Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Touring Northland with Storylines ...

I went travelling last week. Thanks to the most excellent organisation Storylines, I toured Northland schools and pre-schools with Tim Tipene, Diana Menefy, Anne Marie Florian, Terry Fitzgibbon and Maria Gill. We talked books, reading, writing and illustrating, and their value and importance. We were wrangled by the lovely, patient, expert driver, and literature fiend, Anne Dickson, who deserves a medal or two for getting us to all the places we needed to go. I visited and spoke at 18 schools, kindergartens and related events. Group sizes varied from  22 to 225 (plus teachers). Ages ranged from 3 months to 13 years. Sometimes groups comprised a whole school, years 0 to 8. It was pretty full on. But as you can see I was still smiling on Friday.

We met a lot of children as we travelled. I talked with students at Tauhoa Primary, Tapora School, and Tomarata Primary on Monday. Mangawhai Beach School, Waipu, Maungaturoto and Paparoa (and Tinopai) Primarys on Tuesday. Maunu and Onerahi Schools, and Whangarei Intermediate (a workshop) on Wednesday. Thursday I visited Hurupaki, Hukerenui, Pakaraka and Kaikohe West Schools and in the afternoon/evening we did an event at Kerikeri High School in association with SLANZA. Friday we wended our way home via Our Place Early Learning Centre, Kerikeri Community Childcare Trust, (Makana Chocolate Cafe - not a school) and Horizon School in Snell's Beach.

We covered a lot of miles (1,812km!!) and got to see many beautiful parts of Northland (including some I'd never seen before). This is me, Tim, Diana and Anne Marie at Whangarei Heads School where Diana and Anne Marie spoke. Just the most amazing backdrop, don't you think?

I received the loveliest gift and card from Maunu School, and was sung a waiata at Kaikohe West School, and at Kerikeri Community Childcare Trust. Everyone was so welcoming everywhere we went.

I was a bit weary by the time I returned home Friday evening but the whole week was a total blast. I felt very lucky. If I got the chance I would do it all again. I had felt a little daunted by the prospect of all that public speaking in such varied circumstances but the children were wonderful, respectful and enthusiastic. My travelling companions were the best company and we had a lot of laughs. Storylines have created a wonderful thing. There will be more tours around other parts of New Zealand over the rest of the year. If you would like an author and/or illustrator to visit your school or preschool you can apply here.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tempting boys to read...

Much is often made of writing children's fiction to tempt boy readers. The general consensus is that they lag behind girls in reading volume and therefore reading (and associated) skills. We must write things that will appeal specifically to them in a way that boy readers in particular will enjoy. I'm not sure what that means. Maybe more action and adventure, or toilet humour and slapstick, more horror and science fiction, less girls, less narrative, more dialogue, and no crying, god forbid.

Recently I listened to a terrific speech by a wonderful, successful, well-published author. He writes great books. He said he wrote to tempt the boy reader. He also said he was surprised down the track to find that many (most?) of his readers were girls. And I can't stop thinking about this. Did this mean his efforts to tempt boys didn't succeed? Or that the books appealed equally to girls? Or appealed more to girls than boys despite the authors deliberate intentions otherwise? Or that girls will read widely and don't care what gender the main character is or whether the main themes are considered masculine or feminine or whatever? Or that girls will always read more than boys no matter what?

If girls will read stories centering around boys and 'their interests' in addition to stories focusing on their own gender, then why won't boys read stories centering around girls and their interests? Are we failing boys by not supplying enough of exactly what they want to read, or are we failing boys by providing exactly what they want to read. Have we made it impossible for them to pick up something with a pink cover, with glittery foil? Have we dismissed female protagonists as being beneath them or as not deserving of their attention? Maybe it's not the books. Maybe having a society that seems slightly apologetic about books and dismissive of the arts in general is the issue. As noted by Toby Manhire in the 9 January 2012 issue of The NZ Listener, our then Prime Minister, John Key, (in his contribution to a flyer for Otago's NZ Literary Heritage Trail), 'put the role of New Zealand art and culture in its national context.

"I have always believed we should enhance the literary skills of our young people and while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us." '

I don't think anything has changed since then. Books can never be as cool as the All Blacks according to the folk who set the tone for our attitudes. Representing your country in sport is cool. Winning an Olympic medal is cool. Books, hmmm, not so much. If only reading could be that cool. 

A few years back, I read or heard someone comment that it was wrong to have your young male character cry during the course of your novel. Because boys didn't cry and this would render the character less credible in the eyes of young male readers. When I first read/heard it I worried about all the young male protagonists I'd written that had cried or become emotional when something terrible or terrifying had happened. Now I know my protagonists should cry when this is the right emotional response, regardless of their gender. But this attitude that crying is wrong is not uncommon when it comes to what is widely considered appropriate content for books for boys. In our attempts to coax more boys into reading more books what are we showing them about the world we live in? Are we writing girls out of their world? Or rendering them as only helpers or assistants rather than heroes in their own right? And if they are heroes they must be 'kick-ass' and physical? Are we making it uncool to cry? Have we sacrificed too much in our efforts to get boys to read more? Have the efforts that have been made to increase their reading even worked? Is it time to try a different approach? Should we forget about 'girl' books and 'boy' books and just make reading so cool that all children feel an irresistible urge to pick up a good book. 


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Turning in ever decreasing circles

It was a surprise and a bit of a blow to see the recent announcement from the Book Awards Trust regarding changes to the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults (you can check it out here). There are some positive developments in there - with increasing promotion of finalist titles through several initiatives and a revamped schedule of events that will see authors and illustrators hopefully reaching more of their young readers in what looks like a much more celebratory style - Good!

But my heart broke a little to see that these new intiatives come at the expense of the Children's Choice Awards. For a number of years children were able to vote for their favourite book from amongst the finalist titles. This was a limited approach with a format that tended to favour picture books but it encouraged engagement with all categories of New Zealand children's literature and was an important means of giving voice to our target audience. The prize was much coveted by authors and illustrators, a ringing endorsement from the people we write for. It was a huge thrill when The Were-Nana, my picure book with Sarah Anderson, won the Children's Choice Award in 2009. I love that book and I'm quietly chuffed that the children did too. It gave me the confidence to keep writing for children.

We rejoiced when Children's Choice expanded to acknowledge the book with the most votes in each book award category. And we were jubilant when  over the last few years children could vote for any book submitted for the book awards instead of just the finalists, and Children's Choice then drew up its own list of finalists and each category winner was feted individually. What a tremendous level of engagement for children around New Zealand. This expansion took some of the sting out of the cutting of the LIANZA awards. In a small country with a small population and little media exposure for local children's literature, the loss of these awards has been a real blow to the children's book community. The broadening of Children's Choice was seen as the ideal positive step forward, helping our local writers and illustrators achieve a greater connection with their audience, and giving that audience a chance to speak directly back to us through their choices. A real win:win.

And now it's gone completely.

I appreciate that giving potential voters access to all the eligible children's and young adults titles in a limited time frame, encouraging them to vote and collating the responses must be a significant and costly task. I understand that the organisation of a whole additional tier of finalists and winners adds a degree of complexity for the awards team. Maybe the administration of the Children's Choice Awards is ideally shared with another organisation, or could be reconstructed into a more manageable format that still allows children to have their say. How cool would it be if a dedicated sponsor came forward to fund Children's Choice. Our readers and their opinions are incredibly important to us and the future of children's literature in this country. Other countries with robust Children's Book Awards programmes have Children's Choice Awards. With tightening publishing lists and these cuts to children's book awards we are turning in ever decreasing circles.

Friday, March 17, 2017

A few good things...

It has been a week of news :)

I'm so thrilled to say I get to be a part of this year's Auckland Writers Festival. I've been involved in the Festival before and I didn't dare hope I'd get to take part again. I'll be running a workshop on writing picture books called Picture Book Practice, talking about key attributes, common mistakes, and avenues for publication. It'll be a 90 minute primer with lots of juicy information and a fun exercise to set you on your way. Information on the session is here. Sunday 21st of May 4.00 - 5.30pm at the Aotea Centre. The festival is jam packed with all sorts of amazing goodies and I can't wait to go along!!  Exciting times. Check out the full programme here.

I think one of the nicest types of feedback I can get on my workshops, school visits and other events is repeat business. I recently got invited back for the second time to an annual event, and received a request for a school visit from someone I've visited for before. I'm always working to improve my talks and workshops and always thinking of ways I can add value to what I do, so to know I'm on the right track with content and delivery is enormously helpful.

And a very exciting kind of feedback is acknowledgement of our books by the children's literature community. I'm very proud that Fuzzy Doodle, my picture book with Donovan Bixley, has been named a Storylines Notable Book for 2017. Here is the list of picture book fabulousness that I feel honoured to be a part of:

Storylines Notable Books List 2017

The Storylines Notable Books List 2017, for books published in 2016, has been announced. The award-winning titles are:
Picture Books
  • If I was a Banana by Alexandra Tylee, illustrated by Kieran Rynhart (Gecko)
  • Gwendolyn! by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Terri Rose Baynton (HarperCollins)
  • Tuna and Hiriwa by Ripeka Takotowai Goddard, illustrated by Kimberly Andrews (Huia)
  • Maui – Sun Catcher by Tim Tipene, illustrated by Zak Waipara (Oratia)
  • Gladys Goes to War by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Fuzzy Doodle by Melinda Szymanik, illustrated by Donovan Bixley (Scholastic NZ)
  • Gorillas in our Midst by Richard Fairgray, illustrated by Terry Jones (Scholastic NZ)
  • Henry Bob Bobbalich by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Link Choi (Scholastic NZ)
  • Witch’s Cat Wanted Apply Within written by Joy H Davidson, illustrated by Nikki Slade-Robinson (Scholastic NZ)
  • The Harmonica by Dawn McMillan, illustrated by Andrew Burdan (Scholastic NZ)
  • Rasmas by Elizabeth Pulford, illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Scholastic NZ)
  • The Best Dad in the World by Pat Chapman, illustrated by Cat Chapman (Upstart)

Junior Fiction

  • The Road to Ratenburg by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Gavin Bishop (Gecko)
  • Annual edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris (Gecko)
  • The Diamond Horse by Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins UK)
  • Rona by Chris Szekely, illustrated by Josh Morgan (Huia)
  • Enemy Camp by David Hill (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • The Impossible Boy by Leonie Agnew (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Grandad’s Wheelies by Jack Lasenby, illustrated by Bob Kerr (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Barking Mad by Tom E Moffatt (Scholastic NZ)
  • Sunken Forest by Des Hunt (Scholastic NZ)

Young Adult

  • Lonesome When You Go by Saradha Koirala (Makaro)
  • Coming Home to Roost by Mary-anne Scott (Penguin Random House NZ)


  • See Play Do: A Kid’s Handbook for Everyday Creative Fun written and illustrated by Louise Cuckow (Beatnik)
  • Bruce Wants to Go Faster by Dreydon Sobanja, illustrated by Murray Dewhurst (Inspired Kids)
  • Armistice Day: the New Zealand Story by Philippa Werry (New Holland)
  • Speed King: Burt Munro, the World’s Fastest Indian by David Hill, illustrated by Phoebe Morris (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Jack and Charlie: Boys of the Bush by Jack Marcotte (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • The Beginner's Guide to Netball by Maria Tutaia (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Cricket with Kane Williamson by Kane Williamson (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • The Cuckoo and the Warbler: A True New Zealand Story by Heather Hunt, illustrated by Kennedy Warne (Potton and Burton)
  • ANZAC Heroes by Maria Gill, illustrated by Marco Ivancic (Scholastic NZ)
  • Much ado about Shakespeare written and illustrated by Donovan Bixley (Upstart)

A downloadable poster in PDF format of all this year's Notable Books can be found here.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Managing the news hungry writer...

One day two weeks ago was a red letter day. I got two emails that surprised and delighted me. One was responding positively to a bold suggestion I'd made sometime in the second half of last year. The other was to let me know a short story I'd submitted was accepted for publication. I floated, giddy, for 24 hours and believed in myself for at least 4 or 5 days. Now I'm back to my usual normal grumpy, jittery, self-doubting, frequent email-refreshing self.

As a writer, receiving any news is addictive. Good news makes you happy. Great news makes you high as a kite. And the rest of the time we are in withdrawal. Where the analogy goes awry is that we have no control over the supply of our favourite drug. So we need some management techniques to help us survive the cold turkey times. Because we never know how long they'll last or if they'll ever be over again.

For all the people who say 'but writing should be your addiction', or 'distract yourself from waiting for responses to your submissions/proposals/putting your neck on the line by getting started on your next book' - they are lying to themselves. Or they're not and I'm just so happy for them in their lovely homes in Stepford.

So here are my ideas for getting through...

1) Run away to a far away country where you can ignore the fact that there is no new news (an expensive option and only good for short bursts)

2) Have children so you can sneak a high from their good news. This is a major (and costly) investment but can really pay off in the long run

3) Refrigerate or freeze your favourite emails/letters so you can enjoy them again later. Please note however you cannot refreeze a thawed email, and previously frozen news will deteriorate faster

4) Keep news fresher for longer by watering daily. Some folk recommend a dried arrangement and these will last a lot longer but the colours do fade and they can become very brittle.

5) Fake news is NOT recommended. Especially as it makes the real news harder to identify

6) Don't try and 'be' the news. The media/social media are by their very nature rather judgy and generally harsh critics. Even filters won't protect you

The truth is all news wears out eventually anyway. Careful handling will make it last longer but it will become history at some point no matter what you do. Of course this is a blessing for the less than stellar variety. There will always be periods without news. You will get times where your email inbox goes deathly quiet and the world seems to be spinning on without you. Staying in the game is still the best way to keep new news coming in, but know that the days of waiting and wishing to hear are just a normal part of this job we have found ourselves in. And it pays to remember too that all writers have to deal with the lulls and the cold turkey trough. Hanging out with each other during an absence of news may just be the best way to get through. Be kind to yourself. And nice to each other

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Winging it ...

Hey there (waves). I don't know where you are or what you've been doing over the last month or so but I hope it has been AWESOME!! And I hope you have big plans for 2017. Well, good plans, whether big or small. Good luck for your good plans!

I have one plan for the year ahead, and that is to not have a plan :) I'm kind of winging it (because I figure when you wing it, you might just fly). 

Of course I'm gonna keep doing the key things I always do. My key tasks are to try and produce great content and to deliver the best talks, workshops and readings I can if I am called on to do so. Content, first and foremost, is king. Without it I'm not a writer. If I'm not a writer than I won't be called on to talk books, reading, and writing. 

And I'm keen to enjoy my writing. Feeling joy in the process can't help but leak in to the product. It's a good way to work as a creative, and can easily be forgotten in the drive to capitalise on previous successes or in attempting to meet a market which turns out to be slipperier than a greased seal. So: a passive approach and few expectations, a focus on writing, and a desire to work on things that make me happy.

Okay, so I am cheating a little having actively pursued a few opportunities last year which might bear fruit this year. I already have a few things booked in and they are nicely spread out across the next 11 months. But at the moment taking my foot a little off the gas feels like the right thing to do. This may change though, as conveniently, winging it gives me the right to make it up as I go along (lol, just like writing). 

 I thought it might be handy to start the year off with a few observations

1) If it's really difficult, you're doing it right

2) Believe it or not, it's all about the writing. Just the writing. No, really.

3) Where do ideas come from? Take an interest in things. Be curious. Live your life. Where experience and curiosity and imagination intersect is where ideas hang out. Go hang out there too.

4) If you think other writers have it easier, it's probably because they have chosen not to share about the knocks and struggles they have faced. We are all facing obstacles, wishing things would go a little better, and doing the best we can

5) Don't put off following your dreams until tomorrow. Start as soon as possible because you will always wish you'd started yesterday.

6) Of course it sometimes feels like you have the absolute worst job in the world! All the best jobs do

And in seriously exciting news for the NZ children's literature scene, a new initiative, The Sapling - a new online magazine about children's books. Because books grow children - is starting up soon. This sounds amazing and I can't wait. The founding editors, Sarah Forster and Jane Arthur, are currently running a Boosted fundraising campaign to  enable them to start things off right. If you would like to contribute, go check it out here. They also currently have a facebook page if you want to keep in touch with their progress 


Thursday, December 8, 2016

The end is nigh...

I've started this post about five times - clearly I need more coffee. Hang on, just gonna go make myself a cup. BRB............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................


So, now that I am correctly caffeinated for my end of year rant, let's get started.

What to say about 2016?

I ended up being way busier than I expected to be, doing a lot of school visits, running workshops and getting involved in some amazing projects. I did heaps more talking (and writing of talks) than I did writing but it was just that kind of year. Thank you to all the wonderful people who invited me to be a part of things. I did lots of things that scared me and for the most part I was so glad I did. Not everything worked out. Some things terrified me too much and I won't be doing them again. Knowledge (and experience) is power. Actually most things will always scare me but some things aren't worth a repeat fright. I guess the bottom line is that doing things that terrify you isn't a cure, it's more of a life management plan.

2016 also demonstrated that it is impossible to plan ahead in too much detail when you are a writer. I put my name down for a couple of things in 2016 but for the most part I wasn't anticipating the invitations, requests and suggestions that I received. I think it's the fruit of my 'long game' philosophy. The last three years have each been distinctive anomalies compared with the previous 13 or so years, (the Dunedin Residency in '14, the Pah Homestead Residency in '15 and the Book Award judging and Otahuhu Project this year). Is three years of different now a trend? I might have a better idea at the end of 2017 so I'll have to get back to you on that one. On current evidence, although I only have a few fixed points (repeats of a couple things I took part in this year), next year has the potential to strike out in a new direction. I suppose enough uncertainty eventually becomes a certainty of its own. I am, if nothing else, adaptable. Saying yes to (nearly) everything is a key contributor to this but I have been liking the results of this approach to my work life so for the moment it's still my MO. I will just have to accept the randomness that comes with it.

My picture book with Donovan Bixley, Fuzzy Doodle, took flight in the middle of the year. It's a thrill to have a book come out and I thank everybody who has encouraged, supported and said nice (or otherwise) things about Fuzzy. Writers pray that their books will be reviewed, so it does break my heart a little when a review does nothing more than summarise the plot, especially when it is just based on the back cover blurb. I've had a few of these for Fuzzy and there is so much more to the book than that. I appreciate that space for reviews is shrinking but I know a lot can be done with so little (especially as a picture book writer). I loved this very brief review of the book on Goodreads by Miss Wilson  - A visual transformation that improves with each page turn, much like the content it discusses literally and metaphorically. Only eighteen words, yet so delicious and intriguing. It can be done! And most recently there was a lovely and thoughtful (and longer) review of the book here by blogger Steph Ellis.

And to cap off an exciting and interesting year, I recently took part in a wonderful event showcasing the students' work from the amazing Otahuhu Project I was involved in. I was so impressed by, and proud of, what the students achieved. They are our writers and illustrators of the future. Thank you to the school, the dedicated teachers, the NZ Book Council and the fabulous funders of this amazing initiative. Long may it continue!


So what of 2017. Just a few things booked so far. And a few more prospects hovering. I have a ticket to see Adele in concert in March and I am out of the country for New Years which will be weird. This last fact somehow seems like some kind of portent about the year to come. That the usual order of things might be shaken up. Time will tell I guess. I'll keep saying 'yes' to things. Keep trying to learn more about this business I am in. Keep trying to pass this information on. Keep trying to produce more written work because without that I will stall, stagnate, become stale. From time to time I throw up my hands and say 'I give up'. Being a writer and staying published has more than its fair share of challenges and issues and more than a whiff of futility about it. On the days that all I can see is the wood of the door I am banging my head against, I feel certain this industry and I cannot remain together. But repeated examination has slowly revealed that it is not what I do, it is who I am. I could no more give up writing than I could stop being human so I shall stay on, thumping the keyboard and staring out the window and into the distance, mulling ideas over and attempting to turn them into stories. 2017? Here I come...