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Reading Matters 2017 Conference. Image: HarperCollins Teachers Hub (digitally altered)

On Monday 4 March, it was announced that Australia had lost a national advocacy body for teen readers, after State Library Victoria (SLV) announced that the Centre for Youth Literature (CYL) brand would be retired. Though the SLV stressed that it remains committed to supporting young adult literature and programming for teen readers, programs for audiences of all ages will be brought under the single banner of State Library Victoria.

CYL was founded in 1991 by pioneering teacher, youth literature advocate and ‘champion of books’ Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, who passed away in 2017. She was fondly remembered by Age/Sydney Morning Herald Books Editor Jason Steger as one of the ‘significant figures in the development of Australian young-adult literature.’ Her founding of what was then called the ‘Youth Literature Project’ at the Victorian Writers’ Centre went a long way to carving out a significant space for young adult books and readers in particular, with a national edict of ‘[helping] connect Australian teenagers with books, stories, writing – and each other.’

In 1999 The Youth Literature Project became the Centre for Youth Literature, and moved to the State Library – but remained separate from their programming, occupying a space within the building and largely, but not exclusively, operating via funding through Arts Victoria (now Creative Victoria) and the Australia Council.

After then-arts minister George Brandis’ notorious gutting of Australia Council funding in 2015, the State Library started to support CYL from their own operational funding. But a number of people I spoke with, both closely and tangentially involved with the organisation, who wish to remain anonymous, felt that the Centre’s national remit never sat entirely comfortably within the Library. It worked when CYL had external Commonwealth funding, but the Library, according to those I spoke to, wanted CYL to better align with their Victorian focus and SLV branding after they started supporting them financially from 2015.

It has not been the quiet retirement that the Library perhaps hoped for, as they announced absorbing a national advocacy body with Australia-wide reach.

In its time, CYL established the first award of its kind in Australia – the Inky Awards – with the longlist and shortlist selected by young adults, and the winners voted for online by the teen readers of InsideaDog.com.au – a YA-dedicated website for those aged 12 to 18. Both these programs, the State Library says, will continue to operate under their new SLV teen programming banner.

‘That platform goes beyond borders,’ says the Library’s Director of Experience, Justine Hyde. ‘There’s only a certain number of people who can come into the library…but that digital platform can be accessed by anyone.’ As well as the Inkys and Inside A Dog, the nationally and internationally acclaimed Reading Matters Conference is scheduled to run in 2020, taking place within the Library’s new spaces, built and refurbished out of the $88.1 million Vision 2020 Redevelopment Project (funded by $60.4 million from the Victorian Government, with the remainder raised through philanthropic support.)

Hyde says that as part of Vision 2020, the library had been thinking about its public perception, and its ability to cater for all its audiences, including teens. Hyde says they now intend to broaden their offer beyond books and reading, literature and literacy. ‘Those will always be fundamental to what we offer our audience; but if you look at libraries around the world, the direction that they’re moving in – that goes for us too – is a focus beyond books and reading.’

Hyde sees the retirement of CYL as an exciting new juncture for SLV teen programming. ‘I think it’s an opportunity to recognise that that audience wants more than just books and reading, literature and literacy; there are other sorts of creative and educational and entertainment opportunities for that audience which are just as important.

‘The YA sector in Australia has grown phenomenally in the last decade,’ Hyde also points out. ‘CYL filled a gap where there was nothing previously, and YA advocacy has really grown over that time.’

‘CYL filled a gap where there was nothing previously, and YA advocacy has really grown over that time.’

But others within the Australian youth literature community – authors, booksellers, teachers, librarians and teens – have expressed sadness and concern over the loss of a peak body with national scope that was dedicated to connecting teens to books, reading, and writing. The news comes at a particularly concerning moment; last year’s NAPLAN results revealed ‘student writing skills have hit a new low,’ and statistics out of the UK youth-literature sector reveal that YA sales fell by £6.2 million to £22.5 million last year, the lowest point in 11 years, with volume down by 26.1 per cent to 3.3 million books sold, according to the Guardian.

Many also found the announcement of CYL’s ‘retirement’ – couched in an online newsletter alongside the 2019 Inky Awards longlist, referred to as a ‘sub-brand’, and positioned as an ‘exciting [change] happening at the Library’ – disrespectful to its legacy. While teen programming will continue under general SLV programming, it has not been the quiet retirement of little fanfare that the Library perhaps hoped for, as they announced absorbing a national advocacy body with Australia-wide reach. There is concern now that the Library will focus its activities on Victorian rather than national programming; CYL had incredible trust established over nearly three decades and was a well-respected peak body, both in Australian and abroad. A number of ex-CYL staff have been speaking out and writing on the move, such as former CYL program manager Mike Shuttleworth in ArtsHub recently – putting a fine point on what has been lost, not simply ‘retired’, and the ramifications for the wider book publishing sector.

Zana Fraillon, multi-award winning author of highly acclaimed books for children and young adults wrote on Twitter after the news broke:

The next day, Fraillon also tweeted at the Library a link to new studies that show ‘children who enjoyed reading were significantly less likely to have mental health problems.’

Lili Wilkinson worked for eight years at the Centre for Youth Literature, between 2003 and 2011 and was responsible for establishing the Inky Awards. She is now an acclaimed YA author in her own right, and in 2017 was a State Library of Victoria Children’s Literature Fellow. She has started the #CYLmatters hashtag online, to communicate to the Library the community concerns over its closure. And in a letter to Victorian Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley, she further expressed her disappointment at the loss of ‘Australia’s peak body for teen literature and reader development.’

‘I can certainly see the justification for this from a corporate point of view,’ Wilkinson writes. ‘But to remove an entire industry and community’s peak body in order to satisfy a need for ‘branding’ seems ill-thought out and fundamentally disrespectful to teachers, librarians, publishers, authors, booksellers, youth workers and of course young people that CYL has supported and championed for three decades.’

CYL had incredible trust established over nearly three decades and was a well-respected peak body, both in Australian and abroad.

Despite these protests, it seems unlikely that the CYL will be ‘saved’. The Library has been responding to criticism online, and is quick to point to its ongoing teen programming under the general SLV programming banner. ‘Not losing, just changing the name’ has been the response to those wounded by the decision, continuing to downplay the national body that has been ‘retired’. 

‘I think it’s very emotive language to talk about “saving” CYL,’ Justine Hyde says, ‘because we’re not killing it. We’re still delivering the same stuff, it’s a name change – we’re not axing or defunding anything. But I do think there is a misconception being whipped up on social media around this idea that we’re shutting it down – we’re not.

‘Some people think that Centre for Youth Literature is a physical place, but it never was – it was always a brand. It was an umbrella program for communicating about programs and services – that’s what a brand is. Some people don’t like the word because it sounds too corporate, but the reality is a brand is an umbrella for a bunch of things. And that’s what CYL brand was.’

A brand it may have been, but it’s little wonder that one that carved out a place for teen engagement and creativity at its core – and that built a wider community and established incredible trust within the sometimes disparate sections of youth literature – is now receiving its own public support after news of its ‘retirement’.

‘It’s something that we’re very proud of, and it’s great all the conversations happening on social media,’ Hyde says. ‘It shows how passionate and engaged they are. I mean, if there wasn’t anything – you’d be worried.’