Santa Sabina College has always been a haven for those in the creative arts, including musicians, artists and writers. In the 1930s and 1940s, students benefitted from the visits and teaching of poets Dame Mary Gilmore, Christopher Brennan, Poet Laureate John Masefield, best-selling author Ion Idriess and the great novelist Patrick White.
But we have had to wait until 2023 to host an author of young adult fiction – and we now have the incredible gift of Melina Marchetta in our midst, author of the award-winning and international best seller Looking for Alibrandi (and many other prize-winning novels). Melina is not just a visitor but on the staff as our newest Teacher Librarian and she is also a Santa Sabina parent.
An avid reader as well as a prolific writer, Melina says she has always loved libraries and often goes to them to write her award-wining books and film scripts. Growing up not far from Santa Sabina, she often retreated to Concord Library.
But, ‘walking into the Santa Sabina library on my first day before school it was just buzzing with girls and I thought this is just what a library should look like’, Melina said.
‘With its natural light and the way the books are laid out in genres it’s almost like the perfect library – it’s such an inviting space, it’s big but it’s also cozy and functional. A library is not just about books, it’s about space – it’s about a safe space where you can escape and it’s about so much more than just reading and research.’
Melina is a firm believer of the power of books to bring people together and is working hard with individual students, especially reluctant readers, to find the pivotal book which will strike a chord and lead to the lifelong joy of reading which many of us experience.
‘I do want to put the right book into someone’s hands,’ she says.
And Melina’s thoughts on the importance of books also feature in Ms Skerman’s first Santa Dialogues podcast, The Joy of Reading.
Much has been written about Melina’s immense success as a young author 30 years ago when her influential novel was published at age 27. Writing it began at age 19 and several publishers’ rejections and a few re-writes followed. It has now been read by perhaps a million people around the world, translated into several languages, awarded more prizes than we have room to list and sold half a million copies. Melina wrote the screenplay for the film of the same name which can still be viewed on SBS On Demand. Looking for Alibrandi, the book, is still on the Australian curriculum and anyone – generations in fact – who read it in their teens will tell you how formative it was and how much understanding of the human condition it brought them.
Melina went on to write many more award-winning novels and feels her writing developed and matured in the intervening decades as it now extends to fantasy, children’s books, podcasts and newspaper articles. She is regularly invited to speak at writers’ festivals and at schools and last year gave valuable advice to our HSC Extension English students in an after-school workshop covering the nuances of dialogue, descriptive writing, the importance of failure in leading to success, research and drafting.
Although Looking for Alibrandi was the first published work of a young writer whose style was still evolving, ‘I don’t ever underestimate the book because I know the impact it’s had – I have heard so often from so many people about the first time they read it, about how they felt. This shared experience [between author and reader] brings a sense of solace. It’s beautiful to have that connection with people.’
When not working in our inspirational library Melina is currently working on two film scripts, one is called Kangaroo and is at casting stage. ‘It’s a beautiful story based very loosely on a kangaroo sanctuary in the Northern Territory and once again there is a flawed character who goes on a journey and the community he ends up with – thematically the kind of story I love working on.’
Another novel might be on the cards: Melina feels ‘niggling’ characters wanting to grow into a story – ‘it always starts with a character’ – and she says schools ‘are good places for triggering major creativity’.
‘Now I’m surrounded by books and kids so another novel is surely going to come. It’s fantastic to still be doing this after so many years,’ she says.
Melina says she loves food and she loves culture and she loves reading the books our students are reading in their courses. Last Christmas she set up a bookclub with her daughter, Bianca, in another example of books bringing people together.
Our library features copies of many of Melina’s books (as you can see in the photo) and our vintage copy of Alibrandi reveals this hand-written inscription:
‘For the community of Santa Sabina I know there is an essence of Josie in all of you.
Melina Marchetta (Santa Sabina parent)’