AGNES NIEUWENHUIZEN ON WHY THE CHILDREN’S BOOK COUNCIL OF AUSTRALIA NEEDS A REVAMP
THE Children’s Book Council of Australia urgently needs to reform and regenerate. But will it have the vision and courage to change? The council’s website declares that it is a volunteer, not-for-profit organisation comprising ‘‘ individual members who are passionate about children’s and young adult literature’’. Being passionate, however, does not necessarily translate into effective action.
For more than 60 years the CBCA has made a distinguished contribution to Australian children’s literature and literary culture, but the body seems to have lost its way. To maintain credibility, it needs a new structure with an office and appropriate professional staff who can respond to present needs.
Authors, publishers, booksellers and other interested parties are reluctant to voice their concerns publicly. Many no longer rely on the CBCA for support, sales or publicity. Others have given up in frustration after trying to effect change from the inside. And few wish to offend long-serving and dedicated volunteers. Loud calls for change began 12 years ago but have been resisted by a powerful old guard that fiercely protects territory and states’ rights.
Here’s how the CBCA works. A part-time secretariat in Adelaide deals with administrative tasks. Every two years the peak body operates out of a different state. Thus, by the end of this year, the CBCA will relocate from Melbourne to Brisbane with a new national executive selected from Queensland members.
The CBCA’s main function is to administer and present the annual national children’s book awards. For the awards, the national executive organises the selection of eight judges, one from each state and territory. The judging process is cumbersome, restrictive and onerous. Criteria are laid out in a 73-page handbook.
There are two groups of judges. One group judges the four clumsily named categories of Book of the Year: Older Readers ( older than what?), Book of the Year: Younger Readers ( younger than what?), Book of the Year: Early Childhood and Picture Book of the Year. Are you confused? Well, so is everyone.
This confusion clearly led to the chaos surrounding this year’s CBCA Picture Book of the Year, Matt Ottley’s Requiem for a Beast, a complex and confronting illustrated work for teenagers. Many parents and librarians were upset when some booksellers, especially in the chains, placed it among picture books for young children.
There is a perception in the book industry and in the wider community that the judges at times make poor choices and that there is too much focus on social issues and the educational aspects of books rather than on literary merit and appeal to readers. Humour, for example, is seldom recognised. Clearly, the judging process needs to be streamlined and I understand yet another committee is looking into this.
The difficulty of ensuring appropriate commercial sponsorship for the awards led the CBCA, in 1995, to set up an Awards Foundation to raise $ 1 million to support the awards at their previous monetary level in perpetuity. This goal was achieved due to the tireless work of a small group and the generosity of benefactors. Unfortunately, however, the body’s rules of governance disallowing the appointment of professional staff — and, in particular, of publicists — means the awards remain low-profile.
The CBCA’s rules do not allow for any international books to be considered for their awards, even if the books are published or translated here. Yet our authors and illustrators are published and translated widely in many countries and they win international awards. This year’s Older Readers winner, Sonya Hartnett, also won the 2008 Swedish Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s richest prize ($ 800,000) for a children’s writer.
Why doesn’t the CBCA promote Australian books and their creators internationally? One publisher told me the CBCA failed to provide ‘‘ enlightened leadership’’. Such leadership is crucial in Australia, where the importance of reading is still not embedded in the national agenda. Yet it is evident from research that being a confident, committed reader has wide-ranging positive effects on personal, intellectual, social and educational wellbeing from early childhood to old age.
The notion and practice of reader development do not have wide currency in Australia. The CBCA should be taking a leadership role here. Britain undertakes this work largely through its Booktrust. As well as administering the 2008 National Year of Reading, it manages the high-profile advocacy role of the Children’s Laureate. It runs the Bookstart scheme, which since 1999 has given away nearly eight million books to babies. Its book gift programs ( Booktime and Booked Up) continue this work for four to five and 11 to 12-year-olds respectively. It also runs campaigns such as the Letterbox Club ( for children in foster care) and Get London Reading.
It manages literary prizes, including the Orange Broadband prizes for fiction, the selffunded Early Years Awards and Booktrust Teenage Prize.
Most developed and developing countries, even those with much smaller populations than Australia such as New Zealand, Sweden and Belgium, have professionally run organisations with government, philanthropic and corporate funding offering innovative, dynamic programs that promote reading.
The European Union runs EU READ. In the US, the American Library Association has run the main children’s and youth awards for years, and it undertakes many promotional and advocacy activities.
Unless the archaic structure, rules of governance and operations of the CBCA are thoroughly revamped, it may find itself superseded by a new, high-level, national organisation that will also engage with the global book community. Agnes Nieuwenhuizen was the founding manager of the Centre for Youth Literature, State Library of Victoria, until her retirement in 2005. She is the author of Right Book Right Time: 500 Great Reads for Teenagers ( Allen & Unwin).