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Get to know Felicity Castagna – our 2016 NLNW Literacy Ambassador

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Felicity is an author, teacher and lecturer. Her book The Incredible Here and Now won the 2014 Prime Minister's Literature Award in the Young Adult Fiction category. Felicity has over fifteen years teaching experience as a high school teacher, university tutor and community arts worker and is passionately committed to promoting creative writing and critical literacy among young people.

You can watch this video of Felicity where she explains the importance of literacy and provides some useful tips on reading from pre-school to high school.

We asked Felicity about writing, books, and tips for engaging teenagers in literacy.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Sandra Cisneros’ book The House on Mango Street (1984) is the story of a Latina girl named Esperanza Cordero who spends her time living in too many different places as a child until her family of six finally buys a small house on Mango Street in a friendly but often rough neighbourhood of Chicago.

Why did you decide to become a writer?

I was never very good at reading when I was young. It wasn’t a skill that came naturally to me so I began to read a lot later than my peers but in many ways I think that really ignited my passion for books and writing; reading was hard and learning to write also presented its own challenges.  I always knew, however, that I loved stories and that if I could master this reading and writing thing I could make stories myself!

Now that I’m older I can see how being able to read and write stories opens up this whole new world that you never have access to otherwise. Stories are never really just descriptions of people and places. Stories show us how we imagine the world we live in. I love the way that I can use a story to have a conversation with others about the things I think are important. Stories are important because they are voices in a larger conversation about how you live in the world and why. At their heart, that is what a story is, it’s your way of speaking to someone else about how you see the world and I want to write because I don’t want to lose the opportunity to have that conversation.

How do you choose which topics to write about?

Mostly I just like to write about the places I’ve lived in and the extraordinary things I’ve seen in those places. My latest book, The Incredible Here and Now is a young adult’s novel told through the eyes of Michael whose life changes dramatically in the summer he turns 15. Michael knows everything about the community he lives in and through his stories, he lets the reader in; to the unsettled lives of his family members, his love of fast cars, the swimming pool where he meets the one girl who will acknowledge he’s alive and the classmates who spend their mornings drooling at the Coke Factory on their walk to school.

In writing The Incredible Here and Now I really wanted to create something different in Australian Young Adult Fiction. A lot of contemporary young adult fiction is about fantasy and magic in made up worlds. I was interested in writing about real places, particularly those places you don’t see that much in fiction, like the western suburbs of Sydney where my text is set. I want to write about those spaces that you walk past every day but don’t think about very much: the McDonalds Parking lot at night, the corner store, the Coke Factory. It is also where stories are told about ordinary places that gain a legendary status through this story telling. It is a place where everyday things become poetic.

You have done a lot of work with disengaged teenagers. Is there something you would like to share with other teachers about encouraging disengaged teenagers and what ways you have found effective to promote literacy with them?

There’s no one answer to this question and there’s never going to be a strategy that is right for all students. As a teacher, writer and academic I’m really interested in the ways that reading and writing about the places that they live in and recognise, is not only engaging, it can foster a sense of belonging and commitment as students come to know and value their communities better.

In these stories these young people aren’t simply giving us images of the places they live in they are claiming back their place with their words; and with their words they claim the right to show us how their community can be imagined on their terms.

Reading and writing local stories offers an alternative to a curriculum that can be alienating, in particular, for disengaged students. The reading and writing of these stories authorises and authenticates locally produced knowledge and has the ability to encourage students to become active citizens by writing their own narratives of this place.

To see what exciting literacy activities are planned for NLNW this year, visit the literacy section on the website.