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Lowe finds ‘The Right Thing to Read’

St Hilda’s tutor fraternity can boast having an official author among its ranks after Dr Bronwyn Lowe had a book published.

The book is titled, ‘The Right Thing to Read’: A History of Australian Girl-Readers 1910-1960. Lowe, who has a Bachelor of Arts and Honours in History and English Literature and has also completed a PhD as well as currently lecturing and coordinating a subject at the university on Contemporary Australian Society and Culture, celebrated the official launch of her book at St Hilda’s College and is already thinking about her next writing project.

Following the launch of her book, Lowe took some time to sit down and fill us in on how ‘The Right Thing to Read’  came about.

‘The Right Thing to Read’  is available through the Routledge website and through Amazon.

Hi Bronwyn. Congratulations on the book! If you had to summarise what the book is about, how would you describe it?

BL:  I would say that it looks back to see how girls’ reading habits changed over time but it also shows how much girls kept coming back to those classic books. Like how we remember reading Anne of Green Gables and Little Women and the Billabong Series, those were the ones they were reading as well. So it shows how much has changed but also how much stays the same.

Can you provide a bit of background on where your inspiration behind the book came from?

BL:  Basically it is my PhD thesis. I started a PhD in 2011 and completed it in 2015. Since then I have been revising and rewriting parts of it to make it more suitable for an everyday audience. Luckily I didn’t have to change too much. My thesis was based on the history of Australian girls’ reading habits from 1910 to 1960 and looking at the types of books and magazines, newspaper comics they read and the textbooks that they had to read at school.

The other side of that was looking at various moral panics that popped up around that time from adults who were concerned about girls’ reading habits. So for girls particularly, the adults were worried that they were reading these so-called ‘romance magazines’ which would teach them terrible things about sex and romance. The adults were also worried that they were reading too many American comics and learning terrible American slang, so that was the other side of my research, looking at the concerns of adults during the time. And then also how reading habits changed and shifted during World War I, World War II and the Great Depression.

How did you go about conducting your research?

BL:  It was a pretty massive research effort. There were a lot of newspapers from the time that I read. There were about 200 autobiographies and memoirs of women growing up during that time that I looked at and there were about 60 that talked quite a lot about their reading habits as a girl, so I picked up on those.

There was also education department research and sociological research studies. By about the 1930’s the Australian Council for Educational Research started up and they started doing more research and it built from there. Sociology departments in universities started to pop up and by the end of the 1950’s they were doing quite a lot of research in that area, so I was picking up on a few of those studies as well.

Tutor at book launch

Where did your interest in this subject stem from?

BL:  When I first started the thesis in 2011, it was completely different. I started off wanting to write a history of Australian children’s literature during a particular period, mainly because I grew up reading a particular author, Mary Grant Bruce, who was publishing books from about 1910 to 1942. I was in love with those books as a girl so I wanted to write about her particularly, and then it grew and developed from there. I realised I was more interested in the girls that were reading the books rather than the authors or the literature itself.

I would say the inspiration came from my nana who used to tell me all of these stories about growing up. She was one of 10 kids and was always expected to help around the house and help with her younger siblings, so she used to talk about taking walks and running off into the garden and hiding away to read so she had some time alone.

So I had those kinds of stories in my mind and thought it was interesting to see the reasons why girls were reading, escapism being one of them. It was that combination of hearing those stories from my nana and really having an excuse to write about Mary Grant Bruce who I have always loved.

When did you realise this could actually become a book?

BL:  My PhD supervisors were really supportive and they had said that you should try and publish it as a book. But writing a book has always been what I’ve wanted to do, becoming a writer was my dream growing up, so it was always in the back of my mind even when I was writing it as a PhD. Doing a PhD is great because you get the funding, time and supervision from experts to write a book length piece of work, and then you can kind of go from there and turn it into a book.

The only thing I had to rewrite completely from the thesis was the introduction. I wanted to make that a little more interesting rather than too academic, so I took out some of the more theoretic jargon and rewrote that. And then there were little bits here and there. Routledge (publishers) were really good. I had a couple of peer reviewers from Routledge who read the whole manuscript and had some suggestions but luckily it didn’t have to involve too many major changes.

In a way you could possibly relate your focus to that of St Hilda’s, considering the time the College opened in 1964 and the interest in women wanting to go to university?

BL:  I’ve always been interested in women’s history. Actually, the new project that I’m working on at the moment is looking at career options for young women in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and in 1964 St Hilda’s starts so there’s a little part of it in that as well in terms of why women at that time chose to go to university.

Without giving too much away, were there any key findings from your research that really stood out?

BL:  I think an interesting thing the book does is look at the impact of different technologies. For example, when radio gets really popular and film gets really popular, and then TV comes into Australia in 1956. Every time there were concerns that children could stop reading and forget how to read because they would get distracted by these other mediums. My book basically shows that is not the case, that children will keep reading and will always be fascinated by books even with these other technologies around.

That is a big thing that is happening at the moment, everyone is worried about the impact of smart phones, computers etc and that these will be too much of a distraction, but actually all of the work shows that children will always read books. At the moment, children’s literature is one of the fastest growing genres of books. In the global book market children’s literature is one of the areas that is really growing.

Why did you decided to cover the decades and period of time that you covered?

BL:  In retrospect I probably wouldn’t cover 50 years again – just understanding all of that social history that you have to get your head around. But I wanted to cover a decent amount of time and I stopped in 1960 because television comes in and causes a bit of a change, but I liked covering World War I and II, I’ve always been interested in Australia’s military history and I wanted to start with Mary Grant Bruce and she published her first book in 1910.

Once the book was published and you had the launch, did you have to pinch yourself that you were an author of a book?

BL:  It was super stressful leading up to the launch because it was published in America and I hadn’t seen a single copy of it until the day before the launch. So I guess I was still in awe of it because it had only just arrived, so it all felt a bit crazy.

You must be extremely proud of how the book has turned out?

BL:  It feels good, and St Hilda’s has been a big part of it. The year I started at St Hilda’s, four years ago, I graduated from the PhD, so ever since I’ve been here I’ve been working on the book manuscript. I’ve also had some good discussions with other tutors here which has been really beneficial.

Would it be fair to say you’re a pretty avid reader yourself?

BL:  My bookshelf in my apartment is massive and overflowing at the moment. I’m always reading something. I always want to read new things by Australian authors, and Australian history is obviously another love of mine, so I’m always reading that but then you go back and read some old fiction like Agatha Christie novels.

Are there any more books in the pipeline you’re thinking about writing?

BL:  Hopefully. The first one took me awhile so hopefully the next one won’t take as long. I’ve definitely got a much better idea now as to how to go about doing a long form research project and what you need to be looking out for.

Finally, how are you enjoying tutoring at St Hilda’s?

BL:  It’s great! You can really get involved in what the students want to talk about and what they want to learn. And you get to know them really well, which is what I like about tutoring here. You really see students grow and develop. I’ve got a couple of third year students that I started teaching three years ago and they’re still here and doing history.




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