We totally love the work The Sapling is doing and we want to make sure you learn about them too. We hope Sarah’s wise words will help people look at children literature under a new light.
TCB: One of your objectives is “to entice new and unlikely readers of all ages, and challenge them to view children’s books as worthy of attention.” Do you think that children’s books are not taken seriously? If so, why do you think this is happening?
I think that certainly children’s books are still seen by many as something less-than. The spike in self-publishing of not-always-worthwhile picture books is evidence that everybody thinks they might be able to write a children’s book. They are short, and brevity is mistaken for ease. This perception leads to a possibly sub-conscious devaluing of children’s books that I object to. As do most of our readers. Running The Sapling for awhile and feeling the love that people have for what we do, I am inclined to see our view of these books as more serious than it was even six months ago.
But this fact remains: children’s books are rarely featured in the main media. At the moment we are lucky to have some books editors who are passionate about Children’s literature, but even so, the coverage is too-short reviews outlining plot. Children’s authors are interviewed if they say something controversial, and then it is about their views: not their process. Not how they sit down and work the complex human world of emotions into a picture book, of only 32 pages, perhaps 1000 words if they are lucky: how long they spend drawing spreads for a picture book, how long it takes to move from storyboard to complete images.
We have already seen this change for the better, thanks to the push-on influence of The Sapling.
TCB: How have children’s books evolved? What changes have you noticed in all the years you have been working in the literary field?
Ooh this is something I’d be happier for Jane to answer, but as she is currently looking after a newborn, here we go. I have seen, in my decade of experience around children’s books, a rise in the publication standards of children’s books published here. I have noted this elsewhere previously, but I suspect this is owed to competition not only with spectacular publishing houses overseas, but something closer: Gecko Press. I think the local children’s publishing scene couldn’t just carry on creating gloss-front paperback picture books while Gecko was creating works of art out of the physical objects themselves.
There is a place for the gloss-front A4 paperback picture book, of course. But not all books need to look the same. That is another thing – shapes have changed for picture books: there is no ‘standard format’ for most trade-oriented publishers. Even Scholastic varies their format for special books.
For YA, I feel that there is more push for the ‘cross-over’ audience. Publishers have started to better understand YA as a genre and how it does push up into the new adult audience effectively. It is making them a bit braver with themes, knowing older teens and adults are reading it.
I’ve seen it stated in many places that we are in a long-running new ‘golden age’ of children’s books. I can certainly see illustrators and writers pushing boundaries (of theme, of style, of story), and I think as long as there are publishers willing to take risks, this will carry on happening.
TCB: Paul Jennings, in his book “The Reading Bug and how to help your child catch it”, says that “the biggest sin a children’s author can commit is to be boring”. What do you think?
Absolutely. I’m going to quote Kyle Mewburn here, from his article about the need for a Children’s Laureate (see question 1 – we have a Poet Laureate, many countries have a Children’s Laureate: why not us?) ’A children’s writer must, firstly, possess the ability to not only view the world from a child-friendly perspective, but also portray this in an accessible, inspiring and entertaining way. There is a yawning gap – quite literally – between writing a book children can read, and writing a book children enjoy.’
So I guess you could say that Kyle and Paul are on the same page. Children’s book authors have to work for their readers. There is no loyalty in the playground of children’s books. So if they are boring, forget about it. One mis-placed fart joke, and you’re out! ☺
TCB: He also says (Paul Jennings) that when asking a senior teacher, before retirement, if there was “one single factor which indicates how well a child will do with reading when they start school’ he replied: “the involvement of the parents”. How is The Sapling engaging parents in the conversation about kid’s books?
The Sapling is written primarily for an adult audience, and we know that many, if not most, of our articles are read by parents (as well as teachers, practitioners and school librarians).
We have a monthly feature that speaks to parents in particular, called The Books My Kids Are Reading – this is a writer parent, who talks about the kids they have been reading their kids. We celebrated Father’s Day with some extracts from this series recently. We also regularly commission articles about how to guide young people into reading – and as School Librarians are particularly good at this, we feature a new one every month in our School Librarians of Aotearoa series.
TCB: Books alone are not enough to ensure kids will read as adults. And to be fair, we all go through changes that mean we read little or nothing and watch lots of movies instead or we simply do something else for a time, but to keep the habit I guess it helps growing up in a home where books are visible and read by those who live with you. Do you agree?
Yes. I recently saw a graphic on Facebook that broke down ten stages of reading – at stage 6, you stop reading for a time. My stage 6 was during university, when I was reading too many textbooks to inhale fiction at the rate I was used to from my childhood and teens. I’ve been at stage 8 since I worked at a bookshop in 2003…
There is research done by the NZ Book Council recently that indicates just what you say – having books in the home, as well as engaged parents, is one of the indicators of future success for children.
TCB: which books are your absolutely personal favourites and which ones do would you recommend, let say, for somebody looking for a present. (feel free to include ages on each recommendation)
Do you know how many books I have read in the past 10 years?! Oh man. OK so my personal favourites for littlies at the moment. From kiwi writers: anything by Juliette MacIver but especially That’s Not a Hippopotamus, which won the Picture Book award this year. This is for ages 1+. The upcoming Aotearoa: Our Country, by Gavin Bishop is all I hoped for and more, and will be my go-to gift for tourist friends and kids from 6 up for the Christmas period. If you want something funny, try a Richard Fairgray book – his That’s Not the Monster I Ordered being one of the most unexpectedly funny books out this year. For 4 -8 year olds, as some of the humour is subtle.
A recent junior fiction favourite is Ice Sea Pirates, with a fantastic, kick-ass heroine who gets the job no adult can face done, with minimal help from her friends. Due to some pretty nasty happenings, 10+ is my recommendation for a read-alone, though younger kids could read with mum or dad.
And for YA, I absolutely loved recent book Beautiful Mess, by Aussie writer Claire Christian. It is a deftly observed portrait of mental illness and healing, for ages 14+.
TCB. Also, if parents don’t read much themselves and their children are struggling a bit in this area at school, which books do you recommend so they can start reading together? (feel free to include ages on each recommendation)
The Bud-E series has been my go-to series for this – my 4-year-old loves the stories and has learned to read his first words and understand how books work very well from these tiny tomes. They aren’t big books, and they are very reasonably-priced, and available from lots of bookshops.
In terms of reluctant-reader older kids, I’d suggest bring them into it with a series that isn’t too serious. The Treehouse series is great and not too wordy. For funny local books , try Kyle Mewburn and Donovan Bixley’s Dinosaur Trouble (it’s pretty gross though!). I’d also suggest the Anh Do series, WeirDo, and (gasp) the Diary of a Mineraft Zombie series isn’t half bad either – it is professionally published (beware of self-published Minecraft books, for that way lies the doom of humanity) and very well done, introducing some great concepts around friendship and working to your strengths. All of these are for anybody from 6 up to 10 or so.
The biggest thing with reading together is finding something you are both interested in. If you aren’t much into books yourself, you’ll have to look at your own life experience. Are you a sports nut? Get The Beginner’s Guide to Rugby, or The Beginner’s Guide to Netball, or one of the others in this series – or if you are a hunter, try Jack & Charlie – Boys of the Bush. Each of these books are pitched widely, with plenty of illustrations. And don’t forget oral literacy can also play a part: if you are telling each other stories, that is growing that area of the brain that benefits so much from reading. Or grab an audio book from the library for a long journey. (Did I mention your first step? Join the local library!)
TCB: Thank you so much Sarah and congratulations Jane!
“SARAH FORSTER has worked in the New Zealand book industry for 11 years, in roles promoting Aotearoa’s best authors and books. She has a Diploma in Publishing from Whitireia Polytechnic. She was born in Winton, grew up in Westport, and lives in Wellington. Her day job is as Media and Communications Manager for Booksellers NZ.
JANE ARTHUR has worked in the New Zealand book industry for 15 years, in bookselling and publishing. She has a Master’s in Creative Writing from the IIML at Victoria University. She was born in New Plymouth, and lives in Wellington.” (1)
(1) From https://www.thesapling.co.nz/about