Children’s Book Week, Australia

Since 1945, the Children’s Book Council of Australia has been promoting quality children’s literature in this country. It does so through activities, outreach, and through a venerable program of literary awards. These awards are celebrated every year in Children’s Book Week, and they’re an important event in the children’s literature calendar. Children, teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators and publishers eagerly await the announcements. The endorsement of the Children’s Book Council means a lot–it’s a stamp of approval for children’s literature that the judges regard as beautifully produced, well written and illustrated, and relevant to children’s lives. There are several categories, by age group and genre, and then there is the announcement of the overall winner, the Book of the Year.

Normally Children’s Book Week is held in August (towards the end of the Australian winter–a reliable sign that spring is coming…), but this year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is held in October. This week, in fact.

In a year which demonstrated how difficult the world can be, the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards have recognised thought-provoking and uplifting stories that allow young people to take on all challenges

I must say, that although it has been a difficult year, it has also been a year in which the value of storytelling–of writing and reading, of producing and receiving stories–has been well and truly recognised. Even though in Australia the artistic community has been hit very hard by the impacts of the COVID-19 shutdowns (and our governments could be doing rather more to support creative industries in general), it’s very clear how much we rely on storytelling–to lift our spirits, free our minds, open up the world to our imaginations, and help us think through all sorts of issues. There’s something about immersing oneself in a book that is better for the brain that the jittery rush of doom-scrolling and constant panic about the state of the world.

I’ve been watching in admiration as writers and illustrators adjust their usual whirlwind of book tours and classroom visits to promote their works, and encourage the joy of stories–through zoom events, online conferences, twitterfests and more.

And so it’s wonderful to see the Children’s Book Council of Australia also adjust–one of Australia’s older literary establishments finding a way to celebrate storytelling in these strange times. The theme for Book Week this year is Curious Creatures, Wild Minds, and you can click on the link to see the program for the week.

And in terms of the Book of the Year, here are the announcements, made by well-known Australians: enjoy!

CBCA Book of the Year Awards 2020

–Elizabeth Hale

Rainbow Connections….

Rainbows and their association with hope are part of the culture at the moment, as locked-in children waiting out the coronavirus pandemic are drawing rainbows and putting them on their windows.

Window-rainbow, Reading, UK

It’s a lovely idea, and it got me thinking–about all sorts of things, but especially rainbows.

There are quite a few theories about rainbows–the pots of gold at the end of them, their symbolism of healing and recovery in the flood myths of the ancient world. They are used in the modern world to symbolise diversity, peace, cooperation. They are bright, they are gaudy, they are multicoloured, and they are rather gorgeous.

Iris the Colourful

In Ancient Greek mythology, there is Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, a messenger of the gods. A colourful figure! She appears in Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams’s Goddess Girls, shooting around on a rainbow.

In her own adventure, Iris the Colourful, Zeus asks her to go to the underworld to collect magic water from the river Styx. On her journey, Iris works out how to use her rainbows to get around, and becomes a popular messenger for the other goddessgirls and godboys…

the idea of Iris

riding a rainbow

passing notes from Zeus or Hera

makes a giggle rise up/ inside me

(Shari Green, Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess, p. 44)

Riding a rainbow–Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess

It’s good to have an Iris around, as Canadian author Shari Green’s Macy Macmillan and the Rainbow Goddess proves. I loved this book–it’s a verse novel about Macy, a sixth-grader who finds out from her elderly neighbour, Iris, how to deal with all sorts of stuff. Macy has a lot on her mind: her divorced mother is remarrying, they will have to move into a new house with her new family, she’s one of only two deaf girls at her school and the other one is not speaking to her. She’s lonely, confused, and acting out.

Enter Iris, who lives in a bright orange house full of books. Macy’s mother sends her over to help the old lady, who is tidying her house prior to moving into an aged-care facility. Iris explains to Macy that she was not named after the flower, but after the goddess:  “a rainbow goddess/ a messenger for the gods/ traveling/ by rainbow” (43). Macy asks Iris what sort of messages from the gods she sends: “I keep a straight face/ waiting for her answer/ even though the idea of Iris/ riding a rainbow/ passing notes from Zeus or Hera/ makes a giggle rise up/ inside me” (44). Iris responds that she used to send messages: ‘Important ones./I sent them through cookies.” (45)  

Cookies, and books, in fact, and gardening. Macy’s a talented gardener, loving flowers and herbs; Iris loves to bake and to read, and to share the messages from her favourite books–such as Canada’s best-known novel for tween-age girls, Anne of Green Gables (a rainbow of a book if ever there was one!). Like her namesake, Iris has a gift for communication, writing notes to Macy, and learning to finger-spell. As their friendship deepens, both come to terms with Iris’s increasing frailty and memory-loss, and Macy starts to understand more about who she herself is, and what she has to offer the world. As Iris says:

you know, dear one

the gods’ messages can be sent even without cookies

–messages of courage, hope, laughter, support . . .

Hearts are waiting worrying, hurting

–in need of a message

you can send.

(Shari Green, Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess, p. 44)

So many songs about rainbows . . .

Another cultural sage is one of my favourite frogs, the wonderful Kermit of Muppets fame. When I was a kid, we had a black and white television, and I remember the shock of revelation I had when we stayed in a motel with a colour television, and saw Kermit for the first time in full colour. I said ‘he’s green!’ What did I expect? I didn’t know, but it stays in the memory. I also remember seeing The Muppet Movie in a large theatre in Wellington in 1980, in which Kermit sang the ‘Rainbow Connection.’

Why are there so many

Songs about rainbows

And what’s on the other side.

Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,

And rainbows have nothing to hide.

So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.

I know they’re wrong, wait and see.

Some day we’ll find it,

The rainbow connection,

The lovers, the dreamers, and me.

Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher, The Rainbow Connection, 1979.

And so it goes–a song about having dreams and following them, about the power of belief to see us through. One of those songs from one’s childhood you forget about for ages, but comes back just at the right moment.

It’s thoroughly sentimental, but that’s the point. It may not be sensible, or rational, or logical, but even when times are tough, hope springs eternal in the dreaming frog, or child, or (even, hopefully) adult. With that in mind, I’m off to draw my own rainbow …

–Elizabeth Hale