Thursday, 13 March 2014

Gavin Bishop: The mouth of the whale (the power of pictures)

Janet Frame Memorial Lecture 2014
Gavin Bishop
The mouth of the whale (the power of pictures)

Gavin Bishop is the 2013-2014 President of Honour of the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA). On Monday 10 March, he delivered the annual Janet Frame Memorial Lecture, a literary “state of the nation” address. 

This year, for the first time, the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture was included as part of the Writers Week programme, which also featured some wonderful talks and workshops with children’s and young adult writers, illustrators and designers such as Jack Lasenby, Ulf Stark, Leo Timmers, Elizabeth Knox and Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinsky. 

Gavin’s talk was entertaining, evocative and provocative, right from the beginning when he commented that his appointment as NZSA President of Honour was  “daringly different” because writers for children aren’t always taken as seriously as others in the literary world. He spoke in praise of picture books, but was clear about the challenges faced by those who write and illustrate them.

Many people think they know what a picture book is, but opinions vary widely. To Gavin, a picture book is like a little movie with a storyboard structure that moves through time (as a movie does) and uses text as a movie uses dialogue. He traces his lifelong love of movies back to the time when his parents took him, aged four, to see Pinocchio at the Picture Palace in Invercargill. One image from that movie - the gigantic open mouth of the whale - lodged in his mind and he has never forgotten it. The whale’s open mouth became a touchstone in his life, a reminder of the power of a picture to stay with children forever.

Gavin holds firm views about picture books, in terms of both content and publication. His own pictures have to “work hard”; they should provide “fresh new ways of seeing the ordinary” and the finished book should be “a delight to the senses.” He believes that the best picture books are produced by one person, and decries poor production values that leave many books looking like “shadows of their potential selves”. Even if children are amused by bodily functions and catchy tunes, he queries the need to preserve such topics in print.

Picture book illustrators face particular challenges. Their work is often viewed as being of lesser importance. Illustrators are commonly given second billing and are not mentioned at all in the weekly best seller lists. The royalty split between author and illustrator is usually 50:50, which Gavin feels doesn’t reflect the hard work put in by the illustrator. Up until 2004, books of fewer than 48 pages (ie most picture books) didn’t meet the criteria for the Public Lending Right. Picture book writers are seldom successful in obtaining Creative NZ funding, applying for residencies or winning major literary awards.

But there are signs of a more hopeful future. Today’s picture book illustrators are producing some amazing work, and there is more support available in the form of tuition and awards, including the LIANZA Russell Clark Illustration Award, the Mallinson Rendel Illustration Award and the Storylines Joy Cowley Award and Gavin Bishop Award. Gavin’s ending was hopeful and optimistic: “I can see the sky above picture book land full of fireworks and sky rockets… The Mouth of the Whale forever open to astonishment and delight.”

Question time afterwards gave the audience some sense of Gavin’s generosity in mentoring and sharing his experience, as he offered advice and explained some of his working methods.

There was more discussion about the idea of a Children’s Laureate, who could who not only raise the profile of children’s writing and illustrating but also focus on literacy issues and the importance of reading. Gavin said that there was a lot of support for the idea here and all that was needed was money. The Australian Children’s Laureate scheme only began a few years ago but already much has been achieved there, and other countries such as England and Ireland also have a high-profile Children’s Laureate.  

You can see Gavin Bishop’s wonderful website here, or listen to several interviews with him on Radio New Zealand, including You Call This Art? - Part 6.

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