Thursday, June 26, 2014

Your chance to win a copy of my new book 'The Song of Kauri'...

NZ Booksellers recently held their annual conference. You can read a bit about it here. As mentioned last year, sales are declining (bad), although the rate of descent is slowing (good). And again, sales of children's books are doing better than most (great). I would love to know what actual numbers we are talking about here, and whether NZ children's literature is forming a reasonable percentage of those children's book sales. And if they are, what sort of push might be made by all those involved (from publishers, through to booksellers, and international trade folk) to make the most of this. How do our NZ children's literature sales numbers relate to total NZ lit sales and book sales overall? NZ literature has been getting some good overseas exposure recently through our guest of honour position at the Frankfurt Book Fair a few years back, our special Festival in the UK last month, and through Eleanor Catton's spectacular Man Booker Prize win. Yay! This is all great news. I am hoping at some point this wonderful spotlight will widen on our local children's literature. We work hard to write great books and help them sell, but I think we could do with some extra help to get a bit more attention overseas. If our books garner more interest, this benefits booksellers as well as authors and illustrators.

I went on some wonderful school visits this week, with an all day session on Tuesday at Kowhai Intermediate in Auckland and a shorter one at Balmacewen Intermediate in Dunedin yesterday. We talked about plot essentials, character development, the importance of names and of editing, and about books we love amongst other things. I tip my hat to the wonderful teachers and librarians who devote themselves to sparking a love of reading in their students, who continually look for new ways to interest and engage them, and encourage and support their reading and writing skills. They are real heroes in my book!

And now folks, it's time for a competition! My new picture book The Song of Kauri is out July 1st and I have just received my author copies. I have one hardback copy and one softback Maori translation to give away. In the comments below tell me your all-time-favourite character name, and why you love it. Some personal favourites of mine are Elizabeth Bennett, Frodo Baggins and Finnick Odair.  Also say whether you want the Te Reo or English version of the book. The competition will close on July 4th. And.......go!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Night at the Awards: Part 1...

It was the end of an era last Monday night. The final NZ Post Book Awards ceremony for Children and Young Adults. After 18 wonderful years, a long and fruitful sponsorship has come to an end.  NZ Post can no longer sponsor the book awards and the job of finding a new sponsor has begun. Next year things will be different. I hope they are as magical and exciting as they have been with NZ Post in the sponsor's seat.

The scene this year was set with butterflies, bell jars, toadstools and vines. A little bit Wonderland really.

(Photo taken by Fifi Colston).

Winners on the night were:

Picture Book: The Boring Book by Vasanti Unka
Non-fiction: The Beginner's Guide to Hunting and Fishing in New Zealand by Paul Adamson
Junior Fiction: Dunger by Joy Cowley
Young Adult Fiction: Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox
Best First Book: A Necklace of Souls by Rachel Stedman
Children's Choice: The Three Bears, Sort of by Yvonne Morrison and Donovan Bixley
Margaret Mahy Book of the Year: The Boring Book by Vasanti Unka

Congratulations to all the winners! These are all terrific books. I cannot deny it would have been rather lovely to be a winner myself (cos really, who doesn't like that) but being chosen as a finalist is a big honour and I am very proud to be in the company of the other finalists. There were many wonderful children's books published in New Zealand in 2013. I'm proud of my book. And I'm thrilled New Zealand children's and young adult's literature is in such good heart. I am so happy to be a part of this community.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Why yes, I do have an opinion on that...

Well, look at that! I am reading and talking as part of the Read Aloud Programme for Schools for The Press Christchurch Writers Festival in August. Super excited! Writers Festivals are a little slice of heaven.

Some folk have been complaining about adults reading YA. Here and here. Cos ya know YA is just dumbed down stuff and talks about issues that have no relevance or interest for adults.What are we thinking reading that puerile stuff. Cos like children and young adults are, ya know, like some simple, inferior version of like, grown up people. Sheesh. Folk reacted, responded, or went a little septic, here and here. What do I think (cos y'all know I am bound to have an opinion on this)? There is an arrogance that underlies some of the criticisms of YA literature. That young adults and children are simple, un-smart versions of adults. That YA books can only offer the adult reader escapism, instant gratification and nostalgia (and it is obviously embarrassing to want these from a book). That YA literature is incapable of dealing with complex, important or challenging themes.  That grown up issues are somehow better and more important than issues facing younger people. Is Malala Yousafzai's experience simpler and less important because she is a teen? Can we not join the 'real' realm of adulthood if we don't read 'difficult' adult literature. But perhaps the thing that I wonder most about this brouhaha is why? Why the complaints and criticisms? And why do folk see the need to denigrate a book category to further their agenda? I wonder if perhaps some writers of adult literature aren't happy that adults are buying and reading YA books rather than adult books. They want to shame us into changing our reading habits. I just can't help thinking that telling me I should be embarrassed is the wrong way to go about getting me to change my behaviour. And making sweeping generalisations about YA books of which many are diverse and rich and well written is just, well, poor ammunition. Of course not all YA books are sophisticated and smart. But then neither are all adult books. And children and young adults might lack experience but they don't lack brains, or feelings. And they can be faced with issues just as complex as those facing adults. And if they aren't there yet, doesn't mean some of the books don't contain those more difficult themes for when they are. Because the thing that irks me most about this whole debate is thinking that the way to win me over is by telling me YA books are beneath me. That there is something wrong or bad about that kind of literature. Perhaps if the critics had spent more time impressing and exciting me with the books they would like me to read, I would be more open to their suggestions. I just want to read good books, regardless of the target audience.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A part of things...

It has been a bit of a day - I got to give a brief talk at Otago Girls High School today as part of their Library Day. This has been an OGHS tradition for 76 years. In recent years the students have been dressing up as book characters in honour of the day. They assemble in the hall, listen to a guest speaker (me this year), and then various groups (subjects, departments, year groups etc...) gift books to the school library. There were many more than a hundred books across a variety of categories and genre. So many books. It felt like Christmas. Students and staff had embraced the opportunity to appear as favourite characters - Daenerys Targaryen, Katniss Everdeen, Alice in Wonderland, Cruella de Ville, Phryne Fisher and the Corpse Bride complete with blue face and bones painted very effectively on her arm. What a wonderful ritual. What lucky students. What a great school.

And folks, it's my turn!!! Yesterday I set the new fortnightly challenge for the Fabostory writing competition. Go check it out here. What happens to Jason when he picks up the patu in the forest? Primary and intermediate students can write what happens next to win prizes and have their story published on the website. This round of the competition closes on June 22nd.

There was some less happy news, but more on that another time. Because also today, the LIANZA children's book award finalists were announced. Check out the list below. I am thrilled to be on the shortlist for the Esther Glen Junior Fiction Award with my book A Winter's Day in 1939. I have never been a LIANZA finalist before, so this feels very special. There are so many wonderful books shortlisted. Winners are announced August 4th. More details can be found here.

The LIANZA Children’s Book Awards acknowledge excellence in junior fiction, young adult fiction, illustration, non fiction and te reo Māori.
2014 LIANZA Children’s Book Awards Finalists:
LIANZA Esther Glen Junior Fiction AwardDunger by Joy Cowley, (Gecko Press)
Brave Company by David Hill, (Penguin Books)
Project Huia by Des Hunt,(Scholastic New Zealand)
Felix and the Red Rats by James Norcliffe, (Random House New Zealand)
A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik, (Scholastic New Zealand)

LIANZA Young Adult Fiction AwardRecon Team Angel, Book 3: Ice War by Brian Falkner, (Walker Books Australia)
Dear Vincent by Mandy Hager, (Random House New Zealand)
When We Wake by Karen Healey, (Allen & Unwin)
Bugs by Whiti Hereaka, (Huia NZ Ltd)
Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox, (Gecko Press)
Cattra’s Legacy by Anna Mackenzie (Random House New Zealand)

LIANZA Russell Clark Illustration AwardBruiser and the Big Snow by Gavin Bishop, (Random House New Zealand)
Flight of the Honey Bee by Raymond Huber, illustrated by Brian Lovelock, (Walker Books Australia)
Taka Ki Ro Wai by Keri Kaa, illustrated by Martin D. Page (National Treasures Design Ltd trading as Tania & Martin)
The Teddy Bear’s Promise by Diana Noonan, illustrated by Robyn Belton, (Craig Potton Publishing)
Henry’s Map by David Elliot (Random House New Zealand)

LIANZA Elsie Locke Non Fiction AwardWearable Wonders by Fifi Colston, (Scholastic New Zealand)
Flight of the Honey Bee by Raymond Huber, illustrated by Brian Lovelock, (Walker Books Australia)
The Beginner’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing in New Zealand, by Paul Adamson(Random House New Zealand)
Anzac Day, The New Zealand Story, What it is and why it matters by Philippa Werry, (New Holland Publishers (NZ)

LIANZA Te Kura Pounamu (te reo Māori)Taka Ki Ro Wai by Keri Kaa, illustrated by Martin D. Page (National Treasures Design Ltd trading as Tania & Martin)
Meariki by Helen Pearse-Otene, illustrated by Andrew Burdan, (Huia NZ Ltd)
Pūao (series) Te Pātiki, Te Mānawa, Te Whai, Te Tāmure by Huia Publishers, (Huia NZ Ltd)
Tāhoe: He Pakiwaitara mō Hinemoa rāua ko Tūtānekai by Chris Szekely and Andrew Burdan, (Huia NZ Ltd)
Ngā Kaitiaki a Tama! By Kawata Teepa and Jim Byrt, (Huia NZ Ltd)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Books - powerful and vulnerable, all at the same time...

Recently at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival I was asked about my stance on whether we should censor the content of children's and young adult's literature in terms of contentious themes or the inclusion of sex, violence or profanity. I answered, saying what I believe to be true about whether readers need protecting or not. I think children are self limiting. Either they will decide it isn't for them and stop reading or it will be inaccessible to them as a result of their level of maturity (it will go over their heads). Or they will be ready for it, and frankly, a book is a much better way to come across such material where it is presented in context and provides a springboard for understanding and/or discussion. Sometimes it is material that provides wider understanding of an issue and makes them more empathetic. Humanity could definitely do with being more empathetic. Sometimes it is reflecting their own experience and helps them to feel less alone. The most excellent and wise author Judy Blume spoke to the same question here. Or you can hear the mellifluous Benedict Cumberbatch reading out Kurt Vonnegut's impassioned letter to a school district regarding the censorship of his books here. Children and young adults are far more likely to be harmed by the people they know than by the books they read.

And the intramaweb has been aglow with talk of the stoush between Hachette and Amazon. I don't know all the ins and outs. But I think Chuck Wendig's run down on the issue is useful and kinda reflects my own opinions if you want to take a closer look. I'm still looking to be the cork on the ocean.

And a few years back I had a meltdown over Joel Stein's New York Times editorial suggesting adults should not demean themselves by reading young adult or children's books. Obviously as far as Mr Stein was concerned, children's and YA books would never deal with issues or themes that could be of interest or value to adults. He mentioned The Hunger Games, which he had never read. Perhaps he should have come down off his high horse and read the trilogy. This week, this appeared. While the books are a work of fiction, the issues they contain represent real social concerns and author Suzanne Collins has spoken about the different real life events and real world problems that informed her work. And while Guardian journalist Jonathan Jones says the trilogy (and associated movie franchise) is not a manual for changing the world, the themes and concerns present in the books (and movies) have resonated with people and use of the symbolic gesture in the books have provided a platform for drawing wider attention to their fight.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

So what's it like...the residency?

So I'm over half way through on my residency. This puppy wraps up August 21st although I have a few bits and bobs tacked on to the end so I won't be home proper till the end of that month.

So, what's it like - this residency thing - I hear you ask? I spend a lot of time on my own and it's okay, although I've discovered I can be a bit annoying at times. Time alone is an interesting concept and everyone should do it at some stage, even if only to observe that you don't really like it. I don't mind it but miss the people I love and care about. I am thinking that in future a lovely little annual sabbatical will be mandatory, whether to write like the clappers or to just wallow in. Just me. And then the rest of the year will be happily spent wallowing in the best and most beloved company of others.

I have discovered that jokes work best with more than one person and I require other people to provide the musical backdrop to my day to day existence (and secretly I am grateful that they do). I have music here with me but I just don't put it on. It is weird - more silence than I am used to. It is amazing what your mind fills it up with.

The Robert Lord Writers Cottage is an excellent place. Idiosyncratic, which is a good thing, I think, for writers. The kitchen and I don't really get on though. I like more space and equipment and someone else to do the dishes. And cooking for one is much less straight forward than it sounds. But there is a TV and washer and drier and clothes line and the location is good - far enough to afford me some exercise and close enough that my days aren't too much arranged around the time it takes me to get anywhere. The wind in Union Street East is a beggar though.

I really like the University. Lots of venerable old stone buildings with personality. It has good old bones. And there are lots of lovely people, especially in the College of Education. I do wonder if anyone in the Science faculty is studying how some students can wear one layer on single digit temperature days though. Or is there a training facility for this somewhere on campus? On my first day in Dunedin I was advised to go for layers (thank you Philip Roxborogh) and this is the key to surviving the fluctuating temperatures and conditions here. I have only been caught out once or twice. I am finally getting the chance to indulge my passion for woolly hats (although I am yet to find a fix for hat hair). Still yet to wear socks over my shoes when it's icy - I keep telling myself I am up to it if the need arises.

I think my residency would be a very different beast if my year hadn't quite exploded like it did, with invitations to speak and workshop and participate in festivals, with shortlistings and touring. But it probably wouldn't have exploded like it did without my gaining the residency - proximity is definitely a factor. Hard to see what the one would have been like without the other. Anyways it is my year of travelling and I am becoming familiar with the different types of plane and the best seats to sit in on each type and little tips like always checking the departure gates for connecting flights on arrival because they are not always what is printed on your boarding pass. And that swimsuit issue themed safety message IS annoying. And I now know where the loos are in the main airports which you might think would be obvious but some airports in NZ currently seem on a mission to discourage this sort of activity.

At times life has been a bit of a whirlwind from which it takes me a while to unwind. Public speaking events are simultaneously fun and scary. If I didn't enjoy doing them I wouldn't say yes, but I find them challenging as well. Still, challenges are good and my skill set has grown. When I first embarked on this career around fifteen years ago I don't think I would have recognised the me I've become. I'm mostly a chicken on the inside now.

And the writing? It isn't just about having the time to write. There are other requirements like coffee, and chocolate and. And plenty of people write masterpieces in random minutes snatched from their busy days so time isn't the essential factor missing for most writers. They just think it is. It is also about 'being' a writer. About sitting down to the task and having belief at your back. Doubt is the middle name of many writers. We often feel like imposters. To say, this is what I do, this is who I am, is the best gift of all.