Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Some children's book reviews ...

While I doom scroll on twitter for the latest on the US post-election potential for a coup, and await the daily NZ covid case update, whilst writing about ten words a day on the five projects I have open on my laptop, I have also been reading other people's books and reviewing them. As it is Christmas soon and books always make fabulous presents, here are some reviews of books by New Zealanders out this year: 

The Inkberg Enigma by Jonathan King (Gecko Press, 2020)

I opened the front cover of this graphic novel and I must confess I was immediately smitten. The endpapers are covered in a map and I suspect the place names are nods to other New Zealand illustrators, writers and comic artists – ‘Hicksville’, ‘Murdoch’ Inlet, ‘Laing’s Man’s Field, ‘Yoshioka’ Circuit, ‘Kerr’ Bay and ‘Knox’s’ Shade. I didn’t recognize all the names, and I guess it might sail over the heads of many of this graphic novel’s target audience, but I noticed it and I couldn’t help smiling. And as I read through I recognized that the main character Miro is the kind of kid who probably ‘would’ notice. Nice.

The setting is Aurora, a fishing village overlooked by a strange castle on the hill owned by an enigmatic never-seen owner, and a mystery swirling around the lucrative fishery operation that is behind the town’s prosperity.

The story moves along at a fair canter. It’s the holidays and school kid, Miro, is busy secretly pillaging the relics in the household attic to make money to feed his habit – for books, especially the expensive, first edition kind. This was where I was smitten all over again as Miro selects books that I have swooned over myself (it’s not often you see a reference to Comet in Moominland!).

Miro falls in with shutterbug and fellow student Zia, and pushed along by her inquisitive zeal they are soon on the trail of the mystery. What was that strange thing wrapped around that ‘injured’ fisherman’s leg, and why didn’t the mayor want them to see it? There’s a secret society, a sacred text, and weird goings on. It seems like everyone in the village is involved, and the adults definitely don’t want the kids snooping around. There is a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys vibe to this story with a dash of Tintin thrown in, with some visual and textual Easter eggs, and a current of subtle humour running along through-out. I zipped through this fairly quickly and overall found it a fun read, and I think plenty of 8 to 12 year olds will thoroughly enjoy it too. 4 out of 5 stars

Viola Vincent Reporting: Troubled Water by Anna Kenna (Tirimoana Publishing, 2020).

 This is the third in a junior fiction series revolving around young wanna-be-journalist, Caitlyn Nove, and her investigative alter-ego Viola Vincent. I haven’t read the previous books, but I didn’t find it too much of a challenge to pick up the gist of Caitlyn’s ongoing story. Each book tackles a hot button issue of the day such as puppy farming (Book Two), and in book three it’s protecting the environment with an added nod to climate change.

Caitlyn is faced head on with the consequences of polluted rivers when she gets horribly ill after a swim while on holiday. The state of our rivers and waterways is a significant issue here in New Zealand at the moment, most often caused by intensification of farming, and Kenna pulls no punches in exploring this problem. She also addresses the practice of Kaitiakitanga, or ‘guardianship’ of the environment, through the concerns and reactions of the local iwi to the pollution of the waterways.  Despite their advice and the placement of a rāhui on the affected river, the local council’s lack of consultation with iwi has resulted in the kai moana becoming too toxic to eat and the river becoming un-swimmable. Kaitiaki is well explained here, although I think the speed at which understanding and agreement is reached between the two key parties was a bit surprising.

And it’s not just the polluted water, it’s also the impact of changing weather on the coastal settlement where Caitlyn’s Granddad has his bach. The last storm caused some damage but no amount of shoring up and battening down will protect them from the next one. Solutions suggested by the local council are expensive and ultimately short term. The author leaves this issue open and it’s possible it may be explored further in future books.

All in all, these are major, complex problems and through Caitlyn and her adult co-conspirators, journalist Megan and photographer Tamati, Kenna provides a wealth of information and some pretty persuasive arguments. At times it feels a smidge didactic, but I think it is useful to raise awareness of these subjects amongst today’s children, and there is plenty to chew on here. While there are a few awkward sentences early on, the writing soon settles in to a good rhythm making for a very readable story.  And although Caitlyn sometimes speaks with quite adult turns of phrase, and she’s sometimes a bit grumpy for a kid, I guess that’s not entirely unexpected for a junior reporter worried about what’s going on in the world. Recommended for the environmentally conscious youngster in your household.


I am the Universe by Vasanti Unka (Puffin: Penguin, 2020).

This is an ambitious picture book that seeks to answer a big question – what is our place in the Universe? I couldn’t help but be reminded while reading of my own childhood determination to mark my place, writing on my school exercise books and diaries my comprehensive address beginning with my house number and street name, through my suburb and city, the appropriate island in our New Zealand archipelago, through our country, ocean, hemisphere and planet, and always ending with ‘The Universe’. And I know I wasn’t the only one doing this. I imagine children still do this. And I am the Universe embodies this desire to know where we are in the grand scheme of it all.

The book takes us on a journey, beginning with the universe; the galaxies whirling through the inky darkness. Now we are inside a starry spiralling galaxy, and then our own solar system with all the planets depicted in glorious colours. On and on we go through each descending level of organisation on each double page spread until we find ourselves in our neighbourhood, then our family unit, until it’s just us looking out our bedroom window gazing up at the night sky.

I am the Universe effectively conveys a sense of wonder, a sense of the enormity of the infinite and the drama of the cosmos, and the thrilling diversity and richness of nature. But it also provides a sense of the collegiality of community, and the warm embrace of our family. It is at once reassuring and also mind expanding, with plenty of triggers to spark conversations about big scientific and philosophical concepts. And it is all done with simple yet compelling, thoughtful text, and bold, flat artwork that covers every inch of each page. The illustrations are attractive, colourful and dynamic sending the reader swirling through space, swimming through oceans and strolling through town, all enabled by a generously big format which makes you feel like you’re falling into the world of the book. 

What a wonderful thing. Highly recommended.

Katipo Joe: Blitzkrieg by Brian Falkner (Scholastic, 2020).

This is a good middle grade/teen read from Brian Falkner, following the exploits of boy spy Joseph 'Katipo' Saint George, during World War II. After spending much of his youth living in Berlin with his diplomat parents, Joe is perfectly primed to help the allies out. We follow him through some dangerous formative experiences before he finds himself in London during the Blitz, and then eventually getting embroiled with British Intelligence. Falkner has done his research well loading this book with plenty of rich detail, and Joe's adventures are at times tense and thrilling. 

There is some unexpected romance, and some violence. Death is hard to avoid in a book about war but the romantic and violent moments make me think this would be better suited to late intermediate/early high school. I also found Joe a little distant as a character at times but I guess this might be the result of giving him the cool, rational mind of a spy. All in all I enjoyed the ride and I think young readers will too.

And I also reviewed some junior and middle grade books for the Sapling not so long ago, including A Little Blue by Jeanette Goode, Flying Furballs: Nine Lives by Donovan Bixley, Just End It by Donna Blaber, and The Tea Dragon Tapestry by Katie O'Neill, which you can check out here.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

How I thought it would be vs. How it really was ...

Recently I have been looking back on when I got started and thinking about what I thought it would be like. And thinking about the reality now I am over a dozen books in. My past beliefs and current understanding are not the highly overlapping circles of a venn diagram. This is my experience - results may vary across different authors.

My first book Clever Moo (illustrated by Malcolm Evans and published by Scholastic) came out in 2006. So, what did I imagine would happen?

1) My first published book would fling open doors to publication of further work

2) People out in the world (also known as the general public) would come to know my name

3) My book published here in New Zealand would also get picked up overseas.

4) I had written a book that everyone would want to buy

5) I was on my way

Ahhh, how fresh faced and innocent I was ... And what do I know now I am 13+ books in, in 2020?

1) Each book must cut the mustard and stand on its own merits (which is as it should be really). I have been more rejected than accepted if I consider all the work I have written, and submitted. However I do acknowledge that the door that has been opened is the one where publishers do know who I am and they know that the bookie community knows me too which is an advantage. It helps that I have a history and I have done what I can to make it a good history and I am still hard at work doing what I can to keep it growing. 

2) Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha - lol - gasp - no. This is an uphill journey, for which I have not yet found the right crampons. There is a distant peak, which may or may not be a mirage, that I am aiming for. Who knows if I will ever reach it ...

3) It is not the norm to have your book picked up overseas and if it does happen it does not always mean instant riches (or gradual riches either). 

4) I am still praying I will someday write this book. Tis the holy grail all authors yearn for ... Please note that even if it does happen, 'bestseller' status does not automatically confer riches, or any kind of notoriety or longevity.

5) I wasn't 'on my way' in terms of fame and fortune, but I guess I was on my way in terms of having a writing career. The clash of reality vs expectations has resulted in some disappointments but I am still holding on like a very determined limpet. Maybe those things aren't unrelated.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The 4.45pm news from the desk of Melinda Szymanik ...

Yay!!! Finally an occasion when judginess is desirable 😃 accompanied by glorious access to a mountain of the best local kidlit. Yes folks, it's time to put your hat in the ring to be a judge for the 2021 NZ Book Awards for Children & Young Adults. The call has gone out and applications close 5pm Friday 30 October. You can check out the application details HERE.

It's been a busy old time over the last fortnight, what with giving a workshop on writing children's picture books to an adult audience at Selwyn Community Education and then running a week long creative writing camp for children on the north shore. It was especially challenging last Tuesday when the harbour bridge was closed due to high winds (first time ever in the history of the bridge!!) and my 30 minute drive turned into a two hour long one as all the bridge commuters joined me on my usual route. I was super lucky that my teacher sister had agreed to help out for the day as I ended up being late and she stepped in and got the class started - thanks Halina, you were a life saver. And I have discovered that driving long distances in first gear is very boring. Oh for some audio books stashed in the car - I will have to invest in some.

There are just a few events I am involved in over the rest of this month and what remains of the year is looking pretty quiet. I have a few writing projects I am noodling away on, and I have some planning to do for next year. This all feels rather nice. Despite the fact that covid has put paid to around half the gigs I had lined up for 2020, working from home is my ultimate happy place as I get to focus on my core practice - writing new books.

Last week I had an email from the publisher with final proofs for one of the picture books coming out next year. Its heading off to the printers and I am thrilled with how it all looks. It is gorgeous. Here is the front cover art by illustrator Malene Laugesen.

It is called Moon and Sun, and is due to be released by Upstart Press in March 2021. I can't wait to have it in my hands and show you how wonderful it looks inside. There have been a few delays with this title, partly covid based, and I am so happy it is now on its way.

Finally I hope you are all busy polishing your manuscripts for the Storylines manuscript awards - Joy Cowley for picture books, and the Tom Fitzgibbon for junior fiction - submissions close October 31st. The Tessa Duder Award for YA fiction is biennial and will be open to submissions next year. With Scholastic currently closed to regular submissions, don't miss this great opportunity to have your story read by them. Good luck peoples!!

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Maybe the new normal? ...

Time flew and it's no longer August and I'm well overdue for another blog post.

Covid19 continues to change and influence our lives. After a small resurgence in Auckland we are back to some heavier restrictions. I'm comfortable with this - I don't want this disease and I don't want to give it to anyone else, so I'm happy to do what is necessary to knock it back. But this means events and bookings I had have been postponed, cancelled, or altered. Uncertainty is the name of the game but things are uncertain for everybody so I'm doing my best to roll with the changes. Today I physically visited a school, the lovely Albany Primary on the north shore, but protocols meant I wasn't able to do my presentations in the classrooms, hall or library. Instead I spoke to the children via an internal zoom-style system. I'm so glad the school decided to proceed with the visit - I was grateful to have the opportunity. Just like other businesses must adapt to the new arrangements I've come to realise I need to be able to deliver my talks in new and different ways.  This may or may not be the new normal but I want to have the skills to meet any need. And the experience was very positive, the technology ran well, and the students were great.

Some things I discovered about delivering content via technology:

1. You still need to project your voice, just like you are talking to the back of the hall.

2. Test that the students can hear you (show of hands), and can see the pages if you are reading them a book. Make sure you know the system for classes to let you know if they are experiencing issues and what you can do if they are (i.e. where are the audio-visual mutes, is there a way to see yourself, who is your tech help etc...) 

3. Ask for any questions to be collected and provided in advance, or if a class plans to ask them directly so you can connect when appropriate. 

4. If many classes are connecting they will be muted. Usually my sessions are very interactive with me asking the children questions, with the answers leading them on to the next part of my talk. It can be empowering for them to show they already have some of the answers and interaction also helps keep the children engaged. 100% listening is hard for anybody, especially over longer sessions. You'll need to proactively think about alternatives, find other ways to keep their energy up, and remember this is a different ball game. 

5. Even though technology separates you from your audience, keep your own energy high because you set the tone. Be just as excited and passionate as you would in person.

6. Always have a plan B and a plan C and be ready to switch if things aren't working. This is another good reason to take these kinds of opportunities - practice and experience will help you expand the tools in your toolbox. And sometimes you just have to roll with a less than ideal scenario. 

7. If you haven't had any experience with this kind of technology see if you can observe someone else using it. I've always thought it would be useful to have a school visit mentoring system where people new to visits can accompany someone with experience. If anyone ever wants to come along with me (unpaid, and the school would need to be willing), hit me up. I don't have all the answers, and ultimately everyone needs to devise their own speaking programme but I feel that knowing some of the parameters would be helpful for folk visiting a school for the first time on their own. 

In other news, I've seen roughs for the picture book being published by Penguin Random House next year, and I'm thrilled with the way this is coming together. Despite everything with Covid19 and the level changes we have been experiencing, progress is still happening.    

And I thought you might be interested in this post by agent Janet Reid. She talks about the writer's desire to offer up a lot of info/backstory early on in a manuscript and counsels against it. The reader doesn't need to know it all upfront. The idea is to make them want to know, to read on to find out ...

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Coming unstuck ...

I came to an interesting realisation this morning while in the shower. I am still not sure why the shower is where I most frequently discover my truth but I am reassured by the fact that it is, and in these covid19 level 3, drought/water conservation times it gives me a good reason to keep clean. 

And what was my realisation, I hear you ask.

It is possible to have writer's block in one category of writing while being able to write freely in others. I wrote my last novel length junior fiction in 2017. Last year I wrote seven (or maybe eight) picture books, several short stories and lots of content for talks and workshops. So far this year I've written two picture books, some poetry for children, reworked a picture book into a short story and produced more content for talks and workshops. But I am stuck, stuck, stuck on novel length junior fiction. It eludes me. It scares me. I have had a few ideas for this form of writing but they have not developed. I have a novel three quarters written but I throw my hands up whenever I look at it, unable to edit, rearrange or complete it.

Have I exhausted my novel writing abilities? Was that it? I had a finite allotment of titles and I've reached the end? Is it just a blip? A temporary (three years and counting) abberation? Or is my brain switching focus to picture books for now but the train will switch back to the novel track at some point in the future? Or is it a gradual separation caused by how my novels have been read, responded to, or rejected over the course of my writing career? Have I just lost faith in my ability to write this form, wrongly or rightly? Have my particular series of novel-related events (some fortunate, some unfortunate) chipped away at my novel writing confidence? 

And does it even matter? 

I guess it does. At least to me, because I've been thinking about it - thinking about it enough to write a blog post on it. I don't like not being able to write this form. I feel like something is missing. Maybe a foot, or a couple of the more useful fingers.

It got me to thinking, because I believe my current inability to write novel length fiction is the product of my belief in my ability to do so being chipped away at over time. None of the individual chips was terribly big but over time they added up to quite a chunk. And like chopping that deep V out of a tree trunk, eventually the tree falls (and of course in a forest with nobody to hear, it doesn't make a sound - a bit like me stopping writing novels :-) ). So the writer we become is a product of our writer-related experiences over time and how we respond to each experience. 

For better or worse, the path we take, the choices we make, build up our sense of who we are as a writer. It comes to colour what and how we write, how and to whom we submit, and how we handle the results. Rinse and repeat. Sometimes failure, rejection and criticism pushes us to write a better thing. We are able to see (sometimes because of the many small steps we did take) where we went wrong and how we might improve. Sometimes there was nothing wrong except the timing, so changing how or what we do might be the wrong response. Do we see this in time to stay on what is still the right path? How do we know? Sometimes it makes us turn to something else or give up completely. Or be stuck, stuck, stuck. 

And don't forget, at each step in the journey, different people will respond differently to the same event. That rejection might steel your resolve, or break you. That success might see you blossom, or question if this is what you really wanted. No two writer's sequences of events and experiences will be the same so who do you look to for meaningful advice when you are not sure which way to go? You look to the only person you can - yourself! This too is part of being a writer. Looking at circumstances and saying to yourself, not, What do I do now? but, What do I want now? And saying, I want something completely different, is a legitimate answer. But it's not the only answer.  In truth I still want to be writing novels. I'm going to have to figure out how to get myself back to it. I'm not sure how yet, but the bottom line is I know that's what I want. And luckily, while my confidence in my writing might come and go, my confidence in my ability to find a way remains strong. I'll figure it out because I have to. I'll see you when I get there :-)

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

It's not who you know, it's the opportunities they tell you about...

Part 3 in the 'It's Not Who You Know Saga...'

While approaching publishers the traditional way through the submissions process is a legitimate way to get published, (and it's still the way I generally follow and the way I am most likely to be published) there are additional opportunities that you can try.  There are competitions like all the ones run by Storylines and I know folk who've had books published this way. There is a window of opportunity for submissions to Scholastic NZ on Valentines Day each year - follow them on facebook to find out more. Two friends of mine had new work picked up through one off competitions to pitch to an agent and a publisher respectively, both part of author events and organised through the New Zealand Society of Authors over the last few years. From a distance these things can look like special treatment or like they are part of the the whole 'who you know' vibe, but the bottom line is people gave themselves a chance to hear about these competitions or opportunities, entered, and were selected because of the strength of their stories and the quality of their writing. Joining organisations like Storylines and the NZSA give you access to more chances. But joining also makes you part of a community of like-minded people who share information on other opportunities that are available. Of course belonging to these communities also helps you persevere when the going gets tough. Make no mistake. This career is a long game. Assume years are involved. And there is luck involved. But I do find luck is more likely to strike when you stand in front of the opportunities. And you do it repeatedly.

Sorry I'm such a nag. But I kind of nagged myself to stick at it and take chances and I'm still going. Yesterday another publisher said yes to another story of mine. I'm on a wee roll at the moment but I've been banging away at this for just over twenty years. My current luck might run out tomorrow but I won't be letting that stop me. Not for a good while yet anyway.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

No secret handshakes required

I made the comment in my last post that you don't need to know the 'right' people to get published. It's not how I first got published and it isn't true for many other writers I know either. But I know this can be hard to believe when you've been submitting your work through the traditional channels and nothing has been happening.

I understand that burning desire to be published. I felt it when I started out and the intensity of the feeling hasn't changed or gone away at all over the years (I guess if it ever does that might be the time to stop writing). But there is no secret hand shake, or introduction by an already published writer necessary. You don't have to have met the publisher beforehand or have the name of someone on the inside. I've seen a lot of picture book manuscripts over the years from a variety of sources. And in all my reading I've come to believe that ...

... these are the things most likely to get you published

1. Polished writing. The kind that acknowledges the rules of grammar; of punctuation and sentence structure. Writing that flows with a natural easy rhythm. But writing that also makes the words used feel fresh and alive, and the way they are combined makes you excited and delighted about language and its potential. Sometimes its just that the writing has a certain charm. I've seen a lot of passive writing over the years. I've seen a tendency to over-simplify and speak down to children. I've seen a lack of acknowledgement that picture books play out over  28 to 30 pages (in a 32 page book), with a need for the story to allow for variation in the illustrations from page to page. Good writing is a winner. But it's not enough on its own. You also need ...

2. ... a strong, original, exciting idea. The comment is often made that there are no new ideas, but there are. Themes might be recurrent but we want the vehicle that carries them to surprise and satisfy us.

The best way to avoid rehashing well worn ideas is to read widely, but especially the award winners and the well reviewed. Know your category so you can push the boundaries and explore fresh ground. Of course re-tellings and the repeat of classic ideas will also sometimes get published but these too need a fresh angle. And your idea needs to be relevant and strong - why will a child care? Is it exotic, or relatable? Does it tell them something worth knowing, sufficiently explore an issue they worry about, or that will grow their minds, or empower them to fight their own battles, or solve their own problems? I've seen many lovely stories that don't quite have the muscle to be accepted. And ones that just aren't as fresh as the author hopes they are. And even if your writing is terrific and your idea is gripping, you also need ...

3. ... it to fit with what the publisher is looking for. And a lot of things can influence their decisions - sometimes they don't know what they're looking for until they see it. Sometimes it feels too much like something they've already published (both recently and years previously if the book is still in print) and they don't want to have titles that compete with each other. Sometimes its part of a trend and while we haven't seen the trend play out, the publisher, who knows what is on their publishing list for the next two years, knows it is already too late. Sometimes it's just not to their taste because publishers are also humans with their own likes and dislikes. Sometimes it is great writing and a great idea but the focus is too narrow or the potential audience too small so it won't cover its own costs. And sometimes they just can't say why it isn't right for them, and there is nothing wrong with the story and nothing you could change to change the result.

Don't send your work to one publisher and give up if its a no. Try other publishers. Talk to other writers about where they send their work. It might not seem like it but new opportunities are popping up all the time. And keep writing new material because maybe the next thing you write is the 'one.' And don't give publishers a reason to say no, like submitting differently to what they ask for, or getting frustrated with a rejection and telling them they're wrong. Be the person they want to do business with. Have faith. You can do it. No secret handshakes required.

And competition results? Unfortunately no one guessed correctly which book of mine has been most printed. I'm keeping the answer to myself and may run this competition again next month.