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Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa

Children's books

Children's books

From the earliest years New Zealand's isolation and small population have had a profound impact on local publishing for children. During the last century and early this century, New Zealand authors have had to find publishers overseas. As few copies of these early books made it back to these shores the authors were frequently popular overseas, but remained little known or unacknowledged in their homeland. Within New Zealand, the smallness of the market meant, until recently, that it was only commercially viable to publish texts or cheap booklets which were likely to be purchased in quantity by schools, or which were affordable for families. Publishing of well produced children's books as we know them today could only be a small sideline.

The first recorded book for children featuring New Zealand was the anonymous Stories About Many Things—Founded on Facts, published in London by Harvey & Darton in 1833. From 1869 children's books with a New Zealand connection were being published in England at an average of one per year. Edward Tregear's Fairy Tales and Folk Lore of New Zealand and the South Seas, published by Lyon & Blair in Wellington in 1891 marks the true beginning of children's book publishing in New Zealand. Fittingly it focused on one of the themes which were to be dominant in New Zealand children's books for the next 70 years: the landscape (its wild strangeness to British eyes, and man's efforts to traverse and tame it) and the tales of the Māori.

Whitcombe & Tombs produced their first children's title, Johannes Andersen's Maori Fairy Tales, in 1908. Their third children's book, published in 1918 (Edith Annie Howe's Wonderwings and Other Fairy Stories, only the tenth New Zealand-published children's title) marked the beginning of a 14-year period when Whitcombe & Tombs dominated local trade children's publishing (as distinct from the publishing of educational books and readers), producing at least one title per year and 28 books altogether. At the same time they were producing their prolific series of Whitcombe's Story Books for the educational market. (For more detailed discussion of this aspect, see 'Reading and Literacy' in Chapter 5.)

In 1930 Whitcombe & Tombs published Frank Acheson's Plume of the Arawas: An Epic of Maori Life. In 1938 Reeds picked it up and issued an edition of 5,000 copies as their first large scale children's title. As Whitcombe & Tombs' trade output waned, Reeds gained a dominance of local publishing that was to last 35 years. However, the field was not restricted to these two publishers, with other publishers issuing significant New Zealand children's books, such as The Book of Wiremu by Stella Morice (Progressive Publishing Society, 1944) and Turi, the Story of a Little Boy by Lesley Powell (Paul's Book Arcade, 1963). These titles were landmark New Zealand children's books, not only as early winners of the Esther Glen Award, but also as the forerunners of numerous later stories exploring the relationship between young Māori children and their elders.

Paul's Book Arcade (later Blackwood & Janet Paul) had their children's publishing heyday in the 1960s. Price Milburn, while predominantly an educational publisher, made a contribution to books available for children's leisure reading, beginning in 1961 with Smitty Does a Bunk written by Brian Sutton-Smith and illustrated by Russell Clark. From the mid 1960s Elsie Locke, Eve Sutton and Ruth Dallas each published several books helping children to look back at and appreciate our pioneering past. The same decade also saw the publication of several photographic books aimed at establishing a post-colonial New Zealand identity (for example, Pat Lawson's Kuma is a Maori Girl (Hicks, Smith, 1961), Gay Kohlap's David, Boy of the High Country (Collins, 1964) and Ans Westra's controversial Washday at the Pa (first prepared as a School Bulletin; reprinted by Caxton Press, 1964).

New Zealand's most notable children's author, Margaret Mahy, was writing fantastic stories before local publishing was ready to diverge from the realistic. Apart from the stories published in the New Zealand School Journal, all of her books have been published overseas. Through the School Journal and other publications, Learning Media Ltd (formerly the School Publications Branch of the Department of Education) have been, and for many still are, the only vehicle in New Zealand in which writers of children's fiction can be published.

Commercial publishing expanded in the 1960s and by the early 1970s overseas publishing houses—chiefly Ashton Scholastic, Collins, Heinemann, Hodder, Oxford, and Penguin—had set up offices in New Zealand. This provided an avenue for New Zealand children's books to reach both New Zealand and international audiences. However, it was (and remains) frequently at the cost of the reduction or removal of distinctively New Zealand features and idiom in order to make the books acceptable to the overseas markets and sell in the quantities needed to make publication viable.

From the 1970s children's publishing generally pursued urban rather than the earlier rural themes. Books featured social problems and non-traditional family structures. As overseas, fantasy and science fiction stories became popular. Publishing of picture books in English and Māori began with Jill Bagnall's Crayfishing with Grandmother (Collins, 1973), for which Hapi Pōtae provided the Māori text. Patricia Grace's The Kuia and the Spider and Te Kuia me te Pungawerewere (Longman Paul) followed in 1981. The 1980s witnessed the evolution of the 'teenage novel' as a specific genre, with notable early contributions by Margaret Mahy, Tessa Duder, William Taylor and Jack Lasenby.

Since the 1980s there has been a continued growth in distinctively New Zealand publishing, encouraged by enterprising publishers who have actively encouraged new talent. Notable among these is Mallinson Rendel (perhaps best known for publishing Lynley Dodd's internationally acclaimed picture books, beginning with Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy, 1983) which matches high production standards with a rigorous selection policy. Mallinson Rendel publish casebound books, whereas most other New Zealand books for children are now paperback. Cape Catley and McIndoe are, similarly, literary publishers with a small output. When McIndoe ceased publishing children's books in recent years their children's editor was among those who set up Longacre Press, which has published books by acclaimed authors Jack Lasenby and Paula Boock.

Ashton Scholastic (now Scholastic) has also established a reputation for encouraging local authors and illustrators and produces a steady flow of books, both literary and more popular. Harper Collins introduced the Tui and Tui Turbo series, in emulation of the 1980s British trend of producing uniform format series of books to encourage children to make the transition from picture books to novels.

New Zealand was placed at the forefront of international books about children's books with the publication of Dorothy Neal White's About Books for Children (1949) and Books Before Five (1954). Babies Need Books, by Dorothy Butler, was an international success when first published in 1980 and continues to be reprinted. Betty Gilderdale's A Sea Change (1982) is the standard work on New Zealand children's books to 1978. From 1970 to 1995 a vibrant periodical for children, Jabberwocky: New Zealand's Magazine for Children (Auckland) provided stimulating reading and opportunities for children's own literary efforts and comments to be published. This publication continues under the new title Allsorts & Jabberwocky.

A variety of awards have encouraged writing and publishing for children. Lynley Dodd was the first recipient of the Choysa Bursary for writers of imaginative work for children. Numerous children's authors have had terms as 'writer in residence' at colleges of education and universities, or have received grants from the State Literary Fund (now Creative New Zealand). The New Zealand Library Association initiated New Zealand children's book awards with the Esther Glen Award in 1945 and later introduced the Russell Clark Award (for illustrated books) and the non-fiction award. In addition the Government Printer sponsored an award which became the AIM and is now the New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards.

New Zealand children's book publishing is still in a healthy state in the late 1990s. Publishers demonstrate both an awareness of overseas trends and a growing interest in publishing books which reflect the New Zealand experience and Māori and Pacific cultures and languages. The fine reputation of New Zealand's highly successful educational publishers, such as Learning Media Ltd and Wendy Pye, in overseas markets is also providing additional opportunities for non-educational books by New Zealand children's authors to be marketed internationally. One thing lacking is a willingness on the part of most local newspapers and magazines to provide opportunities (or even adequate space) for in-depth reviewing of children's books.