Saturday, April 12, 2014

Creating better citizens...

NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults finalist author (of picture book The Three Bears...Sort Of), Yvonne Morrison, spoke eloquently on radio the other day about her interest in teaching children 'critical thinking'. The text of her terrific picture book, with great illustrations by Donovan Bixley, directly encourages children to question everything, and children should. Blind acceptance of everything we are told is a dangerous path to tread and it is never too early to start encouraging children to ask why. Along with a love of reading, critical thinking is a tremendous gift to give our children. If they can question, and ask why, seeking clarity and truth, and a greater understanding of the world around them, we have given them an essential tool to take through life.

The meaning, the resolution, the underlying themes of picture books, shouldn't have to be dominated by closed, concrete thinking. Think The Lion in the Meadow - a book that turns on the idea of 'the potential', 'the possibilities', 'the magic' of our imagination, and even our existence. What if? we want children to ask.

And as children grow into young adults we want to extend their critical thinking while developing their empathy. Our recent 'roast busters' case demonstrates a serious need for a greater sense of empathy amongst our teens. Books for young adults should reflect their experience or challenge them to understand the experience of others. Not everyone lives a secure and happy life. If you do, you are very fortunate, but you become a better member of society if you acknowledge that others may be faced with hard choices, difficult situations and harsh experiences. To pretend that teens aren't exposed to alcohol, drugs, violence and sex does not help teens at all. Folk worry that such content might be too mature for teenagers but research shows that reading what is often deemed as 'controversial content' can help create better citizens, rather than resulting in increased antisocial behaviour as some adults fear might happen.

New Zealand YA author Mandy Hager is in London en route to her writing residency in Menton and dropped in on the London Book Fair. You can read about her experience here. She was fortunate to attend a talk by UK Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman who had many wonderful things to say about how good young adult literature can help teens figure out the world and their place in it. That's a very valuable thing.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A lovely little sekrit ...

I had a sekrit, but now I can say ... I am a finalist in the 2014 NZ Post Book Awards for Children And Young Adults with my book A Winter's Day in 1939. I am beyond thrilled and especially so that this is for a book that is a tribute to the bravery and tenacity of my wonderful parents. The full list of finalists is below. I am so honoured to be in this company. Congratulations to all the other finalists. Yet the list is just not long enough for all the great books that came out in 2013 - New Zealand is going from strength to strength with the quality of children's and young adult literature we are producing. . Thank you to all the lovely folk who have said such nice things to me about my shortlisting. It means a lot to me.

Picture Books
Machines and Me: Boats by Catherine Foreman; Scholastic New Zealand
The Boring Book by Vasanti Unka; Penguin Group (NZ), Puffin
The Three Bears … Sort Of by Yvonne Morrison & Donovan Bixley; Scholastic New Zealand
Toucan Can by Juliette MacIver & Sarah Davis; Gecko Press
Watch Out, Snail! by Gay Hay & Margaret Tolland; Page Break Ltd

An Extraordinary Land by Peter Hayden & Rod Morris; HarperCollins Publishers (NZ)
Anzac Day: The New Zealand story by Philippa Werry; New Holland Publishers
Flight of the Honey Bee by Raymond Huber & Brian Lovelock; Walker Books Australia
The Beginner’s Guide to Hunting & Fishing in New Zealand by Paul Adamson; Random House New Zealand
Wearable Wonders by Fifi Colston; Scholastic New Zealand

Junior Fiction
A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik; Scholastic New Zealand
Dunger by Joy Cowley; Gecko Press
Felix and the Red Rats by James Norcliffe; Random House New Zealand, Longacre
Project Huia by Des Hunt; Scholastic New Zealand
The Princess and the Foal by Stacy Gregg; Harper Collins Publishers (NZ)

Young Adult Fiction
A Necklace of Souls by R L Stedman; Harper Collins Publishers (NZ), HarperVoyager
Bugs by Whiti Hereaka; Huia Publishers
Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox; Gecko Press
Speed Freak by Fleur Beale; Random House New Zealand
When We Wake by Karen Healey; Allen & Unwin

Winner – Māori Language award
Taka Ki Ro Wai by Keri Kaa & Martin Page; Tania&Martin

Friday, April 4, 2014

Good books for young human beings...

I have been thinking a bit on the whole genderisation of children's books issue as this was recently doing the social media rounds, with bookshops and reviewers overseas declining to stock/review children's books marketed specifically to one gender. As radical as this seems I think I agree with the idea. We need more books for boys, I hear all too often. Boys might decline to read books with pink, or sparkles, or pictures of girls on the cover and yet often girls couldn't give a toss what's on the cover if they are interested in the book, whether its blue or depicts a machine or something 'manly' or whatever seems cool for boys to publishers/marketers/promoters etc.... Because deep down many girls never learn to judge a book this way and yet many boys do. And I don't believe it's because girls are innately more tolerant or broader minded - I think we consciously or (more likely) subconsciously tell boys that reading girl-centric stories is an embarrassing thing for boys to do.

I don't think boys are hardwired genetically to reject images of girls on book covers, or things that shine or are pink. Where is the evolutionary value in that? How can it be a bad idea to read a story that might be centered on the opposite gender which makes up around half the population? Wouldn't our boys be better off reading about girls as well as boys? Wouldn't our boys be better citizens as adults if they read stories more widely across the genders? Shouldn't we take some responsibility for why boys think this way? We are concerned about sexual harassment, sexual crimes and the gender imbalance and yet we continue to push for books for boys. I didn't stop to ask if it was a boy book or a girl book when I was reading as a youngster. Covers of children's and teens books were generally unisex when I was growing up. Why did we change this? I do my best to just write good stories, yet I too have fallen into the trap of suggesting  my titles might be better for one gender or the other. I'm going to work hard to change this. My books are good books for young human beings. End of story.

Monday, March 31, 2014

This years Notable Books

"Since 2000 Storylines has produced a list of outstanding books for children and young people published in New Zealand by New Zealand authors and illustrators during the previous calendar year. 

Books are categorised as: Picture Book, Junior Fiction, Young Adult and Non Fiction. Allowing up to ten in each category, the Storylines list is seen as complementary to the NZ Post Awards and the LIANZA Awards. 
The decision to compile this annual list of Notable Books was based on a desire to ensure that children, parents/grandparents, teachers, librarians and the public were made aware of the range of high quality books being published, in addition to those (five in each category) receiving significant recognition through other awards. 

Storylines Notable Books are books selected by an expert panel from the Storylines community and includes librarians, teachers, teacher educators and academics and authors, as worthy of being recognised as ‘Notable’ in each year. Several members of the panel have served as judges for the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Award (and under its previous sponsor) and the LIANZA Book Awards."

Here is the 2014 Notable Book List:

The 2014 list is for books published in 2013. 
Storylines Notable Picture Books 2014.
Books for children and / or young adults where the narrative is carried equally by pictures and story.
  • A Book is a Book by Jenny Bornholdt, illustrated by Sarah Wilkins (Gecko Press and Whitireia Publishing)
  • Alphabet Squabble by Isaac Drought, illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Scholastic)
  • Bad Dog Flash by Ruth Paul (Scholastic)
  • Henry's Map by David Elliot (Random House)
  • Swim - the Story of Hinemoa & Tutanekai and its te reo Maori retelling Tahoe - He Pakiwaitara mo Hinemoa raua ko Tutanekai by Chris Szekely, illustrated by Andrew Burdan, translated into te reo Maori by Scotty Morrison (Huia)
  • Teddy Bear's Promise by Diana Noonan, illustrated by Robyn Belton (Craig Potton Publishing)
  • The Boring Book by Vasanti Unka (Penguin)
  • The Boy and the Cherry Tree by Mark & Rowan Sommerset (Dreamboat)
  • The Quiet Pirate by Stephanie Thatcher (Duck Creek Press)
  • The Three Bears … Sort of by Yvonne Morrison, illustrated by Donovan Bixley (Scholastic)
  • The Weather Machine by Donovan Bixley (Hachette)
  • Toucan Can by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Sarah Davis (Gecko Press)
  • While You are Sleeping by Melinda Szymanik, illustrated by Greg Straight (Duck Creek Press)

Storylines Notable Junior Fiction 2014.
Fiction suitable for primary and intermediate-aged children.
  • A Winter's day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik (Scholastic)
  • Dunger by Joy Cowley (Gecko Press)
  • Felix and the Red Rats by James Norcliffe (Random House)
  • New Zealand Girl: Rebecca & the Queen of Nations by Deborah Burnside (Penguin)
  • New Zealand Story: Lighthouse Family by Philippa Werry (Scholastic)
  • Project Huia by Des Hunt (Scholastic)
  • Scrap: Tale of a Blond Puppy by Vince Ford (Scholastic)
  • Shot Boom Score by Justin Brown (Allen & Unwin)
  • Sinking by David Hill (Scholastic)
  • The Phantom of Terawhiti by Des Hunt (HarperCollins)
  • The Princess and the Foal by Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins)
  • Where the Flag Floats by Dawn Grant (Standfast Publications)

Storylines Notable Young Adult Fiction 2014.
Fiction suitable for upper-intermediate and secondary school age.
  • A Necklace of Souls by R.L. Stedman (HarperCollins)
  • Birthright by Tania Roxborogh (Penguin)
  • Bugs by Whiti Hereaka (Huia) [recommended for 14+]
  • Cattra's Legacy by Anna Mackenzie (Random House)
  • Dear Vincent by Mandy Hager (Random House)
  • Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox (Gecko Press)
  • Murder at Mykenai by Catherine Mayo (Walker Books)
  • Recon Team Angel: Ice War by Brian Falkner (Walker Books)
  • Speed Freak by Fleur Beale (Random House)
  • The Freedom Merchants by Sherryl Jordan (Scholastic)
  • When We Wake by Karen Healey (Allen & Unwin)

Storylines Notable Non-fiction 2014.
For authoritative, well-designed informational books accessible to children and young adults.
  • An Extraordinary Land by Peter Hayden and Rod Morris (HarperCollins)
  • Anzac Day: The New Zealand Story by Philippa Werry (New Holland)
  • First Crossings by Kevin Biggar and Jamie Fitzgerald (Random House)
  • In the Garden: Explore & Discover the New Zealand Backyard by Gillian Candler, illustrated by Ned Barraud (Craig Potton)
  • Native Storybooks: Flight of the Honey Bee        by Raymond Huber, illustrated by Brian Lovelock (Walker Books)
  • Nic's Lunchbox by Nicholas Brockelbank (Scholastic)
  • Quarantine Inspected by Jaimie Baird (Primedia)
  • Running the Country: A Look inside New Zealand's Government by Maria Gill (New Holland)
  • The Beginner's Guide to Hunting & Fishing in New Zealand by Paul Adamson (Random House)
  • Wearable Wonders by Fifi Colston (Scholastic)

Congratulations to everyone listed. It's a big year with Storylines exceeding their usual 10 book quota in several categories and it's time we recognized how strong children's publishing is in New Zealand. It's a terrific list to be on and I am thrilled to have two books on this year's list.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why yes, I have been writing ...

I have been wittering about a bunch of stuff recently - defending picture books, writing on didacticism, trying to be a wee bit poetic. It is probably the result of breathing in the Dunedin air, which is a blend of poetry, academia and culture. The city, the University and the College of Education where I am based have been very welcoming. I have already been invited to and attended a range of cultural and academic activities and it's all been fascinating. A performance by a concert cellist, an academic lecture on Social Construction and Frame Theory, and the opening of a very cool exhibition of pre-1960 NZ Children's Literature The weather has mostly been settled although a little bit chillier than I am used to for this time of year. Being away from the family has its challenges but I know it's for a finite period and its flying by. Despite my fears before I left home that I would go blank when I got here and not write a thing, I have been zipping along with one project and making some progress on another, as well as finishing one small one in entirety. I wasn't sure how I would go in an 'office' but so far it is a productive environment. It is a unique gift.  Writing is the whole point. If you have ever considered applying to be the Children's Writer in Residence I encourage you to do so.

It would seem I am the token hobbit in the world of men - these are the 2014 University of Otago Fellows 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Some thoughts on didacticism...

When literature first began to be written with children in mind, the stories produced were generally of an improving nature: 'didactic' texts with a moral lesson, stories that set out the rules of how adults expected or wanted children to behave. Be seen and not heard, mind your manners and your elders, be kind, don't steal, poke, provoke, be proud, or rude, gobble your food and so on. Sometimes these were bible stories - parables from the testaments, old and new, that extolled virtuous behaviour. Aesop's Fables provided a more secular set of aphorisms to live by.

However the didacticism inherent in early children's literature was probably somewhat hypocritical, coming across potentially as more of a 'do as I say and not as I do' kind of literature. At the time adults were just realising that children needed books aimed specifically at them, adult literature had itself already developed well past the Bible, Torah, Quran, and other religious tomes guiding and directing adult values. Well before then, the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare had already injected the sensational and the bawdy into their work. They were riffing on the behaviours of actual humanity rather than some ideal. By the time children were acknowledged as something other than miniature adults, adults were reading romances, westerns, and the drudgery and cruelty of Dickens. Good fiction was about the best and worst of people, warts and all. Reading had already developed into an activity offering entertainment to adults. Children however were seen as something to be molded and controlled and their reading was written accordingly.  And yet not only were adults reading literature which was definitely not 'improving,' they were often expecting more of their offspring than they were capable of themselves. 

As literature grew and evolved, so too did an understanding of the child reader, and writing for children became a more complex and richly structured endeavour. Writing morphed from being stories about what adults wanted children to know and be, and became more about subjects and issues that concerned children directly. What was going on in their lives and what was of interest to them. Reading meets a multiplicity of needs in a child - learning to read, providing information, entertainment and pleasure, tasting the world and all its variety, and learning about how language is used. It must offer more than just moral guidance.  

Didactic texts aim to teach the reader. To a certain extent all literature teaches, not just in terms of literacy but in terms of the larger underlying themes and messages. Non-fiction works clearly contain material which 'informs' but fiction also informs providing a window onto experiences that readers can find their own lessons in. Any well-written book with substance will inform and teach in some way.  

In its simplest form a good story offers an opportunity for the reader to observe the behaviour of others and decide how it applies to them. The best children's books put a child at the centre of the story. They teach critical thinking and give children the tools to solve their own problems. They deal with themes that are practical and real, even when cloaked in the guise of fantasy or science fiction, history or horror. Encouraging good behaviour is not a bad thing, but children are not just blank slates on which good rules alone must be written. Children are complex creatures, just as adults are. We want them to become independent thinkers who judge for themselves how and why to be good people. 

Children's literature has to be relevant to who they are and what they are experiencing. Life is rarely simple, or fair and no one is perfect. Books will have a bigger impact on a child if they reflect the full richness of experience rather than some distilled advice or a blatant lecture. In less well thought out moments I have attempted to give my children lectures and it is the fastest way to make them glaze over. And if we have all managed to get through to the end they eventually remind me that they already knew what I was hectoring them about. Because the good life lessons are best engendered in context, through real life example. So where is the line between too didactic and just right? If the lesson is visible on the surface you have crossed the line. If everyone in the story learns to be a better person you have probably crossed the line. If there is nothing 'else' to the story you have crossed the line. If it feels like a parable or a fable you have probably crossed the line. If it feels like a fairy tale, a nursery rhyme or a cautionary tale you are actually probably in safer territory. And I don't mean Disney fairy tales or nursery rhymes, I mean the originals where sometimes dreadful things happened and there was no clear message or moral. And just remember - you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make them drink.
(Note: Should you choose to print all or part of this post, re-post or use this material in any other way, please acknowledge me as its author, and where appropriate, provide a link to the original blog post. Thank you :) )

Friday, March 14, 2014

When words ignite...

My mind is forever playing with words: throwing them, catching them, mixing them up, and rubbing them together to see what happens. I am learning that when they spark, ignite and catch, it pays to take note(s). Even near midnight... the words 'a near kiss'...and this is the note I made.

Titanic Love

It wasn't a near kiss
I had her.
Then she was gone
Like a ship in the night.
She slipped away
My cold heart had struck again