The Reckoning: The national book awards
Fantasy and science fiction writer Karen Healey reckons that the national book awards, the NZ Book Awards, are erroneously named. Why not the the New Zealand Adult Literary Fiction, Non-Fiction and Poetry Awards? For that's what they are, she argues.
So. Here’s something I reckon we need to change.
The Spinoff recently printed a list of 50 years of book awards in New Zealand, based on the national book awards* and purporting to celebrate the 'rich, fascinating history of New Zealand literature'.
Sure. Okay. The list doesn’t include a single work by Margaret Mahy.
Mahy won the Carnegie twice. She was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Canterbury University and was made a Member of the Order of New Zealand, that most exclusive club that only ever includes 20 members at a time. When she was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for Writing, she was recognised as 'one of the world’s most original re-inventors of language'. The Storylines award for someone who has made a significant contribution to children’s literature is named after her, and so is New Zealand’s best playground.
The Storylines award for someone who has made a significant contribution to children’s literature is named after her and so is New Zealand’s best playground.
Her work is vibrant, thoughtful, passionate and masterfully crafted. She exposes and explores the psychology of childhood and adolescence with lucid prose and potent metaphor. Her legacy is one of extraordinary inspiration.
Not one of her many novels, picture books or short story collections received a New Zealand Book Award, because she wrote for children and young adults, and our national book awards, regardless of their sponsor, do not appear to recognise literature for that audience. The closest they’ve come to acknowledging the value of kids' literature recently was with Kate De Goldi’s The 10pm Question, a young adult book, which was nominated for Fiction Book of the Year and won the Reader’s Choice award (which no longer exists) in 2009. Something similar happened with Tessa Duder's Jellybean more than two decades earlier. Two examples in 50 years.
It’s worth noting that several of our best authors write for both children and adults. Elizabeth Knox, Witi Ihimaera, and Maurice Gee have had their adult works notably (and deservedly) honoured by our national book awards. Their works for younger audiences are absent.
It’s worth noting that several of our best authors write for both children and adults.
Nor are books for younger readers the only category routinely excluded from these purportedly national awards: Dylan Horrocks’ excellent graphic novels Hicksville and The Magic Pen don’t get a look-in, and neither do Lucy Parker’s tight, keenly observed contemporary romances. Juliet Marillier lives in Western Australia now, but she lived in Dunedin and wrote her dreamy historical epic fantasies there for years. Not one appears on the list. Do any of the prolific and celebrated Dame Ngaio Marsh’s detective novels appear? Of course not.
I’m not arguing that any of these specific books deserves an award more than the other works that got the top prize in any particular year. Rather, I’m pointing out that the overall trend is one of unacknowledged exclusion of some types of fiction, and distinct bias towards a particular audience and style - for awards that, one way or another, keep calling themselves the New Zealand Book Awards.
Perhaps the problem isn’t the content of the list, or the existence of the awards, but their title. If you accept the proposition that 'literature' is adult literary fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, the list is comprehensive, and the New Zealand Book Awards are admirably wide in scope and taste. If you have a wider view of what constitutes the national literature, then, regardless of sponsor, they’re not really the New Zealand Book Awards at all. They’re the New Zealand Adult Literary Fiction, Non-Fiction and Poetry Awards.
If you have a wider view of what constitutes the national literature, then ... they’re not really the New Zealand Book Awards at all.
It is, to be sure, an unwieldy and inelegant title. So is the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Those honoured seem to cope.
This isn’t just semantics. I like awards! National recognition (and prize money) for authors, illustrators and publishers is absolutely vital to fostering the arts. National awards based on genre and the assumed age of the audience are also useful for readers, particularly those who have particular tastes and are looking for works that meet them. That’s exactly what the so-called New Zealand book awards are. But when those restrictions go unacknowledged - when a particular category of work is the unmarked default - the narrative of our national literature is not enhanced, but diminished.
Oh, and let’s chat about that prize money. This year, at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, the winner of the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize will get $50,000. The New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults ultimate winner will get $15,000: $7,500 for winning their category, and an additional $7,500 for winning the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year award. Hmm.
I reckon we’ve got two good options for change.
One, the New Zealand Book Awards could go the way of the Australian Book Industry Awards, which splits its fiction awards into General Fiction, Literary Fiction, Book of the Year for Younger Children and Book of the Year for Older Children. These are all eligible for the Book of the Year award, which isn’t limited by genre or audience - middle-grade superstar Andy Griffiths won it in 2015 for The 52-Storey Treehouse. Just last week, Jessica Townsend won Book of the Year for fantasy YA title Nevermoor.
Two, the New Zealand Book Awards could be honest about what, exactly, they celebrate, and change their name.
Because here’s the truth: New Zealand Book Awards that aren’t truly open to the stunning variety of great books published in New Zealand don’t deserve to claim that title.
*You know, the ones for books for adults.
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.
Karen Healey lives in Ōtautahi, where she teaches English and writes YA fiction. Her work includes Guardian of the Dead, The Shattering, the When We Wake duology, and the recently released The Empress of Timbra (co-written with Robyn Fleming). She recently held the the Ursula Bethell Residency in Creative Writing at the University of Canterbury.