New Zealand’s Children's Literature (1970-2001)


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Mills June 2001 ACE Papers

Issue 9


New Zealand’s Children's Literature (1970-2001)

Wayne Mills

New Zealand, nestled in the South Pacific Ocean 1200 miles to the east of Australia but stretching 600 miles farther south, has a population of 3.8 million. Although its population base might be small, New Zealand publishes significant literature for children. From only a small output of 15 published titles in 1970, many by authors scarcely remembered today, the number of titles published in 2001 has risen seven-fold to 113. The quality of this literature for children stands proudly alongside the best in the world. It is my intention to review the last 32 years of New Zealand’s children’s literature focusing on each decade, the awards, the issues, and my recommendations for the future.

The 1970s

The 1970s was a period of self-consciousness, social upheaval and conservation, and children's books often reflected this earnestness and these concerns. Prior to this period, New Zealand children had been exposed to a diet of mainly British books, such as stories by Beatrix Potter, Noddy, The Famous Five series, Winnie the Pooh, and Biggles. It felt unfamiliar to be reading about ourselves in such titles as Tat: the Story of a New Zealand Sheep Dog by Neil McNaughton, The Big Flood by Ruth Dallas, and Again the Bugles Blow by Ron Bacon. The diversity of literature was appearing but the quality was often doubtful, and the paper, binding and colour reproduction poor. Some gems, however, stood out: My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes by Eve Sutton and illustrated by Lynley Dodd, X Marks the Spot by Joan de Hamel, and The Great Piratical Rumbustification by Margaret Mahy. By 1973 the New Zealand Herald was providing regular reviewing space to children's books. In 1999 the same national newspaper was serializing both national and international books in an attempt to encourage children as readers and to provide their parents and caregivers with reading pointers. This initiative was a three-way venture among The New Zealand Herald, the New Zealand Reading Association and the New Zealand Children's Book Foundation. The first book serialised was The Wild West Gang, by Joy Cowley.

In 1972 the New Zealand Book Council was established to raise awareness about books for both adults and children, and importantly in 1977 it established the Writers in School Scheme. The scheme was designed to allow both primary and secondary schools the opportunity of hosting New Zealand authors. Membership in the scheme entitled a school to one sponsored visit per year. In 1977 only thirty-nine writers were available; by 2000 that number had swelled to 150. Today, the odds of a New Zealand child not being able to name a New Zealand author or not having met one are slight.
The 1980s

The 1980s was a time of growth. Many new authors flourished and children's literature was burgeoning. Children's literature comfortably reflected aspects of our culture and children moved easily between the real world and the printed world of their indigenous literature. There was a noticeable increase in science fiction/fantasy, with titles such as The Keeper by Barry Faville, The Lake at the End of the World by Caroline Macdonald, The Halfmen of 0 by Maurice Gee, Time Twister by Ged Maybury, and Aliens in the Family by Margaret Mahy.This genre had not been explored widely until this time.

Books about Maori and their myths and legends were popular during this time. Titles by Patricia Grace, with illustrations by Robyn Kahukiwa, and tales by Ron Bacon were significant in allowing Maori children to see themselves mirrored in their literature. They also diluted the preponderance of images reflecting Pakeha (European New Zealand) culture.The highly colourful picture books by Peter Gossage also assisted in exposing large numbers of children to the myths and legends of Maori.

The first biography of a New Zealand children's author titled, Introducing Margaret Mahy, by Betty Gilderdale appeared in 1988. This biography informed children about Margaret’s childhood, her home and her talents as an author. An earlier book by Betty Gilderdale, A Sea Change: 145 Years of New Zealand Junior Fiction, had overviewed New Zealand children's literature, culminating with the first eight years of the 1970s. Three further critical works appeared, two by Dorothy Butler: Babies Need Books and Five to Eight; and one by Diane Hebley: Off the Shelf: Twenty-one Years of New Zealand Books for Children. These titles assisted parents, librarians and teachers to source worthwhile titles for their children.

In the mid-1980s a lively canine creation burst his way into the hearts of New Zealand children: Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. Hairy, accompanied by his doggie friends, strutted and barked his exploits in a whole series of superbly alliterative and rhyming picture books by author Lynley Dodd. Her talent appears to be boundless; some seventeen years later a further Hairy book, Hairy Maclary and Zachary Quack, was shortlisted for the national book awards and was subsequently voted children's choice in 2000, an enduring accolade to his popularity.
Gwenda Turner was the author/illustrator of this period who most noticeably

influenced the preschool market. Her titles, such as New Zealand ABC, New Zealand 123, Snow Play, and Colours provided highly realistic, colourful and identifiable New Zealand images at which young children could marvel. Turner’s death, in February 2001, stunned her readers.

The most significant of all the awards made during the 1980s were undoubtedly the two Carnegie Medals awarded to Margaret Mahy for The Haunting and The Changeover, both with supernatural themes. In the first, Barney found himself haunted by the ghost of Great-Uncle Cole, while in the second title Laura was forced to save her young brother Jacko from having his life force drained from him by an evil Mr Braque. That these two titles won awards, both here and in Britain, was testament to the creative genius of Mahy, whose talents to date show no indication of exhaustion. (Another title, Twenty-four Hours, was shortlisted for the 2001 New Zealand Post Awards.) A further title, Memory, was runner-up for the Carnegie Awards in 1988.

The first title in the highly successful Alex quartet by Tessa Duder, Alex, was published in 1987. There had never been a more assertive and accomplished young teenage protagonist to capture the spirit of the eighties. So successful was the quartet that each individual title won a major literary award, from Esther Glen, to Government Printer, to AIM. In 1993, Alex appeared as a movie, courtesy of Isambard Productions with funding from the New Zealand Film Commission and the Australian Film Commission.

The 1980s was a time when titles appeared that explored social issues in ways that had not previously occurred: in The Lake by Lasenby, Ruth ran away from home to avoid being molested by her stepfather; The Web: The Triumph of a New Zealand Girl Over Anorexia by Deborah Furley was a gritty account of a young girl's triumph over anorexia and incest; Memory (previously mentioned), by Margaret Mahy, exposed an unusual friendship between a 19-year-old male and an old woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease; the picture book, What's Wrong With Bottoms? by Jenny Hessell and Mandy Nelson handled sensitively the issue of exposure and unwelcome touch by a relative.
The 1990s

The 1990s saw a plateau reached in the publication of children's literature. From a peak of 138 titles in 1996, the decade settled to an average of 101 titles annually. Meanwhile, throughout this period, a growing emphasis in literacy and its means of acquisition gained momentum. Although most New Zealand children did well at reading, there was evidence that some did not perform so well. A taskforce was established and in 1999 The Report of the Literacy Task Force was handed to the government, wherein committee members endorsed the government's goal that "by 2005, every child turning nine will be able to read, write and do maths for success.” (p1). Successful reading was taken to mean reading appropriate texts fluently, independently and with comprehension. Children were to be encouraged to read more recreationally. The shape and influence of this objective will be keenly followed.

The decade's concern with literacy and access to children's literature prompted author Alan Duff to launch his Alan Duff Charitable Foundation's Books in Homes scheme in 1995. This was an attempt to give children books to own and take home. With over 150 participating schools, it has been seen as an effective concept in encouraging children to read and in promoting literature.

The 1990s assaulted the boundaries of what constituted children's literature in ways unimagined. The problem festers because of inaccurate and vague terminology, such as 'child' and 'children's' literature. When does a child become a young adult? The concept of teenager is clearer, but child and children are not. Heather Scutter (1999) referred to such works as “displaced fictions,” a concept that captures the dilemma of such works. This is an area that clearly needs redefining. Therefore, it came as no surprise when public controversy was aroused by titles such as The Fat Man by Maurice Gee, a story of revenge upon Colin Potter and his family over past grievances; or The Blue Lawn by William Taylor, an account of a developing homosexual relationship between two teenage boys; Dare, Truth or Promise by Paula Boock, about two young women coming to terms with their sexual identities; and finally, Closed, Stranger by Kate De Goldi, in which issues of incest, suicide and betrayal are sensitively handled. That three of these titles won major national book awards speaks highly of their superb characterization and literary style.
Positive developments in this decade were the production and design features given to many of the award-winning picture books. With hard covers, attractive endpapers, and meticulous production, books such as The Bantam and the Soldier by Jennifer Beck, illustrated by Robyn Belton, and The Best-Loved Bear by Diana Noonan, illustrated by Elizabeth Fuller, have lifted standards and concomitantly attracted readers.

One author in particular dominated the non-fiction field in the 1990s, and that was Andrew Crowe. Three titles in particular: Which Native Forest Plant? The Life-Size Guide to Native Trees and Other Common Plants of New Zealand's Native Forest, and Nature's Alphabet: A New Zealand Nature Trail all showed his enthusiasm and passion for New Zealand's flora and fauna in readily retrievable ways. These titles, along with dozens of others, have sprinkled their information throughout the non-fiction shelves of New Zealand libraries.

Another author/illustrator combination produced one of this decade's most eccentric, adventurous and good-time grannies known to New Zealand children. Beginning with Grandma McGarvey in 1990, Jenny Hessell and Trevor Pye teamed up to produce four more titles during this period.
Surprisingly, few sports books for children had been published prior to the 1990s. Given New Zealanders' fascination for sport and its heroes, this was remarkable. Since the Alex quartet in the 1980s, many sports titles have been published. David Hill, in particular, was an accomplished author in this field. With titles such as Kick Back (tae kwon do), Seconds Best (cricket) and Boots 'n' All (hockey), he led the charge. But other authors contributed to make this one of the decade’s most productive genres: Fleur Beale, with Slide the Corner (car rallying); John Lockyer with Tough Tackle (rugby); Denis Edwards with Killer Moves (rugby league); Sarah Ell with Fired Up (yachting); Trevor Wilson with Going for Gold (cross-country running); and Getchen Brassi with Riding the Rough (water skiing). The publication of Vince Ford’s It’s A Try! (rugby) in 2000 took the genre into the next millennium.

With continued growth and interest in children's literature, it was essential that New Zealand be able to award its own qualification in children's literature and thereby confer dignity to children's literature as a field of serious study. In 1992 the Christchurch College of Education offered a Diploma in Children's Literature. The course required candidates to select a number of optional and compulsory modules of children's literature papers in various levels. This diploma has broadened knowledge and increased expertise in the field of children's literature. Likewise, the one undergraduate paper offered at the University of Waikato encouraged students to study children's literature seriously. Post-graduate papers have been offered at the University of Waikato and Auckland College of Education.

In the field of academic endeavour, Diane Hebley stood out in the 1990s. In 1992 she became the first resident New Zealander to complete a doctoral thesis in New Zealand children's literature, and she subsequently used her research to publish The Power of Place: Landscape in New Zealand Children's Fiction, 1970-1989. This authoritative publication considered the power of setting in children's literature; in particular, it commented upon the frequency of the pervasiveness of the seascape.


In 1970 the only children's book awards administered were those by the New Zealand Library Association (NZLA). Given in recognition of excellence in children's literature. The Esther Glen Award (for fiction) was presented to Margaret Mahy for The Lion in the Meadow.1

No award had been given for the five years prior to 1970, and the next award was presented in 1973, once again to Margaret Mahy for The First Margaret Mahy Story Book.
The conferment of children's book awards continued to be haphazard until the early 1980s. In 1978 the New Zealand Library and Information Association (NZLIA) inaugurated the Russell Clark Award for the most distinguished pictures or illustrations in a children's book, with or without text. The first recipient was Robert Jahnke for his illustrations in The House of the People, written by Ron Bacon.2
In 1982 a new group of awards was presented, not by the NZLIA but by the New Zealand Government Printer. These new awards ran alongside the existing library awards and consisted of two categories: Best Picture Book and Best Story Book. The winners that year were The Kuia and the Spider by Patricia Grace, illustrated by Robyn Kahukiwa, and The Silent One by Joy Cowley.

In 1990 the Government Printer Awards became the AIM Children's Book Awards, administered jointly by Booksellers New Zealand and Creative New Zealand. The first recipients were Annie and Moon by Miriam Smith, illustrated by Lesley Moyes, and Alex in Winter by Tessa Duder. The AIM Awards carried substantial monetary prizes and were widely publicized. To win such an award significantly increased sales of that title to the public. In 1992 the concept of a Best First Book was introduced and the inaugural winner was Out Walked Mel by Paula Boock. (In 2000 this award carried a $ 1,000 prize.) Additionally, prizes may be awarded for Honor books. The categories were further widened in 1993, when fiction was divided into junior and senior, and a non-fiction category was added, to be won by Chris Gaskin for Picture Magic: Illustrating a Picture Book.3

In 1995 the AIM Awards, in conjunction with Booksellers New Zealand, added a new supreme award to be known as the Book of the Year Award. This award was to be presented to one of the four category winners. In addition to the $5,000 category prize, the winner received an additional $5,000 for this extra accomplishment. If the awards had been slightly competitive in the past, they became even more so now. The first winner was The Fat Man by Maurice Gee, which had also won the Junior Fiction category.
In 1997, after a change in sponsorship support, the AIM Children's Book Awards were rebranded the New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards. To mark this change, the conferment of a new award was made known as the Children's Choice Award. This award enabled children throughout New Zealand to vote for their favourite book. Although the author/illustrator did not receive any monetary reward, they had the satisfaction of knowing that their book was 'loved by kids'. The first recipient was Mechanical Harry by Bob Kerr.
Although overdue and only established late in this period, an award was finally presented for a distinguished contribution to literature for children by a book written in te reo Maori. This prize was presented by the NZLIA in 1996 to Katarina Mataira for Marama Tangiweto.

Two further awards need to be mentioned. The first, the Tom Fitzgibbon Award for a previously unpublished children's writer, was intended to foster New Zealand's children's writers. The award, administered by the New Zealand Children's Literature Foundation and sponsored by Scholastic NZ Ltd to the amount of $1,500, worked to encourage and expose the talents of several new authors, such as Iona McNaughton, Heather Cato, Vince Ford, Shirley Corlett, and Alison Robertson. Second, the Gaelyn Gordon Award for a Much-Loved Book, was in recognition of a book that had been enjoyed by children for many years but which at the time of publication had never won a major award (although it may have been shortlisted for an award). Just as Gaelyn Gordon had never won one of the major awards, neither had The Runaway Settlers when it was first published in 1965. This award presented for the first time in 1999 to Elsie Locke, carried a small monetary token and a memorial certificate.

Awards by tertiary institutions to writers-in-residence, once common in the 1980s, had dried up by 1999, with the exception of Dunedin College of Education. These awards allowed authors to write full time for a year, while contributing to students' courses and encouraging children's writing.
Awards for significant contributions to children's literature have been given not only by literary organizations but also by the New Zealand government and New Zealand universities. The government honoured Margaret Mahy in 1993 with the coveted Order of New Zealand. This is a life award held by only twenty New Zealanders at any one time. Others to receive OBEs have been Joy Cowley (1992), Dorothy Butler (1993), and Tessa Duder (1994). Universities to award honorary doctorates of literature have been Canterbury to Elsie Locke in 1987 and Margaret Mahy in 1993, and Massey University to Joy Cowley in 1993.
The New Zealand Children’s Literature Foundation awards the annual Margaret Mahy Medal to a person who has made an especially significant contribution to children's literature, in the fields of publishing or literacy. The first to be awarded the medal was Margaret Mahy herself in 1991. Similarly, they also present The Betty Gilderdale Award (formerly the Children’s Literature Association Award) for service and longstanding contribution to New Zealand children's literature and this is open to teachers, booksellers, librarians and authors. The award was first given in 1990, to Eve Sutton.

Outside these awards, one of the foremost literary events of the CLFNZ (Children’s Literature Foundation of NZ) has been the annual Storylines Festival, held each year since 1994. This festival is second in importance only to the New Zealand Post Children's Book Festival, which usually runs March-April. The Storylines Festival is held in conjunction with the Aotea Arts Community Programme: The Edge, and together with their respective committees, coordinator and members, they host a huge Sunday family day that can attract crowds of 8-10,000 people. The day consists of writers interacting with children, illustrators painting giant walls or books, storytellers spinning yarns, live theatre, interactive displays, book grottos, the national final of the Paper Plus Kids' Lit Quiz™ and a miscellany of other literature-focused events. This event has done much to cultivate the literary talents of our nation's writers, authors and storytellers for children and young people, and to foster a love of literature. In the events preceding the Sunday culmination, author/illustrator bus tours to schools, book gigs, writer's workshops, seminars, and regional quiz finals have been held. This festival has driven and sparked interest in children's literature during the 1990s. It has ensured that children have had the opportunity to see the faces behind the words and the illustrations of their books during a period when other forms of media (often electronic) have competed for their attention.


The entire question of book awards is problematic (a problem not only endemic to New Zealand) as people grapple with issues such as objectivity, criteria, and the question of whether we even need to honor and reward excellence in writing for children. An increased number of awards have made it difficult to compare books for children aged 5-12 years with older children/young adults aged 13-18. The divisions both within and between these age groups have grown increasingly complex. The demarcations are no longer so clear-cut. Children read young adult works, and similarly young adults read novels ostensibly written for children or for adults. Perhaps the difficulty has lain with the nomenclature 'children's'. Clearly adolescents do not consider themselves children, yet books intended for adolescents/young adults win awards known as children's book awards (albeit awarded for senior fiction).

Senior fiction is not, as mistakenly perceived by some members of the public, literature for senior children in primary education, but rather senior fiction in secondary education.
It is imperative that additional category(ies) be added to include: young adults (teenagers and upper secondary aged 13 -18); a junior fiction category for beginning chapter books (ages 5-8); and an intermediate fiction category (ages 9-12).

Another problem, and one that 1 believe requires attention, has been the exclusion of picture books written by a New Zealander, but illustrated by a foreigner. This has happened more regularly than one would think, for example Beaten by a Balloon and The Three-Legged Cat, both written by Margaret Mahy but illustrated by British illustrator Jonathan Allen are ineligible for the New Zealand Post Awards.

A further area of some concern, and a difficult one to predict, is when a novel is omitted from a New Zealand awards shortlist of nominees only to turn up shortlisted in an international selection. Such an example was Pamela Allen’s book Who Sank the Boat?, which won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards in 1983. It is hoped that The Gaelyn Gordon Much-Loved Book Award will go some way towards addressing such oversights, but only for future books, and not at the time they perhaps deserve to be selected.

For many years the number of selected titles for either the LIANZA (Library and Information Association of New Zealand, Aotearoa) or the New Zealand Post Children's Awards has stood at twenty. That so few have been chosen has not done justice to the other titles published in that same year. In order to remedy this, in 1999 the New Zealand Children's Literature Foundation published their Notable New Zealand Children's and Young Adult Booklist. It listed four categories, with ten titles in each, effectively exposing forty titles (and potentially forty authors) to the glare of increased educational and media attention.
The Children's Choice Award has invariably gone to a children's picture book, and while this is commendable, it is difficult to see how a novel could win when picture books are accessible to a much wider readership than novels. This issue may be addressed in the future by electronic voting, recording votes from primary/secondary students and schools.
So far, all the above issues have focused on awards to authors/illustrators for their books. But other awards exist in the form of literary grants, scholarships, or writers-in-residence in recognition of authors'/illustrators' contributions to children's literature.

Literary grants to children's writers/illustrators have been parsimonious when compared to grants to adult writers/illustrators. During the funding year 1997/98, writers for adults received more than nine times the amount given to writers for children. This may have been because there were fewer applications by children's writers - discouraged perhaps by their chances - or because writers for adults are more deserving? One wonders whether the levelling out in submissions to the New Zealand Post Awards was not due in part to the decline in grants to children’s authors/illustrators by Creative New Zealand. Many writers depend upon these grants to supplement part-time employment, and when the grants are not forthcoming the writers may find it necessary to supplement their incomes by working full time.

There was a plethora of new authors for children in the first twenty of these thirty-two years, but one is hard-pressed to list new, regularly published authors in the last ten years. With a few notable exceptions, such as Paula Boock, Diana Noonan, Kate De Goldi, and Jane Westaway, the predicted increase as indicated by past years has not been fulfilled. Over the last thirty-three years we have witnessed a situation where the personality of the author has eclipsed that of the book. Consequently it has become more difficult for a new author to become established. Already under pressure from economic constraints, established publishers have tended to foster the tried and true rather than the experimental and new. With this in mind, awards often act as incentives in encouraging new authors to submit manuscripts for publication. While often only one author will win an award, new authors may get exposed in the process of an award; notable examples are David Calder and Sarah Ell.
Awards by tertiary institutions to writers-in-residence, once common in the 1980s, had dried up by 1999, with the exception of Dunedin College of Education. These awards allowed authors to write full time for a year, while contributing to students' courses and encouraging children's writing.
Organizations (people-power) are needed to drive these awards. The LIANZA awards (given since 1945) may be in jeopardy. The cost of hosting and promoting such a major literary award is frequently expensive, and as there was no sponsorship in 1999 or 2000 an award was not given. However, they are expected to recommence in September 2001.The New Zealand Post Awards, however, seem secure, especially with New Zealand Post as a major sponsor, and these awards continue to grow in popularity and esteem.

The Children's Literature Association, founded in 1969 with the express aim of promoting the best books for children, grew rapidly through the 1970s and early 1980s, but economic pressure and static membership saw the organization lose its early enthusiasm and impetus. Meanwhile the New Zealand Children's Book Foundation, which began in 1990, had grown and expanded in order to promote its national ideal of literacy and good literature. These two organizations, which have somewhat similar objectives, decided in 1999 to enter into discussions to consider the possibility of a merger, the aim being to form one united front to promulgate children's literature locally, nationally and internationally, to encourage research, and to lobby nationally on behalf of literature for children. This eventuated in early November 2000 and the two organizations joined forces. One word was dropped from each organization’s name and the new organization emerged as The Children’s Literature Foundation of New Zealand Inc. The best features of each organization were retained and with an increased membership the new management committee has been keen to see the organization take a more active role in children’s literature affairs.

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