Why I write, a second draft

This is an amplified form of my acceptance speech when I won the Children's Book Council of Australia 2010 Eve Pownall award for Information Book of the Year. It is the same version that has since been published in the CBCA's Reading Time.
I can still list in correct order the rivers Leichhardt crossed in 1844-46, because my teachers called that learning history. Real history, stuff worth knowing, is far more than lists of trivia and the dates when posh dead white men did things. Dates and facts are important, but only if they provoke us to ask things like how? And why? And why then?

A proper history of Australian exploration includes real people like John Horrocks, who was shot by his camel, wise Herschel Babbage, deadly George Grey, cruel David Carnegie-and poor George Evans who was punished for bad spelling. It involves the servants, convicts, Aborigines, teenagers and women who also went out, following the same tracks the land's custodians had been walking for millennia. I know they followed "native roads", because the explorers said so in their journals.

Those journals are now all on Project Gutenberg, and when you read them, you ask questions-and you find the answers, or some of them, but unlike lists of dates, these questions often have multiple right answers. These are interesting questions.

Susan Hall had an idea for a book that would provoke interesting questions and invited me to play. Thinking it would be a consortium effort, I agreed, but she wanted me to write all the text with only the science activities being farmed out. As an old science teacher, I grabbed those as well.

Jo Karmel was my excellent editor and Paul Joice did brilliant designs. Jo's already working with me on a sequel, and I hope Paul will be with us again, and that the same dedicated picture researchers will forage once more in the NLA's marvellous collections. It's a great team.

Both the manuscript and the page proofs underwent my wife Chris's intense scrutiny for repetition, sloppiness and verbosity. She didn't always win, but when she did, the work improved.

In short, this book involved the efforts of many people, including the men and occasional women of varying age, nationality and fortune, who went exploring and sometimes suffered. They left me a lovely story to tell, but Susan and Jo let me do it. Thanks!

Rudyard Kipling wrote history but we now recall mainly his Just So Stories. They aren't history, though many history lessons are packed with 'Just So' stories like how shuttle boosters got their size, Watt's kettle and Washington's cherry tree. That lovely book also has a little verse that begins:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Now there's a starting point for anybody writing for young readers. The list shovellers stay with when, who and what-ignoring the three that Kipling singles out as most characteristic of the young:

One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

Ignore these and we betray our culture, our heritage, our future as a species. We reduce every moment of learning time to training, we steal what should be learning time for sterile tests of a narrow set of easily tested skills, subscribing to the quaint notion that the best way to fatten a pig is to weigh it.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: transmitting knowledge, teaching, learning, education, gaining wisdom, developing understanding and fostering erudition are worth far more than training. We need them all, training too, but training only rarely brings joy to the mind and delight to the face.

Each Friday afternoon in 1975, I taught a Year 8 bottom stream science class for the last two periods. We stayed sane because while I was a science teacher, I was also a teacher of children. A boy who mastered a new word by sounding it out was happy. So was I. A boy who succeeded in filling a beaker beyond its rim to form a convex meniscus would marvel and be happy. I would be happy too, especially if the boy took up a cloth and unasked, mopped up the mess that often resulted. If he didn't, I cleaned up after they had gone. It was part of the job.

The world of learning is messy and full of fun. If you can't handle the mess, if you hate fun, stay out of the classroom, because you will only make a mess of our most precious raw material: children, and that isn't funny. I write books to foster and foment happy messes because I just never grew up.


This file is http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/writing/why2.htm to see more stuff like this, see my original Why I write.
It was assembled on November 25, 2010, as I was researching my third book for the National Library of Australia. You can't do research all day!
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