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Illustration of a pouting young girl, arms crossed, looking stubborn as.
Art from the picture book of the year, Rona Moon (Image: Supplied)

BooksJuly 5, 2021

The case for more joy, beauty and outlandishness in NZ children’s books

Illustration of a pouting young girl, arms crossed, looking stubborn as.
Art from the picture book of the year, Rona Moon (Image: Supplied)

Books editor Catherine Woulfe takes stock of the finalists for the 2021 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young People.

Last month a bunch of very good authors, illustrators and translators found out they’d made the finals for this year’s children’s book awards. And the creators of two very very good books discovered they had not. Before diving into the shortlist, I want to take a moment to celebrate them.

First up is Whiti: Colossal Squid of the Deep. This is a classy non-fiction picture book written by Victoria Cleal, with illustrations by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White and published by Te Papa Press. It’s a hardcover, and lots of the pages fold right out – at full spread it’s more than a metre wide, which is well and truly enough to dangle off either side of a child’s lap and works brilliantly to convey both the scale of the squid, and the detail of seascapes.

A spread from a picture book showing an illustration of a giant squid and a colossal squid, to scale, with cool facts written alongside
Important squid facts (Image: Supplied)

On the cover is one colossal eye. On the back, a clutch of colossal tentacles. Inside, a compelling narrative of life and death, with te reo naturally woven in and facts scattered about all over. (In structure it’s a lot like Gavin Bishop’s Wildlife of Aotearoa, which followed the fortunes of five whitebait.) My boy was extremely into all the facts and he cried when Whiti died – that big tentacle, waving up from the sea floor!

A spread from a picture book showing the death of a colossal squid: one tentacle waving up from the depths as the creature sinks
Rest in peace Whiti (Image: Supplied)

Whiti should have zoomed into the non-fiction category; I’m amazed that it didn’t.

Next we move to my picture book of the year, which somehow is not even a finalist: Rona Moon, published by Oratia. It is a wickedly funny story about a bad-tempered girl who gets angry at the moon, and learns from it. Praise be, it is written in prose, not in terrible rhyming verse, and that prose includes lines that are extremely fun to read, eg:

“Rona Moon, put your school bag and shoes away properly, please,” Nana said. 

Rona stuck out her bottom lip and rolled her eyes.

“Whatever,” she tutted.

In its language and its illustrations Rona Moon pulls bits from real life, especially low-key everyday life in a family, in a way that made me think of Patricia Grace’s books for kids. But Rona Moon also tips itself back into the world – it’s one of those rare “lesson” books that kids click with and laugh with and take on board.  

Illustration showing a grumpy-looking girl drying the dishes.
Rona Moon and the every-day drama of doing the dishes (Images: Supplied)

Tim Tipene wrote this one, Stephanie Huriana Fong translated the te reo that runs alongside the English, Theresa Reihana illustrated; Rona Moon gets a lot of love at our place and I think it deserved more from the judges. Consider my bottom lip firmly stuck out. 

Two picture books, Rona Moon and Whiti, on a wooden floor
Two of the best children’s books of the year (Photo: Catherine Woulfe)

It’s not really done to grumble about children’s books and hardly anyone actually does. Maybe that’s because we tend to approach these books as we do children – with enthusiasm and encouragement, a focus on the positive. Or maybe it’s because the children’s publishing world in this country is just so small. Neat example: I emailed Belinda Cooke, the Te Papa Press PR, about Whiti and she nicely flagged that she also handles sales and marketing at Oratia Books, which published Rona Moon, and that she is also the manager of the New Zealand Book Awards Trust, which handles these awards.

“I have to say I feel for the excellent 2021 judges and the difficult decisions they must have faced in carving category shortlists of five books out of the very competitive field this year,” she wrote. “I should point out I have no contact at all with the judging process.” Roger that.

Here’s another thing though (and to be clear this is no reflection on the awards or the judges): the shortlists function as microcosms for what’s happening in children’s publishing more broadly. And the picture book shortlist is a fairly grim lineup. Not that they’re bad books – they’re not! they’re beautifully done, truly – they’re just (almost) all so earnest and wise and big-picture, and utterly divorced from the joy and lunatic freedom of little-kid life.

Children have big thoughts and serious interior lives, of course they do, and they need books that reflect that, but it feels like lately we’re just not getting the mix right.

There are so many books about bereavement and war and mental health and how it’s literally up to kids to save the planet now. There is a dearth of the wacky, the carefree, the outlandish and just plain beautiful. Give me kittens tangled up in Christmas trees. Give me magic. Diggers (but no more Little Yellow Digger spinoffs, I beg of you). Camping. Adventure. Dairies and snails and grandpa’s old slippers.

The problem, I think, is that it’s grandparents who buy picture books – just ask any children’s bookseller – and so it’s grandparents who drive the market, and maybe they feel impelled to instil wisdoms and maybe they’re driven by nostalgia and maybe they’re divorced from the actual reading part, so they don’t see how all that earnestness tracks.

Well, this is how it tracks: the lovely wise earnest books quickly sink to the back of the bookshelf or disappear behind the bed, and nobody misses them, because the kids are busy with the hungry caterpillar and the Gruffalo and Hairy Maclary, and Marmaduke Duck and every one of the wonderful books by the unsung local genius that is Sally Sutton. They’re busy with joy, and colour, and words that boing off the page.

Anyway. Let us boing onwards, to the finalists in each category.

Note: we have a special stand-alone piece in the works regarding the finalists for the Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award; this should be published in late July. 

The Picture Book Award ($7500)

Hare & Ruru: A Quiet Moment by Laura Shallcrass (Beatnik Publishing)

Hound the Detective by Kimberly Andrews (Penguin Random House NZ)

Kōwhai and the Giants by Kate Parker (Mary Egan Publishing)

The Hug Blanket by Chris Gurney, illustrated by Lael Chisholm (Scholastic New Zealand)

This Is Where I Stand by Philippa Werry, illustrated by Kieran Rynhart (Scholastic New Zealand)

There’s no obvious top dog, but maybe this is Kimberly Andrews’ year. Her book is by far the warmest of the bunch. It’s not quite at the level of the first in this series, Puffin the Architect, which was outstanding, but Hound the Detective is likewise a textured, clever, good-humoured story with a twist in the tail. (Although for the life of me I still can’t figure out how he puts the clues together in the end.) I love that you get to say “Golly gee WOOF” a couple of times. I love what Andrews does with light and I love the wee curios she drops into each scene. Somehow she’s not a finalist for illustrations? Harrumph. 

Hare & Ruru is right up there too. It’s a beautifully-done book about a hare who learns to quiet his mind. Slightly weird mix of the pastoral (“meadow”) and native (“Ruru”) but it looks gorgeous – it would slot right into one of those too-tidy kids’ rooms you see in magazines – and feels appropriately hushed, and every single word earns its place. I really like it and so does my boy. 

My three favourites of the picture book finalists (Images: Supplied)

Kōwhai and the Giants would be my third pick. Think The Lorax but instead of wacky colour and bouncing verse, it’s all sombre silhouettes and sepia tones: the illustrations, we’re told, were “created from hand-cut paper, placed in a plywood box and lit from behind”. It’s a piece of art for sure, but without a wink of lightness. And I wish they’d given the poignant final page room to breathe, perhaps with a blank spread, or an illustrated spread with no words, rather than flipping us straight to the postscript about planting native trees.

The Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Junior Fiction Award ($7500)

Across the Risen Sea by Bren MacDibble (Allen & Unwin)

Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea by TK Roxborogh, illustrated by Phoebe Morris (Huia Publishers)

Red Edge by Des Hunt (Scholastic New Zealand)

The Inkberg Enigma by Jonathan King (Gecko Press)

The Tunnel of Dreams by Bernard Beckett (Text Publishing)

Sucks to be every junior fiction writer going up against Bren MacDibble: she just keeps busting out the most amazing stories and shows no sign of stopping. Bernard Beckett and Tania Roxborogh might just come through – both their books are great, but I thought they fell slightly short of what they could’ve been. And Jonathan King might get a nod for his extraordinary graphic novel: Tintin set in Akaroa, as our own Toby Morris put it. But I expect MacDibble will win the category this year. If she does it’ll be the third time since 2018. 

Four book covers of junior fiction books
Notables from the junior fiction category (Images: Supplied)

MacDibble was born and raised in New Zealand and now lives in Australia. Her children’s books are about the climate crisis and what comes next (How to Bee in 2017; The Dog Runner in 2019.) No bloodcats or Wilberforces, yet somehow her books still make me think of Maurice Gee. It’s to do with her quiet expertise, and her dialogue, and the very straight-on manner in which she writes. I highly recommend all of her books to adults, but especially this one; it features giant sharks and sinkholes and swamped skyrises, and you can read an extract here

The Young Adult Fiction Award ($7500)

Draw Me a Hero by NK Ashworth (Lasavia Publishing)

Fire’s Caress by Lani Wendt Young (OneTree House)

Katipo Joe: Spycraft by Brian Falkner (Scholastic New Zealand)

The King’s Nightingale by Sherryl Jordan (Scholastic New Zealand)

The Pōrangi Boy by Shilo Kino (Huia Publishers)

When Lani Wendt Young’s terrific book of short stories Afakasi Woman appeared in this shortlist last year I was very surprised: I hadn’t realised it was YA, and instead thought it was a book of kick-ass stories for grownups. Same again this year, with her new Telesā spinoff Fire’s Caress. But genre lines are kind of rubbish anyway. Just know that Fire’s Caress is a luscious, pacey, empowering book about the supernatural in Sāmoa. I loved it. 

But … I don’t think it’ll win. Not against The Pōrangi Boy. Kino’s inspired, rabidly confident debut tells the story of a boy pulling his whānau together to protect sacred land. We are huge fans: we’ve published Michelle Langstone’s revealing interview with Kino here, and Kino’s own essay about the book here, and my review here. The Pōrangi Boy is in line to win the category and it’s also in line for the big gong of the night, the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year. 

Three YA book covers
Notable finalists in the YA category (Images: Supplied)

A word on The King’s Nightingale: although I am an embarrassingly hardcore Sherryl Jordan devotee, and always will be, this time she’s based an entire novel on white slavery. She explains why in an author’s note, giving stats around the “huge” [white] slave trade and pointing out that “no nation was free of blame when it came to religious intolerance, and the cruelty and injustice of slavery”. Which … maybe, but remembering that many young readers will be coming to this whole part of history for the first time, the note should have contextualised the stats around white slavery with at least the top-line, basic information about Black slavery. This might seem like a quibble but I don’t think it is, I think it’s a serious oversight that undermines what’s otherwise a typically wonderful, powerful Jordan story. Perhaps it can be fixed in future editions. I hope there are lots of them.

The Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction ($7500)

Egg and Spoon: An Illustrated Cookbook by Alexandra Tylee, illustrated by Giselle Clarkson (Gecko Press)

Mophead Tu: The Queen’s Poem by Selina Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press)

New Zealand Disasters by Maria Gill, illustrated by Marco Ivančić (Scholastic New Zealand)

North and South by Sandra Morris (Walker Books Australia)

You’re Joking: Become an Expert Joke-Teller by Tom E. Moffatt, illustrated by Paul Beavis (Write Laugh Books)

In the absence of Whiti there’s no contest. Sorry everyone, let’s call it now and be done: big bold happy-go-lucky cookbook Egg and Spoon is absolutely the non-fiction book of the year, and it may very well also be the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year. Its only real competition is The Pōrangi Boy. 

You all know who Giselle Clarkson is. You may be less familiar with Alexandra Tylee, who wrote the recipes here and founded Pipi Cafe in Havelock North. If I’m remembering rightly the cafe used to be a royal blue corner dairy; now it’s painted bright pink and it is beloved of all who visit. “If she [that’s Pipi, because let’s personify her] were to be a cookbook she’d be this one,” Tylee writes in the joyous, very kid-oriented introduction. The recipes are do-able and fresh and (huge call) I think most kids would actually eat them all. There is a section called “in-between meals”, a whole page full of “good things to eat on sticks” and another one daring kids to “throw out the rules”.

But enough from me, please enjoy this wee sample of the goodness:

Pages and illustrations from children's cookbook Egg & Spoon. All very cheerful, bright and quirky.
Every page is like these, truly (Photos: Catherine Woulfe)

The Russell Clark Award for Illustration ($7500)

Hare & Ruru: A Quiet Moment by Laura Shallcrass (Beatnik Publishing)

Kōwhai and the Giants by Kate Parker (Mary Egan Publishing)

I Am the Universe by Vasanti Unka (Penguin Random House NZ)

Kōwhai and the Giants by Kate Parker (Mary Egan Publishing)

Moon & Sun by Malene Laugesen, written by Melinda Szymanik (Upstart Press)

Te Uruuru Whenua o Ngātoroirangi by Laya Mutton-Rogers, written by Chris Winitana (Huia Publishers)

This category, to my mind, comes down to I Am the Universe versus Te Uruuru Whenua o Ngātoroirangi, and I wouldn’t like to bet on either. Unka has a delicious way with saturated colour – picking up any of her books is like drawing with pastels compared to crayons. But Laya Mutton-Rogers has done a superb job telling a story, injecting drama and passion on every page.

Two children's picture book covers, both beautifully illustrated.
Eeeny meeny miny mo… (Images: Supplied)

The Best First Book award ($2000)

Laura Shallcrass for Hare & Ruru: A Quiet Moment (Beatnik Publishing)

Kate Parker for Kōwhai and the Giants (Mary Egan Publishing)

Jonathan King for The Inkberg Enigma (Gecko Press)

Amy Haarhoff (illustrator) for The Midnight Adventures of Ruru and Kiwi, written by Clare Scott (Penguin Random House NZ)

Shilo Kino for The Pōrangi Boy (Huia Publishers)

I get the impression that the best first book awards (this is true of the Ockhams, too) are always a bit of a juggle: if someone brilliant misses out in another category they might be given the win here. But on the face of things, the best two in this bunch – the two I’m really keen to see more from – are Shilo Kino and Jonathan King.

Winners will be announced at a ceremony at the National Library in Wellington, on August 11. Good luck, everyone.

Keep going!