Sponsorship critical but…  Diane Hebley

What has toothpaste got to do with children’s books?

Much brightening and enlightening if you put the word AIM in front of Children’s Book Awards. From 1990-95 the marketers of AIM toothpaste have sponsored these annual awards (this year New Zealand Post has taken over) and, supported  by Creative New Zealand, along with grants and fellowships and the attendant publicity of recent years, this has helped children’s literature to flourish.

Before 1980 children’s literature meant literature focused on the concerns of protagonists up to about 13 and occasionally on the elderly. This definition is applied here to cover picture books and junior fiction for 8-13-year-olds but not textbooks, reading schemes, non-fiction, the growth genre of the last decade, young adult literature.

The publication identifying this body of literature is the 1996 New Zealand Children’s Books in Print (Junior Publications/Tapui Children’s Books).

Few publications from before 1980 remain in print. In comparison with other, older, children’s literatures, New Zealand has no historical accumulation. In the 1980s Betty Gilderdale republished eight early novels in the Kotare series but none remains in print. Nor is Maurice Duggan’s Falter Tom and the Water Boy (1958) still available, though Gwenda Turner’s illustrations (Puffin, 1984) familiarised the landscape for New Zealanders. Yet in literary, lyrical terms no novella has since surpassed Falter Tom, in 1959 a rare Esther Glen award winner.

Nevertheless, appropriately, the earliest available picture book tells evocatively of a Maori boy’s encounter with the first Europeans: Ron Bacon’s Rua and the Sea People, with Para Matchitt’s abstract, two-toned illustrations (Collins, 1968; Waiatarua, 1983). Beverley Randell’s John the Mouse Who Learned to Read, illustrated by Noela Young (Collins, 1969; Puffin, 1984) is also still available.

Of Margaret Mahy’s five picture books that blazed her debut in 1969, two remain in print: A Lion in the Meadow, illustrated by Jenny Williams (Puffin, 1989), winner of her first of five Esther Glen awards; and The Dragon of an Ordinary Family, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Little Mammoth, 1989). Unfortunately, original text and illustrations have been changed in Lion and in The Man Whose Mother was a Pirate (1972), illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain (Puffin, 1996). But Mahy’s short stories, Esther Glen winners containing her customary energy, humour and insight, are available in various new collections.

Puffin (1978) also keeps alive Eve Sutton and Lynley Dodd’s Esther Glen winner, My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes (Hamish Hamilton, 1973). In a move indicative of publishing growth in New Zealand during the 1980s, Mallinson Rendel took over from English publisher Hamilton to reproduce Dodd’s 1976 The Nickle Nackle Tree in 1985 and 1996.

As for novels before 1980, the longest in continuous print is Elsie Locke’s stout-hearted pioneer story,The Runaway Settlers (1965) illustrated by Gary Hebley (Hazard Press, 1993). In 1990 Vintage reprinted without illustrations Janet Frame’s ant fantasy for literary readers, Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun (Braziller, 1969). Joan de Hamel’s conservation-aware adventure novel, X Marks the Spot (Lutterworth, 1973) and her multi-level Esther Glen winner about a part-Maori, part-pakeha boy’s discovery of his true identity, Take the Long Path (Lutterworth, 1978), are both reprinted with new covers (Puffin, 1996). And Mahy’s The Pirate Uncle, illustrated by Mary Dinsdale (Dent, 1977) also survives in Young Penguin (1987). Like Lion., it foreshadows her great novels of the 1980s in its focus on family relationships and on the blurring of the line between reality and illusion.

These and other titles from the likes of Joyce West, Anne de Roo and Ruth Dallas show that writers had the energy and skills to produce what the public was slowly creating a demand for — good-quality New Zealand books reflecting our vision and dealings with human experience. The way was prepared for the explosion of the 1980s in quality and quantity, a doubling of the 1970s output.

What fuelled the explosive growth of the genre through the 1980s and into the 1990s is undoubtedly the impact on this talent made by sponsorship and its attendant publicity/marketing, along with new technology influencing the reproduction of illustration. (Note, for example, the progress made in Dodd’s work.) Sponsorship in awards, grants and fellowships means financial support and recognition; recognition encourages confidence, breeds success and inspires growth.

Until 1978, the Esther Glen was the only medal.  Then it was joined by the Russell Clark medal for illustrators, both administered by the New Zealand Library Association. They came trailing prestige and valuable encouragement for the recipients but no money and no general publicity.

In 1982, with sponsorship from the Government Printer, the Book Awards began. The Picture Book of the Year was won by Patricia Grace’s The Kuia and the Spider, illustrated by Robyn Kahukiwa (Longman Paul/Kidsarus, 1981), celebrating Maori environment. The Story Book Award went to Joy Cowley’s The Silent One, illustrated by Sherryl Jordan (Whitcoulls, 1981), foreshadowing Cowley’s enormously successful output of children’s stories and early readers. In the same year, Gavin Bishop’s first book, Mrs McGinty and the Bizarre Plant (Oxford University Press, 1981), won the Russell Clark award. Bishop went on with Mr Fox (OUP, 1982) to win the 1983 Picture Book of the Year and, most notably, the 1984 International Grand Prix in the Noma Concours. And Mahy, who in 1981 had left her library position to write fulltime, won the 1983 Esther Glen and the prestigious United Kingdom Carnegie medal for The Haunting (Dent, 1982). Her international career took off and most of her extraordinary, enormous output remains in print today.

In 1978 the Choysa bursary was sponsored jointly by Quality Packers and the then Arts Council, beginning at $5000 for Dodd. Grants are now handled by Creative New Zealand.

The importance to Dodd of winning the Choysa was huge. It was “the difference between giving up and getting a ‘proper’ job, or continuing”. Dodd at the last count has 18 available picture books of a consistently high standard, culminating in her multi-award winning Hairy Maclary series (Mallinson Rendel, 1983 on).

Other Choysa recipients have made similar claims about the importance of the bursary to their career. Among the Choysa names up to 1989 — Dodd, Katarina Mataira, Brian Birchall, Beverley Dunlop, de Roo, Caroline Macdonald, William Taylor, Tessa Duder, Anthony Holcroft, Jennifer Hessell, Kahukiwa, Sherryl Jordan, Mere Whaanga-Schollum, Chris Gaskin, Ruth Corrin, Gaelyn Gordon, Robyn Belton — the pattern is clear. Thus encouraged, writers and illustrators went on to produce shortlisted, award-winning, internationally successful books and these books have almost all remained in print. Duder’s gem of a Jellybean (OUP, 1985), second in the Story Book of the Year, also became a finalist for the Wattie Award, a remarkable accolade for children’s fiction.

One writer notably missing from this Choysa group is Maurice Gee who had, however, won other awards and grants. He also has books kept alive by Puffin: The World Around the Corner, illustrated by Hebley (OUP, 1980), and his winning O series (OUP, 1982 on) but not Under the Mountain (OUP, 1979), his first fantasy battle to save the world from pollution.

Other surprising omissions from today’s list are Jack Lasenby’s Esther Glen winner,The Mangrove Summer (OUP, 1988), a World War II Robinsonnade portraying children driven by fear of invasion, along with Bishop’s Mrs McGinty; his international winner, Mr Fox; and Chicken Licken (OUP, 1984).

From the 1980s financial support from the Children’s Publication Fund was acknowledged in published books, for example, in de Roo’s Story Book of the Year, jacky nobody (Methuen, 1983). Grants help small publishers, in particular, to produce quality books and provide a valuable, on-going means of support or writers and illustrators.

Then there are fellowships, held at either a university or a college of education. Dallas held the Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago where she wrote A Dog called Wig (Methuen, 1970). Children’s literature had to grow in stature during the 1980s before other writers enjoyed similar opportunities. Mahy, Duder, Taylor, Lasenby, Corrin, Gordon, Diana Noonan, Lisa Vasil, Janice Marriott and Ken Catran.

The New Zealand Book Council’s Writers in Schools scheme, like a mini-fellowship for many, also grew during the 1980s, bringing children into direct contact with writers and illustrators, a stimulating, supportive experience for all involved.

All these forms of sponsorship foster quality in children’s books and through the attendant publicity bring them to the attention of the public. In the 1990s, when the awards became identified with AIM toothpaste, the results even gained brief television coverage. Publishers Harper/Collins and Mallinson Rendel emphasise the importance of a placing on the shortlist. Dodd’s Schnitzel von Krumm’s Basketwork (Mallinson Rendel, 1994), for example, increased its sales by 700% for a couple of months when it was shortlisted. Scholastic reports that shortlisted titles almost always need reprinting during the AIM promotion. The benefits of a win, especially for a new writer, last longer.

So what valuable books are winners or shortlisted titles in the 1990s? From outstanding young adult fiction in the 1980s, Mahy returns to writing excellent junior fiction as in her fifth Esther Glen and Junior Fiction winner, Underrunners (Dent, 1993) and merry romps as in her shortlisted Tingleberries, Tuckertubs and Telephones, illustrated by Robert Staermose (Hamilton, 1995).

Contemporary realist stories prevail, wide-ranging in experiences and family relationships, including grandparents, often humorous as in Marriott’s Brain Drain (Scholastic, 1993) and Hessell’s Grandma McGarvey Paints the Shed, illustrated by Trevor Pye (Scholastic,1991). Death, once taboo in children’s books, is now sensitively treated. Pauline Cartwright’s What! No TV? (Harper/Collins, 1993) includes the death of a grandparent; Cowley’s winning Bow Down, Shadrach (Hodder, 1991) includes the death of a beloved old horse. Noonan’s winning A Dolphin in the Bay (Omnibus, 1993) ensures dolphins, continued place.

Historical fiction, sometimes considered not appealing  to today’s readers — is represented by Jordan’s amusing time-slips, The Wednesday Wizard (Scholastic, 1991) and Denzil’s Dilemma (Scholastic, 1992) and by Lasenby’s Depression-set winner, The Waterfall (Longacre, 1995), covering joys and sorrows in life and death. I’ll come back to Gee’s The Fat Man.

A Maori focus is widely present in picture books: Miriam Smith’s Annie and Moon, illustrated by Lesley Moyes (Mallinson Rendel, 1989), Grace’s The Trolley, illustrated by Kerry Gemmill (Viking, 1993) and Bishop’s Hinepau (Scholastic, 1993). The first two of these are published in Maori along with 24 other titles listed in Tapui’s Children’s Books 1996.

But Maori-pakeha relationships feature more rarely in novels. Ian Charlton’s The Place of the Talking Birds (Harper/Collins, 1992) and Ged Maybury’s The Triggerstone (Scholastic, 1994) are two examples. Kingi McKinnon’s novella, Whitebait Fritters, illustrated by Kelvin Hawley (Scholastic, 1995), however, notably portrays a Maori child protagonist and his father in a warm, humorous story. To foster literature in Maori, a separate Te Kura Pounamu medal was first awarded in 1996 to Katarina Mataira and Terewai Kemp’s Marama Tangiweto, illustrated by Hone Ihi-o-te-Rangi Ngata (Mallinson Rendel, 1992).


There are, however, drawbacks: overkill, overcaution and overestimation.

Overkill comes from the sudden outpouring from several new writers as well as a continued flow from established writers often successful enough to write fulltime. Readers are now regaled with a great variety of picture books and novels from, in no particular order, Fleur Beale, Gordon, Taylor, Jordan, Cowley, Mahy, Martin Baynton, Dorothy Butler, Gaskin, Bacon, Noonan, Catran, Cartwright, Lasenby, Turner, David Hill, Maybury, John Parker, Marriott and Tom Bradley.

Yet, as Australian critic Susan Chancy in Talespinner (2, 1996) remarks of a similar proliferation in her country, overkill reduces quality when books for whatever reason are produced quickly without due care. Publishers chase the market with potboilers, books with mismatching text and illustrations, pretentious books which turn out analysis to be fluff, weak books by famous people. New Zealand writers and illustrators rarely talk of editorial nurturing (not interference), prized overseas by writers such as Katherine Paterson (United States) and Pat Hutchins (Britain).

Bradley, for example, pours out lightweight, amusing stories but only his Supertall Sam (Tui, 1993) comes from deeper within. Even a writer as talented as Taylor makes, for example, his humorous Knitwits (Scholastic, 1992) much superior to The Fat Katz (Harper/Collins, 1995). Yet his open ending to The Fat Twins and the Haunted House (Harper/Collins, 1996) contains a post-structuralist request to readers to write and tell him what caused the haunting.

This introduces what I see as a second drawback: over-caution. Some people claim New Zealand children’s fiction is not as innovative as Australian children’s fiction.

Certainly, New Zealand hasn’t produced experimental picture books like Gary Crew’s The Lost Diamonds of Killiecrankie, illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe (Mammoth, 1995) nor such sumptuous work as Gouldthorpe’s for Crew’s First Light (Lothian, 1993). (Australian publishers, of course, have a population of 18 million people to support experimentation; New Zealand publishers have 3.5 million.) Also, most experimenting takes place in the young adult range where readers can be expected to be skilful.

Yet postmodern innovations effectively enhance the end pages of Jennifer Beck’s The Bantam and the Soldier, illustrated by Belton (Scholastic, 1996), while the historical story flows in a traditional cohesive manner to make this one of the best books in its year. Kahukiwa, like Matchitt decades earlier, experiments with Maori idiom for books such as Paikea (Penguin, 1993). Ironically, the illustrator who is the most experimental in New Zealand is Bishop, who has only two picture books in print, Hinepau and his 1991 shortlisted Katarina (Random, 1990).

As well, some experimentation to suit emerging readers has been fostered by publishers, particularly by Harper/Collins recently in the Tui Turbo group. A few lines of narrative on each page are interspersed with bubble dialogue in semi-cartoon fashion. Humour and energy are top priority but outline impact matters more than drawing skills. The only title in this group to make the shortlists is Cartwright’s The Reluctant Pirate, illustrated by Marg Hamilton(1993). Again, overkill reduces quality. This sort of small chapter-book format easily leads to some confusion on the pages. For example, in Jon Gadsby’s Griselda Marmalade Forsythe, illustrated by Rita Parkinson (Random, 1995), one page uses an inset and the opposite page looks almost the same showing a window scene.

The third drawback, overestimation, applies to the buying public and is harmful in two ways. First, if the lists are perceived as definitive, other good books are ignored. Ann Mallinson reports a good book off the shortlist will not fare as well as it would on the shortlist. Some children will then miss out on books which might suit them better than the shortlisted ones. Among good books to miss the AIM shortlists are Bishop’s The Three Little Pigs (Scholastic, 1990) — significantly, out of print — and Margaret Beames’ gentle ghost story,The Girl in Blue, (Mallinson Rendel, 1993), though with an illustration misprint.

The second form of overestimation results from the perception that the categories are absolute, that the winner of the Junior Fiction award will suit all 8-13 year-olds. Which brings me to Maurice Gee and his controversial The Fat Man (Viking, 1994), winner of the Junior Fiction and Book of the Year Awards, a novel pushing the concept of children’s fiction to the limits.

Controversy centred on the unsuitability of the content — a bleak portrayal of the cruelty of bullying and the consequent revenge and humiliation carried out by a bitter, twisted adult who uses a child as his pawn in his nasty games. Yet according to one 11-year-old, TV presents “many scary things … and The Fat Man is not scary at all”. Perhaps what is really scary is that a TV-experienced reader should miss the enormity of a novel.

In literary terms, the book is structured for an implied child reader, as Gee structured The Fire Raiser (Puffin, 1986) and The Champion (Puffin, 1989). The story is followed mainly through Colin’s perspective and he is about 12. But complexities indicate that the implied reader needs to be as mature as only some 11- or 12-year-olds can be. The third-person narrator stands outside the action at times and comments on the pacing, as in “we must not get ahead of our story”, (p10) or on psychological impact, as in the passage describing the nightmarish way unpleasant characters continue to haunt the mind. (p40) The sentence structures are long and complex at times, extended by parentheses, and the fat man’s morals and behaviour are disturbingly complex too, as when he weepingly hugs his mother whom, Colin deduces, he has drowned. The social ills of poverty and hunger in Depression times prepare Colin to take the fat man’s chocolate, thus firing the action. The unchanging dark mood is reinforced by vivid concrete images such as the coffin-like bedhead leaning over “like a lid to shut you in”. (p32) The moral dilemmas in Colin’s collusion at the end are hastily resolved, with evil punished and a type of natural justice done.

Thus any winning or shortlisted book must be regarded as superior of its kind, but not necessarily suitable for all readers within each age-range. The Fat Man is well away in depth and maturity from Cartwright’s shortlisted Saved by Ryan Kane (Scholastic, 1994) which, however, could be exactly the right book for a 9-year-old. In an ideal world, of course, adults would peruse books before introducing them to children. As Hamlet says, “The readiness is all.”

These drawbacks notwithstanding, sponsorship in its various forms, commercially or state-funded, has been vital to the flourishing of children’s literature. Recent levels of support need to be maintained.

Diane Hebley has written several books for children with husband Gary as illustrator. She has a doctorate on New Zealand children’s fiction and is a tutor with the Christchurch College of Education and for Massey University. 

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