By Andrew Wilkins
When Australian illustrator and Oscar winner Shaun Tan (The Arrival, The Lost Thing, Tales of Outer Suburbia) won this year’s Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, it represented a high water mark for Australian children’s publishing—a sector of the industry that has grown and matured significantly over the past 30 years.
Australian children’s books consistently outsell adult fiction in the global rights market, according to trade magazine Bookseller+Publisher’s annual survey of Australian rights managers, “The Rights Stuff.” Within the category, picture book rights are the most often sold, followed by junior fiction and young adult.
With wider publication comes international recognition: for example, in addition to Tan’s tremendous success, Australian writers and illustrators featured on this year’s International Youth Library White Ravens list include Carole Wilkinson, Brownyn Bancroft, Sonya Hartnett (the 2008 Astrid Lindgren winner), Belinda Jeffrey and Kate McCaffrey. Veteran author/illustrator Bob Graham was also shortlisted for the 2011 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal, an award won by Australian Freya Blackwood last year.
While Australia remains very much an cosmopolitan book market (over 50% of the books sold there are of overseas origin), local children’s book publishing has been helped by a well-funded school and public library system and an active Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA), a grass roots organization which runs the prestigious Children’s Book of the Year Awards—one of the few Australian literary awards that strongly influence book sales. This year’s CBCA winners were Sonya Hartnett’s young adult novel The Midnight Zoo (Penguin), Isabelle Carmody’s junior novel The Red Wind (Penguin) and Jan Ormerod and Freya Blackwood’s early childhood book Maudie and the Bear (Little Hare). The Picture Book of the Year Award this year was split between Jeannie Baker’s collage-driven Mirror (Walker Books Australia) and Nicki Greenberg’s graphic novel of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Allen & Unwin).
A look at the titles listed above will show that there’s a lot more to Australian children’s books than kangaroos and koalas (although these remain a staple of local children’s publishing). For all its wide open spaces and Anglo-centric origins, Australia is actually a highly multicultural and urbanised society and its children’s publishing reflects this. An Australian young adult novel is as likely to portray the life of a young Australian Muslim girl as it is a historical or fantasy tale.
Series are an increased feature of local publishing, especially for mid-age readers. John Flanagan’s “Ranger’s Apprentice” series and Emily Rodda’s “Deltora Quest” have already gone global.
The sector is not without its challenges. A soft retail sector, reduced retail shelf space (Australia’s largest retail chain, Angus and Robertson/Borders, collapsed this year with 130 stores closing) and the rise of discount stores is reducing options at the quality end of the market, while the strong Australian dollar is making locally-produced books look increasingly expensive to local consumers (although the Aussie dollar, currently at parity with the US dollar, may have peaked). There have been casualties: leading independent kids publisher, Black Dog Books, was snapped up by Walker Books Australia earlier this year and anecdotally, lists are being trimmed. As with many other countries, library funding for book purchases is also in decline. Investment is being made in digital editions (such as Ice Water Press’s “Will you Mishme” project, pictured), but the Australian e-books market has yet to take off as yet.
Notwithstanding this, there are plenty of Australian children’s books to see at Frankfurt this year. Kids publishers at Frankfurt this week include Allen & Unwin, Brolly Books, Hardie Grant, HarperCollins Australia, Hinkler Books, Ice Water Press, Little Hare/Australian Licensing Corporation, Penguin Australia, Random House Australia, Scholastic Australia, The Five Mile Press and my own Wilkins Farago.
Pick up a copy of Think Australian magazine from the Australian Publishers Association stand (8.0 B958) for more information.