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

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

In defence of the picture book...

I would like to say a few words today in defence of the picture book. If children’s literature is frequently dismissed or ignored by the literary community in general, the picture book is perceived as the most insubstantial of them all. Yet a picture book is not ‘easy’ or ‘simple’ even when it is easy and/or simple to read. Sometimes, as with poetry, or sculpture, it is about what has been carved away, and how. It is the iceberg above the water. Do not underestimate what lies beneath.

In less than 1,000 words, often less than 500, the picture book is complete and, in its brevity, more satisfying than you might believe possible for so few words. How many novels demand re-reading the way a picture book does. That is no accident. And despite the attendant dread a tired parent might first feel at hearing the phrase ‘read it again’, there is the resulting relief when the cunning composition of the picture book almost allows the story to tell itself. The task of re-reading is gently eased, and yet the benefits to the young audience are profound.

A good picture book provides a complete experience – a dawning of meaning and understanding, a burgeoning ownership of that revelation by its young audience, and most happily an emotional satisfaction that not every novel can claim to provide. And it can do this repeatedly for the same reader, not because the reader is too stupid to remember the punch line from the first time, but because the right words and right illustrations, when combined over 14 double page spreads, cannot help but deliver the emotional and intellectual connections that guarantee to elicit a reader response. Just as chocolate tastes good every time – not just the first time. Never underestimate the power of a good picture book…. And yet so many writers and people in the wider community do this every day.

Too many adults who relish the layers of a good novel seem unwilling to delve into the depths of a good picture book. And yet they do have layers. Layers of meaning within the text, as well as skilled wordplay and an interesting, fun and sometimes challenging use of language. And the words can never be considered in isolation from the illustrations. These are, after all, picture books. On a raw level the illustrations might be considered simply as a pictorial assistant to decoding the text for new readers. But they can be so much more. Illustrations are also layered with subtext and meaning. In my own picture book The House That Went to Sea, the text addresses the central theme of a boy failing to connect with not only the wider world but also his own grandmother. As he begins to warm to her way of life the illustration depicts the grandmother and grandson opposite each other at the dinner table, their facial similarities mirroring each other in a classic display of familial inheritance and shared characteristics. This shared bond underpins the boy’s transformation during the course of the book.

While rhythm, and sometimes rhyme, (and sometimes cumulative text) can assist the reading experience and provide a framework on which a pre-literate child becomes an independent reader they also contribute to the pleasure of the experience, demonstrating the energy and potential of language, and building life-long lovers of words. Writers of adult literature should embrace the vehicle through which readers are born.

Illustrations too assist and enrich the experience through well thought out use and control of white space, directional flow, colour, tone, contrast, placement and style, and so much more. Wordless picture books demonstrate the ability of illustrations to ‘tell’ a story with subtlety and depth. Design too supports the other elements of a good picture book and contributes to its overall effectiveness. Picture books may look simple and easy, yet they are anything but.  

Perhaps in the end it is that they contain comparatively so few words and are all too often quicker to write than your average novel. As if the length of time it takes to write something is the only measure of its quality. “Oh you could write that in a day,” is the dismissive phrase employed to demonstrate the insufficiencies of a picture book text. How can it ever compete with a novel? Well, for a start, it is not designed to compete with a novel. It is a different kind of literature, and one that can certainly demonstrate a significant depth of quality and an undeniable importance in the literacy of our society.

I do not write picture book texts from some superficial part of my brain. I am assessing each word on its own merits, its meaning on its own and in context, its sound and rhythmic contribution and its ability to stand up among all the other words I am choosing. Where is the fun and the excitement in the language? How can I drag that potential reader away from some other demand on their time – something that asks less of them and so easily occupies and entertains them? How can I satisfy both adult and child as they share the experience of reading my story? Can I bring them closer together and find a way in to both their hearts and minds? My plotting is a combination of desired themes, credible journeys (whether literal or metaphorical), satisfying and meaningful resolutions and allusions to other childhood experiences of literature that will feed back on themselves as they connect meaning and story across a wider range of works for a richer understanding. Characters are of course child-centric and require that I separate myself from the adult I’ve become and return, not to the child I used to be but a child in the ‘now’ world that has changed immeasurably since my own youth. ‘Jump through hoops’ anyone? This type of writing clearly comes with its own challenges.

And through it all I am looking for the spark, the magic, which lifts the story from the sum of all its parts to something greater. It might not take weeks or months or years to write the first draft of a less than 1000 word picture book but I am drawing on years of thought, experience, learning and my own extensive knowledge of books (picture and otherwise). And for every draft that ‘works’ there are many that stumble at the first idea, the first sentence, the first draft, the second draft, and even sometimes the final draft. For every ‘hit’, there may be a crowd of ‘misses’. I have had picture books that took ten years to go from conception to birth because they required a level of understanding and experience that I needed to acquire before I could make them everything they deserved to be. We are not picture book factories churning out duplicate texts. We are trying to create something fresh that will switch on a child's love of reading.There is nothing simple about this process if you are doing it right. It is made to look effortless (and this is part of our clever plan) and so many have fallen into the trap of believing this to be the case.

And once you have created a first draft that you believe might work, well then, you’ve barely begun. Because the first draft then gets, for all its relative brevity, more attention than 1000 words of a novel might get. Every word is tested, tasted and reassessed. Does it pull its weight? Is it the best word for the job? Does it play well with its mates? Does it shine? Can it be further polished? Should it be let go. If you add the demands of rhyme, expect to spend the greater part of your time tweaking and titivating and massaging things to fit and flow and remain meaningful. And sing. And underneath all the writing should be a consciousness that there shall be illustrations if this is accepted by a publisher. Will this story work over the format of a 32 page book (most often 14 double page spreads, though not always)? Are some pages going to be too text heavy. Will the illustrations vary sufficiently from spread to spread? Is there enough leeway for the illustrator to add more layers, to add extra magic, to read between the lines? Will they see what I see when I contemplate my story?

Picture book creators feel the weight of their task keenly. Creating readers is a significant contribution to the world and every little bit helps. I do not sniff at that. And neither should you.

(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 :) )


Saturday, March 8, 2014

A few thoughts on character...

We are constantly evaluating character - consciously and subconsciously judging people by their appearance first (a book by its cover) until we can gather more information from their behaviour, mannerisms and interactions. Our current western social habits, especially of plastering images of celebrities over every possible medium and scrutinising their skin, weight, fitness and clothing choice, only encourages our propensity for this type of judgement. Although I am not entirely sure which is the chicken and which the egg in this equation. Suffice to say we do it all the time, mostly without much thought to what we are doing. We gather data continually both in terms of individual appearance and follow up behaviour (those folk with facial piercings helped that old lady across the street - facial piercings are not a deal breaker. That person is wearing a suit and tie, is clean shaven and has a smart haircut and just told his kid he's an idiot - bullying is a deal breaker, suits don't make the man). Personal interactions are collated and measured against commonly held views. And we roll along, making judgements, expanding our knowledge and refining our decisions.

So when you create your key characters in your novel remember they will be judged by their appearance and their behaviour. Who are they and how do you want other characters in your book to perceive them and how should the reader judge them. In the end you cannot predict how individuals will see your characters - they will arrive with their own baggage. You cannot please all of the readers all of the time. And you cannot make them judge your characters how you hoped they would. All you can do is decide who your character is and provide information that supports that. The richer your character, the more they speak and interact with others and demonstrate the kind of values, skills and attitudes they possess the more chance your reader will 'see' your character as you have envisaged them. But that will never guarantee your reader feels the same way about your character that you do. Your experience of those kind thoughtful facially pierced folk, and neat suit and tie wearing bullies is unique to you. The reader's experiences will influence their judgement. Some readers cannot cope with a character making a mistake they would never make or allow themselves, or behaving in a way they disapprove of, even if it is an opportunity for growth. And some readers might never see past a character's appearance or background no matter how they behave. Just make sure your character is who you intended them to be - and then set them free to make their own friends in the world. If you brought them up right their friends will be genuine.