Wednesday 30 May 2012

Sun bears and school visits

There is something both energizing and exhausting about doing school visits. It is definitely tiring to talk to four, five or even six groups of children over a school day, constantly monitoring for signs of interest or boredom so as to adjust what you are saying, choosing books or stories to read or talk about that are going to interest them.
But the rewards are so worthwhile: getting asked a question you've never been asked before, having a class of rapt faces in front of you or seeing their faces light up when you hold up a particular title. For nearly every class at my last school visit - even the older ones - the "light up" title was "Sun bears are special".

This is a Ready to read book that I wrote in 2002. It's about the sun bear twins, Madu and Arataki, that were born at Wellington Zoo some years ago, and it's a sad story in some ways because one of them (Madu) died at two years old because he was born with a hole in his heart, but for some reason it just seems to resonate with and appeal to children.

As for the questions I was asked, the best one was definitely "were you a good girl at school?" and the new entrants were keen to know "how many letters in a book?"

Thursday 24 May 2012

The great chocolate cake bake-off: a great review!

A few days ago, I did a school visit to Wadestown School where the students were in the middle of Book Week, all coordinated by their wonderful librarian, Derek Piper, who was having long days and sleepless nights as he organised bookmark and poster competitions, speakers, a book fair and a dress-up-as-a-favourite book character parade - including getting his own costume ready.

One of the highlights for me was seeing this very clever review of my book The great chocolate cake bake-off by Wadestown School pupil Elizabeth Crowe:

"This must be one of the best reviews I have ever had - thanks, Elizabeth!"

Monday 21 May 2012

20 books to read before you're 20

I have been thinking about book lists, and how they can be fun to draw up as well as to try and follow - so here is a list for YA readers of Books to read before you're 20, with New Zealand overtones:

Wonderful novels:

(Because they are classics, and you just have to.)

1. Pride and prejudice by Jane Austen (Or Persuasion for a 2nd choice)

You can watch the movie as well, but you still have to read the book - and the movie has to be the BBC mini series.

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

3. Wuthering heights by Emily Bronte

4. Something by Dickens, maybe Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, or possibly A tale of two cities - to admire the effortless ease with which he dreams up plots and invents characters; the plots sometimes strained, the chacters often verging on caricatures, but the overall effect always fascinating; how did he do it?

Finding yourself:

(Because that's what teenagers are supposed to do.)

5. To kill a mockingbird by Harper Lee - to learn about racism, to find a role model (Atticus) if you don't already have one, to realise that some writers only ever write one amazing book

6. I am not Esther by Fleur Beale - if you haven't already studied it at school; it must be one of the most popular set books, and one that students don't mind reading for once

7. To the is-land by Janet Frame

Dystopia - before that term was made popular by more recent books: (Because teenagers seem to relish reading about a world where everything might go wrong, before they are old enough to have the responsibility of trying to fix it.)

8. 1984 by George Orwell

9. Brave new world by Aldous Huxley

10. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

11. The handmaid's tale by Margaret Atwood

 (what a creepy cover)

12. A book of poetry by a New Zealand poet, or a  collection of New Zealand poetry (but it should contain at least one poem by Jenny Bornholdt)

13. A collection of nursery rhymes

Children's books

14. The lion the witch and the wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (or another of the Narnia books)

15. Charlotte's web by E.B. White - to learn about the power of friendship and hope

16. The BFG by Roald Dahl - to learn about the fun you can have with language

17. Harry Potter - at least the first one, if not all seven - because he, Hermione and Ron form an inescapable part of that generation

18. A history of WW1, including what happened at Gallipoli

19. At least some of the Bible, especially Genesis and some Psalms and one of the gospels - Mark's is the shortest, but I like Luke - and the book of Acts

That leaves one over - what would no 20 be? Another novel (The Great Gatsby)? A travel book (one by Eric Newby?) A short story by Katherine Mansfield?

I'm not sure - but it's good to be flexible about these things, so no 20 can be your own choice.

Thursday 17 May 2012

New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards

Writers, illustrators, designers, editors, publishers, booksellers, teachers, librarians, friends, family and members of the Wellington children’s book world - all met and mingled amongst giant cut-outs of the shortlisted books in the Amora ballroom on Wednesday night for the NZ Post Children's Book Awards ceremony.

MC Miriama Kamo with Sam and June Jackson who carried out the Mihi ceremony

Hekia Parata – standing in for Chris Finlayson – commented that she had been in the same room 12 hours earlier for a government policy announcement, and it had looked quite different then. Six long tables were decorated with tall vases of flowers and set out with individual place settings. Bottles of wine and jugs of juice, plates of savouries and cupcake stands laden with club sandwiches, lamingtons and chocolate-dipped strawberries kept the audience nibbling and filling their glasses while the judges read out the finalists and then the prizes in each category.

There are always winners and surprises, but no losers, as just to make the shortlist is such a huge achievement with so many wonderful books (over 130) submitted (although once again the judges called for more non-fiction, particularly in areas that don’t seem to be covered at all such as music and sport.) It was also interesting to see such a wide range of publishers represented in the winners.

Highlights of the evening included:

  • Chris Szekely (winner of the Picture Book category) and Matt Elliott (winner of the Non-Fiction category and NZ Post Children’s Book of the Year) both visibly moved as they received the prizes for their books and paid tribute to others involved in their creation: Chris to illustrator Malcolm Ross (1948-2003), and Matt to his grandfather Cyril whose wartime diaries inspired Nice day for a war.
  • Matt Elliott commenting that this is his first children’s book – “and it’s all downhill from here.”
  • Jack Lasenby, winner of the Young Adult Fiction category, much loved and treasured Wellington writer, still going strong at 81
  • Leonie Agnew, scooping up winner of the  Junior Fiction category, Best First Book and Children’s Choice award for Junior Fiction. “I love kids books and tonight it seems they love me,’ she said, obviously delighted but almost lost for words after going up on stage to receive her third prize
  • The Children’s Choice Awards – great to give the children themselves a chance to vote in each category
  • The much valued sponsorship by NZ Post who have been involved with these awards for 16 years - long may it continue – and the recognition by everyone in the room of the importance of kids’ books and getting our children reading.

And the only brickbat – I thought more time could have been given for the authors and illustrators to reach the stage (sometimes difficult given the seating arrangement) before the description of their book was read out.

Thanks also to the organisers of the nationwide festival of events that precedes the awards ceremony. It’s a huge commitment by many people putting in hours of work to publicise and promote these wonderful books and their authors and illustrators.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Book lists

I love discovering new lists of recommended books, even if I never get to the end of them. Here's another one: 30 books to read before you're 30.

The extra-good thing about this list is that I don't feel under any compulsion to complete it, seeing as I've already passed the finishing point. The interesting thing about it is, as always, seeing which titles I can already tick off. The surprising thing I realised (when doing that exercise) is that I obviously read under some categories far more widely than others, and the ones I'm missing out on most are science (The Origin of Species) and the political side - The Rights of Man by Tom Paine, Rousseau's The Social Contract , The Art of War by Sun Tzu, The Prince, Walden and Plato's Republic - all titles that I've heard of but never sat down and read in their entirety.

On the other hand I can tick off most of the novels, even the hefty classics like War and peace or Crime and punishment - but I did read Crime and punishment a long time ago, and reading it again now would probably be a totally different experience.

Who makes up thse lists? They multiply all over the Internet so it's hard to track down the intial list maker. Maybe it's all just a ploy to sell the two books on the Bonus list at the end (How To Cook Everything and Honeymoon with My Brother.) Still, I'm glad to see there is at least one children's book in there (The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham.)

I'm not sure if I'll follow up on any of these, although I do like the sound of Getting Things Done by David Allen. I heard about this list through my daughter who has decided to tick some of them off, so she's started with 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think she probably needs a list of 20 books to read before you're 20. Now there's an idea...

Friday 4 May 2012

Musing about food

One of the great things about writing is how many different ways there are to write. One of them is reviewing - and there are different branches again of reviewing: food, wine, movies, plays, TV as well as books.

We invited a TV reviewer and a food reviewer to speak at our NZSA meeting this month. Linda Burgess, the TV reviewer, was funny and engaging to listen to, especially in light of a controversy over a recent "offhand comment" she made which was taken in a different  way from how she intended it and led to a flood of letters and emails, many of them personal and unpleasant. But, she said, the point of being a reviewer is to hold contentious views.

David Burton’s food reviews can be contentious at times. He's had five threats of defamation (two from the same article), although he has only once had to adopt a disguise to get into a restaurant. He described for us some of his rules for reviewing:

  • stay away from a newly opened restaurant for the first 2 or 3 weeks

  •  if you book under your own name, only do that on the day

  • try and arrive punctually, and hungry

  • order off the menu, not the specials board (so they can't make anything special just for you)

  • look around to make sure that others are getting the same level of service as you are

  • be polite to waiting staff and treat them as professionals.

David said that a review gives a snapshot of that particular night, and only has an impact for a few weeks. It only remains valid for about six months, or until the chef leaves (so you shouldn't rely on the ones which have been in the restaurant windows for years.)

Reviewers put themselves in the spotlight and people will often ask, what credentials do they have? what gives them the right to hold forth like that? It must be an uncomfortable place to be at times, when you want to write an honest review. Much easier to criticise the reviewer sometimes than to take on board what they have to say.