Welcome to the blog of the Tasmanian branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia!

Sunday 29 January 2012

Literary Merit - with CBCA judge Jenni Connor

As the current Tasmanian Judge for the Book Awards in the final stages of reading and reviewing titles published in 2011 and entered for the 2012 awards, I have been reflecting on that elusive quality (or set of qualities) ‘literary merit’.
Children’s Book Council of Australia guidelines for judges state:
The judges assess entries for the Awards primarily for literary merit, including:
  • cohesiveness of significant literary elements;
  • language chosen carefully for its appropriateness to the theme;
  • style of the work with proper regard to the aesthetic qualities of language; &
  • originality in the treatment of literary elements as they apply to the form of the work.
Appeal to readership under the age of eighteen is also taken into account. Judges should also consider quality of illustrations, book design, production, printing and binding.
Of course, each category for the Awards carries different emphases:
  • Older readers – awards will be made to outstanding works of fiction, drama or poetry which require a degree of maturity to appreciate the topics, themes and scope of emotional involvement.
  • Younger readers – awards will be made to outstanding works of fiction, drama or poetry for readers who have developed independent reading skills but are still developing in literary appreciation.
  • Early childhood – awards will be made to outstanding works of fiction, drama, poetry or concept books for children who are at ‘pre-reading’ or early stages of reading (they may, of course, be picture books for young children).
  • Picture Book of the Year – awards will be made to outstanding books of the Picture Book genre in which the author and illustrator achieve artistic and literary unity... (a set of artistic criteria apply).
  • Eve Pownall Award – will be made to outstanding books which have the prime intention of documenting factual material...
Over the years, in my various levels of involvement with CBCA, I have often been asked ‘Why didn’t this book do well? It’s so popular.’ The answer is that there are lots of ‘Kids Picks’ awards out there, but CBCA has always had the mission to recognise and promote ‘the best’ works published in Australia for young people. CBCA Awards have a major impact on sales, impacting on authors, illustrators and the Australian publishing and retail industries. As well as supporting their living through sales and the Awards prize money, the Awards promote Australia’s outstanding authors and illustrators overseas; Graeme Base was little known when he created Animalia, now he’s a best seller in the US and throughout the world.
Which begs the question of ‘literary merit’ and there is no doubt that making such judgements is partly subjective; one man’s fish is another’s poison!

Judges decisions are informed by the guidelines, by skilled chairing and thoughtful debate at the four day Judges’ Conference and by the breadth of experience with literature and young people that each brings to the table. From my personal point of view, I highly value originality in approach to a theme; I take language very seriously and look for it to be richly metaphorical and lyrical, or edgy and biting, depending on the content; I expect characters and relationships to develop and plot elements to connect and cohere; and I really appreciate emotional involvement – I want to care about these characters and what happens to them; I want memories of that book to linger with me for repeated contemplation.

So, when the short lists are announced on 3 April this year at Government House, North terrace, Adelaide, we’ll see how the judges’ choices are received by the general public. There might well be disagreement, but public discussion about ‘what’s a good book for children and young people’ is extremely healthy in a civilized democracy.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Patsy ponders Noah's Ark

I have been patiently working, in my spare time, on a wall hanging for my youngest grandchild (now aged 5) for some years – I chose a pattern by the renowned Danish creator, Gerda Bengtsson, her Noak’s Ark. I have really enjoyed doing it and am pleased to think I am on the downhill slope now with it….

I have been wondering over the years how many of today’s children are familiar with the story, and this led recently to some research on the topic. A quick look at the Amazon UK website showed that many Noah’s Ark books, DVDs, audiobooks, and even toys are for sale there. So to make sure Tom knows the story when I eventually finish the work, I ordered a copy of each of the Lucy Cousins and Peter Spier picture books.

These are both beautiful books, which would be valuable contributions to your school or home libraries.

Lucy Cousins has used her instantly recognisable simplistic illustrative techniques in her work (Walker Books, first published 1993, my copy a paperback published in 2006, ISBN 978-0-7445-9972-5). She retells the Bible story in a simple fashion and provides charming endpapers with many familiar animals, in pairs of course – but no distinctively Australian animals, unfortunately.
Peter Spier has provided a much more detailed and considered book (Dragonfly Books, 1997, my copy a paperback, ISBN 978-0-440-40693-8), almost textless. But the illustrations are very complex and provide much food for thought. And yes, there are examples of Australian fauna as well! The problems faced by Noah and his family were obviously many in dealing with so many animals – feeding, watering, space allocation, and even dealing with the inevitable waste products are all tackled.
Finished with the books, I looked at the lists of toys for sale on eBay Australia – lots of Noah’s Arks there too! I wondered how many homes actually have a Noah’s Ark set in the toddler’s toybox in this day and age, but judging from Amazon and eBay, there must be quite a few.

Then I thought about Noah’s Ark and the Tasmanian public library – yes, there are plenty of records for Noah’s Ark on the catalogue. Most have been catalogued as picture books or fiction, though there are several DVDs in the Junior collection as well.

So do we look at stories like that of Noah as fiction, religion, or mythology? The Tasmanian public library catalogue and the state school catalogues have many records for books of Bible stories as non-fiction, classified as religion, at 220.9505 – but those about Noah’s Ark alone mainly seem to be catalogued as fiction. Books of mythology, based on religions other than Christianity, such as Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, stories from Ancient Greece and Rome, are mainly catalogued under the Dewey system as 398.2.

Is it time we revisited the way libraries see Bible stories as opposed to stories from other religions and cultures? And what about bookshops? Does your local bookshop display Bible stories as religion, fiction, or myths and legends?