Thursday, 21 May 2009

What makes a good book... Or Ranty McRanty #7

Who knows!
Email lists I'm on have been full of discussion over the
New Zealand Post Book Awards winners. I understand, agree, and sympathise with many of the comments.

The 10 PM question - yes, it's lovely - but seems more an adult book - or one of those dreaded cross-over thingies. I say it's lovely, but I couldn't remember whehter I'd read it or not, until I was reading the third chapter... For this reason, Storylines didn't include Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter (the Esther Glen winner) in their Notable Books List.

Old Drumble - again, a great book, but of little appeal to current children. A nostalgic visit to childhood - one with little relevance to today's 'cotton wool' generation.

Roadworks - this hasn't gone down that well amongst primary school students - the kids most of the email list members work with - but I work with preschoolers - and this rocks!!! Perfect storytime book. [by the way - why didn't we have Big Burly Blokes reading books!

Piggity-Wiggity Jiggity Jig - reads well aloud.

The Were-Nana - creepy and fun.

Violence 101 - a workmate hates this book - sees it as a how-to manual on how to be violent. I like its grittiness and raw honesty. Teens who might 'need' such a manual, aren't always the teens who read.

What would be my books of the year? Based on the Storylines Notable Books List:

Picture book: Roadworks, although I am very tempted by The Apple. Both are true picture books - that is, where image and text work perfectly together to make a whole.

Junior fiction: Freaky Fish - how wonderful to get two books (the other being Big fish, little fish) for the younger age group that work really well, and stand up against books for older readers! I picked this one because it is part of a series for younger readers, but doesn't read like a 'reader' - it has character, plot, pace, development - and it doesn't have a pat ending.

Young adult fiction: The tomorrow code - science wonderfully integrated into story - an unashamedly New Zealand book that has sold to the US, while keeping its NZ identity. Bravo Brian.

Non-fiction: Atoms, dinosaurs and DNA - educational, interesting, and readable. What all non-fiction should be. Although, I have a fondness for Learn to skateboard with Luka - like fiction, it is rare to find good non-fiction aimed at younger children.

I remember having a discussion a couple of years ago over Genesis by Bernard Beckett. Colleagues whose opinions I respect had great issue with putting this book on the Storylines Notable Books list. They couldn't see an audience for it - in that it is a teen book, but what teenagers would be interested in reading it?

I, however, argued that it didn't necessarily make it unsuitable for inclusion. For all its faults (too much scientific content, not always seamlessly incorporated into the story, for example) it is a truly notable books - it has taken New Zealand teen literature a step further. It has amazing world-building. It does what good science fiction is supposed to do: hold a mirror to our current society and makes you seriously think about where we are at, and where we are heading.

I don't see the point of sitting at meetings discussing books when whether a book is 'notable' or not comes down to 'I didn't like it' or 'I loved it'. Yeah, sure, personal preferences/prejudices can - and do - influence your opinion, but... this isn't a decision about whether you buy/keep the book. Personal opinion, unsupported by facts, should NOT be how books are judged, in a formal context. It should be 'I don't think that the pictures and story work together' or 'that character development is unconvincing' or 'their action doesn't match the personality so far portrayed in the story'.

When on a judging panel personal preferences shouldn't outweigh quality. Someone on a notables panel with me didn't bother reading Single Fin by Aaron Topp - because they didn't like/get surfing. WTF?!? I don't either - but the book ISN'T all about surfing! Surfing is the acitivity that moulds the book, the characters, and acts as support. What the book IS is about Fin's grief, his community, and love - love of activity, love of friends, love of nature. It is staggering for a first novel.

We often wonder whether we're judging a book on its own merits - or on the backlist of the author. It IS hard, excluding a much-loved author from the notables list, but sometimes it IS necessary. Honestly, I love Margaret Mahy - but The Magician of Hoad is not one of Margaret's better works but, not only that, it just isn't a good fantasy novel.

Here endeth the rant...

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