’ve set myself a challenge to find some of the over 200 books in this guide. I have read and loved some of them myself, in childhood, and maybe I can encourage my own grandkids (when/if I get some!) to read some of these classics of YA literature.

Sadly, I also found out today that the author, Agnes Nieuwenhuizen passed away in 2017. Agnes was a pioneering advocate of YA fiction and was for many years a teacher and passionate champion of literature in schools. She established the Youth Literature project at the Victorian Writers’ Centre. This eventually evolved into the Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria in 1999. Nieuwenhuizen retired in 2005 but continued writing and reviewing. And she maintained her passion for books and the way they are taught in schools. Responding to a kerfuffle over the inclusion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera on the school curriculum, she wrote in The Age: “With the relentless focus on ‘issues’ what goes missing is the focus on the book as literature; its ideas, characters and above all language and an understanding of points of view: the author’s and the characters’ … By mining and scouring books for issues and focusing on matters of suitability rather than substance, we in fact fail to teach young people how to read and what reading is for and the ways literature can enlighten, inspire and above all give pleasure.”

I really believe that as teachers and parents, we have a moral responsibility to impassion children to read more, which is what I think is the true value of a book like Agnes’s – it’s a starting point for parents and teachers to educate themselves about good YA literature – which they can then go on to share with their children. The one drawback of a book like this is that it only covers YA literature up until the early ’90s – books some might call ‘vintage’! But I think the classics are often the best – they just seem to be written in a different style, with more emphasis on vivid description that paints a remarkable picture of the characters and settings for the reader.

Over the following months, I’m going to highlight some of the books from Agnes’s guide. I hope that you will seek out these books yourself to pass on to your children.

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