Steve Braunias reports live from the children’s book awards held tonight at Circa Theatre in Wellington. All the winners! All the drunks!
A who’s who of New Zealand children’s literature – Stacy Gregg! Patricia Grace! Jane Bloomfield! Wassisname! – gathered tonight at Circa Theatre, that old shack beside a dismal pond on Wellington’s waterfront, for the 2016 children’s book awards. There was serious money at stake, and a lot of pizza.
The event kicked off at the strangely early time of 5.15pm and was all over by 7pm. Event organisers claimed it was for the benefit of guests who wanted to fly home rather than pay for a night’s accommodation. No one believed that whopper, least of all the hangers-on wanting to hang on and queue at the bar (one barman for 200 guests!) and eat a lot of pizza. They were given short shrift by Circa’s hired goons, who stormed through the foyer, shrieking: “Rous! Rous!” Sore losers and tipsy winners who had been staggering around, half-cut and breathing wine fumes over each other, were forced out into the dark, blood-curdling night.
But all was sweetness and good cheer two hours earlier when the writers, illustrators, publishers, editors and various assorted literary busybodies got out of the bitterly cold early evening and stepped into the theatre. It was warm, and the lights were bright. Soon all memory was extinguished of the foul conditions assailing the capital, with its high of eight lousy degrees – there was black ice in Upper Hutt, and the power went off in Tawa for hours after a motorist took out a power pole. O Wellington! O Christ when it’s cold, it’s cold.
The gathering of 200 moved as one towards alcohol, and grabbed at the wine served in plastic glasses. “May I have a glass of Terravin Sauvignon Blanc 2010?” asked David Hill, a finalist for junior fiction. Minutes later he was at a waiter’s side, and exclaimed, “Mate, gizzus some Terravin Chardonnay 2010. Chur!” The old soak was not done. He sculled the chardonnay, and boomed, “Yeah, and how about some of that fucken All That Jazz Pinot Noir 2011, too, bro!” Actually, it might not have been David Hill; it was very dark, and come to think of it the sot in question was wearing a floral dress.
The gathering of 200 paused as one when the food came out – pizza, courtesy of the sponsor, Hell. But oh well it was free. “Lust, please,” said a lady librarian. “I’ve got Pride,” prattled a person from Penguin. But the room went silent when Paula Morris swept in. As head of that New Zealand writing academy thing, she struck fear into many hearts with her fierce denunciation of perceived enemies in a post at the Spinoff. “I hope,” whispered a grown man, “she isn’t on the warpath tonight!”
She wasn’t. She was on the piss. All was merry, and there was a lot of good vibes and a lot of pizza. The coat rack kept falling over, and so did the person who may or may not have been David Hill. Meanwhile it was possible to stand back and take note of the fact that authors of children’s books are not like other authors. Many of them look strangely…infantile, not exactly Peter Pan types, more like decaying adults grimly trying to hold onto to the sweet bird of youth. They clasped that squawking ava to their bosom. They brought the classroom and the playground with them; they played out their old roles of the school crybaby, the school goody-good, the school wretch, the school ghost who no one noticed.
Maggie Barry, the minister of arts and that, wore a smile frozen on her face, and eyes that screamed JESUS H CHRIST LEMME OUTTA HERE. Jacinda Ardern was there, somehow managing to make shrewd remarks about social policy while slurping on a slice of Sloth. Stacy Gregg wore a sophisticated black trouser suit and gold heels. The Spinoff Review of Books was there, dressed in a purple cape and riding boots; it was an attempt to look distinctive, but everyone just assumed we were zany illustrator Donovan Bixley.
“Rous!”, cried the Circa goons. “The show is about to start. Rous!” The literary set did as they were told, and took their seats. The MC was Fifi Colston. In Auckland, the MC would have been Te Radar, or some prick who used to be on Shortland Street; in Wellington, it’s a living monument to culture and that. Fifi made all sorts of things for years and years for Wearable Arts – her “Flash Yer Tits” creation was judged highly commended in the 2002 Best Bra category. As well, she is an illustrator and author with numerous kids books to her credit, from her work on The Old Man and the Cat by Anthony Holcroft 1984, to her own Ghoulish Get-Ups in 2014.
Anyway and so the winners were:
- Margaret Mahy Book of the Year (prize money $7,500) and winner of the Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction (another $7,500 in prize money!): ANZAC Heroes (published by Scholastic) by Maria Gill, illustrated by Marco Ivancic. Says children’s literature expert Sarah Forster: “Maria Gill has been writing and publishing extremely good non-fiction for kids for years. She is an ex-teacher, and her enthusiasm for her topics is contagious. Good on her!”
- Best First Book Award ($2000): Allis the little tractor (Millwood-Heritage Productions) by Sophie Siers, illustrated by Helen Kerridge
- Te Kura Pounamu Award for the best book in te reo Māori ($7,500): Whiti te rā! (Huia) by Patricia Grace, translated by Kawata Teepa, illustrated by Andrew Burdan
- Picture Book Award ($7,500): The Little Kiwi’s Matariki (Duck Creek Press) written and illustrated by Nikki Slade Robinson. Sarah says, “This book is cute, and cracks on through the forest to show us the glory of Matariki. This is the first time I’ve seen the stars as the focal point for a Matariki book (usually it’s the feasting).”
- Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction ($7,500): From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle (Longacre) by Kate De Goldi
- Young Adult Fiction Award ($7,500): Battlesaurus: Rampage at Waterloo (Farrar Straus Giroux) by Brian Faulkner. Sarah says, “You do, as the judges say, believe that Napoleon might well have had dinosaurs at his beck and call. The place, the characters, everything, is beautifully handled.”
- Russell Clark Award for Illustration ($7,500): Much Ado About Shakespeare (Upstart Press) illustrated by Donovan Bixley
A readers’ choice award, voted by New Zealand kids, was won by the following authors, who each picked up $1000:
- Te reo Māori: Te Hua Tuatahi a Kuwi (Illustrated Publishing) written and illustrated by Kat Merewether, and translated by Pānia Papa
- Junior fiction: The Girl Who Rode the Wind (HarperCollins) by Stacy Gregg. Sarah says, “Stacy won last year as well for her last horse book. She has got her audience down pat.”
- Picture Book: The House on the Hill (Scholastic) by Kyle Mewburn, illustrated by Sarah Davis
- Non-Fiction: First to the Top (Puffin) by David Hill, illustrated by Phoebe Morris
- Young Adult Fiction: Stray (Walker Books) by Rachael Craw
- Best name for a publisher: Luncheon Sausage Books. This was awarded offstage, at the bar.