On the pittance of prize money for kids’ authors

In an interview soon after Atua author Gavin Bishop walked away from last month’s New Zealand Children’s Book Awards with the Margaret Mahy Supreme Prize,  plus the Illustration Category, plus the Non-Fiction Category (I’d want the man red-carded if he weren’t such a lovely guy), he offered a discreet comparison.

A supreme winner in the Ockhams Book Awards, honouring works by those who write for Big People, takes home a thoroughly deserved $60,000, Bishop noted. (Actually, it’ll go up to $62,000 next year.) He got $7500. His three triumphs in total – wins in each category of the kids’ awards are also $7500; corresponding ones in the Ockhams are $10,000 –  brought him less than half what a single Ockham supreme award brings. That second comparison is mine, by the way, not Bishop’s.

Like him, I’m delighted the Ockham winners get so much; almost any rewards for a fellow author please me, though I’ll make exceptions for Jeffrey Archer and Bob Jones. Again like him, I wonder why our children’s writers get so little in comparison.

For some years, NZ Post was the open-handed sponsor of Children’s Book Awards.  I remember one ceremony where CEO Sir Michael Cullen had to apologise for stepping over me – past me, anyway – each time he went up to make a presentation. Then emails replaced envelopes; people stopped buying stamps; that sponsorship vanished.

Since then, prize money for kids’ authors has shrunk. The Esther Glen Award of many years’ standing used to be a separate honour, with a medal and $1000 in cash. Now it’s been subsumed into the Junior Fiction category at the main awards. The Children’s Choice prizes, which brought $500 to young readers’ most popular book in each category, have disappeared.

Pause here to emphasise that I’m very, very grateful to those who do contribute to our Children’s Book Awards: Creative NZ, Hell Pizzas, The Wright Family Foundation, LIANZA, the NZ Soc of Authors and others. I also marvel at the work put in by volunteers who make the awards week possible. But the prizes have dwindled.

There were pizzas from a stack of cardboard boxes at the awards ceremony. Very tasty, too, but can you imagine such viands at the Ockhams?

So have the venues. When I first had a book short-listed, winners were announced at Government House, often with a vice-regal presence. Then the event moved to a chamber in the Beehive. Then to Circa Theatre. This year, it was the Alan Gibbs Centre at Wellington College, essentially a school hall with not much parking around it.

Another pause, to acknowledge the said college’s courtesy in providing that venue, plus – again – the work of those volunteers in securing it. It’s a big space, very necessary since over 500 attended the event. You can’t say that public interest has diminished.

But it was a school hall, with cold drafts blowing through the curtains, and we old codgers in the front row of finalists (me, Bishop, noble illustrator David Elliot) argued over whose teeth and knees were chattering most. There were drinks afterwards, and eats which were almost entirely pizzas – thanks again, Hell – from stacks of cardboard boxes. Very tasty, too, but can you imagine such a venue and viands at the Ockhams?

I went away with two awards and $8000 some years back. I got home all flushed, to find a rates demand of $800

I repeat – it’s grand Ockham winners get their $60,000-plus. That can give an author freedom to write fulltime for a carefully-measured year. The Children’s equivalent of $7500 provides such freedom for….two months? And yes, we’re grateful for that. I went away with two awards and $8000 some years back. I got home all flushed, to find a rates demand of $800. Oh, and the awards were taxable.  

It puzzles me that our Children’s Book Awards don’t attract more sponsorship.

I guess it’s partly a self-perpetuating thing. Their profile has shrunk, therefore potential funders are less attracted, therefore the profile shrinks further, therefore potential funders….etc, etc.

The awards (just like the Ockhams) also have to compete for financial support with other, possibly more high impact arts: theatre, music, ballet, opera. And with a multitude of the sports that fill screens and partially fill stadiums. I mean, Ardie Savea taking on three Springboks, or an octagenarian author talking about his novel for junior teens (it’s called Coastwatcher, by the way, available at some good bookshops)? A sponsor might not see it as much of a contest.

Does the prize money for our kids’ book awards reflect reflect condescension as in snobbery from the arts and literature world? A perception that books for children are somehow less significant than those aimed at adult readers? (Though how even a university reviewer could think that after reading Bishop’s majestic Atua is incomprehensible.) I’ve never encountered such an attitude, though some colleagues get quite snarky with claims that they have. I’ve always found our publishers supportive and enthusiastic towards work for younger readers.  Fair enough: locally published kids’ books make up some 30 per cent of sales in that field. They’re bought not just by children, but also by parents, grandparents, other whanau members, libraries, schools.

Nor have I found our writers for adults dismissive of kid’s books. Usually I’m treated as a fellow tradesperson, sharing the same delights and despair. I am occasionally met with a degree of uncertainty, as someone working in a different genre. And writing for children is a genre, just like crime fiction or fantasy / sci fi fiction, which I’ll point out also have their own coveted, modest NZ awards.

What could be a more virtuous cause and a more feel-good image than supporting NZ kids’ reading?

Perhaps some potential sponsors feel they’re not qualified for an association with children? After all, it involves them with a semi-alien lifeform. Or perhaps they see kids as a market with limited purchasing power? (But remember all those buyers of two paragraphs back.)

Anyway, I remain puzzled that companies and corporates aren’t queuing up to sponsor our Children’s Book Awards.

What could be a more virtuous cause and a more feel-good image than supporting NZ kids’ reading, and the authors who write affirmingly NZ books for them? Need I even mention the intellectual, social, emotional, psychological benefits that reading from an early age brings, the investment in well-balanced future citizens (and our next generation of writers) it represents?

And think of the photo ops: benevolent sponsor alongside bright-faced, eager kids. Surely any publicist would give her / his dentures for such a shot?

Our Children’s Book Awards are a glowing, golden chance for a company or corporation to be the good guys in an unassailably worthy cause. For God’s and Literacy’s sakes, get your PR people onto it today.

New Zealand children’s books form nearly 40 per cent of the annual Whitcoulls Top 50 Kids Books survey,  announced this morning. As follows is a list of the top 20, with Kiwi books in bold.

1 Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

2 Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd

3 Dog Man Series by Dav Pilkey

4 The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

5 Wings of Fire Series by Tui T. Sutherland

6 Diary of a Wimpy Kid Series by Jeff Kinney

7 Aroha Series by Craig Phillips & Rebekah Lipp

8 Cat Kid Comic Club Series by Dav Pilkey

9 The Little Yellow Digger by Alan & Betty Gilderdale

10 How Do I Feel? by Craig Phillips & Rebekah Lipp

11 The Treehouse Series by Andy Griffiths & Terry Denton

12 The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler

13 Bad Guys Series by Aaron Blabey

14 The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith & Katz Cowley

15 The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin

16 Tulip and Doug by Emma Wood & Carla Martell

17 Kuwi’s First Egg by Kat Quin

18 The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss

19 Nee Naw the Little Fire Engine by Deano Yippadee & Paul Beavis

20  The World’s Worst Children Series by David Walliams & Tony Ross

David Hill lives in New Plymouth, where he writes ficition and non-fiction for most age-groups. In 2021, he received the Prime Minister' Award for Fiction.

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