I left it to the last minute to hop onto a plane to Wellington to attend Writer’s Week at the New Zealand Festival – and I’m so glad I went. I find I learn something new at every literary event I go to – perhaps you’ll pick up something from these notes from the talks I attended or find an author/illustrator/book you hadn't considered reading:
The very talented Fifi Colston and I stumbled into the first session on Sunday morning by good luck. We’d meant to pick up our tickets for Ulf Stark’s talk and go to one of the many café’s nearby before attending the session. Anxious to fill seats, the publicist gave us free tickets and we were ushered to the front row for a session on how to read a classic picture book in te reo Maori. On the stage teacher storyteller Te Kahureremoa Taumata began a haunting shell call to welcome us in. She then read Kei reira nga weriweri to the quiet adult audience. At this point, I had wondered what I had got myself into. Why were there no visuals on the screen behind the presenter and where were the children? Ten minutes later, she had us all up stomping and waving our arms while repeating after her Maori words; demonstrating how she engages restless children. Te Kahureremoa continued to give us tips and then reread the story how she would read it to children. She asked questions, pointed out figures, sang phrases, acted out the words – you could see how little children would be entranced. She emphasised that pre-schoolers don’t need the whole story read to them; gauge how interested they are and get them interacting with the book. We both took away something we could use in our own storytelling.Multi language talks continued into the next session. Julia Marshall from Gecko Press translated Ulf Stark’s answers while his wife asked the questions. Ulf Stark told us the startling news (perhaps only astonishing to English first language) that only one percent of Swedish books are translated into English. Julia translated and published Can you whistle, Johanna? several years ago. At the time, Ulf didn’t even know where New Zealand was. He said with books you have a way of flying a bit – and now he has flown all the way to New Zealand.
Ulf began his writing career as a poet. He said poetry is similar to writing children’s stories – you have a small amount of space to say something. He doesn’t set out to include issues in his stories but said the world looks a certain way and it is his job to describe the world, including bodily functions and death. “Death is a part of life and every child and adult will have to meet it one way or another. You don’t win so much from trying to bury it.” He said it is a good way to meet some of these sad things when you are a child – often adults are more afraid of these things than children are. A writer can rebuild their childhood transforming people into characters and making fiction out of it. When asked what he would never write he said detective stories – there are too many in Sweden. “It is important to go into the deep – with detective stories so much is happening on the surface you cannot go deep.”In between talks the children’s literary community went from one favourite coffee café to another. We ate burritos, beignets (yummy type of doughnut) and biscuits. That night we attended the launch of Mary McCullum’s book Dappled Annie and the Tigrish in a crowded St James Theatre. Present were Gecko’s New Zealand and international authors. We heard that illustrator Annie Hayward and Mary collaborated on the story from the start; and the picture book transformed into a junior fiction chapter book over two years. Julia Marshall and the Gecko Press editor both sung its praises and then it was launched. The room hummed with librarians, teachers, booksellers, publishers, writers and illustrators talking and networking.
On a crisp Monday morning, I attended Leo Timmer’s session at Hannah Playhouse. Leo told us ten years ago he saw illustrations moving to the computer but he was not interested. He likes the physical aspect of painting and you can’t do that on the computer. He kept painting and noticed those that jumped to computers have switched back to painting. He says it is a very slow medium and slowness is a good thing – it gives you time to think, whereas, computers are too fast and you can take shortcuts too easily. He likes reworking his illustrations - for him time passes and they get better. “Drawing is like a puzzle with many elements that fit together.” All are carefully constructed and he likes to tell a story with each picture.Leo believes printed and digital books will co-exist. He says it is too easy to show everything in a digital device. He sees children growing up with devices being over-stimulated with movement. He worries about that. Can they concentrate, be still, be quiet and read? Children need a wide variety of experiences. When everything is presented for them on a digital device they don’t need to use their imagination. Books stimulate your imagination and encourage problem solving.
With a graphic artist and advertising background, Leo didn’t know he could paint for a living. He ended up never working in design and advertising – in fact, he has never had a job. Over those years, he experimented and found his style and voice. He realised in the early stages it is all about ‘idea’. Every day he draws in a book developing ideas, as an exercise in telling stories. He’ll let those ideas rest for a month or so and then looks back at it. Some work, some are not ready, and some are so bad they’ll never been seen. He says this method takes the pressure off him.Leo started writing out of frustration. He’d receive stories he felt he could not do anything for. It took him a long time to dare to write – he had such respect for writers. The first book he wrote won an award and from then on he felt he didn’t need to worry.
Animals are a key motif that comes through with his work. Leo says animals create distance. He uses animals to talk about things kids’ experience. It is not a direct reflection on a child – it is more like a metaphor. He likes to play with colours and shapes with animals too. For example, Leo got the idea for his ‘Bang’ story from a movie. He took from it that it looks like we have to crash into each other to feel something. He wanted to turn this idea into a picture book. He put his animal characters into cars rather than be alone. He drew the simple fast layer first and then put other things into it for kids to discover over many readings. Leo said, “Picture books are not an illustrated story – it is visual story telling.” His stories have many layers. Children look more carefully at everything, whereas, adults tend to focus on just one element.Leo does like to tell a message in his stories. “Problems children have are no different to our problems.” He likes to play with ideas that apply to everyone: belonging, having friends etc. His bigger message is often about ‘who are you’ and ‘what makes it, who you are’. Leo was naughty at school – he was dyslexic and considered not very bright. He couldn’t read, spell or count – everything was in reverse. Because of that a lot of his stories often have the message of ‘outsiders who want to fit in’.
Illustrator designers Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinsky have however, embraced print and digital media. They believe that the digital medium is in its very early stages, though. They don’t believe digital books should be even called e-books – they have nothing in common. A book designed for print can’t work for a screen. Some digital books are one tap away from the game ‘angry birds’. They believe game designers will transform digital stories. It is not surprising Daniel believes that, as he has a background in animation.Daniel and Aleksandra met at the entrance exam at a Polish design and illustration academy. They began commercial work in their third year (of a five year degree) to earn money. They find it easy to work together because they’ve had the same teachers. Their styles are so similar they often cannot tell who did what in their books. They have faith in each other’s work but are not averse to giving each other feedback.
They like to make their books interactive. That’s why they included icons in H.O.U.S.E and D.E.S.I.G.N. The icons also enabled them to shorten content. In a book are two languages: image and text. Sometimes they see no need to include both – that’s overdoing it. So they put in icons children can refer to and save space as well. It enables children to learn something new and read it in many different ways.Over the years they’ve developed four type-faces. They don’t believe in patenting them, though. That just involves a lot of legal tangle. To encourage questions from the audience they offered to give away the use of some of their fonts for one year. I was the lucky recipient of one of their fonts. I wanted to know the name of the app Daniel said sits in-between print and e-stories. It is a Scandinavian game/story called Year Walk and I found a review of it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsYxazZGrzg
After a bit of time-out from the hustle and bustle of literary talks and cafes down at the wharf sunning myself I had time for a wine with friends before attending Gavin Bishop’s State of the Nation speech.Gavin focussed his talk mostly on his illustration experience and how it has influenced him and how it relates to the literary world he finds himself in. He says the whale in the Pinocchio film transformed his life at four years old. The story became a touchstone for him and was the title for his lecture: ‘The mouth of the whale’. After seeing that film he realised the power of illustrations. The cinema taught him the use of visual storytelling – where the imagination has to do a lot of work.
Maurice Sendak once said, “A picture book is a damned difficult thing to do.” Gavin agrees - you need to make it look easy – the mystery is the artist’s business. Like a movie; words and pictures don’t say the same thing. The pictures should not be just an echo of the author’s words – otherwise they are doing the same thing. You are never just decorating.
Gavin says lots of modern books are lean and mean; stories simplified to satisfy a quick fix. People are producing what they think children want and include talk about bodily functions. Tessa Duder said to enshrine those in books is sad.Dr Libby Limbrick told Gavin she is optimistic, however. This year when choosing books for the Notable Award they had plenty to choose from. In one category they’ve chosen 13 because there were so many good ones.
Gavin shared his early experiences with publishing – his desire to set his stories firmly in New Zealand. When he did have two stories published for the American market they were warmly received there but New Zealand reviewers were critical – where were the New Zealand references.Though publishers are moving overseas and there are fewer outlets for writers and illustrators to be published Gavin said there is more support nowadays. He named Storylines, NZSA, Te Tai Tamariki, NZ Book Council and other organisations. Gavin recognises a need for closer ties with Australia and would like to see a children’s laureate here in New Zealand. Later he said we need benefactors to enable a children’s laureate scheme to happen. It would have many advantages for the children’s literary scene.
Picture books are here to stay, said Gavin. Technology may change the format but its current make-up of 32 pages is successful. “The mouth of the whale will forever be open in astonishment and delight.”
We toasted his talk afterwards at a café and then local bar. Wellingtonians are a hospitable lot (especially Fifi Colston) and Wellington is understandably the creative epic centre of New Zealand. I’d highly recommend travelling to the next Wellington Festival. Other centres will also have their Literary festivals later in the year – get yourself along to one by yourself or with the kids:
Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival 6-11 May
Auckland Writers & Readers Festival 14-18 May
Christchurch Writers Festival 28-31 August
Storylines Family Day Festivals
· Saturday 23rd August in Dunedin
· Sunday 24th August in Christchurch, and Wellington
· Saturday 30th August in Northland, and South Auckland
· Sunday 31st August in central Auckland