New Zealand Books Awards for Children and Young Adults 2020–Picturebook Category

The New Zealand Books Awards for Children and Young Adults recently announced finalists in each of their seven categories on 4 June 2020.  Nominations from books published between 1 April 2019 and 31 Match 2020 were eligible to be nominated. Since 1945 book awards for New Zealand children’s fiction have been awarded, and since then the awards have had a variety of names and sponsorship, including Aim and New Zealand Post. Since 2016 main sponsorship is from Creative New Zealand and the Library and Information Association of New Zealand and Australian (LIANZA).

In the picturebook category this year are  five finalists, and award winners in all categories will be announced online on 12 August. Here are some notes from me on the five finalists.

Abigail and the birth of the Sun by Matthew Cunningham and Sara Wilkins (Puffin). The subtitle of this picturebook, ‘A curious girl explores big ideas’ gives us a fairly accurate overview of the plot. As she gets ready for bed, Abigail asks where the sun and stars come from, and the rest of the book follows her father’s answer to this question. The author, Matthew Cunningham, is a Wellington-based historian, and I think this shows through in the clarity of his explanation of very complex ideas. Sara Wilkins, whose work I am familiar with, most recently from The Longest Breakfast (Gecko, 2018) fills the page with rich oranges and yellows as Abigail’s dad explains the Big Bang Theory, and adds details which young children will love, such as a cat, never mentioned in the text, on every page. The setting for this story is fairly non specific, except for on one page where New Zealand readers may spot a tui and a puriri moth in the illustration. This picturebook would be my pick for the winner.

The cover of Santa’s Worst Christmas (Huia), written by Huia (individual names of the authors are not supplied) and illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White is full of detail and colour. This story is clearly in a New Zealand summer setting in a vibrant and diverse coastal community. In this story Santa decides that he is not going to perform his usual Christmas duties because of a terrible set of experiences in the previous year’s Christmas; the community helps  to change his mind by creating a Santa Survival Kit and Christmas is saved. The utterances of Santa as he meets various challenges include a range of humorous alliterative phrases, very pleasing to the ear, including ‘suffering sleigh bells’, ‘ramping reindeers’ and ‘tinsel tarnation’, but overall this story does not work for me.

How Māui Slowed the Sun (Upstart Press) showcases this wonderful writing and illustrator skills of Donovan Bixley, one of New Zealand’s most prolific children’s writers. Bixley retells the well known legend of Māui deciding that daylight is not long enough, and working with his brothers using flax ropes to catch and slow the sun. As he did with his last retelling of a traditional Māori legend (How Māui Fished up the North Island) Bixley has carefully consulted with and acknowledged language and tikanga experts Dr. Darryn Joseph and Keri Opai , and this somewhat alleviates any concerns one might have concerning a Pākehā author/illustrator telling a Māori story. While I don’t personally enjoy the graphic cartoon style of the illustrations, I am sure many readers will enjoy their detail and colour. I did enjoy, however, the use of speech bubbles in the illustrations, and the way in which Te Reo Māori words and phrases are used in the predominantly English language text.

The Gobbley Degook Book. A Joy Cowley Anthology (Gecko) is, as the title suggests a collection of 20 of Cowley’s poems and short stories illustrated by Giselle Clarkson. The high quality of the design and production of this book reflects the mana of Cowley as one of our most highly regarded children’s authors. Cowley’s writing reflects her love of sound and story, and is of the highest quality; the choice of Clarkson to illustrate contributes significantly to  the high quality of the writing. There are so many stories and poems to enjoy here, but a favourite of mine is Uncle Andy’s Singlet (p. 62) about the different ways in which Uncle Andy uses his singlet (catching fish, drying dishes), leaving it rather smelly. The inclusion of a portrait of Cowley on the last page next to her quote about the importance of small is the perfect way to end the book.

Mini Whinny. Goody Four-Shoes (Scholastic) written by Stacy Gregg and illustrated by Ruth Paul follows on from the 2019 finalist Mini Winny. Happy Birthday to Me following the escapades of the miniature horse Mini Whinny. In the latest book, a new miniature horse arrives at the stables, and Mini Whinny is very jealous as Goody Four-Shoes appears to be good at everything Mini Whinny is not. The pace and arc of the story and the use of interesting language reflects the considerable skills of Gregg who is most famous for her junior fiction novels in the Pony club Secrets series. This pivot into picturebooks has been really successful, and the pairing with Ruth Paul who adds so much to the textual story in her detailed illustrations is very successful. Who knew that horses could have such expressive faces!

I hope you get a chance to look through some of the finalists for this year’s awards. Often bookshops and libraries will have them on display. The winners will be announced online on Wednesday August 12.