Walk through the door of 100 Story Building, and it’s as though you’ve passed through a portal – you leave behind the quotidian bustle of Footscray mall for a wonderland specifically designed to stimulate your imagination. One wall of the space is lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, while another is given over to a giant mural of a galaxy. In the corner is a trapdoor leading to the ninety-nine storeys below (though it currently appears to be sprouting a jungle and is sadly closed for maintenance). Pendant lights shaped like mad-scientist test-tubes hang from the ceiling, and almost every surface is covered in intriguing objects: maps, globes, typewriters, music boxes and other fascinating things too weird and wondrous to name. It seems like a place where almost anything is possible.
On this particular day, twelve young people sit around a large wooden table in the middle of the space. They are working quietly, their red pens moving confidently over the pages in front of them. This is the editorial board of early harvest magazine, and they are engaged in the difficult task of assessing the huge pile of submissions they have received, to decide which ones will make it into this year’s issue. Occasionally one of the editors will turn to another and confer about a particularly perplexing story – one contentious piece circulating today is a poem with an inconsistent metre.
‘It’s a style thing,’ one editor says, ‘Just read it with the flow.’
‘I can’t,’ says another ed, shaking her head. ‘I can’t get past it.’
She writes some comments on the bottom of the submission and then passes it on to the next person. This conversation could have taken place at an editorial meeting for any one of Melbourne’s plethora of literary magazines. Except that this group of young editors are still in primary school.
Originally developed in 2011 as a collaboration between 100 Story Building, author and editor Davina Bell (co-founder of harvest magazine) and children’s programming coordinator and illustrator Emma Hewitt, the early harvest program offers young people from diverse communities in Melbourne’s inner west the chance to participate in making an issue of the literary magazine early harvest. The program aims to improve the participants’ engagement with literature, whilst also providing them with a new outlet for their creative expression and voice.
Project coordinator Amarlie Foster says that the opportunity to help young people engage meaningfully with the behind-the-scenes work of literary production was one of the things that drew her to the program. ‘I like the idea that kids can get involved with that process,’ she says. ‘I think it’s really valuable for them developmentally to realise that there is so much that goes into producing things like early harvest. It imparts a real value on writing.’
Another member of the early harvest team is Miab, a grade seven student who completed the program two years ago and has returned to help mentor this years’ group of editors. She agrees that the program opened her eyes to just how much work goes into a publication before it reaches readers. ‘I learned that there’s more to writing than just writing,’ she says. ‘There’s a whole story behind how something gets created.’ For Miab, the best part of the program was the authority that came with the title of editor. ‘I felt like a leader,’ she says. She particularly loved the process of selecting and editing the stories for the magazine. ‘I liked editing things,’ she says. ‘I felt powerful.’
This year’s editors are happily wielding their power. Amarlie says that one of the most satisfying things about the program so far has been watching the editors engage with the editorial process. ‘It’s been really nice to watch them editing,’ she says, ‘because it’s nice to see them take ownership. I feel like as I kid I might have been like “no I want to write the stories” – because I feel like all these kids are writers – but they’re really invested in the responsibility [of being an editor].’
The board are ably supported in their responsibilities by a steady stream of mentors from the publishing industry (including Voiceworks editor Elizabeth Flux and The Canary Press deputy editor Harriet McKnight) each of whom lends their expertise to the program. And of course, there is the 100 Story Building team itself, which acts as early harvest’s publisher, marketer and distributor. The editors are introduced to all of these concepts during the program, allowing them to engage with not just the creation of the magazine, but with the reality of the publishing industry as a whole.
Veronica Campbell, one of the co-facilitators, sees this as a valuable part of the process, as it introduces the kids to a whole range of tasks. ‘It’s not just the editors, it’s marketing, the designers, there are all different types of people involved,’ she says, ‘and you don’t have to be an author-type to be able to work with writers … It opens up these avenues for them that they might not have realised existed otherwise.’
Recent cultural conversations, such as the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, have highlighted the need for the literary industry as a whole to encourage people from diverse backgrounds to be involved in the mechanisms of cultural production. Programs like early harvest are central to this goal, bringing together young people who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to participate in this kind of activity. ‘It’s planting a seed,’ says Veronica, ‘so that they can contribute, and then those voices are heard. This is just a starting point for them.’
It seems to have certainly been a starting point for Miab, who tells me she’s writing a book. ‘It’s called Lost,’ she says, ‘It’s about a girl who gets lost in the wilderness.’ When I tell her about an author I know who published a book at sixteen, she gets straight to the point. ‘Who bought it?’ she says. ‘Will they buy my book?’ And then she speaks straight into the recorder: ‘If there are any companies out there who would like to buy this book feel free to contact me.’ She laughs, and to get us back on track I ask about early harvest again. What does she think she got out of the program? ‘Confidence,’ she says. ‘It gave me confidence.’
early harvest magazine is published by 100 Story Building, a centre for young writers in Melbourne’s west. They are running a Pozible campaign to help raise the funds to print this year’s edition of the magazine – go here to preorder a copy of early harvest and lend your support to the program. Samantha Forge is one of the co-facilitators of early harvest 2015.