Thursday, March 31, 2022

Is holding books at arms length like some slightly squiffy and unnatural artefact actively bad for us?...

In my last post I wittered on about the absence of New Zealand books from our regular cultural conversations here in New Zealand. Actually I should have extended that discussion to a lack of interest in celebrating books in general. Not long after I wrote the post, a report came out talking about the poor state of literacy skills in our fifteen year olds. As the report says - 

        a staggering 35.4% - over a third of fifteen-year-olds – struggle to read and write.

The link to the report is here

There has been subsequent discussion, including on television news, about what educators need to do to fix this. But I can't help wondering, if books were just a normal part of our everyday conversation, especially in the media, if drawing attention to them wasn't so fraught and awkward because there just isn't a perceived angle that apparently justifies our interest like there is with sport, would our literacy levels be better? Is holding books at arms length like some slightly squiffy and unnatural artefact actively bad for us? I think it is bad for us. I think it's bad for the upcoming generations. We need to include a celebration of books in our wider daily conversations. So many studies have proven the wide ranging benefits of reading, not just for our children in school, but for all of us for the duration of our lives. If we know this to be true, why don't we talk more about books? It can't just be down to the educators who are already working incredibly hard - society at large also needs to take some responsibility for this. We need to get over ourselves and this aversion we have. Our children need us to.

Why don't we have book clubs on regular TV like they do in the US and UK, or a 'book of the week' segment on The Project. We get movie reviews and interviews with actors of upcoming films, we sometimes get box office top titles for the week, so why not a NZ bestseller top five in Fiction, non fiction and children's. NZ music was transformed by mandated attention and celebrating our NZ literature could have an even bigger impact. We tut-tut at research that says our children are struggling but think the solution lies with someone else. It is everyone's problem and we need to change the conversation.  

In other news, I am thrilled to say I have signed a contract with Scholastic for a sequel to BatKiwi - again to be illustrated by the wonderful Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, and hopefully out this year in time for Christmas. This is my first ever picture book sequel and it was fun working with Bat and Kiwi again. I have seen a first rough by fab illustrator Vasanti Unka for our book, I'm Dark coming out with Penguin RH next year, and whoo-wee! its perfect. I am so excited to see how the whole thing looks. Also, the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2022 (including a poem by yours truly) was launched, and has been reviewed by Erica Stretton, and blow me down, I get a mention. It's all a bit much so I am off for a bit of a lie down. Talk soon.      


Wednesday, March 16, 2022

We can't keep doing the same things and expect a different outcome ...

Someone posted an article about the difficulties of selling New Zealand literature to New Zealanders the other day and it has had me thinking ...

They were looking at how well Australian literature sells in Australia and asked why are we so different. The massive differences in economies of scale must help in Australia. A population of 26 million is a much bigger opportunity for publishers and the bigger the print run the cheaper it is to 'publish' the book. But this only changes the total number of books sold. It can't account for the different ratios of NZ adult fiction accounting for 5% of fiction sales here and Australian adult fiction 30% of sales in Australia.

I wonder how this translates for children's fiction (won't someone think of the children)? We never seem to appear in the top ten overall children's sales here although adult fiction sometimes does. We don't tend to get mentioned in articles like this either. Some years back someone mentioned that local children's books, made up about 16 or 17% of children's book sales while local non-fiction (presumably adult) accounted for around 30% of sales (I think). I wonder if this is still the case. Are these numbers good, bad or indifferent? They don't feel super great. I wonder what the relevant comparable stats are in Australia (thanks to Leonie Agnew for letting me know Australian children's books make up 45% of children's books sales). They certainly seem to celebrate their children's writers more but this must be easier in a bigger population. Each state seems to have a dedicated children's book festival. They have a national book week with many schools participating. We can't replicate that here with our much smaller population. Everything must show a return for investors, it can't just be mandated for a long game return. We all lament how NZ national book month never took off like music month did. We seemed to lack the resolve to push through from forcing folk to focus on our ghettoised literary products when there was no tangible rewards for doing so, to achieve a genuine change in culture that would have made our local books a force to be reckoned with. Can we try again? I think the current environment would not be in our favour. But if not now, then when?

I ran a workshop on picture book writing last weekend and asked the class if anyone could name a book by me. I have eleven picture books published - three of them out just last year, as well as a bunch of other publications. No one could and I didn't feel insulted by this result. I guess it was more of a resigned kind of feeling - it is a challenge to have any kind of profile with the general populace. When I held up one of my books a few minutes later one person mentioned they'd read that book just the week before. But clearly there was no cut through with my name. I asked each student to name their favourite picture book. I don't recall a New Zealand author being named. There was Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler and Dr Seuss and Eric Carle. A couple struggled to name a picture book.

New Zealanders do read. We are big library users. But so much of what is read is not local content although I know our books are in the libraries. I know there is room for improvement in what we produce. I know our local literature can do so much better when it comes to representation. I think the call for this is loud and clear and changes are happening albeit slowly. The article talked about how our literature is seen as gloomy, depressing and dark and research has backed this up. But this is a perception rather than a reality and is not so relevant for children's literature anyways. Did we ask New Zealand children why they don't pick up local titles? I think too that there is an element of cultural cringe and our own literature is always judged more critically because of this. It's us, just this little infant country existing at the fringe of the civilized world that will always be wishing we could be as cool as our older siblings abroad. I think this does us a massive disservice. We do create good books here but somehow the overseas offerings always appear more sophisticated. We always expect more of ourselves - you must run twice as fast to keep pace with everyone else. International books often come with bigger marketing budgets and sales sweeteners. How can we compete?

There are factors against us - a smaller population and economies of scale, a resistant population, a lack of will amongst those who might make a difference (the media, commercial and political entities), a still emerging cultural identity. I know there are amazing groups that work incredibly hard to have New Zealand creators seen in schools, to create events and festivals that celebrate literature, and booksellers who stock and promote us to their customers, but this isn't changing the playing field. We can't keep doing the same things and expect a different outcome. I don't know what the answer is, I only know it needs to be something no one has ever seen before. Something dramatic and surprising. Something game changing. Maybe even shocking. I hope it happens soon ...