On the other hand

Storylines (the Children’s Literature Foundation of New Zealand) has announced this year’s list of Notable New Zealand Books.
Ten books in four categories have been selected, from more than 120 books published during 2005.
Rosemary Tisdall, chair of Storylines, said “creating the list was an exciting challenge as the overall quality of New Zealand children’s writing and illustrating continues to improve, except in picture books where too many were quite ordinary, with no real attention to quality writing, illustration or design.”
The selectors “were impressed by the increasingly varied range of topics, styles and genres coming through from New Zealand publishers.”
Given that many of the Notable Books are on the list of New Zealand Post Book Awards for children’s writing announced last week, it’s interesting that one group of judges believes the “days of political correctness are over”, while the other panel recognises that the already well-endowed field “continues to improve.”
Surely there’s something else going on here. This year, the NZ Post Book Awards proclaimed: “Some people might be concerned with the content and language used in some of the novels, but it seems writers and publishers are really beginning to ask what, exactly, our young people want to read about.”
It made me wonder what they said last year…
The 2005 young adult fiction winner was Malcolm and Juliet by Bernard Beckett and the judges’ comment at the time was:
Malcolm and Juliet is the winner because of its startling originality, breathtaking turn of phrase and diamond sharp wit. The frank depiction of teenage sex might be a little confronting for parents, which means it’s probably right on the money for its target audience.”
The wonderful Clubs was the outright winner last year, lauded by the judges as “a new way to tell stories, new ways to use pictures and new ways to mix the words and pictures together”.
So this latest crop isn’t a breakthrough at all. I can only assume that this year (and last) the NZ Post judges are trying to encourage good behaviour, by which they seem to mean realism and tackling contemporary issues.
But in doing so they run the risk firstly of making it seem as if they are criticising authors such as David Hill, Kate De Goldi and many others who have been writing smart and relevant contemporary work for years. It’s unfair to suggest they haven’t previously asked themselves “what, exactly, our young people want to read about”.
Secondly, they are in danger of dismissing books that are not about or set in contemporary NZ, or which are in other genres – such as Margaret Mahy’s fantasies.
I’m not sure that they actually meant to do either of those things, but I do worry about this general idea that the only fiction that kids ought to read is stuff that is about the modern world that they know, realistically described.
There are many ways of looking at, living in, describing, understanding and reading about the world.
There’s nothing wrong with pure escapism, either, especially if your little corner of contemporary society is too much to bear.
But writers of historical fiction (and fantasy) often make clear – and sometime obtuse – parallels, analogies and insights that can be drawn from writing set in other places, or other times, or perhaps other worlds. You don’t have to hit readers over the head with it, or hector them. But the lessons of history anywhere in the world can be just as compelling, sometimes more so, than the lessons of modern urban Kiwi or Aussie life.
Applied history, if you like.
I’ll write more on that again soon.
In the meantime, here are some of the Notable Books of NZ published last year, with congratulations to all concerned:
Janie Olive by Fifi Colston (Scholastic New Zealand)
Through Thick and Thin by Shirley Corlett (Scholastic New Zealand)
Hunter by Joy Cowley (Puffin)
Super Freak by Brian Falkner (Mallinson Rendel)
Stella Star by Brigid Feehan (Scholastic New Zealand)
Sil by Jill Harris (Longacre Press)
The Moa Cave by Des Hunt (HarperCollins Publishers)
Maddigan’s Fantasia by Margaret Mahy (HarperCollins Publishers)
My Story: China town Girl – The Diary of Silvey Chan, Auckland, 1942 by Eva Wong Ng (Scholastic New Zealand)
What about Bo? by Jillian Sullivan (Scholastic New Zealand)

Deep Fried by Bernard Beckett and Clare Knighton (Longacre Press)
Sea of Mutiny by Ken Catran (Random House New Zealand)
Talking to Adam by Sarah Ell (Scholastic New Zealand)
Like Wallpaper. New Zealand Short Stories for Teenagers edited by Barbara Else (Random House New Zealand)
Bodies and Soul by David Hill (Scholastic New Zealand)
Running Hot by David Hill (Mallinson Rendel)
With Lots of Love from Georgia by Brigid Lowry (Allen & Unwin)
Kaitangata Twitch by Margaret Mahy (Allen & Unwin)
The Unknown Zone by Phil Smith (Random House New Zealand)
Land of Milk and Honey by William Taylor (HarperCollins Publishers)

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