New Zealand Listener
The annual reinvented, a new history of the Western Front campaign and books
A reinvention of an old tradition is a pick-your-own miscellany for intrepid readers.
Annuals of the past were “all about a middle-class, white man’s world”.
‘ Hey you, big eyes. Do you want to hear a story?” So, with easy warmth, new writer Renata Hopkins ushers us into the first issue of Annual. Her story, The Tailor’s Tale, traces the genesis of a toy sewn from stolen clothes. Selectively stolen clothes, mind, all pinched out of sentiment. “I am a thing made with love,” the story concludes with a deliberate nod to its host. “Such things tell a story of their own.”
From there, Annual is pick-your-own, and all of it is wonderful: poetry, comics, a film script; essays on art and photography and one on a very special maths teacher. There’s a spot-the-difference with a difference. Coco Solid draws a modern family; Samuel Scott contributes a song called “Always on Your Phone”: “If I had a screen that I could touch/Then I too could lose my mind/Touching screens till the end of time …”
Annual is the antithesis of the touch screen: 42 pieces of miscellany on 136 pages of heavy paper stock, bound up in a K Bar-orange hardback and embossed with etchings by Gregory O’Brien. Made with love and conviction, it is a thing of beauty. Quite probably, think its co-editors Kate de Goldi and Susan Paris, it’s the first children’s annual ever made in New Zealand.
We’ve read our share, of course. For the first half of last century, the summer holiday standbys were Girl’s Own Paper and Boy’s Own Paper. Unmistakably British, they dripped with school chums, bluebirds, galoshes and golly goshes – and what de Goldi has called “noxious” values. (Boys got sports and sharks and exciting adventures; girls, domesticity.)
Clearly there was money in the stocking-stuffer market: annuals soon abounded for comics, for Girl Guides and Boy Scouts, for sports and for toys and for TV shows.
Paris never spent time with such annuals, although she did catch the odd
glimpse of a Famous Five or Secret Seven edition. But de Goldi fondly remembers these “big, glorious potpourris of reading and looking”. She recalls the weekly trip to the corner bookstore for her Pinky and Perky magazine, and the annual that always came out in time for Christmas. Other children favoured Princess Tina or Bunty or Rupert the Bear annuals “which I thought were sort of weird and camp”. As opposed to Pinky and Perky, a pair of puppet pigs? “Yeah, exactly, what am I talking about?” she says, with a laugh. There’s been a lot of laughter in this project.
De Goldi and Paris say that the only thing Annual has in common with those old, weird, keenly gendered exotics is its format.
But two quite special annuals produced by Puffin in 1974 and 1975 became Annual’s “benign guiding spirits”. These compilations were richly literary, featuring cover art by New Zealander Jill McDonald and stuffed with work by the Puffin stable of greats such as Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, Elisabeth Beresford (creator of the Wombles) and Raymond Briggs ( The Snowman).
On the back, Annual is described as being “for intrepid readers”. Intrepid? The kind of kids who read cereal boxes, clarifies Paris. “Not kids who say, ‘Oh, I only read Harry Potter.’ It’s for kids who are open. Who are readers.”
De Goldi: “In fact, I think we’d both further contend that most kids are that kind of reader, if they’re given the chance. Most of the time, they’re not.”
Young-adult fiction and picture books for younger children are thriving. But publishing for the nine to 12 age group has measurably dropped away internationally over the past five years, de Goldi argues, and the empty shelves have been filled by series books and “somewhat gratuitous entertainment”.
“Which are fine, in their place, but that age group is up for so much more. They’re the most visually literate generation ever, they are enormously sophisticated linguistically and across a whole series of platforms. They’re smart as and ready for anything.”
Specifically, de Goldi said in her address to the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) congress in August, these children are missing out on “more nuanced, reflective, literary fictions, the fictions that shape an intelligence and a moral compass, the fictions that accustom readers to complexity, to the myriad moral shadings of human being”.
In that speech, de Goldi also spoke of mulling all this over during one of her “thinking runs”, and stopping stock-still when the solution came to her. A New Zealand annual would do double duty, she realised, delivering sophisticated material to underserved readers and a platform
for new writers and illustrators, not to mention a much-needed outlet for those already established.
She called Gecko Press. She called her friend Paris, a writer who has edited the School Journal for the past nine years and so is familiar with curating miscellany. Their enthusiasm was fired into evange- lism. Creative New Zealand provided two grants of $50,000, to fund the first two editions.
Commissioning was a breeze. Only two people who were approached declined to take part, and the others relished the briefs devised by the editors. For example, they asked James Brown for found poetry, sourced from material familiar to kids, and he used school newsletters to create the merrily astute Lost Items, featuring kids as lost property. Boarding schools and alpha girls had to feature, given their omnipresence in the earlier annuals, so Barbara Else summoned up a robot girl who’s struggling to learn the ropes.
When Damien Wilkins filed his story “The Glove”, Paris devoured the lot on her phone and was left “on a total high”. She showed it to her 11-year-old daughter, hoping for a similar reaction. “She put the phone down and said, ‘That is such a good story.’” Her mother breathed out. They were on the right track.
Zeal aside, de Goldi points out “we did have to think carefully about the balance overall”.
Paris: “Because that was what was so wrong with the annuals of the past, right?”
De Goldi: “It was all about a middleclass, white man’s world.”
So the gender split, of both the contributors and the characters, was not left to chance. Nor was the picture that Annual paints of our country’s ethnic make-up.
Gregory O’Brien gets a double page for his “Niue Daybook”, an illustrated guide to spearing fetu fotofoto (crown-of-thorns starfish). Photographer Edith Amituanai responds to Mark Adams’ iconic 1978 image Tatau, in which three Samoan men tattoo a fourth. Another essay on art – one of five in this first edition – examines
Tony Fomison’s masterpiece The Ponsonby Madonna, which depicts a Pasifika mother and son.
Including art critiques at all is a first for annuals, the editors believe. They hope it gives young readers, many of whom might be completely flummoxed by art, a way to organise their thoughts – and the reassuring message that not everything they see or read has to be understood right away.
“That’s a huge part of a child’s reading life,” de Goldi says. “Some aspects of a story or a piece might lodge with you and some might slip by, but as you develop and come back to them, more things come into view.”
Christmas – Annual’s trial by fire – looms. The response from festival audiences so far has been “semi-ecstatic”, de Goldi says with some relief. “We oscillate between great optimism and slight anxiety. We have real ambition for this. We see it as a very conscious attempt to make a mark in how we consider children’s publishing and what we think kids might be up for. And we’ll just wait and see now.”