What makes a book last? What makes it win? I try to figure this out, as a judge of the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults this year, revisiting 15 books that won the top awards and have lasted the test of time.
As a judge for this year’s NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, I can’t comment here on anything to do with the current awards – but that doesn’t extend to awards of the past.
I have been involved in the children’s book awards in their various guises since 2007, working at the NZ Book Council and running the nationwide Finalists’ Tour, and then moving to Booksellers NZ which was, until 2015, the administrative home of the awards. The awards have consistently highlighted the glowing examples of New Zealand literature – those books that can easily compete on the world stage. Past winners include all the biggest names in NZ kids’ lit: Joy Cowley, Margaret Mahy, Gavin Bishop, David Elliot, Tessa Duder …
I’ve pulled a bunch of award-winning books from my shelves to find those that still stand out for me. Some of these books made publishers think twice about what a New Zealand book looked like; others have gone on to be classics. The finalists for the 2017 Awards will be announced on 7 June.
Much Ado about Shakespeare by Donovan Bixley (Upstart Press, 2016)
Russell Clark Illustration Award Winner, 2016
This is so recent that it feels a little odd including it: but this book is one that expands the concept of what children’s books are. It shows that picture books aren’t just for kids, but for teens as well (and adults, while we’re at at it). And they can be bawdy and exciting and salacious. Buy Now
Into the River by Ted Dawe (Mangakino University Press, 2012)
Margaret Mahy Award and Young Adult Fiction Winner, 2013
Need I say more than the title for this one? The Children’s Book Awards has never in its history had as much publicity as it did for awarding a book with F-words and C-words the ultimate prize. The book was restricted, then when the restriction was finally lifted, it was banned, until the ruling was overturned. Here’s hoping this is a once-only situation.
Rāhui by Chris Szekely, illustrated by Malcolm Ross (Huia, 2011)
Picture Book Winner, 2012
Rāhui caused a fuss when it won: it wasn’t your typical picture book. The painted illustrations were challenging, out of range for some. But the text is sparse and perfectly suits the dramatic illustrations depicting the laying of a rāhui on a beach when a young boy drowns. Buy Now
Old Hu-Hu by Kyle Mewburn and Rachel Driscoll (Scholastic, 2009)
Overall Winner and Picture Book Award Winner, 2010
I won a signed copy of Old Hu-Hu in 2010 for coming the closest to picking all of the winners for that year’s book awards (the only one I didn’t have right, ironically, was the overall winner). It remains a go-to for many families in times of grieving. A wonderfully managed discussion of death and strong grandparental relationships. Buy Now
The 10pm Question by Kate De Goldi (Longacre, 2008)
Overall Winner and Young Adult Fiction Award Winner, 2009
The 10pm Question was a phenomenon, and a bit of a baffler for those who like their books for one distinct audience. It was the first book in New Zealand history to be a finalist in both the NZ Book Awards (for grown-ups) and the Children’s Book Awards. Watch Miriama Kamo read from it. Buy Now
Snake and Lizard by Joy Cowley and Gavin Bishop (Gecko Press, 2007)
Overall Winner and Junior Fiction Award Winner, 2008
Snake and Lizard have now taught friends from all over the world how to keep your cool, respect your differences, and remain best friends through thick and thin. This is a perfect book to read aloud to your younger children, when they have tired eyes and just want to listen (though the images by Bishop are also a delight). Buy Now
Illustrated History of the South Pacific by Marcia Stenson (Random House, 2006)
Overall Winner, 2007
When I looked back on this book I thought, Why have we not seen more of this? This is an invaluable non-fiction resource about the South Pacific, of the type that our School Librarians have been clamouring for. The format is clean (if unimaginative, a decade later), the text organised beautifully, and the images are fantastic. Perhaps it’s time for a new edition? (Out of Print)
Clubs: A Lolly Leopold Story by Kate De Goldi and Jacqui Colley (Trapeze, 2004)
Overall Winner and Picture Book Award Winner, 2005
Clubs looked completely different from anything on the market upon its release. De Goldi couldn’t find a publisher to accept it, so she and Colley published it themselves: it became the first self-published book to win the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Buy Now
A Bird in the Hand: Keeping New Zealand Wildlife Safe by Janet Hunt (Random House, 2004)
Overall Winner and Non-fiction Winner, 2004
This is a children’s non-fiction book with an activist heart. Beautiful images, clear graphics and an incredibly important message means that this book is still in print, 14 years later. Buy Now
The House that Jack Built by Gavin Bishop (Scholastic, 1999; re-issued Gecko Press, 2013)
Overall Winner and Picture Book Award Winner, 2000
Fitting the story of colonisation within a nursery-rhyme format is no mean feat. This picture book cleverly tells kids what happened when white men came to Aotearoa all those years ago, in an accessible and clear way. This is Gavin Bishop at the peak of his powers (this peak has lasted 30 years and counting)! Buy Now
A Summery Saturday Morning by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Selina Young (Viking, 1998)
Overall Winner and Picture Book Award Winner, 1999
There are very few kiwi families to this day that don’t have a copy of this timeless classic from Mahy. Her sense of rhythm and musicality was second to none. Buy Now
Dare, Truth or Promise by Paula Boock (Longacre, 1997)
Overall Winner and Young Adult Fiction Award Winner, 1998
The first book published by a mainstream NZ publisher to feature a lesbian main character, this won the overall award in 1998, and remains in print in the US. I can’t think of other more recent NZ books that have a similar theme, which seems extremely strange. I hope I am mistaken. Buy Now
The Bantam and the Soldier by Jennifer Beck, illustrated by Robyn Belton (Scholastic, 1996)
Overall Winner and Picture Book Award Winner, 1997
A timeless peace story, this book has remained a classic and been released in several new editions over the years. Robyn Belton’s illustrations are just sublime. Buy now
The Kuia and the Spider / Te Kuia me te Pungawerewere by Patricia Grace, illustrated by Robyn Kahukiwa (Puffin, 1981)
Picture Book Award Winner, 1982
A weaving competition between an old kuia and a spider is the basis of this classic New Zealand tale, which sees the rich storytelling of Patricia Grace and the equally rich illustrations of Robyn Kahukiwa perfectly matched.
* I have read so many amazing books by New Zealand authors over the years, and I feel as though I have missed a lot of people and titles out that ought to be there. Mandy Hager, for one (the ‘Blood of the Lamb’ series, in particular); Fleur Beale, for another; David Hill, for yet another. David Elliot, who wrote one of my all-time favourite picture books, Pigtails the Pirate. And there’s regular non-fiction finalist, Andrew Crowe … I could read only New Zealand children’s books, and have an interesting and varied diet.
That’s not to say we are perfect. There are a lot of stories, particularly from and about Māori and Pacific Islanders, and Chinese, Indian, African New Zealanders that are not being told through books, or perhaps not being entered into awards. Authors of the future, here is your chance. Tell these stories!
Sarah Forster has worked in the New Zealand book industry for 15 years, in roles promoting Aotearoa’s best authors and books. She has a Diploma in Publishing from Whitireia Polytechnic, and a BA (Hons) in History and Philosophy from the University of Otago. She was born in Winton, grew up in Westport, and lives in Wellington. She was a judge of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2017. Her day job is as a Senior Communications Advisor—Content for Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.