Mindfood: Choosing Children’s Books to suit both occasions and tastes, by Annemarie Florian

Annemarie Florian is a judge of the 2015 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. These are her thoughts. 

What a summer it’s been, has it not? Reminiscent of Annemarie_florian_vertmy childhood summers, when long, hot, lazy days stretched into weeks of loafing about, reading.

Reading has been particularly high on my agenda this summer too, reading and re-reading 130+ books in order to agree on a shortlist with my fellow judges for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Such a pleasure! And yet, there’s a tiny niggle -– who am I to do that?

Am I the intended audience? No, long past that; my childhood and teenage years were spent in the 20th century, much of it without TV, let alone such newfangled devices as smart phones and most definitely sans internet.

The New Zealand I grew up in was highly regulated and conformist, and therefore largely predictable; centering round family, school and friends, and in that order. Weekend entertainment, after church and regulation school sports, consisted of a trip to the beach or the pictures (never both and quite often neither). Paying attention wasn’t difficult, as spoilt for choice we were not. It’s a world away from the multi-faceted, globally-connected, activity-laden Aotearoa my grandchildren know as their community.

And while I’ve spent a good part of my adult life reading and thinking about the books we deem to be for children and teens, this chasm between my own childhood experience and that of the children and teens of today could rightfully indicate that it’s more than just a tad presumptuous for me to be doing the choosing.

It’s a welcome step forward then, to see the extra boost given this year to the Children’s Choice component of the awards. We’re encouraging Kiwi kids to take charge: alongside the books we, the expert adult judges, choose, we’re asking them to identify their favourites too – from all of the newly-published books that have been submitted. Chances are, the two lists of finalists will be quite different.

0048 BOK logo working 25So how should we choose?
There are four categories to the Awards: Picture Book, Junior Fiction, Young Adult Fiction and Non-Fiction.

Young Adult Fiction is fiction considered suitable for secondary school students and older. As with all the other categories, it can encompass a wide range of genres and styles – zombie, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, sci-fi, thriller, novels exploring global concerns, brainwashing, death, compassion, tenderness – anything and everything actually. It is, after all, a time in life when we’re interested in exploring the options around us completely, we’re branching out, making our way towards creating our own lives out of what we know around us and what we might imagine to be available elsewhere.

The Junior Fiction category covers the school years up to and including intermediate; quite a range. Again many different genre – history, fantasy, humour… But also covering a vast span of reading and comprehension abilities: books for newly independent readers who are only just mastering tying their shoelaces alongside deciphering the magic of words, up to sophisticated pubescents coping with alarming body changes and wending their way towards finding some level of comfort both in themselves and their community, or not, as the case may be.

And as for both the Picture Book and Non-Fiction categories being even remotely tied to any age range, forget it! While we often deem picture books to be for the very young, a quick perusal of my own bookshelves tells me that that is most definitely not the case; picture books are for everybody. They use image and language to tell stories on many, many levels and from a variety of perspectives, often requiring mature insights and sensibilities.

Similarly the Non-fiction category has an intended audience range from pre-school to young adult; with the added complication of pitting such diverse forms as collections of poetry against journals against data-driven exposes against historical narratives against how-to-books and more.

Far from keeping the audience in mind while we’re assessing, we really need to keep in mind a multiplicity of audiences and individuals. So yes indeed, I’m not a child or teen, for whom these books are designed. The range of finalists from last year is pictured below. 

finalist_covers_childchoiceAs a judge, I need to act like a good nutritionist, intent on finding the best mindfood, books that will provide maximum sustenance, while at the same time catering for different tastes and occasions.

For me, I’m on the lookout for thoughtful subjects and themes in all of these categories. I want our kids to know and think about things that matter, (leave what so-and-so had for breakfast or whose dog has learnt to paint/ paddle/ perform whatever, to the current digital platforms available for mindless twaddle); I’m looking for literature that’s high-fibre and protein-rich, has something substantial to chew on and digest.

Those nutritious reads must also taste good – no use having the library-pantry stocked with no-flavour-foods if they’re not going to be eaten. So I’m also looking for a good smattering of salt, sugar, herbs and spices in the form of intriguing structures, illuminating images and rich, expressive language.

Well-used, words can intensify our experiences, deepen understanding.

I have a friend who often greets me, “Hello, Treasure”. It makes me smile every time, and I go on my way just that little bit lighter, more at ease with both myself and the world because of her small blessing. That’s the thing about words, they really can make a difference, shape our mindset and behaviour.

And the written word can do more than that, it can reach out to us across time and space, allow us to enter others’ experiences, think their thoughts. May even give the children of today insight into something as strange and true as a 20th century childhood!

by Annemarie Florian