The golden age of children’s writing in New Zealand is now

Tessa Duder provides a brief history of children’s literature in New Zealand – and finds multiple reasons to be cheerful about the state of play in 2017.

One grey, misty morning in the Auckland suburb of Mt Eden, a 43-year-old teachers college librarian is walking to work. His eyes are drawn up to that shrouded, looming volcano, Maungawhau. He muses, what sinister forces might lie beneath Auckland’s volcanic field?

With his wife’s support, he has recently made the hard decision to give up his day job and to ‘fall back’ onto writing a children’s book – in his case from four moderately successful adult novels.

The motivation? Biographer Rachael Barrowman says he wants to write for his two young children, with one now just at reading age. He admires Alan Garner’s fantasies, likes the idea of an Auckland setting. And his family needs income; those adult novels have won him awards and attention but not much money.

One or more successful children’s books could mean being able to give up the bread-and-butter work of writing scripts for Close to Home, one of the earliest TV soaps. This is not ‘falling back,’ this is a sound commercial decision.

As we know, Maurice Gee went on to a distinguished career as a prolific novelist for adults, young adults and children. But the writing and publication of Under the Mountain provides a cautionary tale for us all, notwithstanding the book’s subsequent success, the awards and the movie, the TV and theatre adaptations.

In 1975 he offered the British publisher Faber a hefty manuscript, clumsily titled The War of the Smiths and the Jones. Their readers praised the setting and thought the story ‘exciting and ingenious’ if not entirely credible. The ending, involving the destruction of Lake Pupuke and Takapuna, was pretty bleak.

That’s a no from them.

Undaunted, Gee approached Hodder & Stoughton, whose Kiwi editor was encouraging. But the London office thought the manuscript much too long, the dialogue unconvincing, and a major re-write necessary.

Stating somewhat defensively that he still thought it was ‘an exciting and competent piece of juvenile fiction in its present form’, he talked to small but discerning publisher Christine Cole Catley. She began negotiations for a co-publication, but eventually, after further re-writes and much publisher to-and-froing, the manuscript was picked up by Oxford University Press, New Zealand and UK.

A second horrible title Alias Wilberforce and Jones was replaced by Under the Mountain.

So, in 1979, the book was triumphantly launched at Dorothy Butler’s Bookshop, winning almost universally glowing reviews, awards and a devoted readership. The creation of this children’s classic, Gee’s best-selling title and still in print, had taken five years and involved four publishers, three titles and at least three major re-writes.

The story behind Under the Mountain tells us a good deal about the realities of getting published, then and little different now: the need for self-belief, stamina, willingness to put in the sometimes tedious grind of re-writing, and above all, persistence.

As someone whose debut novel appeared three years later, I believe Under the Mountain triggered a glorious new era in New Zealand’s children’s publishing. Not so much a renaissance as an explosion, a coming of age.

In the five years that followed came Gee’s Half Men of O series, Gavin Bishop’s Mrs McGinty and the Bizarre Plant, Bidibidi and Mr Fox, my own Night Race to Kawau, Jellybean and Alex, the first of the Alex Quartet. There were also Joanna Orwin’s two fine Ihaka novels and Jack Lasenby’s controversial YA book The Lake. All meticulously edited, hardback, and taken to overseas markets.

For the first time, as local publishers responded to the increasing emphasis during the 1980s on New Zealand content in the school curriculum and teachers’ college courses, booksellers could display significant numbers of local titles on their shelves.

And for schools and the teaching of literacy, growth during this period was spectacular.

As the 1980s drew to a close, the genius of Margaret Mahy, with her astonishing outpouring of award-winning novels and wacky picture books, was at last being recognised in her own country. As was the equally prolific Joy Cowley, author since about 1970 of some fine novels and more ‘school readers’ than she or anyone can actually count.

As the millennium approached, we writers and illustrators for the young had become a professional force to be reckoned with.

But in 2013 the unthinkable merger of giants Penguin and Random House is announced. A third, HarperCollins, seriously downsizes the New Zealand office and with it, the children’s list. Other respected publishers like Reed Publishing, Hachette, Longacre, Mallinson Rendel, Pearson Education and Learning Media either emigrate offshore or disappear altogether.

Authors hear horror stories of downturns in sales, of booksellers big and small struggling or even closing.

One mainstream publisher curtly rejects new manuscripts by three of their long-standing, award-winning children’s authors with hardly a backward glance – I know, I was one of them.

Fewer publishers and imprints mean fewer avenues open to authors, right? Publishers seem less interested in fostering an author’s career, yes? Are we now being seen more “contractors”, one manuscript at a time? Not as respectful partners with careers to develop? Or even as a publisher’s good investment?

Consider the media, reviewing and academic attention paid to Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton and other luminaries like Witi Ihimaera, Karl Stead, Elizabeth Knox, Jenny Patrick and Emily Perkins.

Should the scarcity of children’s book reviewing, interviews and commentary (except around awards time) be taken as a clear sign that children’s publishing in this country doesn’t count for much?

For the families and librarians who shell out good money, for the young people who are beyond question influenced by everything they read, there needs to be more reviewing, commentary and analysis of what is being published and what is winning awards.

The fact is that publishing for children – trade and educational together – is a major player in New Zealand publishing overall, and has been for many years. Take out the educational publishers, and children’s trade books still dominate.

As far back as 2008, writing as the Society of Authors’ President of Honour, leading short story writer Owen Marshall declared that while there’d been a splendid flowering of commercial non-fiction, the genre of writing for children and young people has had “perhaps the most spectacular growth and success.” His A-list of writers and illustrators “are all among our most successful writers artistically and financially, and some have established international reputations.”

Nine years on, he’s backed up even more strongly by latest Nielsen BookScan figures for locally-published children’s trade book sales. Over the past five years, while total sales volume of all New Zealand–published books has dropped by around 4%, local children’s books have gone up around 3%.

In 2016 children’s books accounted for over a third of all New Zealand-published sales by volume. Measured by actual dollar value, they were nearly a quarter of all sales.

In 2009 when Nielsen began recording figures, there were 153 publishers (trade and educational) selling New Zealand-published children’s titles. In 2016, incredibly, there were 304.

Note also: of the current top 20 children’s publishers measured by value, eleven are small independents or self-publishers. Evidence of their commitment and success can be seen in individual growth percentages over the past two years, ranging from a modest 51%, to 130%, to 588% and in one case, an astounding 2547%.

A more global view is provided by the 2015 report on The Economic Contribution of the New Zealand book publishing industry, compiled for Copyright Licensing New Zealand Limited.

In 2015 sales of books through traditional channels, that is bookshops, were at their highest for four years; two years on, the figures are likely to be similarly upbeat.

Sales of e-books have grown at a similar rate. Book publishing in New Zealand directly contributes $167 million to national GDP, employing nearly 3000 across the country.

And to the general air of positivity, educational publishing remains an important contributor, exporting to over 60 countries.

The one shadow over this cheering landscape is local publishing for young adults. Nielsen’s figures show little growth, despite some fine YA books in the last five years by Mandy Hagar, Brian Falkner, Fleur Beale, Kate De Goldi, David Hill, Bernard Beckett and (right back from retirement) Maurice Gee.

Reasons are debatable, but I’d venture the surprising lack of vigorous publisher marketing into their target market of intermediate and high schools, with corresponding lack of teacher and student awareness. There’s little serious YA reviewing in either mainstream or specialist media; and behold those global bestsellers with movie tie-ins, huge promotional budgets and starring roles on booksellers’ display stands.

These are very good times to be an aspiring children’s writer. There are courses run by accomplished authors at universities and polytechs, also by private ‘creative writing’ schools. There are also multiple ‘how to’ books. Joy Cowley’s Writing from the Heart, published by Storylines, offers some of the wisest and most practical advice you’ll find anywhere.

With a draft finished, or even only partially complete, you can seek expert help, more available now than ever before. One positive consequence of the publisher downturn of five years ago has been highly trained and experienced in-house editors, made redundant and now offering their skills as manuscript assessors, editors, proof-readers, counsellors, for reasonable fees. It could be the best money you ever spend.

The New Zealand Society of Authors runs manuscript assessment and mentoring schemes, for illustrators as well as writers, and you don’t even have to be a member.

Storylines’ three awards for unpublished manuscripts – the Joy Cowley award for a picture book text, the Tom Fitzgibbon award for a junior novel and the Tessa Duder award for a YA manuscript – include monetary prizes and publication offers.

And down in Dunedin, the University of Otago provides an annual residency, the only one specifically for children’s writers. A welcome new and lively website, The Sapling, presents news and views on New Zealand children’s publishing.

For aspiring illustrators, well-established courses are run at various tertiary institutions in the major centres. The Storylines Gavin Bishop award for illustration offers the unpublished winner critical advice as well as likelihood of publication. For those already published, the Sandra Morris Illustration Agency is on hand with advice and publisher contacts.

Christchurch’s Painted Stories group organises exhibitions in South Island centres. And every two years a leading illustrator wins the Arts Foundation’s Mallinson Rendel award, a $10,000 prize instituted by publisher Ann Mallinson in memory of her husband.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, we writers and illustrators now have publishing options undreamt of 20, even 10 years ago. Whether approaching mainstream, small independents or indie publishers, or first trying to find an agent here or overseas, the options are now more numerous than they ever were.

Some high-flying Kiwi authors – for instance Brian Falkner, Bernard Beckett and Stacy Gregg – have found mainstream publishers in UK and America. Others have signed up with Australian companies like Walker Books and Text. There are several New Zealand literary agents, and more than a few writers now have offshore literary agents.

And then there’s the phenomenon of ‘indie’ or self-publishing. While it’s true that most awards’ shortlists and Notable Book listings are still dominated by the books coming from traditional publishers, a significant impact is being made by those choosing to self-publish – like Mark Sommerset, Kate De Goldi, Bruce Potter, David Riley, Stu Duvall, Des Hunt, and Sue Copsey. Luncheon Sausage Books have given a platform for Queenstown writer Jane Bloomfield, whose third book in the Lily Max Trilogy, Lily Max: Sun, Sea, Action, has just been published.

Professional services are now being offered by indie publishers as partnership deals, from manuscript assessment right through the editing, design and production process even to distribution and promotion.

We can choose to self-publish our stories online as e-books, although many appear to have found this an unrewarding experience, after a substantial expenditure of time, energy and money. For the huge pleasure of holding your book in your hand, you can request hard copies, with print runs of several hundred, or thousands if you’re brave, with further printing available on demand.

Admittedly, standards vary enormously, with booksellers wary of accepting for sale the more amateurish though well-intentioned efforts, but if done with integrity and care, with the best advice that money can buy, self-publishing is now for some a genuine alternative.

It may be the only book you ever do. Conceivably, it may lead on to an offer from a mainstream publisher, and a good career as a regional writer or illustrator earning good money.

Or for a minority, those talented hard-working folk sprinkled with a dusting of good luck, it could lead to offers from the other side of the globe, world rights, translations, invitations to writers’ festivals, screen rights, fame and fortune.

We can all dream.


Tessa’s essay is an abridged version of her keynote address to the 2017 Storylines conference.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.