South Island Children’s Librarians’ Conference 2008: Some Highlights
By Trevor Agnew
The South Island Children’s Librarians’ Conference, held in Christchurch on the 17th and 18th March 2008, was packed with interesting speakers, and had a record attendance. This personal summary is merely a taster, intended to persuade people to make plans to attend the 2009 Conference in Wanaka. Its view of events is selective rather than all-encompassing.
The night before the conference, an informal gathering was held at the Dux de Lux restaurant where a happy juxtaposition saw the librarians sitting next to a table of book-crossing enthusiasts – people who give books away as a hobby. A large number of books changed hands swiftly.
Day 1. Monday 17th March 2008:
Carolyn Robertson opened the conference and Louise Easter (Convenor) introduced the programme.
Black Juice to Tender Morsels:
Margo Lanagan, award winning Australian writer, read her story ‘Ferryman’ and told us how she got the idea from an eight year old child’s story about his dad working on a ferry, then added her own twist with Acheron. Also working as a technical writer – her latest opus is ‘Voucher Retrieval Manual,’ Lanagan told how she began by writing six ‘Bantam Wildflower’ romances – one a month. She then wrote two ‘real’ novels for kids, The Best Thing and Touching Earth Lightly, which were more controversial and are now, she proudly informed us, among the books most stolen from Australian libraries.
When she tried writing fantasy, Lanagan dug herself into a hole, but she had success writing short stories for young adults, later collected as Black Juice. She wrote these during the 40 minute train ride to and from work. Her stories have been short-listed for Hugo and Nebula Awards, but short stories don’t sell as well as novels. She has a rented room upstairs in a block of flats which she uses just for writing. She does all her writing by hand. Word processing is done at home, transcribing ideas from a green notebook.
Lanagan read from Tender Morsels and described some ideas: a future world where the news media are churches and make saints. Felt bells to use in libraries. What if the Virgin Mary had other plans?
Her rant: Young Adult fiction should not be didactic. A good novel shows you ‘that the world is wider and deeper than you imagined.’ Lack of authenticity of emotions can be detected. Honesty is important.
The Magic and Mystery of Manga:
Tim Driver who sells comics, manga (specialised Japanese comics) and anime (animated films) from his shop Comic Compulsion, talked about comics and their appeal.
Jared Lane, who illustrates comics talked about the difficult history of comics in New Zealand and why it is a flourishing international industry in many forms.
A panel of very self-possessed and confident teenagers (Y10 and Y11) talked about their use of MySpace, Bebo and blogging. They were lively, very funny and sometimes alarming. Blogging is old hat, while Bebo and Facebook are all-important along with texting.
Not Just Books for Boys:
This session was a marvellously entertaining discussion between David Hill (chair), Brian Falkner and Vince Ford.
Brian Falkner described his early writing efforts, producing film scripts which didn’t sell before he sold a YA novel about football to Mallinson Rendel [Henry and the Flea]. David Hill recalled Ann Mallinson ringing him and saying, ‘We have a great new, young writer!’ Hill’s response was, ‘Oh no!’
Vince Ford described a keenly entrepreneurial student in his wife’s school at Raetihi who inspired his first two novels, 2MUCH4U and SOMUCH2DO. All the writers agreed that stories matter. Falkner gets as many letters from girls as from boys. Ford said, ‘In my head I’ve got an 11 year old boy who would rather be doing other things. I have to write to interest him, so I put in interchanges and dialogue.’
Hill spoke of boys’ deep involvement with their stories, ‘Boys, when they do become involved with reading stories become very possessive of their books.’ Falkner told of a former non-reader who got into Henry and the Flea, and wouldn’t give the library copy back. Falkner noticed that all his characters ‘have a strong moral compass,’ something he hadn’t spotted until he re-read the books. Ford said he tries not to moralise but he is aware of a character’s need for a background, including a morality (but without the writer moralising).
Both Ford and Falkner felt they had avoided trends and PC pressures. “In terms of trends, I’m lucky to live in Gisborne,” said Ford, who feels that writing in isolation means he is not affected by ‘cliques of writers.’
How do you write? Hill asked the pair.
‘I’m not a note-taker,” said Ford, who carries his ideas in his head until the most important ones percolate to the top. Then he writes down rough plot and character files, so that he knows the characters’ backgrounds and how their strengths will appear in the plot, or interact with other characters. He works on a computer, producing a first draft that is close to a final version. He checks carefully and works through, polishing.
Falkner carries a (tiny) notebook and also uses a computer. Henry and the Flea went through four revisions, so a first draft is only a start.
Falkner read movingly from Strawberry Lou, a new work in progress. Some eyes were being wiped afterwards, leading Hill to comment, “I really don’t know if it is professional to make your audience cry when you read them a story.”
Ford dedicated the story he read, about a white heading dog rescued from drowning, to Bill Nagelkerke. He provided marvellous voice characterisation, bringing two dogs in a conversation to life. “I enjoy writing dialogue and hearing voices,” said Ford, looking upwards.
David Hill revealed that his next novel has a snake-bite in it. Brian Falkner’s Tomorrow Code will be published in the United States in October: “The end of the world started quietly enough for Tane and Rebecca.” Vince Ford demonstrated a remarkable spear-throwing device, which I won’t describe because it is a crucial feature in his Chronicles of Stone trilogy, which begins with Scorched Bone due out in April 2008.
Perfecting the Partnership:
The relationship between words and image in the works of Helen Taylor and Ben Brown. The talented husband and wife team, Helen Taylor and Ben Brown, provided an interesting slide show of their work, while they talked about their joint career in children’s literature. Referring to their earlier work, such as The Cat With No Tail, Who is Brian Bear? and The Bouncing Ball, Brian Brown declared that, “Self-publishing is the most noble and honourable way of going broke that I know.”
Helen Taylor described how, when they were living rent-free on Ben’s father’s farm in Nelson, local artist Tracey Duncan was helpful and “very inspiring.” “Do what you’re good at,” said their bank manager. Their best-selling book so far had been The Penguin Who Wanted to Fly, so they looked hard at birds. At that time, they were surrounded by pukeko in their valley, so their next book was about pukeko. It was rejected several times but they took up some of the advice they were given and Thief of Colours was duly published. It has led to a popular series.
Ben gloated about the fact that, as the writer, he never has to work to a deadline. By the time a manuscript goes into the publishing process, he is off on a new project. Helen, however, has to create her illustrations to a deadline – in one case only six weeks!
“Sometimes I chuckle at what I’m writing,” says Ben, because I know Helen will have trouble illustrating it – like ‘strands of sky’.” They both laugh.
“Thanks,” says Helen. She thinks that the most irritating aspect of illustrating a book is when a designer gets involved. She sometimes has problems with them.
“Illustrators are very fussy,” interjects Ben.
“It’s very personal to me,” says Helen, so when a designer enlarges or reduces something, or even moves it to another page, I have to protect it.” She showed examples of her original sketches and finished paintings.
“You want to see Helen go to war over a book cover,” warned Ben.
She talked about the suggested changes to the cover of Fiftyfive Feathers, which showed a kakapo spreading its wings and a rear view of a Pukeko. The publisher’s reps all said that the pukeko’s bottom was too big. “In the finish they blew it up so that the pukeko’s bottom was even bigger!” said Helen, sounding slightly exasperated.
In her illustration work, she always takes care to leave appropriate spaces for the writing but is aware that the publisher must decide. However, “the longer you are in the business, the more say you get.”
Helen’s conclusion about writing was that “The books that Ben loves the most are the ones that sell the fewest copies.”
Community Through Youth:
Corrina Meikle, Community Manager of Glen Innes Library gave a good introduction to improving community involvement in library services.
An Author Visits: engaging children with books during school visits:
Dennis Hamley, a visiting British writer, author of Alan’s People, gave a witty address about author’s visits to schools. He compared Christchurch to Edinburgh and Philadelphia for “the delightful village atmosphere of compressed intellectual and artistic activity.”
Hamley said that it was important for children to know that books are written by people, ordinary people with special talents. “Even if it’s crap, I know what the author went through to write it,” said Hamley, adding, “I don’t usually call it crap when I’m speaking to them of course.” Hamley had been surprised to find a quotation by himself on the internet: “Things aren’t untrue just because they never happened.” It came from Hare’s Choice and Hamley had forgotten writing it.
The author who visits schools cannot expect anything from the visit, he warned. One child, unaware that he was the author, said, “This is the most boring book I have ever read in my life.” Hamley smiled ruefully. “They may hate your book. You have to accept this.” He talked about children’s questions. “They ask how old you are, how many books you have written and how much money you earn. They’re always shocked at how little it is.” When they ask Dennis Hamley where he gets his ideas from, he tells them about Robert Leeson’s method of drafting, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say.”
He concluded by reading a very funny story of two boys playing aeroplanes in World War 2, with Michael always making Freddie play the German.
Following drinks and nibbles at the Christchurch City Library’s staffroom, we had a splendid Conference Dinner at the Copthorne Hotel.
Day 2 follows.