Agnes Nieuwenhuizen: A champion of books for the young

Agnes Nieuwenhuize, onne of the most significant figures in the development of Australian young-adult literature, has died. She was 78.

She was for many years a teacher and a passionate champion of reading and literature in schools. It was taking a class of year 7 children to visit Alan Marshall, author of the bestselling fictionalised autobiography I Can Jump Puddles, that got her thinking about a different approach to teens and reading. She started to specialise in children's and YA writing and in 1991 established the Youth Literature project at the Victorian Writers' Centre. This eventually evolved into the Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria in 1999.

Her aim was to encourage reading and engender a passion for quality writing in teenagers through a program of events featuring authors and a variety of activities that included the popular Reading Matters conference. She also agitated for more and better teaching of books in schools.

Agnes Nieuwenhuizen Photo: Rebecca Hallas

Agnes Nieuwenhuizen Photo: Rebecca Hallas

Novelist Maureen McCarthy said Nieuwenhuizen was fierce and strong-minded, kind and supportive. "I think she was a trailblazer in that field of young-adult literature. In Australia she really made the whole area of YA important. She will be missed."

And writer Kirsty Murray said her death was a huge loss for Australian culture, not just for YA literature. "She was an advocate for so many ideas for books. She was outspoken and incredibly brave in an age when people don't like to speak out. She was not intimidated by anyone."

Murray said she had asked Nieuwenhuizen to launch her third novel, Walking Home with Marie-Claire. "Only if I like it," came the blunt response. Fortunately for Murray, she did. "I was on tenterhooks because I knew if she didn't like it she wouldn't do it."

Nieuwenhuizen retired in 2005 but continued writing and reviewing. And she maintained her passion for books and the way they are taught in schools. Responding to a kerfuffle over the inclusion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Love in the Time of Cholera on the school curriculum, she wrote in The Age: "With the relentless focus on 'issues' what goes missing is the focus on the book as literature; its ideas, characters and above all language and an understanding of points of view: the author's and the characters' ... By mining and scouring books for issues and focusing on matters of suitability rather than substance, we in fact fail to teach young people how to read and what reading is for and the ways literature can enlighten, inspire and above all give pleasure."

Agnes Nieuwenhuizen's parents were Hungarian and she was born in Iran and the family migrated to Australia in 1979. By the time she was 10, she could read in more than three languages. Language for her was linked to books and reading and "it has always been, for me, a way of learning about the world. I think literature is the most powerful way of allowing young people to stand in other people's shoes and to empathise and understand".

A memorial service will be held at a later date.

This story Agnes Nieuwenhuizen: A champion of books for the young first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.