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- FEATURE ARTICLE
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Inside a dog
Mike Shuttleworth, Program Coordinator at the Centre for Youth Literature, explains the thinking behind Australia's first comprehensive website for teenagers about books. The big question is: how do you create a website that doesn't look try-hard or like adults trying to be cool?
How do you make a website for teenagers about books that doesn't look 'worthy' or boring, yet still carries enough information to make the site worth going to? For the Centre for Youth Literature (CYL), it was also important to make a website that didn't look 'kiddie-lit'. You know: flashing icons, twirling widgets and honking what-nots. Children's literature per se is not the brief of the CYL; we're about improving access to reading for teenagers.
A bit about CYL
Until the launch of the website - insideadog.com.au - CYLhas mostly promoted writers and books for teenagers through events. The Centre's events program attracts around 5,000 young people and 1,000 adults each year and our biennial conference, Reading Matters, is very highly regarded nationally. Over many years of staging events, we've learned a lot about the youth literature scene here and abroad. Although our events have almost always been in Victoria, interest in the Centre is national and international. We have a strong knowledge of national writing and publishing activities and our role in networking and referral is an important part of our work. Audience development is a key part of what we do. Our blog for adults, Read Alert, attracts over 5,000 unique visitors each month.
In creating insideadog.com.au we draw on an extensive knowledge of the industry: the writers, publishers, editors, librarians and readers. Better yet, we are able to make all that knowledge and networking available to a much wider audience.
Website development - meeting a need
The website was launched in April 2006 and comes pretty close to achieving what we aimed for. The need for a website for peer recommendation and credible information and advice was flagged in 2001 in Young Australians Reading, a research report into the reading habits of people aged 10-18. Along the way a lot of people pointed out that creating a website isn't all that expensive or complicated. True, but good websites are hungry beasts that need regular feeding. We wanted to avoid the 'brochure in space' mentality, so having staff with the time to maintain and promote the site was critical.
The website was on the drawing board for five years. A lot of thinking, planning, researching and drafting went into building insideadog.com.au With the generous support of the Clayton Utz Foundation and, in particular, the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL), we were able to corner the staff time to continue to create and update the necessary content. Lili Wilkinson, previously the Centre's Event Coordinator and Bookings Officer, now spends most of her working week creating, updating and maintaining the material on the site. Besides being very widely read, is a Media Arts graduate of Melbourne University, so she has the right skill set to manage the site's content. (She has also just published her first book for young readers, Joan of Arc, so we believe she can write a bit, too.)
As the CYLis part of the State Library Victoria (SLV), we're incredibly fortunate to have talented programmers in the SLVWeb Unit to take away the pain of coding and the nitty-gritty of making the website happen. A number of people have already commented on the clarity of the layout and the ease of navigation within the site. Credit has to go to the Web Unit who helped straighten out our thinking.
The crucial visual design was done by graphic designer Phil Campbell. Phil is an award-winning book designer who freelances for Allen & Unwin and Melbourne University Publishing. We briefed Phil about the pitfalls of designing for youth: don't try to look cool - they smell you every time! Don't design for children - they're not. The shorthand we used to explain our approach was 'quirky, not cool'.
Naming the site … and the dog
Which brings us to the name. We struggled to come up with a name for a long time. We really, really, really wanted to avoid worthy names - 'cool reads', 'youth books' and 'teen' were all firmly on the banned list. One night I gave a talk to a group of adults. Behind me on a screen were images from our events, cut with quotes about reading. 'Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read' scrolled past and people started laughing. (It was a talk about funding for regional programs … I was grateful that the audience was still alive let alone capable of laughing.)
Next morning at the office I said to Lili, 'Why don't we call the website "inside a dog"?' Thinking, of course, 'What a ridiculous name, it will never stick'. She liked it and it did stick. We workshopped it with a lot of people and they seemed to like it too, or at least they were polite enough to agree. But it gave Phil Campbell something to work with when he designed the pages and even drew the dog. He put flesh and fur on the idea, so to speak.
We ran a competition to name the dog. This attracted 3,300 entries from all over Australia. The dog is now named Inky A Wilde, and a 14 year old boy from the Blue Mountains is now the proud owner of a black iPod Nano. We will be using Inky's logo/identity as a platform for awards and other promotion.
So apart from a sharp-looking dog, what else is on the site?
A quick site tour
There is a featured new book every couple of weeks. We give away copies of the book to five people who review any book and submit it to us. Over 250 reviews have been submitted in the first month and these reviews are added and updated frequently.
We want to greatly increase the awareness of what is out there for young people to read. So a list of first chapters of new and forthcoming books is one strong feature. Themed booklists help in this way, too. There's also a news section to cover what's going on around Australia with events, festivals, awards and the like.
Quizzes on literary topics are another way to get people more actively involved. We hope to add to the quizzes regularly and broaden the challenge, so if you have any topics you would like tested let us know. We have regular competitions to give away books and other cool stuff. Publishers have been great supporters of CYLand of the website.
Linking writers and readers
Each month will also see a new writer-in-residence. Writers from around Australia, and indeed anywhere in the world, are blogging with reports on their life and their current writing. It's a great way for people to get a window into the life of the writer, to ask questions and get behind the scenes a little. We've scheduled writers like Garth Nix, Markus Zusak and Randa Abdel-Fattah. Nick Earls was the first writer-in-residence on insideadog.com.au
Blogs will be archived. A discussion forum is attracting a lot of comment too, on topics such as 'Is reading cool?' and 'Harry Potter 7 - who's going to die?'
The site includes information about copyright, reflecting the support of the Copyright Agency Limited. CALsaw the website as a vehicle to inform young people about copyright protection and infringement, and there are links to CAL's website for advice. The copyright information is handled subtly and is not presented as a warning.
All content going up on the site is moderated. We plan to introduce discussion boards and a similar protocol will apply. The discussion boards are not chat rooms and any information that might personally identify the writer (for example, full name, email address or phone number) will not be published.
We are thrilled with the response of young people, the book industry and from teacher librarians. We think the website makes the world of young adult literature a more fun, engaging and exciting place to hang out.
Centre for Youth Literature
State Library of Victoria
This article was previously published in FYI, Winter 2006.
Reprinted with permission of author and FYI.