Auckland children’s book authority, reviewer, judge and graphic artist Crissi Blair was this year's winner of the Storylines Betty Gilderdale Award for an outstanding contribution to New Zealand children’s books, publishing and literacy.
Crissi has been a prominent national figure in the world of children’s literature for nearly 20 years. She writes for our e-newsletter The School Library, and for the Australian review magazine Magpies, for which she is now New Zealand coordinator. Her own sought-after publication New Zealand Children’s Books in Print ran from 2005 to 2013.
Crissi is a passionate advocate for children's books and reading, and here she shares with us her tips on how to encourage more books, more reading, and more love for both!
Kia ora Crissi. Can you tell us a bit about the work you’ve done to advocate for young readers?
What I do is quite simple. I read books and talk about them… to everyone!
I really love book people too, and I find that the more you know about the people who make the books, and can share that with kids, the more they get out of the books themselves. That’s why it works to well to get authors and illustrators into schools. Students never forget it and have that extra connection with the books.
So I talk about books and their creators with pretty much everyone I meet. I interrupt and make recommendations in book shops; I ask kids I meet what they are reading; I tell new parents how important it is to read to their kids from the very beginning. As I have said many times, books are my work and my pleasure.
Why are school libraries important?
School libraries can, and should, be the heart of the school. In this space you can keep a wide and diverse range of reading material suitable for the abilities and interests of the age the school caters for. This space can be shared by the whole school. A classroom, or an individual home, cannot hope to have the depth and breadth of reading available that can be kept in the library. Now every child, and staff member, should be able to borrow whatever book they choose from that library. These books provide whole worlds for the readers to explore, other people’s shoes to walk in, experiences to live through vicariously, to empathise with. Through this reading they grow their understanding and their vocabulary, they learn to communicate their own feelings, to create their own stories and adventures. Many children live in very narrow physical worlds, they don’t meet lots of different people, or go to places outside their local area, but through the books they read they can have experiences, visit other times and places and come to understand people, problems (and solving them) and understand the emotions of themselves and others.
Of course the big secret to a good school library is having a good librarian to run it. School librarians need to know their books and be able to help students find the right book to keep them reading. There are lots of other library skills to be learned about how to research etc, but building the love of reading is top priority. There needs to be enough funding to keep the collection current and in good condition. Remember, the library, and librarian, will benefit the whole school and are well worth the investment.
You’ve been a judge of the NZCYA books recently. What do you look for when choosing an award-winner?
It begins with the basics of a good story, an original idea, genuine interesting characters. The writing needs to be fresh and with good pacing and a logical, evolving story with a few interesting twists and turns and an ending that makes sense. It’s also really important to me that the story is well-edited, without spelling or grammatical errors, and nicely laid out with an appropriate and eye-catching cover.
Picture books are probably my most favourite form of children’s book and it always thrills me when I see illustrations that are a bit different to what I’ve seen before. The pictures need to carry at least 50% of the story and hold elements that maybe aren’t obvious on first reading. A picture book has to be worth reading multiple times with new things to discover. It also needs to be enjoyable for the adult reader to be happy to read for many repeats. Humour is common in children’s picture books, but I especially love those picture books that are about difficult subjects like death, loss, family problems. These are a doorway to open discussions about tough topics.
I’m not a big non-fiction person, but I am thrilled by book design so love to see any non-fiction topic dealt with in a stylish and well-fact-checked way, with all the features a good non-fiction book should have like an index so you can find what you want. Even NF for little kids should have this so they learn right from the start that there are easy ways to navigate a book of facts.
What is it that makes for engaging picture book illustration, and do you have a favourite illustrator?
There are so many elements that contribute to the illustrations being successful. They can be very simple, or full of details to be discovered on repeated readings. I love engaging, expressive, original characters who convey emotion and movement with the slightest change in position or facial expression. They need to be appealing and evolve in the course of the story. I learned a lot about illustration from being on the judging panel for the Storylines Gavin Bishop Award. Gavin would say again and again – ‘they’ve got to be able to draw’. You can learn a lot about technique and storytelling but if you can’t draw in the first place – and I don’t mean perfect life-like drawing, but with a strength of line and sense of movement, and that special something.
One of my favourite New Zealand illustrators is Vasanti Unka. I love the way she mixes her design and illustration skills to create really unique books. One of my early, and enduring favourites illustrated by her is Hill and Hole - written by Kyle Mewburn. Amazing textural paintings that miraculously made a hill and a hole into living, breathing characters. I also have a big interest in typography and hand-drawn type and her The Boring Book ticks all those boxes. I’m also still admiring this year’s picture book winners The Bomb by Sasha Cotter and Josh Morgan, and Puffin the Architect by Kimberley Andrews and can’t wait to see what these new illustrators are going to produce next.
On the international stage, I’ve love everything Oliver Jeffers has ever done, particularly A Child of Books, made with letterpress pro Sam Winston. Another who never fails to exceed expectations is Shaun Tan, especially the masterpiece that is The Arrival.
What do you love about your job as a school librarian, and what do you find challenging?
I love discovering new books and introducing them to the students, and finding books that I know will thrill particular people. When I buy something new for the library I pretty much always have a reader in mind for it. It’s wonderful to see readers grow and discover new authors, series, or even a whole new genre of books that they can’t get enough of. There are many students who race in to the library first thing in the morning to get their next book before the days starts.
All our classes come to the library once in the 10-day timetable and I always begin by reading a picture book. Even the most restless of students will usually sit and listen happily to find out what I have for them each book. I’m lucky that as a reviewer I get a lot of brand new books so my students get to be first readers too, and their response to books influences my reviews. They played a big part in my evaluation of the awards books over the last two years.
It’s challenging to keep a balance between students enjoying themselves in the library and having a reasonably peaceful place for those who want to read or study. In class time we expect that students will spend time reading the book of their choice to themselves but also encourage them to share their reading with classmates and completing the Hell Pizza Reading Challenge wheels has been a big thing in the library too, with some students completing more than a dozen wheels. This amount of reading has had tangible results in improved reading scores, and their own new appreciation of what they can find in the library. Lunchtimes are a bit mad with computers to game on, devices to borrow, games like chess, Uno, Scrabble, drawing, making, and of course reading. On a Wednesday we have a reader-only lunchtime that’s a more peaceful mid-week refuge.
We also have a book club that runs after school on a Monday. It’s popular and attracts a range of readers in both ability and areas of interest. We have quizzes and take teams to the Kids’ Lit Quiz and West Auckland Book Battle, plus a trip to the Auckland Writers Festival School Days each year. We share our favourite books and do activities around those and promoting reading, along with writing activities such as responding to Paula Green’s Poetry Box Blog monthly challenge, and other competitions that come up, including those that we run in the library linked with whatever the current displays are.
We recently had a Facebook post about parents reading to their children, and you left a fantastic comment about how we can set up reading as an everyday habit. Can you share with us some ideas for how parents can help spark a love of reading in their children?
The best advice is to have lots of books in the home and read to your kids at every opportunity. You can read to the tiniest of babies and they will respond, and learn to love the experience of being close to you and enjoying books together. Owning books is terrific, and children will quickly express their love for particular books over others. But ownership isn’t everything; you can sign your child up for a library card as a baby and borrow a stack of books every week or two. The library gets new books in all the time so you will be able to have an every changing array of reading material.
If parents weren’t read to themselves they sometimes feel a bit self-conscious about reading aloud, but it’s worth just giving it a go. Children don’t mind if you’re not the best reader. The more you do it, the better you’ll get (the same principle applies to new child readers). If you can go to story time sessions at your local library you’ll pick up ideas of things to do too, and there are reading lists and, best of all, librarians there to help you choose the next good book. Just spending some time in the library on a regular basis then taking a pile of books – chosen by yourself and your child, will slowly build up the reading experience for you all. Trying out funny voices, reading stories with good rhythm and rhyme, making the animal noises etc will all get a good response from the child. As they get older and learn to read themselves, don’t stop reading aloud! Reading chapter books together gives you a shared world of story in common. In our family we read all of the Harry Potter series as the books came out a year apart and it’s still a huge cultural reference for us all, along with many others.
Which books, poets or other writers have been special to you in your life? And, which children’s books?
There are so many that have had a special impact on me it’s hard to pick just a few. The most influential person from the book world was definitely Dorothy Butler, my son’s grandmother, and a huge figure in NZ’s children’s literature world – the shop she started is still my go-to place to find good books – The Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop in Ponsonby. She wrote Babies Need Books (and many others) which I still recommend to new parents (and would love to see an updated edition of!). She and I had many hours discussing and sharing books for kids and in many ways she is the reason why I do what I do now.
I had three terrific years as Festival Manager for Storylines Festival where I worked with some of my kid lit idols such as Anthony Browne, Shaun Tan, Babette Cole and Colin Thompson, and they have a special place on my shelves, along with more recent author/illustrators I’ve met through writing about them for Magpies, like Oliver Jeffers and Lauren Child, but it’s been the New Zealand authors and illustrators who I’ve come to know and love, and see go from strength to strength over the years who I really treasure – Vasanti Unka, Sandra Morris, Melinda Szymanik, Gavin Bishop, Paula Green and Kate De Goldi. and some of the ‘new kids on the block’ who I’ve got to know through the awards and now am waiting to see what they’ll produce next such as Kimberley Andrews, Sasha Cotter and Josh Morgan.
As NZ coordinator for Magpies magazine I get to see most new NZ books for children and young adults, though can’t read them all myself, so I’m always experiencing the thrill of opening packages of new books and each time hoping for that special something.
I also have a love for verse novels, which is one of my favourite formats to recommend to students at school. A couple of those favourite authors are Sarah Crossan (One, ToffeeI) and Kwame Alexander (The Crossover, Booked).
What are you reading right now, and have you got any book recommendations for us? (These two things don’t necessarily need to be related)
I always have a big TBR pile, predominantly made up of kids' books. I run a book group for adults reading books for teens (through Time Out Bookstore) and my current read for that is the latest Katherine Rundell title The Good Thieves. Her Rooftoppers is one of my all-time favourites. I’ve also just purchased second hand all the books of Cynthia Voight’s Tillerman series of YA novels, which was one of the first recommendations from Dorothy Butler. Most of them are out of print now but I found them second hand and am going to love re-reading them and lending them to some teen readers I know.