THE FO­RUM

AGNES NIEUWENHUIZEN ON WHY THE CHIL­DREN’S BOOK COUN­CIL OF AUS­TRALIA NEEDS A RE­VAMP

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

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).

Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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