Why New Zealand literature deserves your support, by Melinda Szymanik

Children’s author Melinda Szymanik posted this on her blog this morning, and I immediately wanted to repost it. Melinda is the author of many wonderful books, most recently Fuzzy Doodle, illustrated by Donovan Bixley, which is still in my top 10 children’s books for this year.

pp_melinda_szymanikWhy New Zealand literature is necessary…

My parents were immigrants. World War 2 pushed them out of their home country Poland and brought them, via a truly circuitous route, to New Zealand. I was born here about seven years after their arrival.

My Polish heritage informed so much of my early life. The food we ate, the people we socialised with, the traditional folk dancing I learned, the national costume I owned and sometimes wore. To my regret, I didn’t learn the language. In my tender years I didn’t appreciate the value of doing so. I found it hard. And I eagerly embraced the language of my peers (I love the English language. We are always doing gymnastics together). But at school I enjoyed having this exotic Eastern European background. I was the only Polish kid in class. It felt special. So I wore it with pride.

I was a booky kid. I read a lot in school right from the beginning. I hung out at libraries all the time. The Lion,The Witch and The Wardrobe (although I started with The Silver Chair after picking up the hardback for a bargain price at a school fair), The Famous Five, Paddington Bear, The Moomintrolls, Baron Munchausen, The Moon in the Cloud, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys, The Hobbit, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Flambards, The Outsiders, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Dark is Rising, Fairy Tales, The Odyssey, Robin Hood, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and many, many, many more. Are you sensing a theme to my reading yet?

The only New Zealand literature I was exposed to as a child was what the School Journal provided. There was no Margaret Mahy or Joy Cowley, Maurice Gee, Fleur Beale or David Hill back then. I read one short story by Witi Ihimaera and didn’t understand it at all, because it was a single drop in a vast ocean of the European and US literary heritage I was consuming in vast quantities.

It became difficult to sustain the atmosphere of Polishness as we all grew up. We had to get on with our Kiwi lives. We didn’t forget but wore it more on the inside than the outside. And the pre-war Poland of my parent’s experience was unreachable, existing in memory but no longer in reality. And my empathy and understanding of people and the world learned through books filtered everything through a foreign lens. What is it to be a New Zealander? I’m still figuring it out. I can’t help always feeling a restlessness that can’t be answered, predicated as it is on a nostalgia for a lost heritage that can never be recovered, and a literary education built on cultures to which I can never belong.

If you want New Zealand children to understand their own culture, to feel it in their bones, then it must be provided to them in their literature. It helps ground them, makes them feel strong in their roots, connects them to this place and to each other. It reflects their experience back at them, reinforcing its value. We must embrace our own literature. It is a tremendous gift that must be protected and encouraged. We can’t just measure it as a product with sales, because its impact is lifelong, far reaching and life changing. It needs to be everywhere and we need to pay it way more respect then it gets now.

by Melinda Szymanik

Melinda blogs here regularly about children’s writing and other things as they arise. Some great pieces recently include her post on getting through the mid-career doldrums and how to stay sane/hydrated/not-exhausted during launch week.

Book Review: Fuzzy Doodle, by Melinda Szymanik and Donovan Bixley

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_fuzzy_doodleThis book is one to treasure. From the first squiggle to the final page, Fuzzy the doodle leads you on a playful word adventure as he grows…and grows…and grows.

This is The Hungry Little Caterpillar redux, but instead of fruit & picnic treats, Fuzzy craves writing, ink and colour. And as fuzzy eats, he is redefined. The fonts change, the words shine glossily from the page, and eventually the metallics see a royal tinge added to Fuzzy’s fur.

As well as the growth of Fuzzy the caterpillar, this flawlessly rhyming story tells us about the growth of a book, the growth of a writer and artist, and the growth of a reader. The story grows in confidence as Fuzzy ‘hoovers’ up words, sentences and paragraphs. It took me a few reads to understand the brilliance of this book, and I was grateful for this. I do like a good book about books and booklovers, but that story is being worn out: telling it in this way was fresh for me, with a familiar transformation story for the kids to hang on to.

The style of the illustrations is walking a fine line between brilliance and chaos, but of course, Donovan Bixley is one of our most adaptable illustrators – and with him designing the book as well, every splash, whoosh and nibble has been carefully designed to sit on the page just so. Fuzzy Doodle displays flawless interaction between an author and illustrator, and good on Scholastic for putting the money into the printing to make this book shine.

Parent, buy this book and read it to your kids as they learn to read, write and squiggle.
Just remember:

‘Fuzzy started as a scribble,
just a scrawly little doodle,
a smudgey sort of ‘something’
at the bottom of the page.’

He’s been through a lot since, and now he is splendid.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Fuzzy Doodle
by Melinda Szymanik & Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775432500 HB / 9781775434061 PB

Exciting Tales and All Right Release, and Creating Worlds, at WORD Christchurch, Saturday 30 August

As a writer, bookseller and dedicated bibliophile, I make it my practice to attend as many literary events as I can. It is fun to recognise faces, and engage in networking, as well as meeting some of the authors that I admire. Today, at the Christchurch WORD festival, there was the chance to do a bit of both, along with making some new discoveries. Today, I attended three of the events, the following two of which were free.

The first event was Exciting Tales and All Right? Book Launch at 11.30 am, hosted by librarian and children’s book blogger/expert, Zac Harding. cv_felix and the red ratsThree authors, two of which are local faces, read selected pieces from their books. The first to take the stand was James Norcliffe, poet, writer and educator.  He had selected two passages from his tale x and the Red Rats, a finalist in the Junior Fiction category of the NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. This tale is an entwined narrative of two different words − blending the modern and the fantastical. In his strong, expressive manner, Norcliffe first revealed to us the mystery of the red rats, then took us on a pig-bound flight of fancy.

He was followed up by Desna Wallace, school librarian, bookseller and author, reading from her story, Earthquake. Part of the “My Story” range for Scholastic, it is written in diary format. She took us back to April, 2011, after the second of the major earthquakes, and to a time of relative calm, allowing us to re-live the royal wedding through the eyes of her (fictional) narrator.

Third up was Melinda Syzmanik, cv_a_winters_day_in_1939a prolific and experienced professional author. Her chosen reading was taken from A Winter’s Day in 1939, another NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults finalist – and winner of the Librarian’s Choice Award at the LIANZA Book Awards. Whilst a fictional story, this tale developed from her father’s own experiences in Poland during World War II. Beautifully told, it transported us into 12-year old Adam’s world, and the uncertainity he faced as he and his family were transported to a Russian work camp. Her language is compelling, and left me eager to learn more.

With the readings finished, it was time for the All Right? book launch. This nifty little staple-bound chapbook was available for free, and contains poetry from the very talented students from the School for Young Writers. After a brief introduction, we were treated to short readings from the children, ranging in age from Year 5 to Year 11. All spoke with confidence and clarity, stepping boldly up to the microphone (in some cases they were barely visible over the podium) and reading out their imagery-rich pieces. Their evocative prose, to say so much in so few words, left me feeling like a rank amateur. A particular favourite of mine was “Dust Mite Mountains”.

After that, it was time for a short break before the next event, Creating Worlds, in which five wonderful young adult novelists − two international − read from their works. This was one of the events I was most excited about, as two of the authors are particular favourites of mine. Once again, each guest was skilfully introduced by Zac Harding.

The first to step up to the elizabeth_knoxpodium was Elizabeth Knox, author of The Vintner’s Luck and the Dreamhunter duet. She read a passage from Mortal Fire, winner of the NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, in the Young Adult category. Her selected passage tied in loosely with the “Dreamhunter / Dreamquake” duo.

word-LainiTaylorFollowing her up was Laini Taylor, from Portland, America. One of my favourite writers, her writing has enchanted me since I first discovered it, and she selected a passage from the wonderful Daughter of Smoke and Bone, first announcing that she had chosen the most embarrasing chapter for her to read aloud, and then keeping us spellbound through it. With her lyrical language combined with the wry humour and her rather charming accent, it was an excellent way to re-experience her writing.

Next up, Karen Healey took the stage. She is both author and a school teacher with a strength of character and charisma that added extra charm to her tellings. Instead of reading to us from one of her books, of which there are four, she read us a short story from her smart phone. Entitled “Careful Magic” it is to feature in an anthology, and one I shall definitely consider purchasing. Her tongue-in-cheek humour and rich use of language shone through.

Tania Roxborogh then read us a passage from her novel Third Degree. Her dialogue was very clever, and her rather descriptive prose as her narrator was being treated for serious burns had us wincing at the imagery.

WORD-Web-Event-INTERESTINGWe concluded with American author Meg Wotlizer, whom I am ashamed to say I was unfamiliar with previously. This is something I intend to remedy! Her chosen piece was taken from the not-yet-released-in-NZ Belzhar,  a novel inspried by Sylvia Platt’s The Bell Jar (which all of the authors, but few in the audience, had read).  The short piece she read to us had me instantly hooked, and I am definitely going to be hunting down a copy of this one to read in full!

Overall, it was a wonderful opportunity to hear the authors read their work, giving it the passion that it clearly deserves, and I felt privileged to be able to attend.

by Angela Oliver, writer, artist, bookseller and reviewer

Book Review: The Song of Kauri, by Melinda Szymanik & Dominique Ford


Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

Cloaked in mist, warmed by the sun and stirred by a whirling wind, Kauri grows tall and wise through passing years and changing times. This is his song.

Melinda Szymanik is a writer for children and young adults, inspired by TV, world events, history, periodicals and the complex process of ‘growing-up’. She’s had stories published in multiple journals, behind the wonderful Jack the Viking. She’s been twice been short-listed for the Joy Cowley Award, in 2003 and 2006, and recently won the LIANZA Librarian’s Choice award for A Winter’s Day in 1939. 

She grew up in Auckland and gained a Master of Science in Zoology at Auckland, a Diploma in Business Studies and a then Bachelor of Arts in English at Massey University. She’s one brainy lady. Her current day job is as co-director with her husband, of their own communications and marketing business but on the side she’s famous for some very quirky kid’s books including The Were-Nana.

Her latest is a semi-traditional tale in an oratory style. It has a lyrical, old world flavour and feels like an ancient tale. It’s hard to know exactly who the audience is because many of the words are often quite complex and challenging. But read out load all kids of any age will enjoy this. The illustrations are a forest fire: intense, energetic and arresting.

Sometimes the illustrations are a little too complicated, other pages they are to simple. For myself, I prefer realist to surrealistic. Many seem blurry in moments and reminiscent of the early School Journal art in the 1960’s. None the less, for the right audience this will make a great book. The gentle references to Maori traditions and iconography linger, without being patronising. It’s a brave move and pays off.

by Tim Gruar

The Song of Kauri
by Melinda Szymanik & Dominique Ford
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775432289

Book Review: A Winter’s Day in 1939, by Melinda Szymanik

cv_a_winters_day_in_1939This book is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, in the Junior Fiction section. It is available at bookstores nationwide, and we have a giveaway of this book on our Facebook page.

I had my pick of the finalists of the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and I am pleased that I picked this one up! It isn’t my usual reading material, but it was a very interesting insight into a part of the European war history that I wasn’t completely aware of.

This book is based on the true story of Melinda’s father, who was, along with his family, taken from his home in Poland by the USSR and placed into a series of camps in Russia. Run of course by socialist principles, those over 14 worked for a small wage, while the children were left to their own devices. If this was all, it would be a very short story – but  the problem of what to do with these displaced Poles became a saga, with the family crossing thousands of miles to several different camps around Russia.

At the beginning of the war, Hitler had a deal with Stalin to stay out of the USSR, in return for their help in clearing some of the pesky Eastern Europeans out of their countries so he had an easy run. Stalin was happy to oblige, but all this changed in June 1941 when Hitler pushed on into Mother Russia. Suddenly, the Poles were allies and the able-bodied men and women were given the opportunity to sign up for the displaced Polish army.

The book highlights the psychological and physical impacts that World War 2 had on civilians who were deemed to be in the way. Being transplanted from your homeland and having your property and all you own removed from you was only the beginning. The effects of living in close quarters in camps ruled by those who only knew their orders created problems with disease and starvation on a massive scale. There were approximately 6 million Polish civilians killed through ‘crimes to humanity’, as well as through  famine and disease. The cost to the Polish population as a whole was higher than the cost to any other population in the world (stats from Wikipedia).

While this could be grim handled the wrong way, Melinda tackles it from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy, and though of course he observes all this, she manages it without making the family’s plight seem at all hopeless. Through everything, the boy enjoys relationships with animals big and small, as a way of keeping his mind off the real atrocities happening around him. The protagonist is determined to survive, and to ensure his family survives, and he learns a lot about human behaviour along the way.  Melinda is a very skilled observer of family relationships, and this is what really brings the book to a higher level.

A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a well-written book, perfectly pitched for the junior fiction audience. I would like to encourage everybody with a child in this age range to encourage their child to read it, for entertainment as well as for the subject matter.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

A Winter’s Day in 1939
by Melinda Szymanik
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775430308

Book Review: While You Are Sleeping, by Melinda Szymanik, illustrations by Greg Straight

Available in bookstores now. cv_while_you_are_sleeping

Melinda Szymanik has written children’s picture books, short stories and novels.  She was born in Auckland. Greg Straight is a graduate of Elam School of Fine Arts, born in Auckland.

I always have a sense of anticipation whenever a delivery of books arrives on my doorstep to review.  I certainly haven’t been disappointed with the latest books.  While you are sleeping is a fabulous book with exquisite illustrations by Greg Straight. These illustrations are sharp and bright, with lovely clear text describing each drawing.

The author Melinda Szmanik, takes us on a journey of what happens while we are sleeping. People on the other side of the world going about their lives, animals of the night foraging for food, birds that only fly at night, long distance vehicles driving through the night, plus other scenarios.

The idea of what happens during the night while we are sleeping appealed to me and one that most children probably would not think about.  Small children are fascinated with anything different and so soak up any ideas that are presented to them.  I could imagine both of  the very small children in my family loving this book. Recommended.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

While you are sleeping
by Melinda Szymanik, illustrated by Greg Straight
Published by Duck Creek Press
ISBN 9781877378782

Book review: A Winters Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

cv_a_winters_day_in_1939This book is in bookstores now

It’s always interesting when you read a book about a well-known event and an entirely different perspective is presented that makes you pause and think. As the cover of this book suggests, it is set in World War II and the narrator is Adam, a 12 year-old Polish boy whose family are uprooted and relocated to various labour camps in Russia.

Reminiscent of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the main character, an adventurous boy named Adam, has no idea what is actually happening to him; the political background remains unspoken. Of course, as readers in 2012 we know the unspeakable terrors of World War II are not far away.

I really like the authentic voice that this character has – he is undeniably his age, and he never quite comes to grip with why the events that unfold in this book (and his life) actually happen. It’s easy to believe in this young character, who is in fact the author’s father.

Melinda Szymanik has skilfully managed to recreate her father’s young persona and avoids any temptation to preach, inform, or explain this war. Adam never becomes bitter and jaded, he still notices the small wonders of life and is resolute in his will to survive.

The book opens with the family’s idyllic life on a farm awarded to Adam’s father for military service. They are hard working, and enjoy a comfortable and fruitful, if not wealthy, life. But the new authorities have decided the farm should be re-gifted to another man and rather suddenly, the family are ousted from their farm and find themselves heading to places unknown. Their imposed long train journey starts in a cattle wagon and finishes in what appears to be a concentration camp albeit without the gas chambers. Disease, death and hunger accompany this family through their enforced journeys through a vast area we would know as Russia and Persia.

Weeks, months and years pass. The end, when it comes, is thrust upon Adam’s family as suddenly as that first train trip was thrust upon them. This plight of displaced persons during World War II makes a sobering read, but this is a tale of survival and although Adam’s family is changed beyond recognition through their experience, there is a happily ever after.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

A Winters Day in 1939
By Melinda Szymanik
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775430308