Hello, Anne O’Brien

The 2019 Auckland Writers Festival is preparing to host over 200 local and international authors to celebrate the art of literacy. This year’s event has a significant focus on engaging young readers with the authors they love and inspiring them to pick up a book, instead of the remote.

Festival Director Anne O’Brien has been with the event for eight years and spoke to Fennec and Friends about the incredible opportunities available for young people at this year’s celebration, as well as the importance of engaging children in the art of reading.

How do you think the Auckland Writers Festival stands out among other industry events?

“The Auckland Writer’s Festival is widely considered to be one of the top festivals in the world, and we are the most well-attended literature festival in Australasia. New Zealanders live such a distance away they are very interested in the world around them, and they are very grateful when people come from such a long way, so we get a very good buy in, in that respect. Our isolation is a bonus in that sense.”

Why do you believe a writer’s festival has such a draw for readers?

“People have an appetite for a conversation about stories, ideas, experiences and finding meaning in the world and an interest in other people’s experiences. This is particularly prominent in New Zealand because we are so far away. It is fundamental to us as people to engage in story, and it is of interest to grow to understand who we are in the world and how it works.”

“There is also a beauty of the festival space as there is a sense of excitement which can be really quite addictive, as a group of people come in and are excited about reading and literature. It is catchy and makes other people want to be a part of that world. The festival is great in that sense that it is a great mechanism for engendering that intense sort of excitement and enthusiasm and engagement which people can then take away and develop themselves.”

In terms of your family day, what are some key events that cater to both adults and children?

“The family day was initiated a few years ago to provide an offering to younger readers and it sits alongside our school programme, which is attended by about seven thousand students from ages 9-18 this year.”

“In creating this festival, we wanted to offer a literature festival which appealed to everyone but realised we had a gap. We realised that it was difficult for adults with families to interact with the event as things like childcare can be difficult to grapple with. So, we wanted to make our event approachable and attenable so people of all ages could come together and celebrate great stories.”

“We want to kick start a love of books and a love of stories in children by introducing them to the wonders there are in terms of imagination and fun and creativity. So, we tried to craft our family day programme with great stories, great writers and hands-on elements where the can so they can carry away an experience which will make them walk away and read more and maybe even start writing for themselves.”

Do you think this event can help to engage more young people in reading?

“I think if you can build the right sort of framework for presenting the work then you can set agenda in anyone that this is an experience worth having. While it is true that there are all sorts of challenges on people’s times, there are all sorts of distractions, and the book is a very traditional format, that does not stop kids from engaging with the material.”

“We see, in the school’s programme and in the family programme, how excited kids are at the end of the day. I have heard stories about kids who wouldn’t go to bed that night because they wanted to read their book until the close. I think it goes back to that human engagement with story and an understanding that books have the same excitement when it comes to engaging with stories as online somewhere.”

Why do you think it is important that kids learn to connect with reading at a young age?

“I think it is critical, and the festival believes passionately about this. Firstly, literacy is essential for life, it would be challenging to navigate your way through anything without it. But beyond this, reading can also really engage the imagination and creativity of young kids. It is really a gateway to a greater life and experience something beyond the prosaic day to do.”

“Additionally, the way we grow to understand anyone else’s experience through the world is through language. I cannot know what it is to be you unless you tell me because I can only ever know what it is to be me. But that is what a book can do; it provides a mechanism for us to understand each other better and relate to one another better through the world of story. Readers get to know what it is to be something other than themselves and to understand that experience and grow through it. It connects us as citizens and as a community.”

“I think at every level, books and the world of reading and writing are fundamental to leading a meaningful life.”