Wednesday, November 1, 2023

I'm Back! ...

I'm back! And I have lots to tell you. But while I shrug off my jet lag and catch up on all the admin that awaited my return, here are a few snippets of news to keep you going. 

My new picture book Sun Shower/He Tārū Kahika, beautifully illustrated by the amazing Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, translated into Te Reo by the very skilled Pānia Papa and published by Scholastic NZ has arrived in bookstores. It looks fabulous - I am so pleased - I love the colour palette and generous detail in these books. And there have already been some lovely lovely reviews, on Bob's Book Blog here, and on the KidsBooksNZ site here

And I am thrilled to say Lucy and the Dark is a 2023 Storylines Notable Book!! Below is today's announcement and the complete list of 2023 Notable Books. Congratulations to all the creators!!

Storylines Children’s Literature Trust Te Whare Waituhi Tamariki o Aotearoa is delighted to once again celebrate excellence in New Zealand publishing for children and young adults with the announcement of this year’s Storylines Notable Book Award winners.

“Congratulations to all the creators and publishers of this year’s award winners,” says Storylines Trust chair Christine Young. “These are impressive lists of excellent books in all categories; testament to the strength and depth of local children’s and young adult publishing.

“The strength of publishing in te reo Māori remains evident, with books from a number of publishers. The non-fiction category covers everything from wildlife to environmental issues; sports to New Zealand and Pasifika history. I was particularly delighted to see an anthology of Pasifika student poetry highly commended in this category.

“As ever, the young adult, junior fiction and picture book categories are strong, with books by new and established writers impressing the judging panels.

Clearly the commitment from New Zealand publishers and authors to producing quality books for young people remains strong, and I’d commend these lists of award winners as providing excellent choices for whānau or friends looking for Christmas gift ideas, or for teachers and librarians looking to add to their school or early childhood centre libraries.

“It is so important that our tamariki and rangatahi enjoy reading – and equally important that they have access to high quality books that reflect and broaden their experience of growing up in New Zealand.”

Storylines Notable Books are selected in five genres (picture books, junior fiction, young adult, non-fiction and books in te reo Māori) by expert panels of teachers, booksellers, authors, academics, and librarians from across the country.

The 2023 awards cover books published between 16 November 2022 and 15 November 2023.

Storylines’ Notable Book Award winners provide adult buyers and young readers with lists of the ten best New Zealand books published in the latest year in each genre, that will inspire tamariki and rangatahi and their whanau to share and enjoy reading.

The lists are excellent reading and buying guides for anyone wanting to encourage young people read for pleasure and information.

The 2023 Storylines Notable Books are: 


Critters of Aotearoa: 50 Bizarre But Lovable Members of Our Wildlife Community, Nicola Toki, Lily Duval (Penguin Random House NZ)

The Observologist – A handbook for mounting very small scientific expeditions, Giselle Clarkson (Gecko Press)

Good Sports: A Storybook of Kiwi Sports Heroes, Stuart Lipshaw (Penguin Random House NZ)

My First Words About Tikanga Māori, Stacey Morrison, Kurawaka Productions (Penguin Random House NZ)

Patu: the New Zealand Wars, Gavin Bishop (Penguin Random House NZ)

Those Magnificent Voyagers of the Pacific, Andrew Crowe, Rick Fisher (Bateman Books)

Mangō: Sharks and Rays of Aotearoa, Ned Barraud (Te Papa Press)

Tuatara, a Living Treasure, Katie Furze, Ned Barraud (Scholastic NZ)

Wot Knot You Got? Mophead’s Guide to Life, Selina Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press)

Ultrawild an Audacious Plan to Rewild Every City on Earth, Steve Mushin (Allen & Unwin)

Highly Commended

Pasifika Navigators – Pasifika Student Poetry Collection How Did I Get Here? Soliloquies Of Youth, Darcy Solia (Illustrator) ***Note: The poetry includes 52 Pasifika student contributors (Mila’s Books) 

Te Reo Māori

Te Rā Kura ki Aotearoa, Donovan Bixley, Darryn Joseph (Translator) (Upstart Press) 

Tōku Whānau Rerehua – My Beautiful Family, Rauhina Cooper, Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Oratia Books) 

Ko Ngā Whetū Takirua o Matariki, Ko Waitī rāua ko Waitā, Miriama Kamo, Zak Waipara, Ariana Stevens (translator) (Scholastic NZ) 

Ko Tama me te Taniwha, Melanie Koster, Monica Koster, Pānia Papa (translator) (Scholastic NZ) 

Riwia me te Mātai Arorangi, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Huia Publishers) 

Ko Te Wai, Ko Tama Me Te Marama, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Huia Publishers) 

Ka Wehi Au Ki Ngā Wenerei, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Huia Publishers) 

He Reo Iti Noa Ahau, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Huia Publishers)

He Mahi Taunga Kore, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Huia Publishers)

Young Adult

The Sparrow, Tessa Duder (Penguin Random House NZ) 

Catch a Falling Star, Eileen Merriman (Penguin Random House NZ) 

The Other Brother, Jax Calder (OneTree House) 

The Edge of Light: New Dawning, AM Dixon (OneTree House) 

Iris and Me, Philippa Werry (The Cuba Press) 

Flying and Falling, Lynda Tomalin (GlitterInk Press Ltd) 

The Impossible Story of Hannah Kemp, Leonie Agnew (Walker Books Australia)  

Junior Fiction

Tūī Street Legends, Anne Kayes, Craig Phillips (Wildling Books) 

Below, David Hill (Penguin Random House NZ) 

Pipi and Pou and the Tentacles of the Deep, Tim Tipene, Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (OneTree House) 

The Hudson, the Hunt & the Helicopter, Joan Joass (Copy Press Books) 

Jason Mason and the Flightless Bird Fiasco, Jason Gunn, Andrew Gunn (Bateman Books) 

Once Upon A Wickedness, Fleur Beale, Lily Uivel (Penguin Random House NZ) 

Children of the Rush – Book 2, James Russell (Dragon Brothers Books) 

Lopini the Legend, Feana Tu‘akoi (Scholastic NZ) 

RockyBottoms! Big Little Blue, Book Two, Raymond McGrath (Scholastic NZ) 

Like The Wind, J L Williams (Ocean Echo Books) 

Highly Commended

Caged, Susan Brocker (Scholastic NZ) 

Picture Books

Lucy and the Dark, Melinda Szymanik, Vasanti Unka (Penguin Random House NZ) 

Matariki, Gavin Bishop (Penguin Random House NZ) 

Granny McFlitter’s Eggcellent Easter, Heather Haylock, Lael Chisholm (Penguin Random House NZ) 

At the Bach, Joy Cowley, Hilary Jean Tapper (Gecko Press) 

The Great Kiwi School Day, Donovan Bixley (Upstart Press)

E Oma, Rāpeti: Pō Mārie / Run, Rabbit: Goodnight, Norah Wilson, Kimberly Andrews, Pānia Papa (translator) (Scholastic NZ)

Duck Goes Meow, Juliette MacIver, Carla Martell (Scholastic NZ) 

Grandpa’s Dashing Dessert, Tania Sickling, Lael Chisholm (Scholastic NZ) 

Tama and the Taniwha, Melanie Koster, Monica Koster (Scholastic NZ) 

Dazzlehands, Sacha Cotter, Josh Morgan, (Huia Publishers)

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Packing my suitcase ...

My new picture book with fab illustrator Vasanti Unka, Lucy and the Dark, is released!! Huzzah! Published by Penguin RH NZ with a glorious glow-in-the-dark cover, this wee book is garnering some nice reviews which makes us very happy. Reviews can be found here, here, here and here. Many thanks to Lou from Wardini's Books, What Book Next, The Sapling and Kids Books NZ for their very kind words. There are copies of the book signed in fancy silver pen by both Vasanti and I available at Time Out Bookstore if you are interested in getting yourself one.

It's been a busy old month with the NZ Children's and Young Adult's Book Awards held in Wellington, a school visit to the wonderful Sylvia Park School and a day-long workshop on writing picture books at Selwyn Community Education. A trio of poets including me ran a writing-poetry-for-children competition which culminated in sharing the winning poem on facebook on National Poetry Day - you can check this out here. I've been submitting poetry (mostly adult) and chipping away at a few longer works. And this Thursday I am off to Shanghai for the writing residency with the Michael King Writers' Centre. I've been slowly packing my suitcase and getting all my laundry done, organising plug adapters and getting vaccinations and paperwork completed. There is a lot of admin for an adventure like this and hopefully I've dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's that need dotting and crossing and soon I'll be tapping away on some very cool projects in this amazing city that I have never visited before. Wish me luck! And see you in November!!

... in the meantime here is some more poetry I have written for young people:

How to Fly

Is it better to be

a bird or a plane?

Do birds mind the weather,

the wind and the rain?

If their wings got wet

would they fall from the sky?

Do they get blown off course?

Do those feathers drip dry?

Planes only fly to

particular places.

They’re crowded on board

with too many faces!

I suppose at the least

that it’s cosy inside

and I don’t need directions,

the plane is my guide,

but they also cost money,

my savings are zero.

Want to take flight?

Be a caped superhero!

Friday, July 28, 2023

A bit of a rant...

 I often hear the phrase - 'it's really hard to get published' and my mind has often responded with, 'it's always been hard'. I've thought that the publishing setbacks and failures I've experienced are because my stories or books are just not good enough.   

But other things have been happening to legitimately make it harder. The sheer volume of stories being published now provides a veritable ocean of books in which your own book is the proverbial drop. It is easy to sink without trace. There are self published books in addition to traditionally published. It is fantastic that folk can now self publish and there are many wonderful self pubbed titles out there, but the total number of books has increased markedly as a result. There are less in-print reviews, especially of children's books, whether in magazines or newspapers. Some online review sites have popped up (yay!) but are they reaching the audience that can make a difference? How do we get cut through, can we even get seen? And can we stay on the shop shelves long enough with so many books coming through? I read an article here which talks about market saturation and some things you can do to help your book along. Personally, recently I've been teaming up with fellow creators to try and connect more with our target audience on social media in a positive, and interesting way. Social media is having a few hiccups at the moment but people are still hanging out around the digital watercooler so hopefully our community building will have some mutually beneficial outcomes. I'll keep you posted on our project when there is more to share. I also think creating and strengethening your own personal brand can help - being visible whenever possible and doing good work both in your books and in the writing and reading communities.

I've been finding it hard recently to stay strong in the face of the unspoken belief that children's literature requires an inferior skill set to produce and has lesser value in the eyes of adult writers and readers. I know 'not all adult writers and readers' but I've had some personal experience of being denigrated as a writer for children recently and it wasn't great. I am at a loss to understand what the issue is. As if literature is a pie and if adult literature cedes anything to children's literature it is a failure or a loss from their own share. I'm not sure how it became like this but I'd say boosting children's literature and valuing it helps create young readers who turn into adult readers. Isn't that desirable? I'd also argue that children's writers, just as any other writers, strive to master their craft and create quality. I'm thinking about plotting, character development, language techniques and deeper themes. I'm writing for an audience that I am no longer the same as. I'm writing not just for the child reader who might have emerging language skills and an inquisitive and demanding mind, but also the oft present adult intermediary who would like some relief in the form of subtle adult humour or other emotional connection and universal ideas that also speak to them. I am mindful always of the malleability and potential of words and how my efforts in the text will grow and inspire a young person's vocabulary and future reading and writing skills. Its not less than. Its just different. And the disdain I have felt recently is frankly undeserved. Maybe a children's book hurt you as an adult. Honestly, I don't know what it is. But it is selfish and it is unnecessary. Lifting each other up seems like the best thing to do eh?

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Mixed bag ...

 I'm not sure if writers still get caught up on the whole issue of copyright these days - the whole, do you need to assert copyright on your work, when do you do it, how do you do it, and what might happen if you don't? 

I'm pretty sure copyright is automatic here in NZ, meaning it applies as soon as your words are assembled on the page or screen. You don't have to add the symbol or register your story anywhere. Once you submit your completed story to a publisher there is a date stamp on your email which can corroborate any arguments about who had an idea first (information that is required so rarely that I cannot recall any instances of stolen ideas over my more than 20 years in the business). And if the publisher decides to publish, it is then up to them to do the final official paperwork/admin and copyright appears in black and white on the imprint page. 

So you are not required to do anything. And doing something can cause problems and make you look amateurish. You can read about it here - this from a US blog but it is relevant here too.

Things have been quiet around here since my big news about getting the residency. I have a few articles to write, a few missives too, and I am slowly sorting the admin for my trip. Visas and the like. Part of me wishes I was going away next week. I want the admin to be over and I want to be focusing on my project. I have made a very modest start and I have been wondering/worrying about the technique I am using. It is new to me so I have gotten some books using the same technique to read. The one I'm reading first is next level genius and it is a little intimidating, but when I went back to my own modest beginnings I thought this isn't so bad. Probably not Cilip Carnegie Medal material like my exemplar, but not as bad as I suspected. Maybe I can do this. The technique I mean. I already think the story idea itself has legs. Anyways, in lieu of having anything else to talk about I thought I would post up some poems for younger people. Enjoy!

(And if you are an NZ adult writing children's poetry you might like to enter a poem competition some poet friends and I are running. You can check out details here. The competition close August 4th and there is a small cash prize and the winning poem will be printed and displayed.)

Reluctant Ambler 

I go out for a walk,

(they make me),

I don’t want to go!

I dawdle, mope,

and drag my feet

I get so rambly slow!

The grass is tall

above my head,

each step I take

fills me with dread,

I fancy being in bed instead

but no one is at home -


I smell the flowers

(Pinks I think),

I must admit

a spicy stink.

I touch the grass,

admire the sky,

watch monarch

butterflies sail by,

and by the time we reach the bay

I actually have a mind to stay.

The sun is shining

waves shush in,

I secretly let

out a grin.

We picnic on

a sunlit shelf,

don’t tell them

I’ve enjoyed myself.

And just in case

next time’s a pain,

I drag my feet

back home again.

Blistery Mystery

There’s a word for this

I know what it is

it’s just on the tip of my tongue

and ‘tongue’ is a tip

well, a clue -

it’s a quip

or a joke

not a word on its own.

It’s a weather event

it’s a tempest, a storm

but it means

something different

as well

giving your tongue a blister -

‘She sells shells,

that shore sifter.’

That’s it -

a tongue twister!

Well done!

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Keeping my hand in ...

Whoo-wee I did not see that coming. You might think I should have 'cos I applied for it. Here is the announcement here. Thanks to the Michael King Writer's Centre, the NZ China Friendship Society, Shanghai Writers' Association and Shanghai People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, I am off to Shanghai in September for eight weeks to work on a new middle grade fiction project. The story is partly set in Shanghai, the setting a catalyst for some big turning points in the plot. I cannot wait to soak up the location, and walk the streets I will be writing about. It's an incredible opportunity and it is still a little surprising that it was given to me. I actually went on a bit of a hot applying jag a few months back. I was feeling pretty bleak about the state of things. I was wondering about slowly taking my hand out of the bucket of water, and just when you are contemplating taking a step back the logical response (of course!) is to apply for things (residencies, funding, etc...). I think the underlying mood was just reaching for some chances to fulfil a couple of long held ambitions. It all felt a bit wild and yet in the fevered moment of applying I realised Shanghai was a perfect part of my project. I guess maybe it felt like that to the selection panel too. I am feeling excited about the story and the groundwork I am laying right now. By the time I am in the plane my main character will be too, travelling to the place that will set her off in a startling new direction.

I applied thinking I would most likely not get it (the classic creative's self preservation approach). But it felt good to apply. It felt important. I was doing something ambitious and gutsy and at the same time practical and purposeful. Applications take effort, corralling information, defining and refining a project, making decisions about what to include and what to leave out. You polish the project and commit yourself to the idea. You imagine yourself taking up the opportunity and then you steel yourself to the likelihood that one of the other applicants will get the nod. But it is no good having goals and then never pursuing them. As much as this business is out of our control and a significant part of our journey subject to the decisions of others, if there are things out there you want to try for, you have to go for it. Because sometimes it might be you. This time it was me, and it is all very thrilling and I cannot wait. And now I'll be keeping my hand in the bucket of water a bit longer.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Farewell to May, Hello June ...

May ended up being busier than I expected, and I was already expecting it to be busy. I had two planned school visits in the first week, the second a full day visit on the Thursday, and that evening I had an unexpected email asking whether I could join the Storylines Tour to the Bay of Plenty the following week. Someone had had to pull out at the last minute. I'd be flying down to Tauranga on Sunday. So in the second week of May I was travelling around BOP with the lovely Storylines support crew and three other writers. I spoke to big groups on my own (the biggest the whole school of 600 intermediate students) and small groups with the others (four of us addressed 13 students).  

The following week was the Auckland Writers Festival kicking off with the Ockham's Book Awards which I attended as a Book Awards Trustee on Wednesday night (great night!), a Book Awards Trust Board meeting the next morning (for which I take the minutes) and then a bunch of events to attend at the Festival itself over the remainder of the week. Last week was minute writing, proposal writing, admin and board paper reading in preparation for an NZSA AGM and Board Meeting on the Saturday. Public events of any kind tend to require some recovery time afterwards for me. Even the most positive, fun, uplifting occasion will give me a people hangover and I know I will function best if I get some alone time stat. Hopefully there will be the chance for that in June. 

This is the life of a writer: writing adjacent tasks, unexpected schedules and events, writing-related organisation governance and some non-writery quiet time. Well, maybe just this writer, but I can guarantee few of us are squirreled away in a garret writing creatively for 40 hours a week, week in, week out. And when we are plotting and planning, its not just on new story outlines. I've been writing applications, pitching a group project or two, and checking in with other creative people. Part of belonging to the writing community becomes about supporting each other, connecting with related industries like libraries, schools and bookshops in a myriad of ways, encouraging reading in general and finding new opportunities (and when we can't find them, creating our own). And there is a lot of admin. I am a dab hand at whipping up an invoice these days. 

The romantic part of being a writer - 'the actual writing' - sometimes has to wait. Although you always have to mind it isn't waiting too long. Other times we get to celebrate the writing. This morning at 6am the finalists for the 2023 NZCYA Book Awards were announced. It's a grand list with some personal favourites of mine featuring. Check out all the goodness below, and a big congratulations to everyone short listed!!

Picture Book Award Finalists 

Duck Goes Meow – Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Carla Martell (Scholastic New Zealand)

Farewell, Anahera – Vanessa Hatley-Owen, illustrated by Scott Irvine, translated by Kanapu Rangitauira (David Ling Publishing)

How My Koro Became a Star – Brianne Te Paa, illustrated by Story Hemi-Morehouse (Huia Publishers)

Roo and Vladimir: An Unlikely Friendship – Minky Stapleton (Scholastic New Zealand)

The Lighthouse Princess – Susan Wardell, illustrated by Rose Northey (Penguin Random House NZ)

Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Junior Fiction Award Finalists

Below – David Hill (Penguin Random House NZ)

Children of the Rush – James Russell (Dragon Brothers Books)

Jason Mason and the World’s Most Powerful Itching Powder – Jason Gunn and Andrew Gunn (Bateman Books)

Masher – Fifi Colston (Penguin Random House NZ)

Pipi and Pou and the Raging Mountain – Tim Tipene, illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (OneTree House)

Young Adult Fiction Award Finalists

Andromeda Bond in Trouble Deep – Brian Falkner (Red Button Press)

Eddy, Eddy – Kate De Goldi (Allen & Unwin)

Indigo Moon – Eileen Merriman (Penguin Random House NZ)

Iris and Me – Philippa Werry (The Cuba Press)

Miracle – Jennifer Lane (Cloud Ink Press)

Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction Finalists 

A New Dawn – Emeli Sione, illustrated by Darcy Solia (Mila’s Books)

Freestyle: The Israel Adesanya Story – David Riley, illustrated by Ant Sang (Reading Warrior)

Sylvia and the Birds – Johanna Emeney, illustrated by Sarah Laing (Massey University Press)

Te Wehenga: The Separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku – Mat Tait (Allen & Unwin)

Weather and Climate New Zealand – Sandra Carrod (Oratia Books)

Russell Clark Award for Illustration

A Portrait of Leonardo – Donovan Bixley (Upstart Press)

Four Yaks and a Yeti – Ant Sang, written by Peter Hillary (Bateman Books)

Roar Squeak Purr – Jenny Cooper, edited by Paula Green (Penguin Random House NZ)

Te Wehenga: The Separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku – Mat Tait (Allen & Unwin)

The Lighthouse Princess – Rose Northey, written by Susan Wardell (Penguin Random House NZ)

Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award Finalists

He Raru ki Tai – Jane Cooper, illustrated by Story Hemi-Morehouse (Huia Publishers)

Kua Whetūrangitia a Koro – Brianne Te Paa, illustrated by Story Hemi-Morehouse (Huia Publishers)

Te Kōkōrangi: Te Aranga o Matariki – Witi Ihimaera, illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, translated by Hēni Jacob (Penguin Random House NZ)

NZSA Best First Book Award Finalists

Echo – Arlo Kelly (Sparrow Press)

Holding the Horse – J L Williams (Ocean Echo Books)

He Raru ki Tai – Jane Cooper, illustrated by Story Hemi-Morehouse (Huia Publishers)

Kidnap at Mystery Island – Carol Garden (Scholastic New Zealand)

The Lighthouse Princess – Susan Wardell, illustrated by Rose Northey (Penguin Random House NZ)

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

My writing tip for the day: on voice ...

I had a bit of an interesting thought while giving my Writing Children's Picture Books workshop recently.

When I talk about language techniques that can be used in picture books I always include a discussion on voice. Voice is the quality that can make a story stand out from its peers, that can grab the attention of publishers and readers alike. It's something I think every writer should be cultivating. When I think of my favourite picture book writers, their voice is distinctive and is a big part of why their stories appeal to me. Oliver Jeffers, Lauren Child, Ian Falconer, Mo Willems, Margaret Mahy. And yet voice can be hard to explain and teach. What IS voice and how do you achieve it?

For me the simplest explanation is that voice is the personality of the story. It can be chatty or crisp, jaunty, winsome, funny and cheeky, wry, dry or serious. It is achieved through sentence length and punctuation, phrasing and word choice. It is the way the narrative 'speaks.'

In my workshop we do an exercise where I provide two different images/scenes for a familiar fairytale - I use Little Red Riding Hood. I then get students to write a paragraph telling the story in each image. The images each drive a very different voice: one a classic, young, old-fashioned depiction, the other a modern, provocative, young adult visualisation. 

After the exercise last weekend I realised that if you are struggling with the voice of whatever you are writing then making a mood board with images/illustrations/scenes that fit with how you imagine the story can flip the switch. Use the images to inspire and influence your writing, working your way through the different scenes till you find what feels right. Describing the scenes might just be the way in to discovering/developing the voice for your story. And they might also help clarify your thinking on what your story is or should be.

You may already be doing this. Someone else may have already suggested this to you or you might have already read it somewhere. But just in case you haven't, this is my writing tip for the day :-)

I also stumbled across this interesting old post on twitter about whether you should quit if you are an unhappy writer. It's kinda philosophical and big picture thinking and I liked what it had to say. I thought you might like it too.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Focusing on the making rather than on the end product ...

I had some really good news recently. I have been around the traps too long to think it a done deal at this point, but if things do go according to plan I will have not two, but three picture books coming out in the second half of this year. Huzzah!!! This has happened to me once before, in 2021 and, I have to say, it was something of a strange experience, especially in the covid era. In all honesty it went very differently to how I imagined it would. I am interested and excited to see how it goes this time. And I will tell you more when there is more to tell :-)

I have come to realise how easy it is to get suckered in to the drive/obsession to keep being published. Getting a yes is a heady hit of the feel goods and you'd have to be an automaton to not want to repeat that boost of endorphins. Then follows the desperate efforts to write the next publishable thing. Is this it? Is this it? Maybe this one will be? Or that! But this can be an unhelpful road to go down. Don't get me wrong. I definitely want to keep being published. But I find it hard to create good work when I am focusing on what a publisher might think. I can't know what they're going to think. They don't know either. Not until they think it. Making good art - whether that's a picture book, or a novel, or a poem for adults, or for children - is the goal. And good art might not only please me, it might please the publisher as well. Of course focusing on the making rather than on the end product is easier said than done and I am working on some strategies to keep the focus where it should be. I think, in part, it's about slowing down and letting things breathe a bit more.

In other news, my book with Vasanti Unka, My Elephant is Blue (Penguin, 2021), is coming out in the US on April 11th and has been accruing some State-side reviews which has been rather encouraging. There is this lovely one in Kirkus, and this one in Foreword Reviews and perhaps the loveliest one I've ever seen here at Books Worth Reading . I'm also being interviewed for an American podcast, Reading With Your Kids, which should be posted up some time around the release date. Gulp. 

I'll also be running my all day Writing Picture Books for Children workshop on Sunday April 2nd. If you, or anyone you know, is keen to get the good oil on how to get started you can find registration details here. And if you can't make it in April I will be repeating the course in August.

Right then, I'm off to work on some poems. If I make some good ones, when the opportunities arise I will have things to submit.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Looking for signs ...

A writing life is a strange thing. A common myth surrounding such a life is that once you have been published, you have 'cracked the code' as it were, have your 'foot in the door,' and whatever you write henceforth will undoubtedly be made into a book. I am here to tell you that that myth should die an ugly death in a ditch because it is just a fever dream that does no one any good.

After publication:

1) not everything you write will be accepted

2) not everything you write will be good

3) writing does not necessarily come easier

4) ideas are not necessarily lining up to follow you home

I don't mention this to freak you out or depress you if you are currently at the pre-published phase of your writing journey (and I am only talking about traditional publication which is the road I've mostly taken, although I think some of my experience and observations will still be relevant to you if you are following a self publishing route). Of course you may be an exception to all this and that is jolly fortunate, but I do think there are a couple of important messages in all of this. Because this writing life is the most epic roller coaster you will ever step foot on and being prepared for the troughs will keep you on the track. 

Not everything you write will be good. Even though you wrote 'good' in the past this is no guarantee of permanent goodness. This is NOT bad, abnormal or a reason to give up . Sometimes what we are striving for eludes us - that idea, or that way of wrangling or presenting a theme or issue is just out of reach. Sometimes your skills have to catch up to your ambition. Maybe the well is empty. Or other parts of our life are intruding, especially if they are stressful. If nothing is coming out like you want it to or you are struggling to write at all but you still want to continue being a writer, don't despair. Sometimes the writing will be rubbish, but not writing at all will not yield you any better results. Keep going. Maybe writing all the rubbish will get it out of your system to free you up for some future good writing.

Most likely not everything you write that IS good will find a home. The industry can be hesitant, fickle, or just moving in a different direction. Sometimes they get it wrong. Sometimes we get it wrong. Publishing is a business and will be operating on a different model to the one that underpins your own endeavours. That is not strange or wrong. It just is. Sometimes the good thing you wrote will get its moment at some point down the track. Or maybe it is a step you needed to take to get to the thing that will fit with the publisher's aims. Whatever you do, don't throw it out. And keep going.

Our tastes and opinions change, as we grow older and perhaps even wiser. And so our writing changes along with us. We continue to read and learn from other texts, other writers, and we are motivated and inspired by new things. While we might become more adept at constructing sentences and avoiding classic writing pitfalls, sometimes we also follow more experimental types of writing or veer away from the zeitgeist. Maybe we're stuck down a blind alley and sometimes the only way out is to write yourself back on to the right path.

Failure is not so much a sign you shouldn't be doing this, but just a common part of the writer's life. It is built in to the model and isn't a cause for panic if you experience it. We might threaten to give up in the hope that the universe will give us a sign that the reading world can't do without us and we should keep going. But I'm afraid to say the universe is indifferent. And your internal plea for a sign is the sign that you are looking for - you are not done with the writing life yet. As James Baldwin said, 'If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you're not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you.' 


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 :-)


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 doom-scrolling on twitter which is at times terrifying. Although 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.