Thursday, January 12, 2023

My love letter to Libraries ...

I thought I'd share the wild and crazy love letter to libraries I wrote, that I delivered as a talk in December last year. Remember, if you share it, please acknowledge me as the author - thank you :-)


Hello

My name is Melinda Szymanik and I write books for children. I was born in Auckland to Polish parents and now I live in Mount Eden. You might know me from such titles as … Sharing with Wolf, A Winter’s Day in 1939, Time Machine and Other Stories or My Elephant is Blue.

It’s been a tough year this year for so many of us, for so many reasons. Covid, the increase in the cost of living, war, tightened budgets, difficulties keeping things afloat with staff sickness and a lack of funding. And always uncertainty which is very tiring, and doomscrolling on twitter which is at times terrifying. Athough I have loved connecting with librarians on twitter. I hope Elon Musk hasn’t killed it completely.

Most of my talk this evening is going to be a big thank you. Being an author in this country has some specific challenges to it. I think this is particularly true when it comes to folk who write for children. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the media are a bit obsessed with sport, especially rugby which apparently is our national pastime. I’ve even watched the 6 o’clock news covering overseas curling and corn-hole championships in moments of desperation, rather than having to talk about books or culture of any kind. There’s almost this expectation that books and reading will take care of themselves, or that reading and sports are mutually exclusive, which they are not – I actually saw a study mentioned in Stuff online today which said, “children involved in outside-of-school arts activities or individual organised sports have about twice the odds of reading more frequently and higher odds of enjoying reading too.”

And do the powers that be believe that sports needs the media’s help because otherwise it would just be forgotten? Okay now I’m just sounding like a crazy person.

Children’s books in particular are just not sexy enough for the main stream media and are only sufficiently click baity if they’re written by a celebrity or have some grown up scandal attached. I’m still trying to figure out if there is a ‘safe’ scandal I can have to get me some exposure.  The media seem to think that children’s writers have children’s brains and don’t actually have adult thoughts. And that writing for children is so easy everyone can do it with their eyes closed and we don’t need to talk about how it’s done. Grown up and celebrated author Martin Amis, when asked if he’d ever thought of writing a children’s book, famously replied, ‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book.’ Charming. Anyway, I digress. Suffice it to say we, and our books, don’t get talked about much in the wider public arena.

I’ve been published for around twenty years now with over 15 books to my name and a few more on the horizon. I’ve won a few awards, both here and overseas. But if you stopped someone on the street and asked them if they recognized my name there would be some pretty awkward conversations. Although I’d love to be there taking notes which I could then use in a story, because nothing is ever wasted. Even embarrassment. And I take comfort knowing at least some of you in this room would have heard of me before tonight.

As writer Katherine Rundell says in her lovely wee book, Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You are So Old and Wise, children’s fiction has a long and noble history of being dismissed. It is the territory we children’s writers inhabit. Ms Rundell also said to think of children’s books as literary vodka – it’s a great little book. Anyway - I have a great support network of writers and illustrators so it’s not all doom and gloom. You can find us huddled over a wine and a shared bowl of hot chips muttering about our general obscurity. It’s pretty hard to compete with David Walliams and the amount of shop frontage that gets devoted to his many titles. I doubt even his most recent uncouth swearyness will hurt his bottom line either, because, well, scandal and celebrity.

But we really, really love what we do. And we keep doing it despite the difficulties. And the most soul restoring thing is that you seem to love what we do too. If I get invited to a school, 9 times out of ten it is the school librarian who has made this happen. You see us and you want the students at your school to see us too. You understand the impact a visit can have. Research backs you up but you are the ones who know and who act upon this knowledge and go to great lengths sometimes to do so. I recently visited an Auckland school and after the visit the librarian kindly emailed me to say there had been a run on my books in the library. One in particular was in very hot demand and had a waiting list. All the research is true! Author visits inspire children to read more. And write too.

Of course responses can vary and sometimes audiences are fidgety or distracted. And every question at the end is ‘well, actually’ more of a statement. And sometimes that statement isn’t even about writing or books….good times … But I can guarantee there is always at least one child in the audience whose life has been changed by the experience.

When I was a kid, it would have been me.

We didn’t have author visits in schools back then when Adam was a boy and Noah hadn’t built his ark yet. There weren’t a lot of children’s books written by New Zealand writers either and I thought you had to be English or American or Scandinavian to be a writer. It messed with my writing confidence, and forced my ambitions into hiding for years. When I got married at the age of 24 my husband didn’t even know I wanted to be a writer. Sorry James. He’s still holding out hope that one day one of my books will be an international bestseller and that’ll take care of our retirement … lol

So just know, your actions, your efforts to organise author visits are changing the lives of the children at your school. And you’re helping the writers and illustrators as well and we see it and we love you for it.

 

And it’s not just the school visits.

It’s having books by New Zealand authors in the library and buying their latest title when it comes out even though the budgets are tight. It’s about supporting and reviewing those books on blogs and in places like Magpies Magazine or Goodreads or reading reviews that others have shared. Or just discussing them amongst yourselves. It’s about joining groups like Storylines and keeping an eye on Notable lists and Book Awards finalists. It’s about applying for Storylines tour visits or having an award finalist skype with students. Its organising a kids lit quiz team, or finding cool new ways to entice reluctant readers to just try this one book because they might recognize themselves or the place they live in it. What you do is so important. And every child switched on to reading by your efforts is changed for life. There are so many spinoff benefits… and, of course, writers and illustrators need new readers to be made.

 

I know I’m speaking to the converted. I don’t need to tell you how wonderful books are or how transformative they can be in a person’s life. It’s your bread and butter. Although I do worry school libraries are tarred with the same brush of dismissiveness that surrounds children’s writers. How else can we understand why libraries have become vulnerable?

Still …

… no one ever had trouble getting a book into my hands. As soon as I learnt to read I became a complete convert to the joy of it. I grew up in a language rich home, surrounded by books of all kinds. We talked a lot. We read a lot. My dad drove me to the public library when the school library had run out of things I hadn’t read. Shout out to Mangere Central Primary School and Mangere East Public Library. Also to Rosemary Tisdall’s mum, Mrs Bray, may she rest in peace, who was the librarian at McAuley Girls High School when I was there. I count myself very lucky for the upbringing I had and the people who helped me with my book obsession along the way.

I was at a school visit a few years back, in a mixed year senior primary class and we were finding words associated with trees for a writing project. None of the students knew what a bud was when I suggested this as a tree related word. We went outside to look at a tree in the school grounds where someone promptly broke a branch off and when I showed them a bud they recognized it for what it was. They just didn’t know the word for it.

It shouldn’t be about luck.

 

It should be about school libraries and the passionate folk who manage them. Because you are the ones who step up when luck isn’t happening.

From where I stand, school libraries today seem to be facing several challenges. You know all this but I hope it helps that I know it too. First there’s the general assault on your existence (the fact you seem to be an endangered species when you definitely shouldn’t be), and second there’s the expectation that you will continue to find novel and crafty ways to convert every child into a reader for pleasure, on less funding and resources then you had before.  I have been repeatedly bowled over by the innovative ideas school librarians come up with to do just this.

I’m not sure I have answers to these problems. Well, I do, but I don’t really have the power to influence the individuals who make the terrible decisions to reduce the physical space, and the book and staffing budgets of libraries in schools, without resorting to something that might get me arrested. Do people chain themselves to the doors of school libraries like they do to gates and trees and bulldozers when they are trying to protect the environment from developers? Maybe I have to rethink my strategy.

There’s been a lot in the news recently too about declining literacy levels in our youth. There has been talk of what the educators should do and how the curriculum needs to change but I can’t help thinking if there was more investment in school libraries, if librarians were given more resources to promote a love of reading, to expand their premises and buy a wider range of books to meet the needs of their students, if libraries were valued and the media was made to talk about books with the same passion that librarians do then we might not find ourselves in this situation. I find it hard to fathom that libraries and our support of them are not centered in the arguments for helping improve literacy. A while back we, as a country, seem to have dropped the ball on loving and talking about books – maybe it was in the eighties when the free market economy began to emerge. Certainly we look back on the eighties as the golden days of children’s literature and the children’s book community thought we were about to see an explosion of NZ children’s writers onto the international stage. How wrong we were. Instead we somehow disconnected the skill of reading from the joy of reading. Except in libraries. You are the rebel bases as the book oblivious Empire seeks universal control. And I certainly appreciate your quiet rebellion. And that’s something else we writers talk about huddled over our wine and chips. Please know that we love you and the work you do. We recognize its importance and the need to act to keep it not just alive, but in good health. School libraries are an essential service and only school librarians can get the most out of them. We’re on the same team, trying to find ways to spark that joy of reading. And we are here for this rebel alliance.

So thank you from the bottom of my heart. From our hearts. We acknowledge and appreciate everything you do.

 

 

As for me personally this year? I have three (maybe four – fingers crossed), picture books coming out with Scholastic and Penguin over the next two years. One is about the clouds helping the sun and the rain to make friends. One is about what happens when the darkness runs away, and one is about a monster learning to love books and it features a librarian at the end.

I haven’t been able to write anything novel length for a while. Maybe it’s the weight of the pandemic, and the cost of living, and the challenges of the last few years, or maybe it’s just me. I think I’ll find my way back to the longer form eventually. And I haven’t been idle. Instead I’ve been challenging myself by writing in a different arena. I’ve been writing poetry. For both adults and children. The adult stuff is tricky but crikey, I find children’s poetry a lot harder. Still, I think I’m getting the hang of it and I’m getting some things published. And I’m still writing picture books as well.

I’ve been working more on the other side of things too. For the past three years I’ve been a trustee on the New Zealand Book Awards Trust and this year I became the Auckland, Northland, and Waikato representative on the New Zealand Society of Authors National Board. Partly I’ve gotten involved because books deserve way more attention in this country and I will try any avenue that might help change this. I hope this might help you too.

And we really need to stop dismissing children’s literature. As if children are only concerned by the trivial. As if children’s books are just fart jokes and ridiculous plots. It always frustrates me that adults can dismiss children’s books so easily because I am always working hard to put things into my books to entertain or inspire the adult reader as well as the young reader. Where possible my stories also have layers so that the book can grow with the growing child. My picture book Fuzzy Doodle can be read as a straight story of metamorphosis, the larva to the caterpillar to the chrysalis to the butterfly, but it’s also the story of how we make art whether its music or stories or pictures. There is a vast world inside that chrysalis as the scribble transforms. Like the process of becoming a reader. A mystery. A magic. Where the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. Which is what the best books for children are. Mystery, magic and just a bit like the Tardis. But you already know that, partly perhaps because you work in a place that is a bit mystery, a bit magic and a whole lot like the Tardis too.

I think I’ll finish by reading My Elephant is Blue. I wrote this after receiving some bad news which pushed me into a bit of a depression. But writing the story pulled me out of it again.  Because that’s what story can do. Being read to is good for all of us and I think after a very trying year it’s nice to hear a quietly hopeful message.


Sunday, December 25, 2022

It's all a mystery here at the end of the year ...

 

It's been a year. I didn't realise how much of a year until I actually looked back and took stock. I spoke as part of the schools programme for Featherston Booktown in June, I gave a talk at the Storylines Hui in July and went away to Southland on a Storylines Tour in August and had a brief appearance at the Auckland Writers Festival. I am grateful to everyone who invited me to be a part of their event. I had a few school visits, ran a few workshops for Selwyn Community Education, attended the NZCYA Book Awards and was voted on to the NZSA National Board. I did around twenty manuscript assessments. I had covid. We travelled overseas. I had a picture book come out (welcome to the world There are No Moa, e Hoa/ Kua Kore he Moa, e Hoa ), and wrote a wee bit of poetry, both for adults and children.

The marvellous Paula Green did an incredible series of poetry illustrated by children on her blog, Poetry Box, and kindly included my poem If Fish Could Talk. The illustration is brilliant and you can check out the picture by Oscar D. and my poem here. And I gave a talk at a SLANZA end-of-year event.

It is always surprising to me that a few things dominate my memories looking back so it helped to actually look through the diary and tot up all my commitments. I was busier than I remembered. And there were so many wonderful experiences. I've been very privileged to take part in so many amazing things. Now I'm looking forward to 2023 and wondering what it has in store. I wish there was more certainty. I only have two workshops and an event I am required to be at signed up for next year. Yet 2023 may end up being as busy as 2022. I just have no way of knowing. I have two picture books coming out if everything goes to plan. And two poems.

I'm not much of a fan of the not knowing. In the past I guess I've surrendered to it and gone with the flow but I am tempted to take a different approach to the coming year. Maybe some study. Maybe a more structured approach to my writing. How much should we give in to destiny/luck, how much should we try to shape what lies ahead? It's all a mystery, here at the end of the year. What are you going to do? Make some plans, or leave it all to fate?

Monday, December 5, 2022

Am I Doing it Wrong? ...

Over recent years there has been a growing call for more diversity in our children's literature, and rightly so. Our literature should reflect the people who make up our society with more representation of different cultures, ethnicities, abilities/disabilities, sexual orientation and gender. I have wrestled with what I can and can't write about myself, growing in my understanding of what my limits are and ceding space (if it is in my power to do so) to those who will do a far better job than me. 

Back in 2016 a picture book of mine was called out for having a male main character in an article discussing a lack of female representation. I confess the rebuke stung but it did its job because I became much more aware of who I was writing into my stories. But I have discovered over the years that there is a flaw in my gender representation plan. Readers/reviewers/folk-in-general DO NOT NOTICE. They decide and then that is the gender of the character. They ignore my clues ('he said', or 'she said' or a complete lack of identifying pronouns).

Where I have avoided pronouns to enable the reader to make their own decisions I guess it might be fair enough that the reviewer/discusser has decided for themselves to apply a label, although ideally they would also take the route of making it vague - it's for the target audience to decide, not the reviewer or other adult intermediary.

My dilemma I guess is that I am wondering if my efforts are having the desired effect; am I managing to reach the people for whom this really matters (the kids are alright and we just need the grown-ups to catch up)? I suppose my books aren't centering the gender discussion so this might contribute to the assumptions being made, but I make deliberate decisions about my characters when I am crafting my stories and I am perplexed when these get no cut through. Sometimes my decisions are about ensuring there is an even mix of genders in the story, sometimes it is about challenging our expectations of roles and who performs/inhabits them, and sometimes it is just a practical decision - in BatKiwi for example male kiwis are smaller and female bats are bigger so the female bat has more chance of carrying the male kiwi (although actual physics/reality makes it impossible sadly), however I also didn't want a male bat swooping in to save the day for the female kiwi. 

When I review or talk about books other than my own I try to do my due diligence (although I am likely to have got it wrong sometimes in the past too). Novels are easier in some respects because character names and context can be obvious signifiers (although not always), but in a picture book it is a simple task to check. This isn't all about me and maybe these reactions don't matter but gender representation is important and I am just wondering - are the choices I'm making working like I hope they will? Are these responses just an anomaly or are they something to be addressed?

Sunday, November 27, 2022

When the post is more of a poem ...

Walking in Circles

This is a weird time of year. There are still things to be done. Little jobs to be finished. All the things you kept putting off which can be avoided no longer. And you never stop turning ideas over in your mind and trying to push them out into the sunlight like little paper boats. But things are also winding up. Folk are hurrying to get work completed as quickly as possible because there are festive preparations to be made and end of year functions to attend and holidays to be anticipated. And then there will be the complete silence of empty offices for a month. It is my annual limbo. It is my fever dream when I fantasise about who might invite me to talk at their event in the coming year and do they live in another country. I imagine chatting on stage with an interviewer like the grown ups do. I plan my response to an eager media keen to talk about my latest titles: where they sprung from, why I write them, what motivates me, what I worry about at night. And then late January I will wake up and go about my usual business. I have been wondering about reinventing myself. Perhaps it is already happening. Certainly writing poetry is a sort of new path. It might have started in a limbo time fever dream years ago. Maybe I am just walking in a circle and I will come back to the beginning again. Like when you are lost but not really. I am taking the appropriate steps ... perhaps next year will be different after all.

 



Friday, November 4, 2022

I'm back...

Hi there folks (waves) - I apologise for the prolonged absence. I had very good intentions of posting before I went away on October 1st but you know what they say about good intentions. Things got busy with preparations and work needing completion before departure and then suddenly it was time to go. Back now. We were away for nearly a month visiting our daughters and having a bit of an adventure. It was travel of the good brain-fillery sort. We hung out in the Californian desert (do NOT touch the Joshua Trees) and wandered around Hollywood. We went to the theatre in the Westend, took in a feminist art exhibition at the Barbican, explored castles, ruins and ruined castles. We checked out the roman baths at Bath, several henges (Avebury and Stone) and the pier at Brighton. I think the creative well is well and truly filled.


Here we are outside Grauman's Theatre in Hollywood 

Travelling is an odd sensation when you are creatively inclined though. The creative brain is always at work so it's hard to leave the job at the office. A lack of pause in the proceedings of travel usually means that I don't get the chance to sit and write while away but exploring poetry over the last wee while changed that this time. Things I saw and heard on our journey inspired me and I jotted down several poems. I also made a start on a small new project I was given not long before we went away. It was so good to be able to scratch the creative itch without compromising the trip.

What has truly surprised me is that while away and since I got back, I have written some rhyming children's poems. And they have turned out well (not just my opinion). I mean, who even am I? I have always felt that rhyming was beyond my reach but it feels like I just might have my finger tips on it now. It might turn out to be a brief relationship but I am optimistic I might be able to take a few more turns around the literary garden with this particular art form. I shall keep you posted and maybe share one of them soon. I guess it goes to show you never stop learning and developing. I think the trick for me was that I didn't look at it directly - I just let it play in some unobserved corner of my brain where it felt no pressure and it figured things out all by itself. Never say never ...

I was thrilled to see that Storylines has named our new BatKiwi book There Are No Moa, e Hoa (illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, pubbed by Scholastic NZ) as a Storylines Notable Book for 2022. You can read all about this year's Notable Books here. This picture book, in both English and Te Reo Māori, was scheduled to be released November 1st but is unfortunately delayed. I so hope it is not stuck in the shipping doldrums for too long. Pre-Christmas is a great time for a book to step out for the first time and I have everything crossed it is here in time to wear a little tinsel, hum a little carol or two and win over some gift shoppers. As soon as it makes it ashore I will be introducing you to this fun story. Talk soon!

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Cooking the books...

 I've been watching Masterchef Australia 2022 Fans vs Faves. I'm playing catch up with the scheduled programming but I'm now up to the last few episodes; the sharp end, if you will. I like watching programmes that feature creativity, especially competitive, challenge-based creativity. Even though this isn't how I create. It interests me how the competitors respond to critique and advice, and the things/the thought processes that underlie their creations. Clearly technique is crucial. If you don't know the steps to take to make a certain element then you just can't produce it.  Although a strange ingredient a cook has never used before isn't a deal breaker. How does it taste? What is the texture and do the qualities or components mean it will cook like a starchy vegetable or a low fat protein? If you know the rules, the science of cooking, you can make educated guesses/decisions about how to treat anything new.  Invention comes with making unexpected pairings, whether its savoury and sweet, or using foreign ingredients in local dishes. Or elevating something familiar. How do you update a classic? In the end though it's about making something people enjoy eating. Technique and quality ingredients aren't enough if the resulting flavour isn't enjoyable and the balance is out.

In the episode I watched today one of the contestants, now in the final four (from a starting group of twenty four) said he'd felt insecure about his cooking ambitions amongst his fire fighter workmates in the firehouse. Coming to the Masterchef kitchen had changed him irrevocably. There he'd met others who felt as passionately about food as he did. As inspired and excited about what was possible. Finally he'd met his tribe, and his skills and ideas and thinking about food came on in leaps and bounds and from a rudimentary understanding of food he now found himself in the top four. Using techniques, ingredients and combinations he would never have imagined using before he joined. Interacting with your peers and/or your heroes will challenge your thinking about your craft. It will encourage you and inspire you. It will introduce you to new things and broaden your outlook. Hanging out with other folk who also feel passionate about their craft is good for you. It's good for them too.  

And watching Masterchef can be good for your writing

Saturday, July 23, 2022

There are No Moa, e hoa ...

 I was so excited a few days ago to see the final internals and covers for my next picture book There are No Moa e hoa/ Kua Kore he Moa, e hoa (Scholastic, Māori translation by Pānia Papa) coming out this November. Just as with BatKiwi/ Ko PekaKiwi, Isobel Joy Te Aho-White has done a wonderful job with the illustrations, and I am so happy to say she will also be illustrating my next book with Scholastic, Sun Shower, coming out in 2023. 



I am a little obsessed with the cute little Tuatara at the centre of this sequel to BatKiwi, and she is so beautifully captured in the artwork. I can't wait for you to meet her. The colours are lush and cool, and there are many extra details across the pages for all those observant wee readers, and a few laughs for the grown ups. 

Last weekend I took part in the 2022 Storylines Hui for Children's Writers and Illustrators and I came away feeling energised and uplifted. I didn't realise how much I'd been missing the opportunity to meet and chat with my tribe in person and it was marvelous. No one understands the trials and tribulations of being a children's writer better than another children's writer. I pitched some picture book manuscripts to a publisher I have never worked with before. The Pitch Slams at the Auckland Hui are always a fast and furious event - just 3 to 4 minutes to get your summary across, but that can be enough. There were lots of authors and illustrators pitching and I really hope some contracts get signed as a result. 

There were some wonderful keynote speeches, panel talks and workshops, and underlying it all a love of the transformative power of words and the importance of story and books to help, nurture and grow young people. Despite the challenges of the last few years everyone's passion for books was un-waning and after immersing myself in this all weekend I felt encouraged, supported and inspired.

August looms and its going to be a busy month. I have a poem coming out in takahē 105 which makes me very happy. I am still finding my way with poetry so an acceptance is hugely encouragingI am taking a half day workshop on writing short stories for young people on Sunday 7th August - you can check out details here. I will be away in Southland with the Storylines Tour crew in the middle of the month - Invercargill here we come!! The week before I'll be attending the NZ Children's and Young Adults Book Awards in Wellington, and towards the end of the month I will be running my Writing Picture Books full day workshop on Saturday 27th August (details here) and reading BatKiwi (and maybe There are No Moa, e hoa too!!) on Sunday 28th at the Auckland Writers Festival. Maybe I will see you there! In September I will be having a long lie in and we have a bit of a holiday planned for October. And then it will be November already and time for a book launch!!