Friday, March 04, 2011

Janet Frame Memorial Lecture

The New Zealand Society of Authors’ Janet Frame Memorial Lecture is intended to provide an overview of the “state of the nation” for literature and writing in New Zealand, and to give the reading public a greater understanding of what it means to be a writer here. Earlier lectures have been given by Owen Marshall, Greg O’Brien and William Taylor.

Last night, a large crowd of about 200 people gathered at Te Papa to hear this year’s lecture, delivered by NZSA President of Honour and much loved children’s writer, Joy Cowley. Joy was introduced by recently honoured Wellington writer Sir James McNeish, who said he wished he could be young again so as to meet Mrs Wishy Washy for the first time.

“Warm greetings, people of books,” Joy Cowley began, and after recounting the story of her very first PEN meeting (described here by Vanda Symon in her review of Joy’s memoir Navigation: , she launched into an account of the short but “astonishingly successful” history of children’s book writing and illustrating in this country. This was fascinating stuff to hear from someone who has been involved in every step of that journey.

As a child who grew up on “imported literature”, Joy recalled going to the Otaki public library and working her way through the two shelves of children’s books, mostly from England and America with one or two from Australia. In everything she read, she identified with other countries - ones with meadows and hedgerows, not bush, paddocks or barbed wire. “When I entered the world of books, the doors closed on Aotearoa.”

At 13, she came across her own country’s landscape in a novel for the first time: it was William Satchell’s The Greenstone Door, the first book to close the gap between her two worlds - but still, there were few children’s books published until the pioneers of the late 1960s, Maurice Duggan with Falter Tom and the Water Boy, and Elsie Locke with The Runaway Settlers.

(At this point, Joy paused to pay tribute to the wonderful School Journal, which since 1907 has provided NZ children with their own stories, “stories that wore gumboots and smelled of sheep,” and which has been a springboard for many of New Zealand’s best authors and illustrators.)

From the 1960s, when there was little trade publication for children, Joy brought us up to the present day through a series of milestones and significant dates. These included 1969, when both Joy (The Duck in the Gun) and Margaret Mahy (A Lion in the Meadow) had their first picture books published; 1980, when the first children’s book awards were sponsored by the Government Printer (later AIM, now the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards) and Easter 1994, when a gathering of children’s writers and illustrators over a weekend that was “electric with creative ideas” saw the founding of Storylines, now in its 17th year, and still growing.

Today, children’s writing is met with more recognition, awards and scholarships. Joy commented that attitudes to children have changed, and we no longer offer children “leftovers from the adults’ plates”, but instead “the best we can deliver.” There is an expectation in the children’s book world of “giving back” and lending a hand to those on the way up (and although Joy didn’t say so, she herself contributes hugely to this tradition.)
Children’s writers and illustrators have been generous with their time in visiting schools, and the result can be seen in the many new young writers emerging. There is much to celebrate – but still areas for concern. Joy highlighted some of the the gaps she sees: non fiction – especially for boys, books in te reo, books that reflect other cultures and a need for more courses and training for children’s book illustrators.

After some questions from the audience, Joy returned to James McNeish’s earlier quote from George Orwell (“An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful”) and finished with the story of how she vomited in Roald Dahl’s swimming pool after one too many martinis. This seemed to encapsulate the way in which, as James McNeish said, Joy has “an ability to laugh at herself that is rare in NZ literature.” Despite the many awards she has received, she remains warm, down to earth and imbued with a rare and gentle wisdom – all qualities which the audience responded to with enthusiasm.

Also supported by New Zealand Book Month, this lecture launches a month-long series of celebrations for New Zealand authors, illustrators and books.

Philippa Werry

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