Friday, July 14, 2017

Fuzzy genesis...

Late one night, late in 2013, a funny little phrase popped into my head as the engineering inside my conscious mind began to power down for the night. It was a rhythmical rhyming phrase and I liked the idea, sound and shape of it so much, I got up, found some paper and a pencil and wrote it down.

Evidence!!


The next morning I didn't muck around. I grabbed a piece of paper and started writing, to see where that first stanza might take me. Maybe my subconscious had worked on it overnight, maybe a clear head after a good night's sleep was what did it, but it all came pouring out. The central conceit, the metamorphosis, and (what I felt was) a most satisfying conclusion. I transferred the story onto the computer and began to rewrite and refine. While not strictly rhyming, the text had developed a particular rhythm and it was fun to play with language techniques, particularly as the techniques, in addition to the words themselves, supported the key themes. As I reflected on what I'd written I felt excited at the destination I'd arrived at from that very simple beginning. I could see one main thread of the text gave a mental nod to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but there were other influences too. The first thought as I'd lain in bed the night before had been of Beedle, which has a lovely structure/mouth feel/rhythm all it's own. Of course many of us have heard this name through Rowling's The Tales of Beedle the Bard, but I was just playing with the word in my head, and words like beetle and doodle and a few other two syllable sound alikes. It was just random thinking, word play, where I suspect a lot of good ideas are born. I'd thought about Emily Gravett too, and the self-referential metafictiveness of her work. Of course dear reader, as you will know, Beedle became Fuzzy. Despite the buzz of inspiration that first night, 'Fuzzy' became a better fit with the picture I had in my mind, of that first little doodle. More reader friendly too, I thought.

Once I'd launched off with the idea of a doodle that comes to life in the margin of the page (where many doodles start their lives in the real world), it seemed obvious that (like a caterpillar) the doodle would be hungry and on a page what is there to eat but words and pictures. The act of consuming culture can make us creative ourselves. Just like the doodle, we can experience a creative metamorphosis. The ideas grew and wrapped back around themselves and the more I thought about it, the more layers I could see in what I was writing. I love layers. It is always my goal when writing to make an iceberg out of my narrative with the text visible above, and a whole lot of ideas going on below. Or maybe it's a cabbage. Or an onion.

Of course the text is only part of the story when it comes to picture books. I sent the manuscript off to the publisher, Scholastic, and in November 2013 they signed the story up for publication. The hunt began for an illustrator and in 2014 Donovan Bixley came on board. His schedule meant waiting until mid 2016 for publication, but it was so worth the wait. His artwork picks up on everything in the text and extends it. All deceptively simple and yet it is what good art should be. Beautiful, and inspiring and empowering.

Since Fuzzy Doodle has been published, readers have broadened the discussion of what it all means. During a school visit on my recent tour of Northland with Storylines, a teacher asked me if the book was autobiographical,and straight away I said yes. I hadn't consciously thought of it that way but of course he was right. On that very first night when that phrase popped in to my head, and when I began to work the story the very next day I knew that things I've seen and read and watched and smelt and tasted and touched coalesce into ideas, and become my books. And then in the best kind of magic, my books can become grist in the creative mills of others. One of my biggest thrills has been discovering that young readers previously not confident in their own creative skills have been encouraged by the book to make all kinds of art.  After all, stories begin with one simple idea popping into our heads last thing at night, and art can grow from that little doodle in the margin at the edge.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The shortlist for the 2017 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults announced ...


I am so happy to finally reveal (cos it feels like I have known for an age) that Fuzzy Doodle, my picture book with Donovan Bixley, is shortlisted in two categories (Picture Book and Russell Clark Award) in the 2017 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. I am so proud of this book and even prouder that the judges have selected it as a finalist. The lists are full of wonderful books created for our young readers right here in New Zealand, and I know that there are even more terrific, deserving books that have missed out on a shortlisting. We make some pretty amazing children's literature here in this country. The winners of these awards will be announced on August 14 - exciting times. 

The finalists for the 2017 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults are:

Picture Book Award
Fuzzy Doodle, Melinda Szymanik, illustrated by Donovan Bixley, Scholastic NZ
Gwendolyn! Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Terri Rose Baynton, HarperCollins Publishers (ABC)
My Grandpa is a Dinosaur, Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones, illustrated by Richard Fairgray, Penguin Random House (Puffin)
That’s Not a Hippopotamus! Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Sarah Davis, Gecko Press
The Singing Dolphin/Te Aihe i Waiata, Mere Whaanga, Scholastic NZ
Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction 
Helper and Helper, Joy Cowley, illustrated by Gavin Bishop, Gecko Press
My New Zealand Story: Bastion Point, Tania Roxborogh, Scholastic NZ
Sunken Forest, Des Hunt, Scholastic NZ
The Discombobulated Life of Summer Rain, Julie Lamb, Mākaro Press (Submarine)
The Impossible Boy, Leonie Agnew, Penguin Random House (Puffin)
Copyright Licensing NZ Award for Young Adult Fiction 
Coming Home to Roost, Mary-anne Scott, Penguin Random House (Longacre)
Kiwis at War 1916: Dig for victory, David Hair, Scholastic NZ
Like Nobody’s Watching, LJ Ritchie, Escalator Press
Shooting Stars, Brian Falkner, Scholastic NZ
The Severed Land, Maurice Gee, Penguin Random House (Penguin)
Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction
From Moa to Dinosaurs: Explore & discover ancient New Zealand, Gillian Candler, illustrated by Ned Barraud, Potton & Burton
Jack and Charlie: Boys of the bush, Josh James Marcotte and Jack Marcotte, Penguin Random House (Puffin)
The Cuckoo and the Warbler, Kennedy Warne, illustrated by Heather Hunt, Potton & Burton
The Genius of Bugs, Simon Pollard, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa Press)
Torty and the Soldier, Jennifer Beck, illustrated by Fifi Colston, Scholastic NZ
Russell Clark Award for Illustration
Fuzzy Doodle, illustrated by Donovan Bixley, written by Melinda Szymanik, Scholastic NZ
Gladys Goes to War, illustrated by Jenny Cooper, written by Glyn Harper, Penguin Random House (Puffin)
If I Was a Banana, illustrated by Kieran Rynhart, written by Alexandra Tylee, Gecko Press
Snark: Being a true history of the expedition that discovered the Snark and the Jabberwock . . . and its tragic aftermath, illustrated and written by David Elliot (after Lewis Carroll), Otago University Press
The Day the Costumes Stuck, illustrated and written by Toby Morris, Beatnik Publishing
Te Kura Pounamu Award for books written completely in te reo Māori
Ngā Manu Tukutuku e Whitu o Matariki, Calico McClintock, illustrated by Dominique Ford, translated by Ngaere Roberts, Scholastic NZ
Ngārara Huarau, Maxine Hemi, Illustrated by Andrew Burdan, Huia Publishers
Te Haerenga Māia a Riripata i Te Araroa, Maris O’Rourke, illustrated by Claudia Pond Eyley, translated by Āni Wainui, David Ling Publishing (Duck Creek Press)
Te Kaihanga Māpere, Sacha Cotter, illustrated by Josh Morgan, translated by Kawata Teepa, Huia Publishers
Tuna rāua ko Hiriwa, Ripeka Takotowai Goddard, illustrated by Kimberly Andrews, Huia Publishers
Best First Book Award 
Awatea’s Treasure, Fraser Smith, Huia Publishers
Like Nobody’s Watching, LJ Ritchie, Escalator Press
The Discombobulation of Summer Rain, Julie Lamb, Mākaro Press (Submarine)
The Mouse and the Octopus, written and illustrated by Lisala Halapua, Talanoa Books
Wars in the Whitecloud: Wairau, 1843, written and illustrated by Matthew H McKinley, Kin Publishing

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Storylines National Children's Writers and Illustrators' Hui...

One of the things I have always envied about writing greats, is their hobnobbing with other writing greats. Like Neil Gaiman's friendships with Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones. JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. And Stein, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. And many other literary groups and friendships. I can only imagine how cool their conversations are/were, and wonder whether they offer(ed) each other criticism and advice or just talk(ed) about more lofty philosophical topics. Maybe they just talk(ed) about what colour ink to use, but probably in a very exciting way. I think the important thing to hold on to here, to assuage the jealousy, is the fact that when these people formed their friendships/alliances they weren't necessarily the writing greats we have come to think of them as. They just got together to talk about their common interests.

As with any job or vocation, getting to know others in your field is how you keep your sanity, overcome issues that are hard to wrangle on your own, share information for the betterment of the group, and help and support each other through successes and failures, because if you stay in this business for the long haul you will experience both.

I always recommend to writers just starting out that they should find their tribe. You will need friends who understand what being a writer means as you make the journey. Ideally you will make friends with writers at all different stages of their careers because every stage has its own unique set of advantages and pitfalls. Most likely your group will be centered around the type of writing you do. You might belong to several groups. And late at night when you are struggling with your writing or, anything really, you will message your writery friends and they will know just what you mean and suggest ways to fix it or get through, or sympathise with the place you are at, or cheer you on.

If you don't know how to find your tribe, if you are unsure how to reach out to them, a conference (in addition to having many other benefits) is a good way to begin. Hanging out with your tribe (current or intended) is one of the loveliest things about a writing conference. There is to be a Hui for Children's Writers and Illustrators in Auckland this coming October. I'll be running a workshop for beginner writers, and there will be lots of practical workshops, pitching sessions and opportunities to meet and hang out with writers and illustrators from all over New Zealand at all sorts of different stages in their careers. If you want to find out more or sign up to attend, everything you need to know can be found here. I hope I see you there!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Touring Northland with Storylines ...

I went travelling last week. Thanks to the most excellent organisation Storylines, I toured Northland schools and pre-schools with Tim Tipene, Diana Menefy, Anne Marie Florian, Terry Fitzgibbon and Maria Gill. We talked books, reading, writing and illustrating, and their value and importance. We were wrangled by the lovely, patient, expert driver, and literature fiend, Anne Dickson, who deserves a medal or two for getting us to all the places we needed to go. I visited and spoke at 18 schools, kindergartens and related events. Group sizes varied from  22 to 225 (plus teachers). Ages ranged from 3 months to 13 years. Sometimes groups comprised a whole school, years 0 to 8. It was pretty full on. But as you can see I was still smiling on Friday.


We met a lot of children as we travelled. I talked with students at Tauhoa Primary, Tapora School, and Tomarata Primary on Monday. Mangawhai Beach School, Waipu, Maungaturoto and Paparoa (and Tinopai) Primarys on Tuesday. Maunu and Onerahi Schools, and Whangarei Intermediate (a workshop) on Wednesday. Thursday I visited Hurupaki, Hukerenui, Pakaraka and Kaikohe West Schools and in the afternoon/evening we did an event at Kerikeri High School in association with SLANZA. Friday we wended our way home via Our Place Early Learning Centre, Kerikeri Community Childcare Trust, (Makana Chocolate Cafe - not a school) and Horizon School in Snell's Beach.

We covered a lot of miles (1,812km!!) and got to see many beautiful parts of Northland (including some I'd never seen before). This is me, Tim, Diana and Anne Marie at Whangarei Heads School where Diana and Anne Marie spoke. Just the most amazing backdrop, don't you think?



I received the loveliest gift and card from Maunu School, and was sung a waiata at Kaikohe West School, and at Kerikeri Community Childcare Trust. Everyone was so welcoming everywhere we went.

I was a bit weary by the time I returned home Friday evening but the whole week was a total blast. I felt very lucky. If I got the chance I would do it all again. I had felt a little daunted by the prospect of all that public speaking in such varied circumstances but the children were wonderful, respectful and enthusiastic. My travelling companions were the best company and we had a lot of laughs. Storylines have created a wonderful thing. There will be more tours around other parts of New Zealand over the rest of the year. If you would like an author and/or illustrator to visit your school or preschool you can apply here.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tempting boys to read...

Much is often made of writing children's fiction to tempt boy readers. The general consensus is that they lag behind girls in reading volume and therefore reading (and associated) skills. We must write things that will appeal specifically to them in a way that boy readers in particular will enjoy. I'm not sure what that means. Maybe more action and adventure, or toilet humour and slapstick, more horror and science fiction, less girls, less narrative, more dialogue, and no crying, god forbid.

Recently I listened to a terrific speech by a wonderful, successful, well-published author. He writes great books. He said he wrote to tempt the boy reader. He also said he was surprised down the track to find that many (most?) of his readers were girls. And I can't stop thinking about this. Did this mean his efforts to tempt boys didn't succeed? Or that the books appealed equally to girls? Or appealed more to girls than boys despite the authors deliberate intentions otherwise? Or that girls will read widely and don't care what gender the main character is or whether the main themes are considered masculine or feminine or whatever? Or that girls will always read more than boys no matter what?


If girls will read stories centering around boys and 'their interests' in addition to stories focusing on their own gender, then why won't boys read stories centering around girls and their interests? Are we failing boys by not supplying enough of exactly what they want to read, or are we failing boys by providing exactly what they want to read. Have we made it impossible for them to pick up something with a pink cover, with glittery foil? Have we dismissed female protagonists as being beneath them or as not deserving of their attention? Maybe it's not the books. Maybe having a society that seems slightly apologetic about books and dismissive of the arts in general is the issue. As noted by Toby Manhire in the 9 January 2012 issue of The NZ Listener, our then Prime Minister, John Key, (in his contribution to a flyer for Otago's NZ Literary Heritage Trail), 'put the role of New Zealand art and culture in its national context.



"I have always believed we should enhance the literary skills of our young people and while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us." '

I don't think anything has changed since then. Books can never be as cool as the All Blacks according to the folk who set the tone for our attitudes. Representing your country in sport is cool. Winning an Olympic medal is cool. Books, hmmm, not so much. If only reading could be that cool. 


A few years back, I read or heard someone comment that it was wrong to have your young male character cry during the course of your novel. Because boys didn't cry and this would render the character less credible in the eyes of young male readers. When I first read/heard it I worried about all the young male protagonists I'd written that had cried or become emotional when something terrible or terrifying had happened. Now I know my protagonists should cry when this is the right emotional response, regardless of their gender. But this attitude that crying is wrong is not uncommon when it comes to what is widely considered appropriate content for books for boys. In our attempts to coax more boys into reading more books what are we showing them about the world we live in? Are we writing girls out of their world? Or rendering them as only helpers or assistants rather than heroes in their own right? And if they are heroes they must be 'kick-ass' and physical? Are we making it uncool to cry? Have we sacrificed too much in our efforts to get boys to read more? Have the efforts that have been made to increase their reading even worked? Is it time to try a different approach? Should we forget about 'girl' books and 'boy' books and just make reading so cool that all children feel an irresistible urge to pick up a good book. 

    



Thursday, March 23, 2017

Turning in ever decreasing circles

It was a surprise and a bit of a blow to see the recent announcement from the Book Awards Trust regarding changes to the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults (you can check it out here). There are some positive developments in there - with increasing promotion of finalist titles through several initiatives and a revamped schedule of events that will see authors and illustrators hopefully reaching more of their young readers in what looks like a much more celebratory style - Good!

But my heart broke a little to see that these new intiatives come at the expense of the Children's Choice Awards. For a number of years children were able to vote for their favourite book from amongst the finalist titles. This was a limited approach with a format that tended to favour picture books but it encouraged engagement with all categories of New Zealand children's literature and was an important means of giving voice to our target audience. The prize was much coveted by authors and illustrators, a ringing endorsement from the people we write for. It was a huge thrill when The Were-Nana, my picure book with Sarah Anderson, won the Children's Choice Award in 2009. I love that book and I'm quietly chuffed that the children did too. It gave me the confidence to keep writing for children.

We rejoiced when Children's Choice expanded to acknowledge the book with the most votes in each book award category. And we were jubilant when  over the last few years children could vote for any book submitted for the book awards instead of just the finalists, and Children's Choice then drew up its own list of finalists and each category winner was feted individually. What a tremendous level of engagement for children around New Zealand. This expansion took some of the sting out of the cutting of the LIANZA awards. In a small country with a small population and little media exposure for local children's literature, the loss of these awards has been a real blow to the children's book community. The broadening of Children's Choice was seen as the ideal positive step forward, helping our local writers and illustrators achieve a greater connection with their audience, and giving that audience a chance to speak directly back to us through their choices. A real win:win.

And now it's gone completely.

I appreciate that giving potential voters access to all the eligible children's and young adults titles in a limited time frame, encouraging them to vote and collating the responses must be a significant and costly task. I understand that the organisation of a whole additional tier of finalists and winners adds a degree of complexity for the awards team. Maybe the administration of the Children's Choice Awards is ideally shared with another organisation, or could be reconstructed into a more manageable format that still allows children to have their say. How cool would it be if a dedicated sponsor came forward to fund Children's Choice. Our readers and their opinions are incredibly important to us and the future of children's literature in this country. Other countries with robust Children's Book Awards programmes have Children's Choice Awards. With tightening publishing lists and these cuts to children's book awards we are turning in ever decreasing circles.


Friday, March 17, 2017

A few good things...

It has been a week of news :)

I'm so thrilled to say I get to be a part of this year's Auckland Writers Festival. I've been involved in the Festival before and I didn't dare hope I'd get to take part again. I'll be running a workshop on writing picture books called Picture Book Practice, talking about key attributes, common mistakes, and avenues for publication. It'll be a 90 minute primer with lots of juicy information and a fun exercise to set you on your way. Information on the session is here. Sunday 21st of May 4.00 - 5.30pm at the Aotea Centre. The festival is jam packed with all sorts of amazing goodies and I can't wait to go along!!  Exciting times. Check out the full programme here.

I think one of the nicest types of feedback I can get on my workshops, school visits and other events is repeat business. I recently got invited back for the second time to an annual event, and received a request for a school visit from someone I've visited for before. I'm always working to improve my talks and workshops and always thinking of ways I can add value to what I do, so to know I'm on the right track with content and delivery is enormously helpful.

And a very exciting kind of feedback is acknowledgement of our books by the children's literature community. I'm very proud that Fuzzy Doodle, my picture book with Donovan Bixley, has been named a Storylines Notable Book for 2017. Here is the list of picture book fabulousness that I feel honoured to be a part of:

Storylines Notable Books List 2017

The Storylines Notable Books List 2017, for books published in 2016, has been announced. The award-winning titles are:
 
Picture Books
  • If I was a Banana by Alexandra Tylee, illustrated by Kieran Rynhart (Gecko)
  • Gwendolyn! by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Terri Rose Baynton (HarperCollins)
  • Tuna and Hiriwa by Ripeka Takotowai Goddard, illustrated by Kimberly Andrews (Huia)
  • Maui – Sun Catcher by Tim Tipene, illustrated by Zak Waipara (Oratia)
  • Gladys Goes to War by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Fuzzy Doodle by Melinda Szymanik, illustrated by Donovan Bixley (Scholastic NZ)
  • Gorillas in our Midst by Richard Fairgray, illustrated by Terry Jones (Scholastic NZ)
  • Henry Bob Bobbalich by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Link Choi (Scholastic NZ)
  • Witch’s Cat Wanted Apply Within written by Joy H Davidson, illustrated by Nikki Slade-Robinson (Scholastic NZ)
  • The Harmonica by Dawn McMillan, illustrated by Andrew Burdan (Scholastic NZ)
  • Rasmas by Elizabeth Pulford, illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Scholastic NZ)
  • The Best Dad in the World by Pat Chapman, illustrated by Cat Chapman (Upstart)

Junior Fiction

  • The Road to Ratenburg by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Gavin Bishop (Gecko)
  • Annual edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris (Gecko)
  • The Diamond Horse by Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins UK)
  • Rona by Chris Szekely, illustrated by Josh Morgan (Huia)
  • Enemy Camp by David Hill (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • The Impossible Boy by Leonie Agnew (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Grandad’s Wheelies by Jack Lasenby, illustrated by Bob Kerr (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Barking Mad by Tom E Moffatt (Scholastic NZ)
  • Sunken Forest by Des Hunt (Scholastic NZ)

Young Adult

  • Lonesome When You Go by Saradha Koirala (Makaro)
  • Coming Home to Roost by Mary-anne Scott (Penguin Random House NZ)

Non-Fiction

  • See Play Do: A Kid’s Handbook for Everyday Creative Fun written and illustrated by Louise Cuckow (Beatnik)
  • Bruce Wants to Go Faster by Dreydon Sobanja, illustrated by Murray Dewhurst (Inspired Kids)
  • Armistice Day: the New Zealand Story by Philippa Werry (New Holland)
  • Speed King: Burt Munro, the World’s Fastest Indian by David Hill, illustrated by Phoebe Morris (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Jack and Charlie: Boys of the Bush by Jack Marcotte (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • The Beginner's Guide to Netball by Maria Tutaia (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Cricket with Kane Williamson by Kane Williamson (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • The Cuckoo and the Warbler: A True New Zealand Story by Heather Hunt, illustrated by Kennedy Warne (Potton and Burton)
  • ANZAC Heroes by Maria Gill, illustrated by Marco Ivancic (Scholastic NZ)
  • Much ado about Shakespeare written and illustrated by Donovan Bixley (Upstart)

A downloadable poster in PDF format of all this year's Notable Books can be found here.