The blue between: children’s writing in the margins
The blue between
This poem aptly describes the poetic aesthetic embedded in children’s literature and book making. George’s wordsmithing clearly articulates the confident wonder of artistic imaginings; I suggest that it also hints at children’s writers’ feelings of insecurity and desire for affirmation for their ‘ways of seeing’. Throughout this essay I explore the reasons why the creative endeavour involved in the making of children’s books deserves the same attention and regard from media, policy makers and higher education institutions as any other genre. This desire for affirmation and regard has a global resonance, for as Professor Kate Chedgezoy from the University of Newcastle notes in the 2003 Arts Council England A Strategy for Children’s Literature report:
Edward Lear’s enigmatic Owl and Pussycat (1876), adrift in their beautiful pea green boat, might be seen as an allegory for the ever-hopeful, yet vulnerable state of children’s books and their creators adrift in an ocean of writing. Lear’s work is of course iconic for its contribution to the field of poetry, providing evidence of the valued status of children’s writing as a genre attracting societal esteem - as are the Heidi books in Switzerland and tens of thousands of other children’s books and writers across different countries. Hunt takes this further when he comments on the fact ‘that these writers have chosen to write for children means they are joining a long literary tradition’ (Hunt 2009: 5) and are practising in a genre he contests is both ‘more difficult than writing for adults’ and is ‘extremely useful for developing writing techniques’ (2009: 4).
Value adding and specialisation
If specialisation is required and diversity increasingly assumed, encouraged and propagated, students should rightly expect to access a range of possibilities within writing courses, research and practice - and this includes children’s writing. However this raises the question of why anyone should feel a need to justify the ‘specialised’ literary cultural capital of children’s writing and its research value. Kroll articulates this in a broader context when she asks: ‘Why should we have to prove the value of what Australian writer-academics and their students produce?’ (Kroll 2002: 1). David Wright in his article on Cultural Capital and the Literary Field explores this question further, noting that even at the level of policy, notions of ‘“high” and “low” accounts of literary hierarchy are contested categories’ (Wright 2006: 125).
The answer to Kroll’s question resides somewhere in the feelings of insecurity creators experience if they perceive their practice as a lesser ‘art’ or lesser literary form; feelings that are formed in response to societal, academic judgment and hierarchical subjugation. Such a proposition is supported by Verboord’s contention that ‘an author’s prestige is dependent on how s/he is perceived by significant others’ (Verboord 2003: 262). Certainly the topic of canonical hierarchy and artistic status was seen as strong enough subject matter to be the focus of a major conference on children’s writers, biography and the canon in Switzerland in 2010; where the call for papers stated:
The sound of one hand clapping?
At a broader level, it can certainly be argued that lobby and interest groups are well aware that coordinated, collaborative advocacy enhances the ability to effect change in policy or funding. In Australia we have recently seen an important example of this combined voice strategy via the combined efforts of the Australian Publishers Association (APA), Australian Booksellers Association (ABA), Australian Society of Authors (ASA), the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) in their opposition against the proposed lifting of restrictions regarding parallel importation. While the quest for funding and infrastructure support exists across all creative arts at a macro level, the struggle of specific genres such as children’s writing was highlighted recently by CBCA National President Marj Kirkland’s pathos-filled announcement cancelling this year’s 2010 biennial conference:
If ever an argument existed for re-evaluating the structure and the role of the Australia Council in supporting such peak arts institutions and funding in the arts, now is the time. Would other countries allow their peak children’s body to flounder in such a way? Certainly comparable struggles for children’s writers and writing in the UK have been documented. The Arts Council England identified similar issues its 2003 report A Strategy for Children’s Literature, which ‘revealed a dynamic, occasionally “overheated” literary climate, populated by individuals and organisations working hard though not necessarily together’ (Arts Council England 2003: 3).
In this context I suspect that we could gain a great deal from looking at the structure of the UK’s National Association for Writers in Education (NAWE), which is founded on the benefits of coordinating and integrating academic endeavour with research and active practice in writing, literature and education across all sectors, including the children’s sector. Interestingly, the establishment of the recent journal Write4Children: The International Journal for the Practice and Theories of Writing for Children and Children's Literature (2010) with an editorial board including Cardiff University’s Professor Emeritus Peter Hunt, former UK children’s laureate Michael Rosen and various internationally respected scholars, points to an increasing appreciation and awareness of children’s literature as a valid and valuable course of study at tertiary level.
Fortunately, there are also positive signs for a more coordinated approach across Australia, and evidence of a developing strategic literary voice for children’s literature. Melbourne’s recent designation as a UNESCO City of Literature (United Nations Educational 2008) in combination with the establishment of the Wheeler Centre: Books, Writing, Ideas (2009) and site integration at the Victorian State Library, the Victorian Writers Centre and the Australian Poetry Centre (APC), are positive signs for the future. The recent formation of the Australian Children’s Literature Alliance with well-known children’s literature advocate Bronwen Bennett as the chair and a committee with a broad representation of people from industry and practice, is another sign of the desire for a coordinated approach:
The Children’s Laureate, modelled on the UK model with popular children’s author and illustrator Anthony Browne currently in the role (Booktrust 2008), will be a most useful step in raising awareness about the importance of children’s literature and indeed literature in general, and echoes the 2008 USA appointment of high-profile children’s author Jon Scieszka as literary ambassador.
Perceptions of value
Reports of decreasing publisher acquisitions and rights activity at the recent Bologna and Frankfurt Book Fairs, as well as decreasing remuneration based on high discount contractual and distribution arrangements, combine to create an uncertainty about the tenure of practice within the children’s writing genre. However, it’s not all gloom and doom. Data recently published in the three-year University of Melbourne Book Study Project indicates that children’s texts were the leading fiction category for books published in Australia, coming in at 12% of titles, 3% ahead of adult fiction and literature at 9% (Thompson 2009: 13). This publishing trend for increased production of children’s books is also evident in Korea where, in 2008, children’s books accounted for 20% of all new books published, and in their translation market, where the largest number of books translated was children’s, at 42% (Korean Publishers Association 2009a). As reported by Page:
While these industry statistics indicate attribution of commercial value, universities and writing courses also have an opportunity to support genre awareness, research connections and active practitioner research in children’s literature - all contributors to broader measures and perceptions of esteem. Stephen Muecke, inaugural Professor of Writing at University of NSW and pioneer in the field of fictocriticism and arts autoethnography, recently summed it up succinctly: ‘Historians will look back on this period in Australia’s literary life as the time universities had their chance. This is a time not to domesticate writing but to create partnerships with the industry and book loving public’ (Muecke 2009).
Creative Arts PhD Roundtables in Sydney and Melbourne (Australian Learning and Teaching Council 2008) also noted the need for universities and their respective staff to involve themselves actively in the opportunities to affirm the alignment between research and practice in the arts; a point also made in the UK’s 2003 A Strategy for Children’s Literature report, which stated that, ‘Historic underfunding, related in part to the low status accorded to children’s literature in much of higher education, was felt to have inhibited the development of ambitious research and substantial collaborative projects’ (Arts Council England 2003).
Anecdotal evidence at least suggests that children's and young adult genres in creative writing courses are of significant interest to a growing body of students and active practitioners - aspiring, emerging and experienced. In the Australian context, it seems reasonable to suggest that this demonstrates an increasing awareness of the 12% new publication market share. However, while there is evidence of significant publishing activity in the genre, children’s and young adult writing would appear underrepresented in the streams of academic writing conferences and journals - a subject Verboord (2003) suggests is worthy of further consideration when analysing esteem measures of literary value.
My own experience indicates that a significant number of Swinburne University’s Masters of Arts (writing) students show a demonstrable enthusiasm for children’s and young adult genres. Australia is also home to some of the world’s notable children’s writers and illustrators. Our distinguished children’s book creators include Graeme Base, Mem Fox, Shaun Tan, Gary Crew, Leigh Hobbs, Bob Graham, Ursula Dubosarsky, Ann Spudvilas, Greg Rogers, Jackie French, Morris Gleitzman, Paul Jennings, Ann James and International Board on Books for Young People Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award winning author, Sonya Hartnett, just to name a few. Sonya Hartnett’s winning of this award in 2008 acknowledges Australia’s standing in the field, and has been followed by the 2010 nominations of Shaun Tan, Morris Gleitzman, Hazel Edwards, along with New Zealand’s Margaret Mahy, winner of last year’s Hans Christian Andersen Award (Dempsey 2009). Why then in Victoria, the home of so many awardwinning and talented children’s writers and illustrators, is there no children’s category in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards? Is it any wonder that some children’s writers experience feelings of insecurity?
It would be easy to sympathise with a view that this is, in part, evidence of systemic literary elitism and hierarchal exclusivity. In this context, the previous non-representation of children’s categories in Australia’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards noted in my 2009 AAWP conference paper (Carthew 2009) provided grounds for children’s writers to feel marginalised. However it is heartening to see that two new categories for children’s and young adult writers were recently announced by the Australian Arts Minister, the Honourable Peter Garrett (2010), who said, ‘The new award categories are an opportunity to celebrate the clever and engaging books written by authors for younger audiences. With the introduction of the new categories, these Awards truly celebrate the breadth, quality and uniqueness of Australian literature’. This point was also made by the then Prime Minister in his blog, where he stated that the reason for deciding to redress this disparity was to give children’s and young adult writers due recognition for their ‘important part of our literary landscape’ (Rudd 2010). Both categories will receive the same $100,000 prize as the mainstream literature category.
In other states greater balance has been and is evident. For example, the NSW Premier’s Awards for Literature has two young adult and children’s literature prizes, and the Queensland Premiers Awards also has two dedicated children’s and young adult sections, as does the Western Australian Premier’s Literary Awards. However, a quick scan of the review columns in one of Australia’s leading newspapers, the Melbourne Age, often regarded as a paper for the literary informed, reveals no regular section for children’s book reviews and only sporadic forays into substantive exposure for the genre or its practitioners. Advocates of The Age and other publications, such as Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Book Review, may protest that they and other newspapers do indeed have ‘regular’ children’s reviews; however I would argue that there is nowhere near the same level of profile or space allocated to children’s books or writing when compared with other genres such as adult fiction. This is certainly in stark contrast to The New York Times which does have regular weekly children’s reviews both online and in hard copy. The Sydney Morning Herald’s own blog feedback site features vigorous feedback on this perceived lack of attention, and contains the following comment by well known author Melina Marchetta who says, in regard to the scant media coverage of the 2007 CBCA awards:
However, while lack of media attention is a source of frustration for some, fortunately there are other outlets, including a growing number of writers festivals, arts events and awards that do provide positive exposure for children’s and young adult genres. It is also of significant interest to children’s book creators and researchers to see the emergence of connections between art, design, writing and other disciplines, evidenced by Swinburne University’s recent Art.Media.Design: Writing Intersections conference (2009) and in the themes of similar international conferences. Muecke draws attention to this developing interest and convergence when he comments that ‘Student numbers between 2002 and 2006 in the key creative arts disciplines such as dance, graphic design, written communication (including creative writing) fashion design and music were boosted by 50 per cent’ (Muecke 2009: 28) This also serves to highlight the potential for developing cross discipline studies related to children’s books, illustrated texts, multimedia and multiliteracies – all areas of research and practice that fit with the imperatives of The New London Group’s vision of recognising practice ‘welcoming of multiple and divergent collaborations’ (1996: 89).
The future of the (children’s) book
Other state initiatives such as the establishment of the Australian Institute for the Future of the Book or ‘if: book Australia’ in Queensland, are exciting platforms from which to develop connections between the arts and education sectors and to expand recognition of Australia’s capacity for producing quality children’s and adult literature.
In a telephone conversation on 3 October 2009, one of the directors of Books Illustrated, Ann James, indicated that Australia could be a future guest of honour at Italy’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair, ‘one of the world’s leading publishing fairs covering all genres for infants, children and young adults’ (Robson 2009). It is most interesting that Bologna’s 2010 guest of honour, Korea, notes on the official Bologna website that their participation in the book fair is recognition of the importance of the children’s genre ‘marking a turning point in the history of Korean publishing’ (Korean Publishers Association 2009b). If we assume that one of the aims of higher education writing courses is to connect students and courses with relevant literary and publishing industry trends and linkages, then Korea’s recognition of the children’s market could be seen as indicative of increasing globalised value associated with the genre in terms of both business imperatives and cultural status.
The challenge for children’s writers and advocates of children’s literature in an increasingly globalised community is to work towards a more unified voice and rise above artistic insecurity to ensure active and vibrant practice in that space - in so doing, affirming to themselves and others the value and joy of seeing the blue between.
List of works cited
Mark Carthew is a PhD candidate and tutor of writing at Swinburne University. He is also a sessional lecturer and tutor at Monash University and award-winning children’s author and editor. His picture book The Gobbling Tree (New Frontier 2009) was Speech Pathology Australia’s 2009 Book of the Year Best Book for Language Development: Lower Primary and his PhD artefact and anthology Can You Keep a Secret? Timeless rhymes to share and treasure (Random House Australia 2008) was a 2009 Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book.
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Vol 14 No 2 October 2010
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb