• The QueenMode Bookclub live reading series kicked off with former NRL star, Scott Prince reading My Culture and Me by Greg Dreise. (Instagram)Source: Instagram
At a time when all the public language is about social-distancing and self-isolation, one First Nations-led bookclub is providing welcome relief for families and keeping community connected, all while promoting early literacy.
Jack Latimore

5 Apr 2020 - 8:46 AM  UPDATED 5 Apr 2020 - 8:46 AM

For many parents and carers, the past fortnight of social distancing and self-isolation has presented some steep challenges in terms of juggling new working from home arrangements while keeping our little ones entertained.

As our appreciation for pre-school carers and kindergarten teachers deepened, fortunately for us, a fun, educational and freely accessible series emerged from the social media sphere to provide welcome relief.

For the past 12 days, the QueenMode Bookclub has provided, via its Instagram account, daily readings with a celebrated difference. Each lunchtime for about 20 minutes, the increasingly popular account has offered a live-stream reading of a selected children's book, and the guest readers have included some very familiar First Nations faces.

Former rugby league star turned television personality and author, Scott Prince, kicked the series off with a reading of My Culture and Me by Greg Dreise. Viewers have since enjoyed sessions with the likes of Hannah Hollis, Bo de la Cruz, Yarraka and Quaden Bayles, Kiana Charlton, and Josh Hoffman.

QueenMode Bookclub's host, Lauren Appo, says the inspiration behind the initiative was about promoting early literacy to elevate our community and providing important community connection at a time when there is so much uncertainty and discussions about social-distancing and self-isolation.

"It's been tough with the kids about, entertaining them all day while working and keeping them motivated. The children's book readings has been a really good way to keep connected and for putting focus on the kids, to make it fun and maintain community," says Ms Appo.

Ms Appo, a Mamu woman from Innisfail in North Queensland, says the idea has drawn in First Nations mob from all over, and as far afield as Canada. The readings also provide viewers with exposure to some books and authors that may be outside their collection, she says.

"How can we go wrong with arming our community with books. Books are brilliant," says Ms Appo.

The guest readers are asked to select their favourite children's book, and often the guest picks something by an Indigenous author, says Ms Appo, but really, the idea is about bringing a book that has resonated with them personally.

Initially, the QueenMode Bookclub started on Facebook as a "closed group" and quickly grew to around 400 members. The group's inaugural reading was the anthology, Growing Up Aboriginal. The book's editor, Wiradjuri woman Anita Heiss, got involved too, co-hosting discussions and providing a summary and Q&A for group members at the end of the generously scheduled reading period.

"It's a bookclub that is not for avid readers. It's for people that are interested in reading and just need a little bit of encouragement," says Ms Appo, who also describes the concept as "like a personal trainer but for reading", but stresses the group does not try to "book shame" members into where they should be up to with the readings each week.

Over half a dozen books have followed since the group's launch at the start of 2020, and to date, the selected readings have all been by female Indigenous authors or other women of colour. The books also share a theme in terms of progressing Black narratives and elevating the idea that representation in books matters as much as anywhere else in life, says Ms Appo.

The bookclub recently made the hop across to Instagram specifically for a special review of Leah Purcell's award-winning novel, The Drover's Wife. QueenMode Collective's founder Elena Wangurra said Ms Purcell, a former mentor at drama school, convinced her to broaden the bookclub to attract a wider audience. The past fortnight's live readings immediately achieved that.

The bookclub is just one of the programs offered by QueenMode, an online collective that is about creating a space for women of colour to come together. The collective hosts online events like the bookclub and - prior to isolation - real-world events for skill sharing, networking and pooling other Indigenous small businesses.

"We're just trying to build a platform where we can really support each other in every way, but also connect in many different ways too," says Ms Wangurra. In addition to the live reading sessions, the collective has also recently commenced live virtual group events for peer-to-peer mentoring between national and international members.

While the children's book live-reading sessions may have concluded last week, QueenMode is asking members and new viewers to post their own readings to the platform and tag the bookclub account.

Other relevant programming will also continue across both the QueenMode Bookclub's Facebook and Instagram accounts for the rest of the year, says Ms Wangurra.

"It's just about getting as many people engaged as possible with the bookclub ... and just to encourage people to read, to connect, to have conversations about the content. It's all curated in a way that gets us to think about ourselves, our awareness, and what we're putting out in the world," says Ms Wangurra.

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Disclosure: Jack Latimore was a late call-up to read for the bookclub after a scheduled guest cancellation. He read Maxine Benba-Clarke's, Wide Big World. In 2018, he was also a contributor to Black Inc's anthology, Growing Up Aboriginal.