We recently talked to newly-graduated Whitireia publishing student Mishalee Wickremesekera about her investigation into what young New Zealanders think about New Zealand books.
As part of her Diploma of Publishing, Mishalee embarked on a research project into this very topic. One part of her work involved talking to intermediate-aged students in Wellington about their attitudes toward local literature.
"Sherryl Jordan, Brian Falkner, Jane Higgins; all authors of some of my favourite books growing up. Interestingly, I had no idea they were New Zealanders until after I had read their work. It got me thinking about the way New Zealand YA is marketed to young New Zealanders. Unless you’re Margaret Mahy, Fleur Beale or Maurice Gee it’s not always obvious books have been written here," she says.
Mishalee decided to investigate three things:
- What are the current attitude towards of the young adult audience towards New Zealand literature?
- How should the industry market New Zealand YA to target young Kiwis?
- Is there a way to improve attitudes towards New Zealand literature?
"To streamline my enquiry, I decided only survey the intermediate and early high school age group, from ages 11 to 14. For these focus groups, I created a survey for them to complete but also prepared a short talk where I jogged their memories on New Zealand authors they might have read without realising, and also spoke with them about what they liked to read and how they consume content. Prior to these focus groups, I reached out to publishers to find out how they marketed to young adults and whether they factored in any kind of stigma towards New Zealand literature."
Mishalee was interested in the Book Council's 2016 report that discussed the negative impression New Zealand readers had about local fiction.
"This report was based on focus groups of an older age range and targeted people who considered themselves readers. I was interested in seeing the perspective from a mix of kids from different economic backgrounds and who didn’t necessarily consider themselves readers," she says.
"Though slightly unscientific, carrying out surveys that record people’s knowledge of local literature and their initial emotional response do help us better understand why New Zealand fiction, especially YA fiction is picked up much less than its overseas counterparts."
The focus groups
Mishalee started by asking the groups of intermediate-age students to think about what they were reading, why they chose to read it and what they’ve been reading for school. She also asked them to think about other ways they accessed storytelling.
The most avid readers in the focus groups stated that they chose books almost solely based on recommendations from their friends, teachers and parents.
"Word of mouth continues to be the best advertisement for books, and it shows that initiative like the Hooked on Books website will be fantastic for bringing New Zealand books to the forefront of reader’s minds when recommending books to others.
"One of the main things they reported about what they liked to read was action and adventure books. They enjoyed series like the Divergent series, Harry Potter (of course), and Skulduggery Pleasant. Many expressed that books had to be exciting and capture their attention. I asked them if they’d heard of books by Brian Falkner or L.J. Ritchie, which I consider to be action-packed authors, and none of the students had come into contact with either of these names," she says.
She also found that boys were spending a lot of time online.
"Many of them were big fans on online manga, Creepypasta and various fan-fiction sites. Additionally, many of them were reading books that were based on their favourite games; Minecraft, Overwatch, and Fortnite, to name a few.
"Almost all the boys I spoke with consumed their content only from online mediums. Graphic novels were also more popular than chapter books; the kids spoke excitedly about print manga, The Adventures of Tintin, Asterisk and El Deafo as graphic novels that they really enjoyed.
"I also spoke with the teachers prior to the focus groups, who told me that the students had read at least 6-10 New Zealand authors that year, either poetry or short fiction. But very few students remembered to mention this either during our discussion or in their surveys. They did, however, all remember the school journals from primary school with very positive attitudes."
When it came to which New Zealand authors the students knew, the names mentioned most often were Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley.
"In the surveys, over half of the students hadn’t or didn’t know if they’d read a New Zealand author before. However, when I began to list authors such as Jane Higgins or Sherryl Jordan, several of the students lit up, not realising they were New Zealand authors."
Attitude towards New Zealand fiction
Mishalee finished up the focus groups by asking the students how they felt about New Zealand books. The general consensus was that they books didn’t hold the same excitement as their overseas counterparts.
"One student describing it as being too ‘chur bro’, which told me there was still this idea that New Zealand literature only pertained directly to the local experience. And having not read NZ YA widely, said they found it 'too boring' and ‘New Zealand-ish’.
"For my part, I produced a list of New Zealand books for their teachers and spoke with the students about the local authors that encompassed their desire for action, comedy and a little bit of romance."
Mishalee concluded that we could do much more to connect local books with young New Zealanders.
"What I came to realise is that the target market for YA fiction is mostly unaware of many of the great New Zealand authors they could be reading. Also, that they were influenced by a general stigma towards New Zealand literature, as found in the New Zealand Book Council report."
Many thanks to Mishalee for sharing her project with us! We look forward to taking these points into consideration while planning our #readNZ campaign this year.