Tuesday, 17 September 2013

NZ Young People’s Books: Best of 2012
By Trevor Agnew 
Published in Your Weekend Magazine, (The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, Nov 2012)  

Best Books for Kiwi Youngsters: 2012
Publishing trends 2012
By Trevor Agnew   

2012’s most heart-warming publishing event was the return of a once famous imprint. Whitcoulls, under its new ownership, has returned to publishing with a magnificent hardback anthology of New Zealand stories and poems, Read Me Another One, Please! selected by Belynda Smith. Authors include Margaret Mahy, Roger Hall, Joy Cowley and Bill Nagelkerke. The best story is Granny Alex, by Tessa Duder, where a young woman swimmer, training for the Olympics, is encouraged by her grandmother. Satisfyingly, Tessa Duder’s beloved classic Alex (1987) is being re-issued by Whitcoulls Classics.

The darkest aspect of 2012 was undoubtedly the death of Margaret Mahy, a brilliant writer, whose high level of creative genius remains unequalled. Margaret’s unique way with language can be sampled in the new paperback edition of her collected verse, The Word Witch, which has a CD of her reading a dozen of the poems.  Meanwhile Margaret’s prolific output means that her titles continue to appear posthumously. Footsteps in the Fog is an atmospheric celebration of the senses, with a blind girl leading her siblings to safety through dense fog. Mr Whistler is a gleeful picture book about an absent-minded dancer who mislays his train ticket and has to undress on the station platform to find it (much to the joy of young readers). Both these books are illustrated by Gavin Bishop. It has been an excellent year for Bishop, whose Counting the Stars: Four Maori Myths has just appeared in paperback, while his 1999 masterpiece, The House that Jack Built, has been re-issued in a sumptuous hardback, a reminder of just how important good illustration and book design are.

 In November 2012, the German firm, Bertelsmann, owner of Random House, took over the British firm Pearson, owner of the various Penguin imprints. The promise is that Random House and Penguin will retain their distinct editorial identities. The concern, however, is that as the big firms swallow each other up, fewer books for young people will be produced. Ray Turton, editor of Magpies magazine, which reviews Australian and New Zealand books for young people, feels that over recent years “big publishers don’t know where their industry is going. They’ve been running round like hens with their heads cut off.” Turton warns that large corporations will always concentrate on mass-market books with larger print runs. “Everyone wants the next Hunger Games or Harry Potter.”

New Zealand has a proud tradition of small publishing firms producing high quality books for the young.  In its thirty years of existence, the tiny Wellington publishing firm of Mallinson Rendell produced only about seven titles a year, but the remarkable quality of publisher Anne Mallinson’s judgement was reflected in book prizes and export orders.  When Mallinson Rendel closed its doors in 2009, its titles were purchased by Penguin. Lynley Dodd’s menagerie of cats and dogs thus migrated to Puffin, which has just issued the witty Slinky Malinki, Early Bird. Yet, even though the future of Hairy Maclary and his friends is now assured, would such a long-running series have been brought into existence and nurtured without the support of a visionary like Anne Mallinson?

Longacre Press, the small Dunedin publisher co-founded by Paula Boock, was another small firm that punched above its weight. Taken over by Random House in 2009, Longacre still appears as an imprint on novels like James Norcliffe’s The Magic Flute, a fantasy that pitches modern Kiwi kids into Arcadia. Another Longacre title is Kate De Goldi’s The ACB with Honora Lee, the superbly-presented story of a girl coming to terms with her grandmother’s dementia.

The good news is that new ‘little’ publishers keep popping up.  Several well-designed picture books have come from the Duck Creek Press, a branch of David Ling Publishing, including the stylish That Dog at the Beach by Janene Cooper and Evie Kemp (a sequel to their award-winning A Dog Like That).

Another recent arrival, Dreamboat Press, is a husband and wife operation, based on Waiheke Island. Mark and Rowan Sommerset have only produced five picture books so far but have already won awards. Their latest, I Love Lemonade, has the slightly naughty flavour that young readers adore.

All publishers need a point of difference to survive.  Wellington’s Gecko Press has concentrated on providing English language translations of award-winning foreign titles, both non-fiction, such as the French Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animals, by Hélène Rajcak, and fiction, such as the hilarious Swedish illustrated story The Best Singer in the World by Ulf Nilsson.

 Huia Publishers focuses on Maori titles, and their young people’s books this year include such lively war biographies as Born to Fly (about Johnny Pohe) and Victory at Point 209 (Moana Ngarimu), both illustrated by Andrew Burdan in war-comic style.  Huia also a shrewdly reversed Gecko’s technique, by producing Te Haere ki te Rapu Pea, a Maori language version of Michael Rosen’s 1989 classic, We’re All Going on a Bear Hunt, evocatively illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.

Some publishers find that series help ensuring repeat custom. Little girls adore Elizabeth Pulford’s Littlest Angel series, where Lily Gets in a Pink Pickle is the sixth volume. Kyle Mewburn’s cheerfully anachronistic Dinosaur Rescue series reached Number 7 with Scuto-Stickysaurus. Meanwhile Chris Gurney’s up-dated fairy tale, The Frog Footy Player is the 14th in the Kiwi Corkers series.

Some publishers give books special features to encourage buyers. Jenny Cooper’s splendid picture book, Do Your Ears Hang Low?, includes a CD of the Topp Twins performing the song (as a sequel to the same team’s 2011 version of There’s a Hole in My Bucket). Pio Terei is the vocalist on the CD which comes with Stevie Mahardika’s If You’re a Kiwi and You Know It. Several books now offer stuffed toys, like Craig Smith’s Willbee the Bumblebee. The Wonky Donkey meanwhile goes one better; as well as a stuffed toy, it now offers a miracle of paper engineering, The House that Wonky Built. Junior engineers who enjoy the classic, The Little Yellow Digger by Betty and Alan Gilderdale, can now own a trace ‘n’ race excavator toy version, which comes complete with the book. There’s even The Little Yellow Digger Activity Book.

As the publishing market-place shrinks, many frustrated, would-be writers try printing and selling their own books. Some of their efforts are dire but a few are excellent, like Brent Leslie’s self-published Jock Logan and the Sea Devil, a vivid account of a lad’s seagoing encounter with Count von Luckner.  Craig (Wonky Donkey) Smith created his own company in Queenstown to publish Kaha the Kea, illustrated by Bruce Potter. Like many other publishers, Craig feels the need to bring electronic media and the printed page together. Thus purchasers of Kaha the Kea can also enjoy an animated version on their iPad or computer.

And which of this year’s books will the young readers of 2062 be reading with pleasure?  My pick is David Hill’s best novel yet, a powerful story of dissent and its consequences, My Brother’s War.  The year’s best picture book also deals with the First World War: Glyn Harper’s handsome and moving Le Quesnoy: the story of the town that New Zealand saved, illustrated by Jenny Cooper.

Trevor Agnew
November 2012  

Book list:

The Best of 2012:

Le Quesnoy: the story of the town that New Zealand saved, Glyn Harper, ill Jenny Cooper, Scholastic, NZ$20
My Brother’s War, David Hill, Puffin, pb, NZ$19.99

The Top Two Dozen of 2012:

Slinky Malinki, Early Bird, Lynley Dodd, Puffin, hb, NZ$24.99

Mr Whistler, Margaret Mahy, ill Gavin Bishop, Gecko, hb, NZ$34.99

Kaha the Kea, Craig Smith, ill Bruce Potter, Craig Smith Publishing, pb, NZ$26

If You’re a Kiwi and You Know It, Stevie Mahardika, Scholastic, pb, NZ$21

The Little Yellow Digger Activity Book, Scholastic, pb, NZ$10

Do Your Ears Hang Low?, ill Jenny Cooper, Scholastic, pb, NZ$26

That Dog at the Beach, Janene Cooper, ill Evie Kemp, Duck Creek Press, hb, NZ$29.99

Te Haere ki te Rapu Pea, Michael Rosen, ill Helen Oxenbury, Huia Publishers, pb, NZ$20

 I Love Lemonade, Mark & Rowan Sommerset, Dreamboat Press, hb, NZ$29.99

The House that Wonky Built, ill Katz Cowley, Scholastic, hb, NZ$29

The Best Singer in the World, Ulf Nilsson, ill Eva Eriksson, Gecko, hb, NZ$34.99; pb, NZ$19.99

The Littlest Angel 6: Lily Gets in a Pink Pickle, Elizabth Pulford, Scholastic pb, NZ$12

Dinosaur Rescue 7: Scuto-Stickysaurus, Kyle Mewburn, Scholastic, pb, NZ$12

The Frog Footy Player, Chris Gurney, ill John Bennett, Scholastic, hb, NZ$18.50

Footsteps Through the Fog, Margaret Mahy, ill Gavin Bishop, Puffin, pb, NZ$20

Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animals, Hélène Rajcak & Damien Laverdunt, Gecko, hb, NZ$37

The Word Witch, Margaret Mahy, ill. David Elliot, HarperCollins, pb, NZ$40

Read Me Another One, Please! selected by Belynda Smith & Dorothy Dudek Vinicombe, Whitcoulls, hb, NZ$29.99

Born to Fly, Julian Arahanga, ill Andrew Burdan, Huia, pb, NZ$25

Victory at Point 209, Kawata Teepa, ill Andrew Burdan, Huia, pb, NZ$25

Jock Logan and the Sea Devil, Brent Leslie, Brent Leslie Books, pb, NZ$20

The ACB with Honora Lee, Kate De Goldi, Longacre [Random House], hb, $34.99

Alex, Tessa Duder, Whitcoulls Classic, pb, NZ$19.99

The Magic Flute, James Norcliffe, Longacre [Random House], pb, NZ$19.99

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