Friday 15 November 2013

Courage Day 2013

An empty chair at a meeting in Wellington on 15 November stood as a silent witness to the meaning of Courage Day. The chair is left empty to represent those who cannot come to this or any other meeting because they are in prison or under restraint, due to their writing. 

Empty-chair-Japan-PEN.gif  Empty chair symbolising persecuted writers

(See, for example, The Painted Chairs Project by Australian PEN, a concept which has since spread elsewhere.)

Around the world, November 15 is marked as the International Day of the Imprisoned Writer. This was started in 1981 by PEN, the international writers' organisation, to acknowledge those writers around the world who are subject to political, economic or other forms of repression. 

Here in New Zealand we call it Courage Day. Dr Nelson Wattie, the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA) PEN representative, began our Courage Day meeting at the Thistle Inn on Friday by introducing our three speakers: John Morgan, human rights spokesperson for the United Nations Association of New Zealand, Jan Logie MP, human rights spokesperson for the Green Party, and Nicky Hager, investigative journalist (or as Nelson said, “uncovering secrets is his job.”) As well as setting out the Empty Chair, Nelson also read out a letter from the head of Turkish PEN, Tarık Günersel. 
John Morgan used a scene from Julius Caesar (the death of the poet Cinna) to point out that threats to freedom of speech are not a new thing. He quoted from Seamus Heaney and Czeslaw Milosz and said that we should support writers who wish to write about life in Aotearoa /NZ with the same honesty as Heaney and Milosz, and one of the best ways to support them is to buy their books.
Last week Jan Logie was on a human rights mission in Sri Lanka ahead of the Commonwealth Leaders' summit. She made the news when she was detained for 2 hours at her hotel by immigration officials before having her passport returned and taking a flight back to New Zealand. 
Jan Logie said that her recent experience in Sri Lanka had given her a new appreciation of freedom of speech and expression.  A haunting memory from her trip was a visit to a newspaper office in the north of the country where photographs of dead journalists were pinned to the walls. Despite the war, this paper had not missed one issue in 30 years, even when it had to print pages on old school exercise books. In contrast, she said she felt “blessed” to live in NZ, but “we can’t be complacent because freedom of expression is so important.” Jan drew us a compelling picture of the possible threats to freedom of expression in different sectors of our society, including State Services, the media, the workplace, policing, education, the community and voluntary sector and public space.  
Nicky Hager said that people overseas had told him about his work, “if you wrote things like that in our country, you would be in prison.” He said, “by luck of birth we live in a country where you don’t get put in prison for speaking out, but something’s not right.” There are subtle reasons why people don’t speak out, even when they have freedom of speech. These include secrecy about how things are done (“you can’t talk about what you don’t know about”) and the fact that we no longer hear from many of the voices who traditionally used to speak out.
Another reason is the changing face of the media, and Nicky said this was one of the easiest areas to tackle and solve. He pointed out many of these changes and their impact. In a digital age, there is no longer a regional monopoly on news, because local advertisements can be placed on many other sites, so the commercialised media model is dying. We are all aware of these changes (eg in the shrinking size of our newspapers or the loss of TV channels) but we haven’t yet seen the “big picture” and the need to change the fundamental way that the media works. Nicky said there is a need for a new economic model, because we still need news and it should be seen as a public good, like education or health. We need to start talking about this and ideally he would like to see political parties adopting “democracy policies” and pledging to take action on the weakness of the media by putting money into supporting it.
Some interesting questions followed, including how news is affected by the immediacy of comments on Facebook and other social media sites. Nicky felt there were some positive aspects to this, but social media is not “mass” media and doesn’t provide a reliable, checked, ongoing source of news. People go to their favourite sites and don’t hear each other; when you read blogs, “you go to people who think the same as you and it all sounds right.” Jan pointed out that social media can be useful for direct communication online, because the Greens are often not covered by the mass media, but it is “a band-aid, an amelioration, not a fix.” 
A final word from Nicky Hager: “When I come back from overseas, I think I should use our freedoms to their greatest extent.”
And from Nelson Wattie: “Freedom of expression is even important in your private lives. If you don’t  talk about these issues in everyday situations, around the dinner table, you won’t have the courage to do it in public forums.”

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Lighthouse family

Lighthouse family is part of the My New Zealand story series, published by Scholastic. Each book in the series focuses on an aspect or period of NZ history - for example, the Wahine storm, the Tangiwai rail disaster, the Rainbow Warrior bombing and the Springboks tour. (It's slightly sobering to realise that an event which some of us can remember counts as history for the next generation of children!)

I've been fascinated for a long time by the idea of lighthouses, and what it must have been like to live on a lighthouse station. Then some research I was doing for another piece of writing led me to the story of the Niagara, sunk by mines off the Northland coast in 1940. Who knew that German ships had sailed down our coast during the war, laying mines? Not me! I knew about the bombing of Darwin, but not that midget submarines had invaded Sydney harbour. 

Later I found out even more astonishing stuff. Submarines had been lurking round our shores as well. Japanese float planes had carried out reconnaissance flights over our cities. One person told me a story of people living on a lighthouse station who had seen men from a submarine coming ashore at night for fresh water. The combination of lighthouses, war and the threatened Japanese invasion started to turn itself into a story in my mind. 

Lighthouse family comes out in November 2013 so hopefully it will be in bookshops very soon. 

Sunday 22 September 2013

What the School Journal means to me

I can tell you the very first piece I had accepted for the School Journal. It was a story called “The day Michael made the news”. The illustrations by Jennifer Lautusi are funny and quirky, and I still read the story when I go on school visits today.

At that stage I was at home with one small and delightful daughter (who didn’t sleep much), working part-time in a law library, and trying to find time to write. Encouraged by this success – and it was not the first piece I had submitted – I kept trying. I didn’t have anything else accepted for more than two years, by which time another small and delightful daughter had come along. But I can still remember the phone call from a Journal editor who said they wanted two of the pieces I had sent in, and my astonishment when he phoned back the next week to say they would take the third as well.

Now with three gorgeous small daughters at home, and still working part-time, I kept submitting stories, poems, articles and plays. I loved writing plays, because I knew how much children at school loved performing them. Performing in a play can be an affirming experience for a child. It gives them the chance to step outside themselves, stretch their imagination and investigate other points of view in a safe and familiar environment. My characters included superheroes, apprentice chefs, pirates, secret agents, monkeys and frogs. I wrote plays set in bus stops, school classrooms and playgrounds, swimming pools, restaurant kitchens, toy shops, doctor’s surgeries, cafes, royal palaces and outer space.

Junior Journal no 41 (2010)
Not everything I wrote was accepted. Competition was fierce and there were so many good writers sending in submissions. But even rejected items came back with a covering letter explaining why, and often it was simply because something similar had just been accepted. This nurturing and encouraging role was what Learning Media was so good at, but it was not, of course, a profit-making exercise. Sometimes the editors would hold on to a piece for months, until they could find the right place to slot it in. This is something that won’t be possible if future issues are contracted out separately. Learning Media also ran workshops which provided some of the first opportunities I had to meet other writers.  As well as the School Journal, they published many other valuable series such as Ready to Read, the Junior Journal, Connected and the School Journal Story Library.

As well as plays, I started to write more non-fiction articles, enjoying the challenge of finding topics to capture children’s attention and spark their interest in the outside world.  Animals were always a popular subject: Clyde the otter who escaped from Wellington zoo, the sun bear twins Madu and Arataki, the sniffer dogs at Wellington airport.                

Other articles focused on New Zealand history: Paddy the wanderer, the little dog who lived on the wharves in the 1930s and used to hop in and out of taxis to get around town; the first airmail service, using pigeon post from Great Barrier Island to Auckland; the lighthouse keepers living at Bean Rock in the Waitemata Harbour; the Coral Route flying across the Pacific in the early days of air travel; the Bulford Kiwi carved into an English hillside by New Zealand soldiers at the end of World War One. 

School Journal Part 4 No 1 (2005)
One of my most recent articles was about Violet Walrond, a name you may never have heard before – but she was our first female Olympian, competing at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp when she was only fifteen years old. 

'New Zealand’s 1920 Olympic team at a Melbourne park en route to Antwerp.First official Olympic team', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012

In the course of researching for these articles I met some inspiring people. Some that I’ve never forgotten include the family whom I visited, in the company of a sign language interpreter, to meet them and their hearing ear dog, Turbo. I met up with zoo-keepers, cable car drivers and a chef from Scott Base. Talking on school visits about some of these topics, I could see the children thinking hard about the questions they raised: if you were deaf, how could you solve the problem of not being able to hear someone knocking at your door? How would you order groceries from Antarctica? Why were the 1916 Olympic Games cancelled, and why wasn’t Violet allowed to go out on her own, unchaperoned?

I was proud to be writing for a publication with such a long and illustrious publishing history, and thrilled to be in the company of famous writers who had written for it in the past, or continued to do so: Janet Frame, Elsie Locke, Joy Cowley, Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, James K. Baxter, Jack Lasenby and David Hill, to name just a few. The National Library exhibition to celebrate the School Journal’s centenary in 2007 opened my eyes to the richness of its illustrations, by well-known artists and some who deserve to be better known: names such as Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, Juliet Peter, Dick Frizzell, Russell Clark, Mervyn Taylor, Jill McDonald, Bob Kerr, Gavin Bishop. Gregory O’Brien’s accompanying book A nest of singing birds is a glorious record of the writers and artists who have contributed to the Journal over its long history.   

At the time of its centenary, the Journal was described as the longest-lasting publication for children anywhere in the word. I don’t think something should be continued just on the basis of having a long and notable history. But the Journal’s future must be ensured because it is such a brilliant and valuable publication. When our children were at school in England for six months, I was taken aback by the outdated and uninteresting reading material they were presented with. The School Journal, on the other hand, has formed a prime reading resource for teachers and helped to keep New Zealand in the top 5 for reading literacy in the world over many decades.

People who haven’t seen a recent copy of the Journal might have warm and nostalgic memories of reading it as a child (and it is amazing how, even if you think you don’t remember any of those stories, looking at an issue of the Journal from that time period, especially the style of the illustrations, can instantly evoke the feel of reading it.) 

Colin McCahon School Journal illustration:
Archives NZ ref AAAD 781 W2708 10/C;
CC licence
But today’s Journals are different again. They are colourful, vibrant, topical. Their content is up to date and multi-cultural, reflecting us and our place in the Pacific.

When I pull some recent copies off my shelves at random, I can see a story by André Ngāpō about a class preparing a waiata for a pōwhiri when they go to visit the kura across town, a story by Katie Furze about the Rena oil spill and one by Charlene Mataio about collecting kūtai (mussels) with a description of how to make kūtai fritters and dos and don’ts of gathering kaimoana. There is an interview with a DoC scientist about the lesser short-tailed bat, a poem by Hinemoana Baker called The squash club and one by Wendy Clarke called Shearing shed.  David Hill has written a funny story called “A bit of a laugh”, with a twist in the ending that makes you think about what it means to be “different”. There are retellings of legends and photo-stories about science projects and activities that classes have carried out.  David Grant profiles Archibald Baxter (“His own war”), Maria Gill talks to a thirteen-year-old swimmer about her training programme, Iona McNaughton describes how students at Moriah School have collected thousands of buttons to turn into a Holocaust memorial and Ross Calman writes about saving the kererū on Banks Peninsula. 

This brief overview gives some idea of the quality of writers writing for the Journal (and I haven’t even touched on the illustrators here) and the variety of topics covered. If we don’t tell our children these stories, based on their own lives, who is going to? 

The School Journal has been important to me in so many ways. I read it as a child; as a parent, I watched my own children learning to read and find out about their world from it. The Journal springboarded my writing career, as it has done for so many other writers and artists.

I would hate to think that future generations of New Zealanders won’t have these same opportunities. 

Go here to read about the Save Our School Journal campaign. (You don’t need to be a Facebook member)
Read the stories.
Sign the attached petition.
Write toyour MP and ask him or her to ensure that we keep the School Journal.

Friday 13 September 2013

It's all about me...

In a week dominated (for children's writers and illustrators, anyway) by news about the uncertain future of the School Journal, it was a joy to go along to an event that celebrated children's writing, delivered by people who are passionate about it.

The Turnbull Library is currently running an exhibition called Logs to blogs: diaries from the Turnbull Library, with an accompanying programme of talks.

I've managed to hear two of them: Dr Kate Hunter talking about Measly scribbling and notes-to-self: First World War soldiers' and nurses' diaries, and It's all about me: fictional diaries in children's literature.

The event room, filled with listeners

Katrina Young-Drew and Linda Forbes are National Library school library advisersDylan Owen is a development specialist who also works for Services to Schools. I was expecting to hear a good talk, but I wasn't prepared for the amazing range of diaries that they came up with, starting with what Linda described as "The ultimate first diary" complete with an entry for each day of the week, a happy ending, lots of eating and a brief snapshot of a life - or in this case, a life-cycle - because it was, of course, The very hungry caterpillar

Amongst a number of other picture books, Katrina singled out Jackie French's Diary of a wombat for the clever way it presents opposing points of of view, often through the interplay between text and image. She suggested that children love the wombat in this book because they can relate to the persistent attention-seeking methods it uses to get its own way; while noisy and demanding, it remains loving and lovable.

Dylan gave a great overview of Graham Oakley's Church Mice picture books, first published in 1973 in "the golden age of children's illustration" (so this year celebrating their 40th anniversary.) The books show an astonishing level of detail, of a sort that Graham Oakley himself admits has fallen out of fashion today, but is still fascinating to look at. Dylan read some very funny excerpts, starting from January 1st when "absolutely nothing happened."

From picture books to junior fiction: Katrina mentioned several books I hadn't heard of before, including Sophie Scott goes south, with art work from the Kids Antarctic Art Project, by Alison Lester (one of Australia's first two Children's Laureates.)

Another book I hadn't heard of was The matchbox diary by Paul Fleischman - proving that diaries don't have to be written on paper.

By now, the three speakers were running out of time and we could see there were lots of enticing slides and titles that they didn't get around to, but they did have time to talk about Archie's war, The secret diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 and The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. I'm sure if they had time (because they had some of these books out on display) they would have mentioned the My New Zealand story series, fictional diaries published by Scholastic.

And they chose a lovely place to finish, with this quotation from Anne Frank: "I want to write, but more than that I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart."

Sunday 8 September 2013

More on the School Journal

The story of the closure of Learning Media and the uncertain future of the School Journal continues. You can read more about the issue here:

"Show him the money!" on Fifi Colston's blog.

"The unnecessary and shameful demise of Learning Media" on Mandy Hager's blog.

"Perhaps not the right reward for excellence" on Melinda Szymanik's blog.

"School Journal publisher winding up": the initial news item on the Stuff website.

An (extraordinarily uninformed) editorial in the NZ herald - read the comments to get a better view.

"Hekia, Bill and the very nervous taniwha": a very clever piece by Toby Manhire.

I'd encourage you again to write to your local MP or to the Minister of Education about this issue. If you've never written to an MP before, it's easy You don't even need a stamp. Just follow the instructions here.

And lastly, I'd like to show you just a few examples of the work I've done for Learning Media over the years. I am immensely proud of all of these. Learning Media gave me my start in writing, and I owe a great deal to their help and encouragement.

"Escape artist Clyde" in School Journal Part 2 No 2 (2000)
When I do school visits, I often take this Journal along because the covers - both front and back (by Nic Marshall) - are so clever and amusing, and children love to hear the story of Clyde the otter, who was smart enough to escape from his enclosure in Wellington Zoo and get all the way across Newtown before he was found.

Sunbears are special; a Ready to read title (2002).
Younger children just love this story as well. I'm not sure exactly why, but something in it seems to resonate for them. It's another Wellington Zoo story, about the twin sun bears cubs, Madu and Arataki, born there in 1999. It tells children about conservation, endangered species and animal families. And it doesn't have a completely happy ending. Madu had a hole in his heart and died when he was two years old. There is something in all those elements put together that children really respond to.

"Mmm, popcorn!" in Pop! pop! pop!, another Ready to read title, with illustrations by Philip Webb (1999).
This book contains a story by Dot Meharry, with my poem at the back. I'm including it because the new entrants teacher at our local school would always read it to her class at some stage each year. She read it beautifully, and every new entrant heard her enthusiastic cry of "Mmm - popcorn!"

Friday 6 September 2013

World War One: music, wills and numbers

Last week I did a talk for the Island Bay U3A. They are a great bunch and always have interesting things to say and comments to make.

We talked about anti-war protest songs (several of them had been to the recent Joan Baez concert) and one of them told me about a song called "William McBride" (also called "The green fields of France"), sung by Eric Bogle. I'd already come across Eric Bogle's haunting song "And the band played Waltzing Matilda", but I didn't know "William McBride". You can listen to it here or read the lyrics, and find out more about both Eric Bogle and the original William McBride, here.

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind 
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined? 
And, though you died back in 1916, 
To that loyal heart are you forever 19? 
Or are you a stranger without even a name, 
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane, 
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained, 
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame? 

Someone else asked if I knew about World War One wills. She had once had a job helping to sort them. Apparently all the soldiers who went off to war had to make a will before they went. Many were very young and had few belongings, and nearly all of them left everything "to my mother". Coincidentally, I then came across this article about 230,000 wills made by servicemen from England and Wales who later died in World War One, which have just been released into the public domain. after being stored away for a century. It makes for sad and poignant reading. 

This poignant historical repository of some 230,000 wills, maybe five per cent of which are accompanied by final farewells to mothers, wives and sweethearts, has been made available on the internet by the Courts and Tribunals Service.

And lastly we talked about how the number of New Zealand troops at Gallipoli might have been miscounted and underestimated for over 100 years. The usual figure given is 8556 New Zealand soldiers, but it seems as if the total might have been over 10,000, even as high as 14,000. It's a really interesting example of how research is still unearthing new information about events of World War One. 

Wednesday 4 September 2013

The School Journal: a national treasure

New Zealand children’s writers and illustrators have been concerned all year about proposed changes to the School Journal. Now they have reacted with horror and outrage to the announcement that Learning Media, the government-owned company that publishes the School Journal, is to be closed down, because it is not “financially viable”. They say that this iconic New Zealand enterprise has been made to tender for its own core business and set up to fail.

This forced closure means far more than the loss of over 100 jobs at Learning Media itself, many more jobs for contributing artists and writers, and the loss of expertise and in-depth knowledge of the curriculum. In the words of Greg O’Brien (author of A nest of singing birds, written in 2007 to celebrate the centenary of the Journal’s publication): “The contribution of the School Journal to the art and literature of New Zealand has been priceless, profound and ongoing... The School Journal is one of the great educational periodicals to emerge anywhere in the world, ever.”

New Zealand’s education system is admired internationally. Our School Journals are the envy of many countries. Learning Media has been producing excellent resources for schools for over a hundred years; yet here we are, being told that it will close. Newspaper articles have reported that “a contract ensured the School Journal's survival for now“, and “the School Journal will still be available to schools”. However, it is unclear how long that contract will last for, and how schools will still receive all publications and be able to access online resources if Learning Media is closed down.

The School Journal is a New Zealand institution, both culturally and educationally.  It provides a way for New Zealand children to see their own lives reflected in print. We live in a world where globalisation of information is increasing. There are real concerns that New Zealand written and illustrated content will be forfeited to overseas providers. Do we really want our children to be deprived of their own New Zealand, Maori and Pasifika stories? Our culture is unique and is one of the key reasons New Zealand punches above its weight in so many fields.

The Journal has also been the springboard for numerous writing and illustrating careers. It has been called “the place where Margaret Mahy began”. Other contributors over the years have included many of the country's top artists and writers, such as Rita Angus, Juliet Peter, Dick Frizzell, Russell Clark, Colin McCahon, Joy Cowley, Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, James K. Baxter, David Hill and many others. The School Journal’s editors took the time to nurture new talent, and we have them to thank for the work of many of today’s top New Zealand children’s writers and illustrators.

School Journal 1964

Please don't let this get swamped by the next piece of news to hit the headlines. We would urge all parents, teachers, librarians and anyone who cares about the education , literacy and future of our children, to write to the Minister of Education and to their local MP and protest this decision.

For more details, see:
·         Learning Media website
·         More about the School Journal
·         Learning Media has traditionally had a contract with the Ministry of Education to supply materials to schools, in particular the School Journal, but also learning materials across the whole curriculum, including publications to support Te Reo Maori and Pasifika languages, highly respected science resources like Connected, and online and digital resources for TKI through their digital publishing arm. This contract expired last year and other publishers have been invited to submit bids for series previously published by LM.
·         Until recently, the School Journal was made up of four levels aimed at % year olds to 12 year olds. Four issues a level...16 journals a year sent to schools (free) in class sets of 30. Each journal would typically include 3 short stories, 3 articles, one play, one craft activity, and 1 or 2 poems, all graded at the reading ability of children in each level and cross indexed according to subject and reading level in a comprehensive index issued every year covering 5 years. Many schools would consider their journal room, holding up to 20 years’ worth of class sets, to be their prime reading resource for teaching reading literacy and keeping NZ in the top 5 for reading literacy in the world over many decades.

Friday 2 August 2013

Creative writing workshops at Katherine Mansfield Birthplace

Thanks to the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace for hosting another series of school holiday creative writing workshops. There is something very special about sitting in a room of the house where KM was born, surrounded by photographs and memorabilia of her life, and talking to a group of young people who might be the writers of the next generation.
Katherine Mansfield Birthplace

The Year 6-8 students did some great work on Writing Arresting Openings. We talked about the different ways they could start a story to try and grab the reader from the very first sentence. We chose a story that we thought that many of them would know, and set them the challenge of coming up with an alternative opening.  Here are some of the wonderful first sentences they produced for a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood:

  • It all started on the edge of the dark woods.

  • "AARGH!" screamed the wolf as the woodchopper swung his bloody hatchet.

  • "Don't go through the forest," said her mother. "Whatever," said Little Red Riding Hood.

  • "Lunch," thought the Wolf, licking his lips.

  • I sat waiting in the woods, listening. I heard a snap. I looked and saw a flash of red. It was a small girl carrying a basket.

  • Once upon a time there was a little girl who should have taken the bus.

  • I was cutting wood one day when a small girl in a red hood passed by.

  • Once, long, long ago, there was a hood, and not just any hood. This one was of a dark blood-red colour.

  • I'm sure you've all heard of Little Red Riding Hood. The sweet girl everyone loves? Well, let me tell you now, those are LIES.

And finally:

  • Her cracked leather boots caught the sunlight escaping through the greenery, warming her sore feet and crooked toes. A bruise was forming on her leg where her treat-filled basket bumped against it. The journey was wearing her down, a sign that a hungry wolf noticed from his hidden point in the book.

I love the way that these students are already confident enough in their writing to play around with telling the story from different perspectives. They each  have their own way of handling language and ideas, setting, dialogue and description, and creating an individual narrative voice.

Great work!

Friday 26 July 2013

Robert Louis Stevenson, at home in Samoa

Vailima, the name of a house as well as the village, and the home for five years of Robert Louis Stevenson and his family in Samoa.


The house is airy and elegant, with high ceilings and wide verandahs. Upstairs, one room leads into another and the sash windows, overlooking the lawn, are wide open to catch the breeze. It must have been a beautiful place to live (although his mother, who apparently dressed like Queen Victoria, never stopped complaining about the climate.)

Robert Louis Stevenson arrived in Samoa in 1889 and died there of a stroke in 1894, but that was long enough to endear him to the Samoans. They held him in high regard, partly because he was on their side in their struggle for independence. I wonder if their affection for him was also connected to the fact that they saw him surrounded by family - his mother, wife, stepchildren and others, all of whom he supported by his writing, despite his ill health. Family is so central to the Samoan way of life. They must have sensed that here was a man who held fast to the same values that were so dear to them.

robert louis stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson with his family and household on the verandah at Vailima, 11 May 1892.
In the back row are Joe Strong (husband of Belle, Robert's stepdaughter) with a parrot on his shoulder, Margaret Stevenson (Robert's mother), Lloyd Osbourne (Robert's stepson), Robert Louis Stevenson, Fanny Stevenson and Simi the butler.
In front of them sit Elena the laundress, Taloja the cook, Belle (Isobel, Robert's stepdaughter) and Austin Strong (Belle's son), Lafaele the cattleman and Tomasi the assistant cook.
At the front are Savea the plantation boy, Arrick the pantryman and another boy.[/caption]

It is over 100 years since RLS lived and died in Samoa, but the drawings and photographs on display make him seem much closer. You can stand on the lawn, looking at the steps leading up to the house, half close your eyes and imagine the family sitting there.

File:Stevenson vailima.jpg

RLS and family at Vailima. Left to right: Mary Carter, maid to Stevenson's mother, Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson's stepson, Margaret Balfour, Stevenson's mother, Isobel Strong, Steveson's stepdaughter, Robert Louis Stevenson, Austin Strong, the Strong's son, Stevenson's wife Fanny Stevenson, and Joseph Dwight Strong, Isobel's husband[/caption]

RLS was a man of letters, of many and varied accomplishments, impossible to pigeonhole or categorise. He wrote poetry (A child's garden of verses), classic adventure stories like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, novellas like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and travel stories like Travels with a donkey. He was often in poor health (constantly searching for a better climate because of his tuberculosis), but he worked so hard, wrote so many books, travelled so widely and supported such a big family so uncomplainingly. He was brave, resourceful, funny, enthusiastic and likeable. You can tell that because he once donated his birthday to a 12-year-old girl who was upset that her own birthday fell on Christmas Day. He wrote a letter transferring his birthday to her, saying that he  no longer had need of a birthday and that she would make a much better day of it.

When he died, the local Samoan men cut a path through the bush and carried his coffin to the summit of nearby Mt Vaea. We had been warned to set off early, but the track itself proved to be almost as much of a problem as the sticky heat. A cyclone or two had roared through recently, and tree trunks had fallen and blocked the path. The view from the top, over Apia, was impressive -

View over Apia

but by the time we had scrambled over or under the fallen tree trunks, we were so hot and exhausted that everyone had to lie down for ten minutes before we could raise the energy to look around.


The inscription on one side, in Samoan, uses the special name they had for him: Tusitala, teller of tales. According to the website of the RLS Museum, it says "O Le Oli'olisaga o Tusitala "( "the happy resting place of the Writer of Tales") and contains two verses in Samoan from the book of Ruth ("thy people shall be my people.")

RLS's grave

The other side carries his famous poem, Requiem, which he had had written years before but requested to have on his grave:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea.
And the hunter home from the hill.

At one end is his inscription for his wife Fanny, who died in California in 1914. Her ashes were returned to Samoa so she could be buried beside her husband. "Teacher, tender comrade wife," it begins, "fellow-farer true through life."

Both inscriptions are strangely moving. It's true that RLS was here at Home, surrounded by the family he loved, in a land he had grown to love. But he was also such a very long way from Scotland, his other and first Home - almost as far as he could have been, right on the other side of the world.

 We had the site to ourselves for about twenty minutes before anyone else (hot, panting and red-faced) arrived. One of them climbed over the grave while his friend took a photo, and for a moment I felt affronted on RLS's behalf. But later, when we saw children in a village playing on the family graves beside their house, I wondered if it just reflected the Samoan attitude to death and burial, and I was glad I hadn't said anything at the time.

RLS's house and garden

Mt Vaea, looming over Vailima. Both well worth the trip. Robert Louis Stevenson, friend of Samoa and a fine writer.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Once upon a time...

"Once upon a time..." - the start of every good fairy tale.

Last year to mark the 200th anniversary of Brothers Grimm’s book of fairy tales, the Goethe-Institut New Zealand ran a competition to write a Grimm fairytale for modern Aotearoa New Zealand. It's a lot harder than you might think to get the right mix of magic, mystery and a touch of nastiness.

Over 300 entries were submitted and they're now being published on the Once upon a time blog where you can vote for your favourites.

And if you want to have a look at mine (The four brothers and the ungrateful princess)... it's just gone up.

Sunday 30 June 2013

Treasures in the letterbox

There was a lovely story in Saturday's paper about a woman who lived in Japan for a while and was given a letter by a Japanese friend when she left - the sort of letter that you would want to treasure forever.

It made me think of all the letters I used to write, and so seldom do nowadays. When we were travelling, there was no email or Internet of course - let alone cellphones or GPS - so we wrote letters, or postcards (and often used to get lost), and most of the time nobody knew where we were until a week or so later when the letter arrived.

And years before that, when I was young, we had penpals - what a quaint idea that seems now! I was probably quite an annoying penpal because I would reply much quicker than the other person did, so they would always be owing me a letter.

I do still have one faithful corespondent, who writes from the other side of the world, usually on the same sort of blue envelopes and paper (whereas mine in return are scribbled on scraps, because I no longer buy writing paper) and it's always a treat to find a real letter in the letterbox.

We talk a lot about how the publishing world is changing, less (unless you're a biographer) about how letters are vanishing from our lives. One of the things I love about them is that they are such a straightforward and uncomplicated way of writing. You're not worrying about how much or whether you'll get paid. Unless you're already rich and famous, you don't have an eye on possible publication. Your attention is on the person you're writing to, or perhaps on the scene in front of you, and you're writing out of (often) affection, or maybe another emotion like awe or wonder at some new sight you're encountering for the first time.

Sigh. No use fighting the tide, though. Letters, posties, even letterboxes probably won't be around for much longer.

Saturday 22 June 2013

Katherine Mansfield and the Wellington storm

The storm that just swept through Wellington brought down power lines and trees - a lovely one just opposite our house, ripped off roofs, scoured out railway lines, sent waves crashing across roads, demolished sea walls and generally caused a heap of damage. A week before, we'd been watching the film on the sinking of the Wahine at the Museum of Wellington City and Sea. Thankfully there was no such tragedy this time, although one of the ferries spent what must have been an uncomfortable day out in the harbour, monitored by a small watchful tugboat, until it could be safely moored again.

Sadly, it seems that one of the houses that has suffered the greatest damage is a small seaside cottage in Day's Bay, once owned by the Beauchamp family, where Katherine Mansfield (then Kathleen Beauchamp) used to spend holidays as a child.

A few years ago, I went on a Day's Bay literary walk, led by Don Long, who took us round to see a number of houses in the area owned by past or present writers. One of them was this wee cottage, and the owners kindly let us have a look inside. You can read more about the house on the New Zealand Historic Places Trust website.

Today's paper reports that it has been so badly pummelled by the waves, it may be a write-off.

Sarah Gilbert

Don commented presciently that "the waves still sometimes break against – virtually over – the house on Downes’ Point during storms." He explained that Sir Harold Beauchamp bought the land in 1906, and it was Kathleen’s "bolt-hole" from then until she left for London in July 1908, aged 19. Memories of it stayed with her forever and infused her writing of one of her most famous stories, "At the Bay". You can read it online here, thanks to the Katherine Mansfield Society.

On 4 March 1908, Kathleen wrote, “The sea has never seemed so high – so fierce.  It dashes against the rocks with a sound like thunder.”



Thursday 20 June 2013

The wonderful Kate Atkinson

Bliss = being snug and warm inside (hoping the power doesn't go off) while a wild southerly rages outside, up to pg 375 of Life after life and still another 154 pages to go. The sort of book you can't wait to finish but want to last forever. The only thing that could make it any better is for Jackson Brodie to make a cameo appearance, but I doubt that's going to happen.

Kate Atkinson appeared recently at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival - the best possible reason for going - and I didn't. But never mind, because her interview session is now online - over an hour of wonderfulness. Her conversation is as delicious as her prose. How many people can casually drop a word like "bifurcating" into the middle of a sentence?

She had firm opinions about the process of becoming a writer, and the place in that process of creative writing classes - "creative" delivered with imaginary speech marks, because she doesn't like the word. "Learning to be a writer is really, really hard and you have to do it on your own... it's a very isolated, individual thing." She said that what a writer needs is "an enormous cushion of knowing what good writing is", and that you have to "read everything that's ever been written - it doesn't matter if you forget it", because that's how you learn to find your "inner critic", which is the most important part of learning to write.

When the interviewer, Ramona Koval, opened the session up for questions, Kate Atkinson warned the audience that they probably wouldn't be able to match the best question she'd ever been asked. It came from a 13-year-old boy who wanted to know, "if you were stranded on a desert island, which member of your family would you eat first?" She had answered that with tact, ingenuity and humour, which was how she also responded to some other tricky questions in this session. Like predestination vs free will - "that's an extraordinarily large question to be asking me!"

Another good one was "how do you know when it's time to start a new book?" "When I start worrying about money." But the biggest cheer came when someone asked: "can we look forward to more Jackson Brodie?" (He even has his own page on her website.) "He's on a cruise," Kate said. "A long cruise." But she didn't say no.

Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie

Kate also said how much she liked the Canadian cover of the book, with a fox on the front.

Power still on, phew. Unlike 30,000 other homes around Wellington. Back to the book. Wonderful.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Writers in Schools: Ngaio School

Thanks to Ngaio School for a great visit last week with the NZ Book Council Writers in Schools scheme. We lived in Ngaio when we came back to New Zealand after several years away, and our first child was there so I have many fond memories of pushing her pushchair up and down its hilly roads.

Year Threes and Fours - I loved how you were such good listeners - and I loved all your questions! - especially these ones:

  • Have you ever travelled anywhere that has inspired you to write? (I'm still pondering that one. I travelled a lot when I was younger and I think it has influenced my writing, but it's hard to say exactly how.)

  • What text type do you prefer?

  • Did you like writing when you were little?

  • Do you know any other New Zealand authors?

  • Closely followed by - Have you met Roald Dahl? (Sadly, no. But I have been to the Roald Dahl Museum in England, where you can see things like his artificial hip bone, re-used as a handle for a filing cabinet.)

  • Have you ever written a book with anyone else? (Not since I was about eight or nine. But it would be an interesting experience!)

Thanks again, Ngaio School, and good luck with your reading and writing for the rest of the year.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Golden Yarns

Big thanks to all the organisers of the Golden Yarns children's writers and illustrators hui held over Queen's Birthday weekend in Christchurch. They included Te Tai Tamariki, The Children's Bookshop, Storylines, Kiwi Write4Kidz and the Wellington Children's Book Association who sponsored the illustration workshop on the Monday, and a number of wonderful volunteers as well. .

Lots of highlights. Here are a few:

  • Getting to spend a weekend with about 50 other writers and illustrators, talking about writery (and illustrationish!) stuff.

  • Meeting someone who was in my antenatal class when we were both having our first child!

  • A great workshop on Revision Techniques with Joanna Orwin. We all ended the session wanting to go home and try them out straightaway, but it was only Saturday afternoon and there was still lots of good stuff to come.

  • The panel discussion on graphic novels with Ant Sang and Dylan Horrocks. I didn't expect to find this so interesting, but I know very little about graphic novels, and Ant and Dylan are both passionate about them - so it was fascinating. And listening to anyone talk about how they tell a story, in whatever medium, makes you think about how you do it too.

  • A heartbreaking talk and slide show by Mary Sangster about how the earthquakes affected The Children's Bookshop and the offices of Te Tai Tamariki upstairs

  • A delicious breakfast at Cafe SisMo. If you're in Christchurch, they're worth a special trip to Riccarton (find them on Facebook!)

All though the weekend, people who had gone out to look at the central and eastern parts of the city came back sobered and reflective. Seeing it on TV just isn't the same as walking or driving around and seeing it for yourself - the razed sections, the boarded-up houses, the wonky bridges and potholed roads, the sadness of the ruined cathedral.

But there were good parts too. The shipping container mall - much fancier than I expected:

Poems painted on walls by Poetica, the Christchurch urban poetry project.

The Quake City exhibition, so well done (even with a screen of quake-related cartoons at the end in case you needed cheering up):

And the new cardboard cathedral, nearly finished:

Christchurch was a very special place to hold our writers and illustrators get-together. In fact I think every organisation should think about holding a meeting there if possible. I certainly have renewed respect and more understanding of what Christchurch people have been and are going through.

Thursday 23 May 2013

Becoming a writer by Dorothea Brande

Can you teach creative writing? In the words of Dorothea Brande: "There is a sort of writer's magic... which can, in part, be taught."

Is that true?

I've heard of this book before (published in 1934) but didn't realise until recently that you can now read it online here.

What I really liked about Becoming a writer is that it isn't full of writing exercises (there are a few), but instead it talks about the writing "temperament" - the difference between the conscious and the unconscious mind, and which does what in your writing life, and how you keep them in check or foster them or help them to work together. "Becoming a writer," she declares, "is mainly a matter of cultivating a writer's temperament."

Her solution is that "you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two" - in other words, the conscious and the unconscious mind. I love her reasons for why you should never talk about what you're writing. And here she describes the genesis of a story:

"...the story arises in the unconscious. It then appears, sometimes only vaguely prefigured, at other times astonishingly definite, in the consciousness. There it is scrutinized, pruned, altered, strengthened, made more spectacular or less melodramatic; and is returned into the unconscious for the final synthesis of its elements. After a period of intense activity—which, however, goes on at so deep a level that the author himself occasionally feels he has "forgotten" or "lost" his idea—it once again signals to the conscious that the work of synthesis has been done; and the actual writing of the story begins."

So who was Dorothea Brande? According to Wikipedia, she was a well-respected writer and editor in New York (1893 – 1948.) She also wrote Wake up and live which was made into a musical. Some parts of Becoming a writer, and the overall tone, come across as surprisingly modern. Other parts betray its age ("Now that everyone has his portable typewriter...") But overall it is so readable and full of elegant little gems like this: "the first step toward being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm."

Friday 17 May 2013

Thank you, Ruth and Bob

Last Wednesday, the Wellington Children's Book Association held an Illustrators' Panel Discussion  featuring Ruth Paul and Bob Kerr. I am in awe of anyone who can write picture books, and doubly in awe of anyone who can both write and illustrate them (like Ruth and Bob).

Ruth gave a talk about the talent myth ("there's hope for all of us!") and her own path towards being a children book illustrator, peppered with wonderful quotes such as "talent without discipline is like an octopus on roller skates. There's plenty of movement, but you never know if it's going to be forward, backwards, or sideways" (H. Jackson Brown.) We all learnt more than we knew before about myelin and its role in helping us develop new skills, based on plenty of practice. Ruth also showed us some amazing photographs taken at the week-long illustrators' masterclass she recently attended at Amherst, Boston, where she worked on the drawings for the wee dog in Bad Dog Flash.

Then Bob took us through three of his favourite time-lapse titles, to show how well picture books can capture and express the passing of time. He described these books as "the best app for moving through time - you just turn the page, and there's another decade."

First: Steve Noon's A street through time, that covers 12,000 years, from the Stone Age to modern times:

Next, Virginia Lee Burton's classic The little house

And lastly, Jeannie Baker's Window.

Under Bob's guidance, I'm sure we all noticed things about these three books that we'd never appreciated before. Bob also generously shared with us some of his thoughts and ideas about the project he is currently working on.

Lots of questions afterwards: What was your motivation for becoming a children's book illustrator? How do you keep learning? Do you draw for fun? Do you think all ideas are good ones? (Bob: "some ideas just float away; others won't go away"; Ruth: "your eyes gets better, so you can tell a better idea from a worse one more quickly.")

And Ann Mallinson summed up the general feeling at the end: "Children's picture book writers and illustrators are heroes!" So special thanks to these two local heroes for sharing so much of their knowledge and expertise with us.




Wednesday 1 May 2013

Strange fruit

I've already mentioned this installation by Donna Sarten, currently on display at the NZ Academy of Fine Arts on Queen's Wharf.But now I've been to see it as well, and I loved it.

It consists of 3890 military "dog tags", most of them individually stamped with a soldier's name and ID number, although some are blank because of missing information or to represent those men who, for various reasons, might not want to be identified. Some are cut in half, to show the men who died.

On the other side of the silver dog tags are pictures of red pomegranates. One of the things I liked about this exhibition was learning that the word for pomegranate in French is "pomme grenade", which gives us our word "grenade", perhaps because the two objects - fruit and weapon - are similar shaped. But whereas one contains seeds, the other holds tiny balls of shrapnel. The comparison is even more ironic given that the pomegranate is an ancient symbol of fertility, whereas the grenade is a symbol of suffering and death.

The dog tags are suspended - at approximately but not exactly the same height - by red threads from a meshwork grid near the ceiling.One side is a silver shimmer as it catches the light. On the other side, the red of the pomegranates and the hanging threads remind you of dripping blood, or the tint of a sunset sky, but of rich fruitfulness as well.

Each dog tag stands for an individual (the NZ soldiers who served in Vietnam), but together they make up one big group that nudges you to think of the wider groups beyond these names: the families that sent them and waited for them to return. They also make you ponder on how often disasters and wars are summarised in lists of casualties and combatants, but how people are more than just numbers.

And although I saw it indoors, it has also been shown outdoors, as here at the NZ Sculpture OnShore 2010 exhibition: