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Complaint about children’s books

Reading room

On the misery of prize money for children’s authors

In an interview shortly after Atua author Gavin Bishop left last month’s New Zealand Children’s Book Awards with top prize Margaret Mahy, more the Illustrations Category, more the non-fiction category (wish the man got a red card if he wasn’t such a lovely guy) he offered a low-key comparison.

A supreme winner of the Ockhams Book Awards, honoring the works of those who write for Big People, takes home a well-deserved $60,000, Bishop noted. (In fact, it will go up to $62,000 next year.) He received $7,500. His three triumphs in total – the wins in each category of the children’s prizes also amount to $7,500; the corresponding prizes in the Ockhams are $10,000 – earned him less than half of what a single supreme Ockham prize brings. By the way, this second comparison is mine, not Bishop’s.

Like him, I’m delighted Ockham’s winners are getting so much; almost any award for a fellow author pleases me, although I make exceptions for Jeffrey Archer and Bob Jones. Again, like him, I wonder why our children’s writers get so little by comparison.

For some years, NZ Post was the full sponsor of the Children’s Book Awards. I remember a ceremony where the CEO, Sir Michael Cullen, had to apologize for stepping over me – at least in front of me – every time he came upstairs to give a presentation. Then e-mails replaced envelopes; people stopped buying stamps; this sponsorship has disappeared.

Since then, prize money for children’s authors has declined. The Esther Glen Award, which has existed for many years, was once a separate honor, with a medal and $1,000 in cash. Now it has been subsumed into the Junior Fiction category at the main awards. The Children’s Choice Awards, which gave $500 to the most popular book among young readers in each category, are gone.

Pause here to point out that I am very, very grateful to those who contribute to our Children’s Book Awards: Creative NZ, Hell Pizzas, The Wright Family Foundation, LIANZA, the NZ Soc of Authors and others. I am also amazed by the work done by the volunteers who make rewards week possible. But prices have come down.

There were pizzas from a pile of cardboard boxes at the awards ceremony. Very tasty too, but can you imagine such dishes at the Ockhams?

The same goes for locations. When I first had a book shortlisted, the winners were announced at Government House, often with a viceregal presence. Then the event moved to a chamber in the Hive. Then at the Circa Theater. This year it was the Alan Gibbs Center at Wellington College, basically a school hall with little parking around it.

Another pause, to acknowledge the courtesy of said college in providing this venue, plus – again – the work of these volunteers to secure it. It’s a big space, much needed since more than 500 people attended the event. It cannot be said that public interest has diminished.

But it was a school room, with cold drafts blowing through the curtains, and we old monks in the front row of the finalists (me, Bishop, the noble illustrator David Elliot) were arguing over who chattered the most teeth and knees. There were drinks after, and meals that were almost entirely pizza – thanks again, Hell – from stacks of cardboard boxes. Very tasty too, but can you imagine such a place and food at Ockhams?

I walked away with two awards and $8,000 a few years ago. Came home all red, to find a $800 rate request

I repeat, it is the big winners of Ockham who receive their $60,000 and more. This can give an author the freedom to write full-time for a carefully measured year. The equivalent of $7,500 for children provides such freedom for… two months? And yes, we are grateful. I walked away with two awards and $8,000 a few years ago. I went home flushed, to find a rate request for $800. Oh, and the rewards were taxable.

I’m amazed that our Children’s Book Awards don’t attract more sponsors.

I guess that’s partly a self-perpetuating thing. Their profile has shrunk, so potential backers are less attracted, so the profile is still shrinking, so potential backers….etc, etc.

The awards (just like the Ockhams) must also compete for financial support with other, perhaps higher-impact arts: theatre, music, ballet, opera. And with a multitude of sports that fill the screens and partially fill the stadiums. I mean, Ardie Savea taking on three Springboks, or an octogenarian author talking about his novel for young teens (it’s called coast guard, by the way, available in good bookstores)? A sponsor may not see this as a contest.

Does the prize money for our children’s book prizes reflect the condescension as in the snobbery of the world of arts and literature? A perception that children’s books are somehow less important than those for adult readers? (Although even an academic critic might think that after reading the majestic Atua is incomprehensible.) I have never come across such an attitude, although some colleagues get quite sarcastic with their claims. I have always found our editors supportive and enthusiastic about working for young readers. Fair enough: locally published children’s books account for about 30% of sales in this area. They are purchased not only by children, but also by parents, grandparents, other members of the whanau, libraries, schools.

Nor did I find our adult writers dismissive of children’s books. Usually, I am treated like a fellow tradesman, sharing the same delights and the same despair. I sometimes face a degree of uncertainty, as someone working in a different genre. And writing for children is a genre, much like detective fiction or fantasy/sci-fi, which I will point out also have their own coveted modest awards in New Zealand.

What could be a more virtuous cause and a more pleasing image than supporting the reading of New Zealand children?

Perhaps some potential sponsors do not feel qualified for an association with children? After all, it involves them with a semi-alien life form. Or do they see children as a market with limited purchasing power? (But remember all those shoppers two paragraphs back.)

Regardless, I remain puzzled that businesses and corporations aren’t lining up to sponsor our children’s book awards.

What could be a more virtuous cause and a more pleasing image than supporting the reading of New Zealand children and the authors who write New Zealand books for them? Need I even mention the intellectual, social, emotional, psychological benefits of reading from an early age, the investment in well-rounded future citizens (and our next generation of writers) that this represents?

And think of the photo ops: a benevolent sponsor alongside bright-faced, enthusiastic children. Would any publicist give his dentures for such a shot?

Our Children’s Book Awards are a golden opportunity for a business or society to be the good guys in an unassailable cause. For the love of God and literacy, engage your public relations today.

New Zealand children’s books account for almost 40% of the annual Whitcoulls Top 50 Kids Books survey, announced this morning. Here is a list of the top 20, with Kiwi books in bold.

1 Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling

2 Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd

3 Dog Man Series by David Pilkey

4 The hungry caterpillar by Eric Carl

5 Wings of Fire Series by Tui T. Sutherland

6 Diary of a Wimpy Kid Series by Jeff Kinney

seven Aroha Series by Craig Phillips & Rebekah Lipp

8 Cat Kid Comic Club Series by David Pilkey

9 The little yellow digger by Alan & Betty Gilderdale

ten How do I feel? by Craig Phillips & Rebekah Lipp

11 The Treehouse Series by Andy Griffiths & Terry Denton

12 The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler

13 Villain Series by Aaron Blabey

14 The stupid donkey by Craig Smith & Katz Cowley

15 The Babysitters Club by Ann M. Martin

16 Tulip and Doug by Emma Wood and Carla Martell

17 Kuwi’s first egg by Kat Quin

18 The cat in the hat by Dr Seuss

19 Nee Naw the little fire engine by Deano Yippadee & Paul Beavis

20 The series of the worst children in the world by David Walliams and Tony Ross

#Complaint #childrens #books

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