The Reckoning: Superstar needed, apply within

How do we raise the profile of New Zealand Children’s books? Donovan Bixley has been asking around, and he has an answer… of sorts.

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Whenever I’m at a children’s book event the question arises: how do we raise the profile of New Zealand children’s books? It’s one of the reasons this very excellent forum, The Sapling, exists, and I love what The Sapling has achieved so far. But how do we make ourselves noticed in a wider community obsessed with sports and pop culture?

I’ve been quizzing booksellers, librarians, teachers, publishers, arts funders and book creators. Usually talk comes round to the idea of a New Zealand Children’s Book Laureate. It’s a wide and varied role, but it’s probably best if you check out Kyle Mewburn’s very first Reckoning, for a full run down on a possible laureate programme.

I too have been interested in the laureate programme. Over the past two years, I followed Chris Riddell’s busy schedule as UK Children’s Laureate. The list of UK’s Children’s Laureates reads like the bestsellers of publishing. Riddell recently passed the position on to the singularly brilliant, Lauren Child. It’s an honour that appears to be a full time job!

The list of UK’s Children’s Laureates reads like the bestsellers of publishing.

The reason I’ve been so interested in this area, is that I was recently the recipient of the Mallinson Rendel Illustrators Award. This biennial award was established by publishing icon, Ann Mallinson in 2011, and is given alongside the Arts Foundation Laureate awards. The award comes completely out of the blue, and it got me wondering about a children’s laureate programme — moreover, it got me wondering how on earth a New Zealand author or illustrator could afford to take on all the responsibilities of laureate, and continue to do their work as a writer or illustrator?

During my thinking process, I realised that the UK laureates have it over us. Their system works, and people follow them on Twitter or Instagram from the other side of the world, not because they are laureates, but because they are all children’s book creators with massive international success and millions of followers.

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Dashing Dog to the rescue, from Dashing Dog, by Margaret Mahy (HarperCollins, 2013) Copyright Donovan Bixley, used with permission, all rights reserved.

My answer to the question is, we need our very own J. K. Rowling. Think about it. When J. K. Rowling speaks, the media, and the world pay attention. Sounds ambitious right? But I’m all for ambitious. Of course we did have our very own superstar, the late Margaret Mahy — winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, among many international accolades — and a true international star of children’s and YA books. But that was a different era. I think Aotearoa is ready to produce our next generation of children’s book superstars.

By superstar, I really mean, media sensation — I’m talking about the children’s book equivalent of Lorde, Peter Jackson or Taika Waititi. These New Zealand superstars have become household names and standard bearers for their respective art forms. Along with others like Flight of the Conchords, Eleanor Catton or Neil Finn, they carry New Zealand within their art. Taika Waititi, brings his Kiwiness to films as diverse as indie hit, What We Do In The Shadows, and international blockbuster, Thor: Ragnarok. Similarly, crime writer Paul Cleave is making international waves with stories set in Christchurch. These New Zealand superstars have drawn massive international acclaim, and have broadcast across the globe, and to Kiwis at home, that New Zealand creates world class work that demands attention and respect.

Our next international superstar could be any one of our children’s book kaumatua, or maybe it’ll be one of our breakout self-published authors? Or perhaps they are an unpublished author or illustrator nurturing some brilliant project. A superstar of any ilk would suit me. I’d be equally happy with Aotearoa’s version of John Green — media savvy, critically acclaimed and popular, or, our very own version of Dav Pilkey — a spokesman for dyslexia, whose books are adored by fun-loving kids the world over.

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Claude D’Bonair, hero of Flying Furballs, as pictured on the front of Dogfight (Upstart Press, 2016). Copyright Donovan Bixley, used with permission, all rights reserved.

But how do we get a superstar? We’ve had Booker Prize-winners and Hans Christian Andersen Medal-winners. Another big international award for a New Zealand children’s book creator would be superb. But to get there requires that rare alchemy that sets the publishing world on fire. Maybe you’re sitting such a manuscript right now? Is it even possible for our small publishing industry pour the resources into a book to make it a phenomenal success, such as Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor? Maybe not, but we need to get over the myth that these mega successes do it all by themselves. Here’s a few thoughts on how we can help our brilliant books get up to the next level.

…we need to get over the myth that these mega successes do it all by themselves.

We all face the challenge that our artists need to be lauded overseas before they are appreciated at home. At international fairs and festivals New Zealand artists draw attention as honoured guests, rather than being part of the furniture. Recently, I offered free school visits around my local area. I’d been traveling so much in the last year to Taipei, Delhi and Perth, I thought it would be nice to give back to my community … I had only two responses.

A couple of weeks later I was invited to the Salon Livre, the Paris Book Fair. These fairs can be integral in creating personal relationships with international publishers, as well boosting your mana back in NZ. Creative New Zealand has legacy funding to Taipei and Frankfurt, to capitalise on our investment as Guest of Honour Country, and if you can get your foreign publishers to invite you to an international event, CNZ also support funding through the Publishers Association of New Zealand.

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Jimmy, hero of Monkey Boy (Scholastic NZ, 2014). Copyright Donovan Bixley, used with permission, all rights reserved.

I personally don’t have an agent, but I was thrilled to see the two international literary agents at the recent Storylines Hui. If your goal is to be internationally successful, then getting a world class agent can open powerful doorways to international rights deals. These kind of international agent deals have seen movie offers to our crime superstars, Paul Cleave and Ben Sanders. A movie version of a book is like a double edged sword — I’m certainly not saying it’s something we should all aspire too — I’m simply pointing out, that in this media obsessed world, a movie version of a book is likely to lead to international sales, tours and media exposure. BAM. Superstar.

If your goal is to be internationally successful, then getting a world class agent can open powerful doorways to international rights deals.

I’d love New Zealand to have a laureate programme. But, if we had a children’s book version of Lorde or Peter Jackson, it would be even better because it would draw a fantastic amount of attention to the world of New Zealand children’s books.

Those international laureates are all superstars first and laureates second. This article is really a callout to that future superstar. They will undoubtedly draw most of that media attention to themselves, but I hope they will have the mana to take on some of those laureate roles. I hope they will model to the world a respect for children’s book creators and the living we make from it. I hope they highlight to the wider community some of our industry concerns regarding things like copyright licensing or online sales. Like a laureate, I’m certain a children’s book superstar will naturally inspire readers and writers, boost book sales, champion libraries, and make the wider public aware of literary issues.

We have so many brilliant children’s book creators in Aotearoa, and with growing international attention on New Zealand artists, I really believe that we could produce our own children’s book superstar in the coming years. I hope they shine their glorious light across our wonderful industry, and we can all hitch a little ride on their coat tails. Who’s up for it?

Flying Furballs: Most Wanted

By Donovan Bixley

Published by Upstart Press

RRP: $14.99

Buy now

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The Christmas Looky Book

By Donovan Bixley

Published by Hachette NZ

RRP: $19.99

Buy now

Editors’ note: The Reckoning is a regular column where children’s literature experts air their thoughts, views and grievances. They’re not necessarily the views of the editors or our readers. We would love to hear your response to any of The Reckonings – join in the discussion over on Facebook. 

Donovan Bixley

Donovan Bixley was born in Perth, Australia, but shortly after, his family returned to New Zealand where Donovan grew up in the geothermal wilds of Taupo, where he continues to live. His work covers a broad range of genres from his best-selling pre-school books The Wheels on the Bus and Old MacDonald’s Farm, to his internationally acclaimed illustrated biographies Faithfully Mozart and Much Ado About Shakespeare which won the Russell Clark Award for best illustration at the 2016 NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

He has just released the fourth book in his Flying Furballs series, Most Wanted (Upstart Press), and has also published The Christmas Looky Book (Hachette NZ) this month.