Monday, January 11, 2016

Our literary underpinnings

I came back from our trip to Europe and the UK last September filled with a difficult kind of jealousy that time will not remedy. I love the country of my birth in so many ways, but I cannot help craving, especially deep down in my creative soul, the long rich past that is so visible everywhere you go over there. The tumultuous centuries old histories, the long slow burning cultural evolution that is revered and celebrated in public galleries, theatres, monuments and artworks. The roads, footpaths, parks and buildings sing with the voices of all those who have passed over, under, by and through them. Our country is so young by comparison and we are in many respects still finding our way.

When I read this article that compares the children's literature of the US with that of the UK, concluding that the British tell better children's stories because their story telling culture is rooted in fairy tales and make believe, I began to wonder what this might say about the underpinnings of our children's literature here in New Zealand.

I grew up on children's stories from both the US and UK, reading Tolkien and Cooper, Garner, Lewis and Aiken, but also Le Guin and Ingalls Wilder, EB White, Alcott and nearby neighbour L.M. Montgomery, as did many of my peers. Here in New Zealand we have a rich Maori mythology to draw on, but our history is ultimately too youthful and still dominated by the pragmatic. It's that number-eight wire, can-do attitude. In my childhood I had little in the way of local literature to read and so, of course, much of my literary diet was imported from countries that saw the world very differently from what I was able to observe out my window. But that sounds about right for an emerging nation looking to Europe and the UK, as well as to the Pacific, Asia and the New World.

On what do I now base my own writing for children? Do I lean toward the fantastic and enchanted, or the realistic derring-do? Or do I fall somewhere in between or find new and unique ground? I recently sent some samples of my work to some US agents and realised when looking over what I'd sent, that my word choice and phrasing leant towards the British. I'd used the phrase 'let him have it' when talking about an episode of bullying, which on reflection seems very English to me. And there were other examples of a UK kind of sensibility in my writing. I like magic and fairy tales, mythology and fantasy, swords and pixie dust and the supernatural. But there is plenty of realism in my writing and contemporary issues informing my work too. Yet I can't forget that our contemporary issues have a particularly New Zealand spin on them.

Many of my stories are a blend of the real and the magic. New Zealand's most famous children's author, Margaret Mahy, made a highly regarded art of writing magic-realism but I don't think I'm trying to emulate her. I think this is just the result of those widely varying outside influences. I love incorporating fairy tale elements and qualities in my shorter stories and picture books. Yet, like many New Zealand Children's writers, some of my novels tend towards the realistic, whether contemporary or historical. Our fantasy often harks back toward the European or British, with vague settings that don't really feel local and mystical elements that draw on a range of cultures. Although of course there are exceptions where fantasy sits seamlessly inside a NZ setting and at times incorporates Maori mythology.

I guess the best question might be, does it really matter? The writer of the article believed the British wrote better children's stories but perhaps that depends what you are searching for in your reading experience. As a young reader I found much to like in both kinds of stories, and I guess the different kinds of stories met different needs. There is a place for both in a young person's reading diet.

As much as I love and yearn for the cultural and historical heritage of Europe and the UK, I have grown up here. And perhaps both of those things belong in my writing. Even the longing