San Sisto teacher receives national recognition for novel

Brisbane writer and San Sisto College teacher, Richard Yaxley has been announced as winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Young Adult Literature.

Richard, is the Program Leader of Learning Enhancement and a Literature Teacher at the College, was presented with the Award, one of the nation’s most prestigious literary honours, at the end of 2018. The judging committee lauded his novel, This Is My Song, as a “rich, beautifully written and multi-layered novel … [which] explores the damage that secrets can do. It is poignant, memorable and intensely moving.”

Richard described winning such an honour as “a rare and wonderful event in the life of an author,” and said, “I was thrilled to be shortlisted and to be at the ceremony in the company of many other distinguished writers. Winning was unbelievable … still is.”

This is not the first major award for Richard, with his verse novel Drink the Air winning the 2010 Queensland Premier's Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction.

This Is My Song, his fourth novel for young adults, was sparked by a European holiday in which he visited the Holocaust Memorial in Prague and saw paintings and drawings done by children from Theresienstadt concentration camp.

“It was an incredibly moving experience,” he said, “and one which gave me the impetus to begin my story. Novels need a heart, and the art of those children provided it. I hope my work is, in some small way, a tribute to their courage and idealism.”

The novel, written as a triptych, tells the story of Rafael Ullman, an aspiring musician born in Bamberg, in Bavaria, who as a is sent to a Nazi concentration camp. He survives this horrific experience, in part by his musical ability. Following the war, he moves to the wilds of Canada with his wife and daughter and later joins his daughter and grandson in Australia.

The judges commended Richard on the manner in which the novel explores the way the terrible events of the Holocaust affect the generations following, sometimes in ways even they don't understand, indicating that, “Each section of the book is told by one of the family—Rafael, Annie and finally grandson Joe. Each narrative voice is authentic and utterly convincing.”

When he’s not writing, Richard works with the students at San Sisto College in a range of ways.

“It’s very rewarding,” he said. “Young people keep you grounded. Personal success is affirming but I really enjoy seeing our students grow into independence. If they can take any inspiration from my own achievements, then that’s a lovely bonus.”

Richard advises anyone who wants to write a book to “just go for it.”

“There are no secret formulas,” he said. “Get it onto the page and go from there. Accept that there is a substantial investment of time and emotion, and work hard. After that, anything can happen.”