Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Excited by words...

When people ask me why I am a writer I usually tell them I am hoping to replicate the joy for others that I experienced as a young reader. I spent so many very happy hours lost in the pages of a good story. I can think of no better use of my time (apart from hanging with my loved ones) than trying to create a reading experience that transports a child to somewhere fascinating, fun, exciting or all of these. But there is another reason. I am rather in love with words.

Like physicists are exploring space to understand the origins of the Universe and create a unified theory about how we and the world work at the most basic atomic level, or mathematicians look to find proof of Fermat's Theorem, I am looking to arrange and rearrange words to create another kind of magic. Despite the fact that words have been around for thousands of years, it is still possible to come up with novel combinations that make us laugh, cry, or feel a sudden enlightening. Or just give the reader a sense of hope or potential about themselves or their future.

Even when we acknowledge there are really no new plots in the world, there are still books being published that are stunning in their originality. I guess in part we are constantly incorporating all we have read, heard, and seen, and the spells in our minds must, as a result, be unique. When I write for children I am conscious of all the wonderful writing for children that has gone before me. I like to leave clues to other childhood stories, fairy tales and nursery rhymes that I have experienced and enjoyed. And I hope that maybe there are young readers out there who have come across the same children's literature that I have and perhaps they recognize my allusions and feel that little thrill of understanding that make them feel a little extra special. Or they see magic in the words and are impatient to go out and find more, to feel that thrill of all that is possible with language. Maybe...

so I was very happy to see this review of my book While You Are Sleeping for Magpies Magazine, by Trevor Agnew.

This handsome picture book explains to young readers just what goes on while they are asleep. Double page spreads show people on the other side of the world enjoying the sunshine. Meanwhile, on our side of the planet it is night. While you are sleeping night creatures wake and eat breakfast in the dark. Nocturnal birds move among the trees, while fish weave their way through black waters. People come out to work and the reader sees trucks dashing through the darkness, bakers rising from their beds, and farmers donning gumboots, while their cows queue for the dawn milking. Some of the word play is charming. While you are sleeping the moon jumps over the cows. Echoes can be heard from nursery rhymes.
Finally the narrative returns to the young sleeper. While you are sleeping your mind and body will rest and grow.
The text is printed in white lettering against the dark night-time backgrounds but it is very legible.
Greg Straight's colour illustrations are a superb evocation of the night. Magnificently stylised owls are to be seen in every picture, while the endpapers repeat the night-sky image of dark purple heavens with silver stars. The stars get their chance to shine. Each picture contains an unexpected detail for readers to seek out: mice, cats, possums and moreporks [owls].
While You Are Sleeping is a wonderful book to share with young readers, especially those who don't see why they should go to sleep.
Trevor Agnew

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Why this article annoys the snot out of me...

This article has been doing the rounds - Jonathan Emmett on why women are responsible for everything wrong with the world why a publishing workforce dominated by women means boys don't like books. I almost want to cross out the second bit because it is as ludicrous as the first.

It may just be me, but I always like some statistics to back up such publicly asserted statements. Is 'boys lagging behind girls in reading' just a recent issue? Have women always dominated publishing? Some facts please. Do women even dominate publishing now? I have two publishers - one of them is run by a man, the other one has women at the helm here in New Zealand and a man at the helm in Australia - and that's only editorially speaking. A man has overall responsibility for the second company here in New Zealand. Do women buy too many non-piratey books for their sons? Are there no male writers writing for boys? (Charlie Higson, James Patterson, John Flanagan, David Hill, Brian Falkner, Peter Millet, Anthony Horowitz, Paul Stewart, Eoin Colfer, Rick Riordan, John Green, Phillip Pullman, Kyle Mewburn, Michael Grant, Patrick Ness, Terry Pratchett, Ken Catran, Michael Morpurgo, Mal Peet etc...etc...etc... and that's just a fraction of the living blokes who write on topics like war, zombies, spies, and ... oh yes ... pirates).   Everything might be based in truth but it just comes across as blunt, inflammatory kind of commentary that can't really help in the end. To me it just seems designed to annoy people. And bingo, I am annoyed. Lordy the trolls are now writing the articles.

Boys might ask for book advice from their dads but I can tell you right now plenty of dads grew up not giving a toss about books either and couldn't recommend a title if they tried, and their dads before them. This isn't a new thing. And is it just what books are handed to them or is it the fact that in some households there are no books at all, and other male role models aren't seen to be reading, and books aren't 'cool'. Maybe there are too many sport trainings, or too much playstation? See I can be just as anecdotal as you. But really, can we get some scientific thinking and statistics please?? And if it's a problem that's worsening can we then suggest some practical solutions that might work rather than just pointing a finger and saying the women did it?

And Mums (and nans) have been raising sons since...oh, I don't know...since sons were invented. For all the boys who have read in the past it's often because their mums and nans bought them books. And all you can say Mr Emmett is that we don't give our sons sufficient books about pirates?? I tried to raise my son as a reading boy. I gave my son books about pirates, and zombies and boy spies and war to try and spark an interest in reading. He's never been a fan and no amount of blokey books seems to have changed his mind. It's not for want of trying Mr Emmett.

And while my son isn't keen I know many boys his age who are. And many women who work with books who bend over backwards to find the right thing to tempt a boy to read. And I think maybe the pendulum has swung too far and we have unknowingly, subconsciously taught boys that anything not zombie, sporting, or piratical is 'unmanly' and might give them girl cooties. But I don't have sufficient statistics to back this up. All I know is that growing up I read war comics (still available now in handy dandy omnibus editions), and The Lord of the Rings (one of my all time favourite books), and Treasure Island. It didn't bother me that these weren't books about fairies or romance or whatever other things you think dominate female publishers' minds.

Whatever truths your article contained Mr Emmett were subsumed by your confidence that women are to blame for boys lagging behind in reading. And it annoyed the snot out of me (shoot, I'm a woman - we don't like bogeys - my mistake). Thankfully I am not alone in my views.

Monday, April 21, 2014

10 Tips on writing and submitting a picture book...

I have a new picture book coming out in a few months. Last week I received my advance copies. The Song of Kauri, published by Scholastic NZ,  illustrated by Dominique Ford and designed by Vida and Luke Kelly, will be hitting the bookshops June/July, I believe, in hardback and a Maori translation in softback. I love this book and hope you will love it too.

It is the story of a Kauri tree that begins to grow when New Zealand itself is a new land.It is a myth, a fairytale, a history, an environmental story and a hymn to nature. It is a story of beginnings, old and new.

I have another two picture books to be published over the next 18 months or so and have had five previously published over the last 8 years with Scholastic and Duck Creek Press. So I thought I might say a few words about writing picture books that might be helpful if you are interested in tackling this form of children's literature yourself. I've talked about this before but I think people are still keen to write them so I think the advice bears repeating.

1. Don't assume that picture books are an easy way in to the book writing business. They are not 'easy' to write. Sometimes they can be quick to write but this is not the same thing as easy. Easy and quick are two different words with two different meanings.

2. I know of picture book writers who do not read picture books and people who read lots of picture books who cannot write them. However, in general these two groups do overlap to a large extent. Which is to say, reading widely in the form will help you write them. You have to know what they are, to correctly produce your own.

3. It is not necessary to write rhyme to have a picture book published. Some of my favourite picture books are not rhyming (Where the Wild Things Are, Hubert Horatio Bartle Bobton Trent, Tulevai and the Sea, My First Car was Red, Mrs Mo's Monster are some great examples). This does not mean you should NOT write in rhyme but publisher's in-boxes are full of badly rhyming picture book submissions. People write crazy stories that make no sense just so the rhyme will work. Or they use rhymes that have been used a thousand times before (cat/hat/sat/mat -  do/too/you - fun/sun/run) that are rhyme cliches.  I suggest you focus on the rhythm of your story. If nothing else, good rhythm will make your story more pleasurable to read.
If you are committed to rhyming, before you submit, read your story out loud to yourself to see where the rhyme is strained. Then have someone unfamiliar with the text read it to you to test it also. When you have been working on a story for a long time it is easy to remember where to pause or stretch a syllable out to make a rhyme work. But new readers (including potential buyers) won't have this level of familiarity. You have to make the rhyme work for that first reading by unfamiliar eyes.

4. You do not have to find an illustrator. Publishers are very practiced and skilled at doing this. They do it all the time. It is part of their job. They generally try to do their best at it because they are in the business of selling books and want to make a good product that people will want to buy. And they know way more illustrators than you do.

5. The idea is the thing. Is it appealing? To both children and adults? Is it relevant to children? Is it appropriate for their age and stage? Is it fresh? People are writing picture books all around the world, all of the time, so it is a major challenge to come up with something new. While writing a picture book might be quick, the getting of the great idea can be very slow. Sometimes I have had years between good picture book ideas. That is why I also write novels - to fill in the time between great picture book ideas (okay that last statement is only partly true :) ) Don't force it. Be patient and do things (lots of different interesting things) that put you in touch with ideas.

6. Picture books are usually around 400 to 700 words. They can be up to 1000 words but that is at the very long end for a picture book story and picture book manuscripts that length are less likely to get published. The illustrations will show some of the detail of your story that will allow you to pare away some of the words. So while 400-700 words can be 'quick' to write, they are not 'easy' because you've had to pick the right ones that tell your story in an interesting, fresh and appropriate way and then figure out which ones your story can do without without losing the quality of the story. Feeling like Michelangelo yet?

7.  Pick your words carefully. You can have a fabulous idea that drowns in boring prose, or zingy prose that doesn't actually say an awful lot. Giving some consideration to rhythm will help here. Be playful with words but not at the expense of meaning. Don't forget your target age group - too many complex words might turn them off. But a few advanced ones will challenge them and add to their vocabulary. A good rule of thumb is you can include a difficult word if the meaning of the sentence does not rely on it.

8. Don't be juvenile. Children think about big issues just as adults do. Fear, loneliness, fitting in, friendship, death, loss. They want help to make sense of their world and assist them in navigating the tricky waters of life. Giving them some meaningful tools for self management in amongst a fun story is the best gift you can give them. On the other hand, DON'T preach. No one wants to be lectured.

9. I have never laid my manuscript out like a picture book when I've submitted it. And I have had 8 picture book manuscripts accepted for publication. I separate the text into paragraphs to represent how I think it might  work over the pages but ultimately the publisher has the final say on how the text appears. I figure the less I suggest how things should be the more freedom the publisher has to see how best it might work. I respect their experience with these things. However I have learnt a lot about pagination over the years and I am sure this has been absorbed into the way I write. If you are new at picture book writing, this is where reading plenty of picture books will help you.

10. I rarely provide artists notes to advise on what might appear in the pictures. Even when the story relies on something that I have not written into the text. If I can see what is missing in the text (that should be shown in the illustrations) I trust that an experienced publisher will see it too. If I have done my job and written the story well than I figure a publisher will read and see it how I intended it. It is worth noting here that some publishers actively dislike artist's notes and do not look at them anyway.

So folks - there you have it - my advice on writing and submitting picture books. If you think I've missed anything out, feel free to ask about it in the comments below, and if I know the answer or have some thoughts on it I will include it in this post. Happy writing!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Creating better citizens...

NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults finalist author (of picture book The Three Bears...Sort Of), Yvonne Morrison, spoke eloquently on radio the other day about her interest in teaching children 'critical thinking'. The text of her terrific picture book, with great illustrations by Donovan Bixley, directly encourages children to question everything, and children should. Blind acceptance of everything we are told is a dangerous path to tread and it is never too early to start encouraging children to ask why. Along with a love of reading, critical thinking is a tremendous gift to give our children. If they can question, and ask why, seeking clarity and truth, and a greater understanding of the world around them, we have given them an essential tool to take through life.

The meaning, the resolution, the underlying themes of picture books, shouldn't have to be dominated by closed, concrete thinking. Think The Lion in the Meadow - a book that turns on the idea of 'the potential', 'the possibilities', 'the magic' of our imagination, and even our existence. What if? we want children to ask.

And as children grow into young adults we want to extend their critical thinking while developing their empathy. Our recent 'roast busters' case demonstrates a serious need for a greater sense of empathy amongst our teens. Books for young adults should reflect their experience or challenge them to understand the experience of others. Not everyone lives a secure and happy life. If you do, you are very fortunate, but you become a better member of society if you acknowledge that others may be faced with hard choices, difficult situations and harsh experiences. To pretend that teens aren't exposed to alcohol, drugs, violence and sex does not help teens at all. Folk worry that such content might be too mature for teenagers but research shows that reading what is often deemed as 'controversial content' can help create better citizens, rather than resulting in increased antisocial behaviour as some adults fear might happen.

New Zealand YA author Mandy Hager is in London en route to her writing residency in Menton and dropped in on the London Book Fair. You can read about her experience here. She was fortunate to attend a talk by UK Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman who had many wonderful things to say about how good young adult literature can help teens figure out the world and their place in it. That's a very valuable thing.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A lovely little sekrit ...

I had a sekrit, but now I can say ... I am a finalist in the 2014 NZ Post Book Awards for Children And Young Adults with my book A Winter's Day in 1939. I am beyond thrilled and especially so that this is for a book that is a tribute to the bravery and tenacity of my wonderful parents. The full list of finalists is below. I am so honoured to be in this company. Congratulations to all the other finalists. Yet the list is just not long enough for all the great books that came out in 2013 - New Zealand is going from strength to strength with the quality of children's and young adult literature we are producing. . Thank you to all the lovely folk who have said such nice things to me about my shortlisting. It means a lot to me.

Picture Books
Machines and Me: Boats by Catherine Foreman; Scholastic New Zealand
The Boring Book by Vasanti Unka; Penguin Group (NZ), Puffin
The Three Bears … Sort Of by Yvonne Morrison & Donovan Bixley; Scholastic New Zealand
Toucan Can by Juliette MacIver & Sarah Davis; Gecko Press
Watch Out, Snail! by Gay Hay & Margaret Tolland; Page Break Ltd

An Extraordinary Land by Peter Hayden & Rod Morris; HarperCollins Publishers (NZ)
Anzac Day: The New Zealand story by Philippa Werry; New Holland Publishers
Flight of the Honey Bee by Raymond Huber & Brian Lovelock; Walker Books Australia
The Beginner’s Guide to Hunting & Fishing in New Zealand by Paul Adamson; Random House New Zealand
Wearable Wonders by Fifi Colston; Scholastic New Zealand

Junior Fiction
A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik; Scholastic New Zealand
Dunger by Joy Cowley; Gecko Press
Felix and the Red Rats by James Norcliffe; Random House New Zealand, Longacre
Project Huia by Des Hunt; Scholastic New Zealand
The Princess and the Foal by Stacy Gregg; Harper Collins Publishers (NZ)

Young Adult Fiction
A Necklace of Souls by R L Stedman; Harper Collins Publishers (NZ), HarperVoyager
Bugs by Whiti Hereaka; Huia Publishers
Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox; Gecko Press
Speed Freak by Fleur Beale; Random House New Zealand
When We Wake by Karen Healey; Allen & Unwin

Winner – Māori Language award
Taka Ki Ro Wai by Keri Kaa & Martin Page; Tania&Martin

Friday, April 4, 2014

Good books for young human beings...

I have been thinking a bit on the whole genderisation of children's books issue as this was recently doing the social media rounds, with bookshops and reviewers overseas declining to stock/review children's books marketed specifically to one gender. As radical as this seems I think I agree with the idea. We need more books for boys, I hear all too often. Boys might decline to read books with pink, or sparkles, or pictures of girls on the cover and yet often girls couldn't give a toss what's on the cover if they are interested in the book, whether its blue or depicts a machine or something 'manly' or whatever seems cool for boys to publishers/marketers/promoters etc.... Because deep down many girls never learn to judge a book this way and yet many boys do. And I don't believe it's because girls are innately more tolerant or broader minded - I think we consciously or (more likely) subconsciously tell boys that reading girl-centric stories is an embarrassing thing for boys to do.

I don't think boys are hardwired genetically to reject images of girls on book covers, or things that shine or are pink. Where is the evolutionary value in that? How can it be a bad idea to read a story that might be centered on the opposite gender which makes up around half the population? Wouldn't our boys be better off reading about girls as well as boys? Wouldn't our boys be better citizens as adults if they read stories more widely across the genders? Shouldn't we take some responsibility for why boys think this way? We are concerned about sexual harassment, sexual crimes and the gender imbalance and yet we continue to push for books for boys. I didn't stop to ask if it was a boy book or a girl book when I was reading as a youngster. Covers of children's and teens books were generally unisex when I was growing up. Why did we change this? I do my best to just write good stories, yet I too have fallen into the trap of suggesting  my titles might be better for one gender or the other. I'm going to work hard to change this. My books are good books for young human beings. End of story.