Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Reviewer Reviewed: the Storylines Spring Lecture

Betty Gilderdale Award 2014

Spring Lecture
Christchurch, New Zealand
28th November 2013
Late in 2013 I received the Betty Gilderdale Award for Services  to Children's Literature in New Zealand, presented by Storylines Children's Literature Association. Award-winners are asked to present the Spring Lecture: "a presentation that can be about any aspect of your life and work associated with children's literature."  Tessa Duder presented the Betty Gilderdale Award in Christchurch on 28 November 2013. Below is the text of my speech on 28 November 2013.

The Reviewer Reviewed,

by Trevor Agnew


Let’s start with Betty Gilderdale herself.  (At Margaret Mahy’s 70th birthday bash in Auckland, I found myself sitting beside an elegant lady. “What’s your name, young man?” she asked, “I’m Betty Gilderdale.” It was like sitting next to God. At the same celebration, a lady came up to me with a huge hug and a kiss. It was Diane Hebley, who was grateful for my review of one of her books.  There is not much money in reviewing but it does have its rewards.)

Getting back to Betty Gilderdale, I was talking about her to a bunch of after-school tutors the other day – mostly mathsy-sciencey types. I told them Betty Gilderdale had written A Sea Change, a history of NZ children’s books, and how it was my bible as a book reviewer. Not a flicker. Then I added, “And she writes all the Little Yellow Digger books.” Boom! They all sprang alive. Instant recognition. That is the power of children’s books!

It occurred to me then that Betty Gilderdale wears lots of different hats.  She has been a key figure in the Children’s Literature Association, which we now know as Storylines – a founding mother.  In her children’s literature career, Betty Gilderdale has been a teacher, a training college lecturer, a researcher, and an historian. She has reviewed books in newspapers magazines and on the radio. Above all she continues her career as a published author, a beloved writer.

When I got word of this award, I looked up the website to see who else had won it. It began in 1990 as an award “for  Services to Children’s Literature,” then was renamed to honour Betty Gilderdale in 2000. I wanted to see if any of the 22 people who have received it had been book reviewers.  I got two surprises. One was that almost all of the people – just like Betty Gilderdale, wore lots of hats – so many of the award winners had indeed been book reviewers.  The second surprise was that I knew of each winner. They had each, in some way, influenced me.  I had read their work, admired their ideas or benefitted from something they had done, which is the great thing about children’s literature.  There’s no money in it, but lots of things are done for the joy of it and there are some really nice people involved

1. Early reading and Libraries:

My interest in children’s literature began young. I could read Chicken Little before I went to school at Sawyers Bay, and I still the treasure the memory of the teacher, who let me borrow Winnie the Pooh for the holidays. I read it by candlelight at my grandfather's farm-house in Wickliffe Bay.

The Whitcombe and Tombs Readers series were boring. The School Journals were more fun but they were also used to test our reading-aloud ability, which made them a little worrying.  The real excitement came with the huge wicker baskets that came regularly from the National Library, full of treasures like Moomintroll and Dr Dolittle. The only New Zealand book I read was Edith Howes’ Silver Island where the houses had red tin roofs and there were black currants and long grass down the garden.

Sawyers Bay School didn’t have a library, so my father took me in on the bus to the Port Chalmers Mechanics’ Institute and Library, an old wooden building on the corner of Scotia Street, where the wind lifted the linoleum on the floorboards. Later, the library was moved to the stone Town Hall building in Beach Street. You were only allowed in the Children’s section from 3.30pm and you could only borrow one book at a time, but you were allowed to sit on the big stone windowsills outside. (There were metal spikes to prevent adults sitting on the sun-warmed sills but we youngsters fitted in between.) There were no New Zealand books. They let me use library interloan to get some Jules Verne stories – The Secret Island arrived as a three volume set.  I read all Captain W.E. Johns’ Biggles books, and when I’d finished them, Gimlet and Worrals. It didn’t take long to read every book, even Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong series and the Twins series by Lucie Fitch Perkins.

In the year I started high school, 1957, I won a year’s membership of Dunedin’s private library, The Athenaeum. They had the complete Billy Bunter series, and when you’d finished that, the Bessie Bunter series. The Dunedin Public Library had the children’s library in its linked terraced houses on Stuart Street, with masses of books for young people, including American titles.  The big brick Carnegie library for adults, round the corner in Moray Place, was a joy to borrow from, although they only had three science fiction authors: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Brian Aldiss. I often encountered A.H. Reed there.

Later I took great pleasure in The University of Otago Library –which was still jammed into the picturesque clock tower building – lots of tiny attic rooms, with a splendid cast-iron spiral staircase down into the magazine shelves in the Lower Studholme.  In the 1960s the Hocken Library was still in the Otago Museum building. Dr Gordon Parsonson used to take our MA History class into the stacks there – which was an amazing experience of books, manuscripts, maps and pictures.

Today I value our libraries more than ever, particularly the marvellous Christchurch Public Libraries, where they have battled to provide information services, with branches moving from building to building as damaged libraries are pulled down. The showpiece of the new Square is going to be the Central Library, which gives us great hope for the future.

 2. Professional experience with children’s books:
My 40 years as a teacher coincided with the golden age of NZ children’s books. Our English class sets, when I was at school, and when I started teaching in 1968, were all British or American stories. By the time I left teaching in the new millenium, well over half the novels, short stories, plays and poems that we were studying in class were from within New Zealand. Even better, so was much of the recreational reading.

 The golden age started pretty much as I started teaching, with the three Graces: skilled writers, all achieving international success with great stories.  Margaret Mahy’s A Lion in the Meadow (1969) and Joy Cowley’s The Duck in the Gun (1969) were triumphs, but for me - teaching at Hillmorton High School in Christchurch - it was Elsie Locke’s The Runaway Settlers (1965) that gave life to our local history. Our school badge was Cracroft Wilson’s tiger and his two famous houses are quite close. Mrs Small’s grave is in the churchyard at Governors Bay but Elsie Locke brought her back to life.

 A steady stream of NZ novels, picture books and short stories followed. In my History and Social Studies classes, as well as in my English teaching, I used Joanna Orwin and Eve Sutton’s great stories about New Zealand’s early history.  Hillmorton High School had a brilliant library because of two very able women, Dr Helen Hogan, who is still writing books and the late Thelma Easton, the only school librarian I know who has had a library named after her.

 When I did my country service at Central Southland College, in Winton, I was made teacher-with-library responsibility. My 15 years there made me aware of what a valuable resource a school library can be. It also made me aware of how difficult it was in rural areas to keep up with new books.  The School Library Service was a boon.  When I wrote a history text book, the publishing editor was the wonderful Ann Mallinson, who gave me a great insight into the role of the publisher, which was confirmed in her case with her later publication of Lynley Dodd’s Hairy MacLary series.

Living in Southland there was a bonus. I don’t get car-sick, so on the long drives north to visit our families, I would read stories aloud to my four daughters.  As they grew up we worked our way through The Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit and The Never-Ending Story.   A generation later, living in Christchurch, I found that Jack Lasenby’s Uncle Trev stories are exactly the right length for reading to grandchildren on a drive between Papanui and St Albans School.  (It should be pointed out that my wife Jenny was driving.) 

In 1986, the Education Department trialled a scheme with full-time trained teacher-librarians, and I was one of those chosen.  They were all highly qualified, experienced teachers in primary and secondary schools. Gwen Gawith ran the course at the Wellington College of Education, where we were known as the ‘stunned mullets.’

As New Zealand’s first full-time trained teacher-librarian – they gave the certificates out in alphabetical order - I returned to Hillmorton High School in Christchurch. It was a marvellous teaching experience; the teacher-librarian worked with teachers and classes in all subjects, using the library as an information centre, guiding resource-based learning, using not just books but all sorts of information sources like magazines and information files. Computers were just coming in to schools and we began using the databases.

It was the most enjoyable and satisfying teaching I’ve ever done. Teaching kids to locate and use resources, rather than just copying out words. The right book in the right hand. (In hindsight this was the perfect training for a book reviewer.)

It was a great system and a NZ Council for Educational Research report found it “efficient and cost-effective.” So, of course, it was abolished.  Hillmorton, I’m proud to say, kept me on at the same job until I took early retirement for health reasons.

We all wear different hats.  During my teaching career, I helped found the Christchurch Friends of the Library, and was involved with the NZ Reading Association (now the NZ Literacy Association) which awarded me the Nada Beardsley Award “for services in the promotion of literature” in 1993.

I was also part of the School Library Association, now known by its initials as SLANZA; in fact I’m still a member.  Many of the members I only know by their letters on the SLANZA website listserve; it wasn’t until I met Gerri Judkins that I realised she was a woman.


3. How I became a reviewer:

I was at a book launch right here in the Children’s Book Shop a while ago and a lady said to me, “What are you doing here, Trevor? You’re ‘television,’ not ‘children’s books.’  I must admit I have published TV reviews in every decade since the 1960s; it’s been my hobby.

When I was living in Winton (population 2000), I was not only Cyclops the TV columnist for the Southland Times, I was also the paper’s stringer at the Borough Council meetings, paid by the inch. The Deputy Editor – Max Newton, a lovely man – found me reliable and gave me some books to review. You didn’t get paid – but for a hard-up teacher, a free book was good bait. Max trusted me so much he let me choose my own books from his closely guarded book cupboard.

I learned a lot about book reviewing. When a local MP published a book, my review was denounced in his political column and a softer review was published as a paid advertisement.  But generally life was quiet. When Peter Bromhead created a political fable, The King and the Dragon in 1978, Robert Muldoon spotted that it was a lampoon of him and went ballistic. Down in Southland, we missed the whole controversy, and my review was published, with all of us blissfully unaware that Muldoon had made the publisher pulp the whole edition.

When I got back to Christchurch, I picked up some book reviewing work from The Press but there were very few reviews of children’s books.  Those that appeared were inconsistent and not much use for teachers. In my school library work I had relied heavily on School Library Review put out by the National Library from 1980. It was a good survey of books for the young, even if the judgements were occasionally dodgy. (In 1980 Maurice Gee’s Under the Mountain was denounced as “an unsatisfactory, self-conscious fantasy…superficial and of transitory interest.”)  When the School Library Review was killed off, we got by with New and Notable, a review list put out by Karen du Fresne and a group of dedicated Auckland teacher volunteers for about ten years.

Oddly enough the most useful source of book reviews and articles for teaching purposes was an Australian magazine, Magpies (Subtitle: Talking about books for children) which we used a great deal as teacher-librarians.  Before long I was asked to write some of the New Zealand book reviews.  The publisher-editors of Magpies were Ray and David Turton and by 1997, they were featuring so many New Zealand books that they introduced a regular 8-page New Zealand supplement, edited by Julie Harper of Auckland’s Jabberwocky Bookshop.

When I took early retirement for health reasons – my hearing problems had made teaching difficult – I started freelance writing. I began by carrying out author interviews for Magpies.  Joy Cowley was first and she gave such marvellous answers that I was later commissioned to interview such talents as Vicky Jones, Bernard Beckett, Peter Gossage, Margaret Mahy, Janice Marriott, Vince Ford, Jane Higgins and Jackie French.

I wrote some travel articles, began writing a weekly TV Column for the Christchurch Press, and was commissioned to write some New Zealand biographies for an American reference book, the Continuum Encyclopaedia of Young Adult Literature.  For this I was paid by the number of words, which meant I was trying to write more, and the editors were trying to keep me more succinct. The result is an interesting (and completely misleading) sliding scale for our writers.  At 250 words Bernard Beckett brought me in $5, Fleur Beale and Maurice Gee were worth $15 each and the top earners, at 750 words, were Gavin Bishop, Joy Cowley, Jack Lasenby, Elsie Locke and William Taylor, at $25 a head.  (There’s no money in children’s literature but you knew that.)

Seeing I was reliable, they gave me some of the Brits, like Susan Price and Terry Pratchett, and then some science fiction writers (Robert Jordan, Piers Anthony, Frank Herbert). Finally I was trusted to try some Americans.  They had been let down by a contributor doing the Ws, so I got Patricia Windsor, Beth Nixon Weaver, David Westheimer, Ellen Emerson White and William Wharton.  It was lousy money but very good training in research and precis.  I made good use of the Canterbury University Library and the College of Education Library.

Meanwhile the Turtons visited Christchurch, so I discovered that Ray was a woman – her real name is Rayma- and David’s wife.  They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.  They had a website called The Source, which is used by Australian schools and libraries. It has entries for all Australian children’s books, all detailed and annotated so that you can locate books, not just by author and title, but by the genre and - best of all for teachers - by their subject matter and themes.  They asked me if I would write the New Zealand book entries, I remember thinking a couple of hundred books, no problem.
That was before I found this involved writing detailed entries for every title, specifying subjects, main themes, book types and genre, as well as an overview of the plot and characters. 

Last week, I added the 2,700th NZ children’s book to The Source. 

The Source also has short story sections, so over the years I’ve added all the stories of Frank Sargeson, Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace and all the classic Maori myths and legends. With The Source, you can not only locate the story but you are also told which anthologies it appears in. The same goes for poems, songs, and even the various All Black haka.

It’s a lovely website and quite a few NZ schools and libraries have it.

 As well as new books, I also entered previously published titles and author biographies. This mean that I spent a lot of time up in the Margaret Mahy Collection of New Zealand children’s books in Christchurch Central Library – the building’s gone now but they saved the books.

For new books, I would go to the Children’s Bookshop in Victoria St - another building lost in the earthquakes - and the owner, Sheila Sinclair, would let me sit quietly down the back making notes.  After a while the publishers started sending me review copies of their books.

Meanwhile I had joined Storylines: Children’s Literature Foundation.  I still remember the lady who took my subscription saying, “Oooh, I’m not sure if there’s anybody in Canterbury who is a member. Veda Pickles perhaps and Bill Nagelkerke.” Luckily there were a lot more, and I became involved with the Christchurch branch’s Storylines Family Days.   These are wonderful open days when children can meet their favourite authors and illustrators and take part in all sorts of activities – free. I usually worked at the Reading Aloud section, where such writers as Vicky Jones, Ben Brown and Kyle Mewburn read their stories, and artists like Helen Taylor and Gavin Bishop show how they create their pictures. Until you’ve seen someone like Margaret Mahy or Joy Cowley interacting with their audience, you haven’t appreciated the power of narrative. It used to be held in the Town Hall and we could fill one of those huge rooms with rapt kids.  Post-earthquake, the Family Days continue in places like the South Library, which is great.

 Meanwhile Bruce Rennie, the literary editor of The Press, had decided to give more space to children’s literature, using Bob Docherty to review young adult novels and me to do the picture books.  Space is always at a premium as newspapers face shrinking advertising revenue, so this was a brave decision by Bruce. It also gives me (and Bob) a chance to get continuity of coverage and to emphasise quality.  As a bonus our reviews also appear in the Waikato Times and the Dominion Post.
Other things were developing  A keen group launched Te Tai Tamariki the Aotearoa New Zealand Children’s Literature Charitable Trust, with the aim of preserving original manuscripts and illustrations of our children’s books.  Again it was a familiar group wearing different hats who did the heavy work, but I would just like to mention the two Rosemarys: Rosemary Sladen and Rosemary Bonkowski. (Rosemary Bonkowski is leaving New Zealand tomorrow, so I particularly value her presence here tonight.)

Like the people I have been talking about, I find that I also wear several hats.  When The Press commissioned me to interview Antony Horowitz about his Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk (2011), I was also able to talk to him about his YA novels, and about his TV series, Foyle’s War. Unfortunately I also had my historian’s hat on when I told him that Sherlock Holmes didn’t use his gasogene to light his cigarette. (A gasogene is actually a soda syphon. Horowitz was thinking of a gasolier.)  Horowitz was not persuaded but it was a fun interview that we both enjoyed and which generated three articles for me.

There are unexpected joys in book reviewing. I’m proud that Agnes Nieuwenhuizen used my reviews of Bernard Beckett’s Genesis, and Thieves by Ella West in her marvellous volume, Right Book: Right Time: 500 Great reads for Teenagers (2007). 

I’m also proud to say I once frightened the author of the Dexter serial-murder novels, Jeff Lindsay, by knowing so much about him.  He didn't realise I'd found most of it on the dust-jackets of his novels.

Orson Scott Card, the science fiction writer, once frightened me.  I walked into the old Scorpio Books where he was talking to a group of fans. He looked up and said, “You’ll be Trevor Agnew, the reviewer.” His wife, who picked me up off the floor, said, “You should have seen your face.”   (It was only later that I realised my daughter, Margaret, then a Press journalist, later one of my editors, had set it up with him.)

Another bonus was being selected as one of the judges of the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards, along with Rosemary Tisdall of the National Library and Ruth McIntyre of the Wellington Children’s Bookshop.  One surprise there was the number of self-published books sent in by optimistic writers. A bigger surprise was how awful many of those self-published books were – slack writing, spelling, grammar and page layout. John McIntyre says, “Life is too short to review bad books.” He is right, but studying some of those self-published monstrosities is a valuable reminder of the importance of the publisher, book editor and designer.

An extra surprise came when Miriama Kamo told us it was the judges’ job to decide which of the dresses she had borrowed from TVNZ, she would be wearing for the presentation.

It was a bonus that Miriama mispronounced only one name on the whole night; she called me ‘Treasure’ Agnew.

There’s another bonus that reviewers get sometimes.  Errol Brathwaite became so annoyed with one reviewer’s attacks on his New Zealand Wars series that in the last novel, he gave a soldier the reviewer’s name, then had the character shot in the stomach and left weeping to die in a ditch.

I was a bit worried when I was warned that David Hill had named a minor character after me, especially when I found the book was about the Wahine sinking.  The character turned out be a member of the Air Force. I am glad to report that she survived the shipwreck. [No Safe Harbour, (2003)]

Best of all was a cryptic heads-up message I received from Dave Gunson, when his wonderful picture book, Mr Muggs the Library Cat (2008) was published.  “Look in the fridge.”

There it is, on page 14 .  The refrigerator has a container of “Agnew’s Good Taste Kiwi Fruit Juice.”  Life doesn’t get much better.

4. How do you review a book?

I had a surprise of another sort when the NZ Book Council asked me to give advice to young reviewers. After forty years of writing book reviews (and fifty years of writing TV reviews), I realised that I have had no training and no job description. There is no standards manual and no inspection. 

I have had plenty of advice, of course.  As a TV reviewer, I remember a TV director who simply roared, “Bastard!” down the phone at me.

More positively P.D. James suggested to book reviewers that you should, “Always read the whole of the book before you write your review.”  She also said, “Review the book the author has written, not the one you think they should have written.”
[Source: TIME TO BE IN EARNEST: A Fragment of Autobiography, P.D. James, Faber, London, 1999. p.92]

On her website, kellygardiner.com, Kelly Gardiner, author of the lively Swashbuckler series, offers some intriguing questions that a reviewer should ask:
“Does the book or poem achieve one or more of the following through its use of language:
• Enchantment and wonder
• Authentic emotional engagement (free from sentimentality)
• Intellectual and educational challenges
• Nourishment for learning development
• Imaginative journeys?”

So, I took their advice and wrote my own suggestions for reviewers:

Trevor’s Ten Tips for Good Reviewing:

1. Get the facts straight
Follow the style used by the publication you are reviewing for. Note their layout of title, author, publisher, pages, format, price and ISBN. Be sure to mention extras, like maps, glossary or index. Know how many words are needed. (Your computer will count them.)

 2. Decide who will be reading your review:
Look at the publication you are writing for and its readers. The readers are your audience, and you are there to tell them about this book you have read and whether they might like it (or not).

With children’s books a point that is often missed is who the reviews are being written for. Oddly enough very few are written for children (although most public library websites do have well-written reviews both by and for kids). Most of my newspaper reviews are aimed at parents and grandparents, with an occasional nod to teachers. The readers of Magpies magazine (like the users of The Source) are mainly school library staff, teachers, students of literature and college of education staff, so my reviews for them tend to include information which might help their work.

 3. Read the book:

Whether you have a 16 page picture book or a 3-volume space saga, read the book carefully.  You may have to go through crucial parts several times. Try to see it from the point-of-view of the potential reader. Look hard at the text, layout and illustrations to see that they’re working properly.

4. Make notes as you go:

If any key points emerge in your reading, make a note. Don’t forget the page number. There’s nothing worse than thumbing through a novel seeking that perfect quotation you forgot to jot down.

5. Look for the positive features:

Writing hostile, negative reviews is fun and easy. (And in the case of ghastly volumes, like Madonna’s picture books, it can even be justified). In the long run, however, a number of talented people have decided this book deserved to be published, so the least you can do is try to perceive what merit they saw in it.  (Also the people who write New Zealand children’s books are genuinely nice people who are co-operative and helpful. Don’t zap them without good reason.)  If you seriously hate a book for some reason, it may be wiser to send it back for some other reviewer to handle.

6. Don’t just summarise the plot:

Your teacher told you this, years ago, and your teacher was right. Of course you need to mention the setting of a novel, sketch in the main characters and describe some key issues in the plot. But don’t spoil any of the writer’s surprises. On page 104 of Anna Mackenzie’s Sea-wreck Stranger (2007), a simple bottle completely changes the reader’s view of everything that has happened in the story so far. The secret sits there ready to explode in a reader’s mind. Unfortunately, several clumsy reviews gave this surprise away, something I regard as a crime. Let the readers have the pleasure of finding out for themselves.

7. Do give reasons for your judgements:
Over the years I must have read 30 or 40 pony novels written for young girls. I think Amy Brown’s Pony Tales series are the best. It’s not enough to just write that, however. You have to state why. In this case, Brown excels in her characterisation, plotting and the standard of her prose. People may disagree with my judgement, but they’ll have to find pony stories with superior writing to prove me wrong.

 8. Keep it Short, Sweetie:
It’s easier to write a 2000 word review than a 500 word one. Unfortunately, it’s much more tedious to read. Summarise. Précis. Edit. You’ll produce a better review.

 9. Check and check again:
Get the facts straight. Over the years I’ve mis-spelled an author’s name, got a title wrong, specified the wrong publisher and muddled a few ISBNs. These are all inexcusable errors. Do check your review for flaws, with the same scrutiny that you’ve given the book. Get somebody else to read through your review; you may have a blind spot. I have a wonderful wife, Jenny, who as well as writing brilliant reviews is also a freelance editor. An editor is a person whose job it stop smart people making fools of themselves in print.  Jenny has saved me from many a blunder. (I had to wait until she had finished proof-reading before I could insert this section.)

 10. Enjoy it:
There’s that publisher’s envelope. There’s a wonderful new book in there that nobody has read yet. And you’ve been chosen to tell people whether they might enjoy it. Rip open the envelope and…the magic starts again.


For the people involved in children’s literature, the people wearing the hats with labels such as ‘writers, illustrators, designers, editors, publishers, reviewers and readers’, I have a simple message:

We all sometimes get that ‘isolated out in the wilderness’ feeling.  My advice is to change the metaphor from desert to spider-web.  (And be certain that we’re spiders rather than flies, of course.)  Imagine that we’re all somewhere on that great inter-connected spider-web of children’s books and all we need to do is keep sending vibrations along the strands that bind us together. 

Keep on weaving.

Keep on writing.

Keep on reading.


Trevor Agnew

28th November, 2013


No comments: