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.