Long live the seedling | Spinoff

Books Editor Catherine Wolf on the website gives our children’s books a home.

Children’s books are important. They are important to booksellers and publishers because they make up nearly 30% of the market. But most importantly, it matters to families. They make dirty days at home better, they make sleep times better, they build connections between old and young, and they build brains. They help children become adults who love to read. It’s a reason to sit back and stop the world for a bit; They offer ritual pauses in a society that sorely lacks both.

The best children’s books are important in a magical way. We carry it with us as we grow up, a box of paper talismans, and rejoice in taking it out when our children have children and there are new bonds to build. Sometimes, they can also help us honor already loved bonds.

When my father was dying I sat by his bed and read my favorite picture book to him. It’s called the value of believing in yourself. The glue on the cover is failing and the pages are yellow and it’s about Louis Pasteur’s invention of the rabies vaccine. I would make my father read this book to me over and over again, scolding him when he tried to skip the words. When I read it to him at three in the morning, the last three in the morning, breathing in and out, the words sounded like a mantra, like a blessing.

Children’s books are strong like that.

I say all this because you would think, looking at the Aotearoa media, that children’s books no issue. They get hardly any coverage or criticism other than the nice jar reviews that are bundled into a quarter of a page as “five new books about kiwis,” or whatever. Often these are just a few hundred words, or shorter; Hardly more than just a fun and adorable plot summary “My Baby Loved It!” Reviewers seem to stop their minds when they write about children’s books. Hardly anyone commented. (notable exception: Dion Christian V Kate Books, it’s hard.) So no one reads the reviews. And round and round we go.

There is one (1) media outlet in Aotearoa dedicated to covering children’s books and doing it right, and that’s The Sapling, a website that was brought up out of the blue by Jane Arthur and Sarah Forster in 2017 with the title: “We love children’s books, we take them on seriously “.

A screenshot of a website, looking bright, cheerful and enlightening.
sapling, seedlings (photo: supplied)

The Sapling is now the home of children’s publishing in New Zealand. It’s been created from nearly 800 articles, reviews, interviews and cartoons, all better than anything else out there, and all held in place by our vibrant and welcoming kaupapa. The women build this place—Jane, Sarah, and a handful of others—week after week, around parenting, writing, and selling books. It was not a job for them, it was an extra job; They paid subscribers before they paid themselves, and often they missed it completely.

The Sapling got me started on the right book review, gave me the space, confidence and an open brief that helped me find my voice – I wrote to them about Lani Wendt Young’s in Teles Cheryl Jordan series winter fire.

The Sapling is not satisfied with the fluff or one-off slightly and its commissioning is gone: last year they published a kōrero between Whiti Hereaka and Gavin Bishop; They published “Casey Hart.” interviews Shilo Kino, they published Steve Matoko deconstructing what counts as a Maori story. “Our writing must include all genres, themes, worlds, and structures. It must be what the hell we want. But we have to give ourselves permission to do so, to break those limits we have imposed on ourselves. Being proud and excited, no matter what we write, it’s a Maori story…”

They have published a series of profiling Aotearoa librarians, and one about booksellers. They’ve put together a bunch of cool and weird lists to help parents and librarians pick up new books for their kids – books about disability experiences; When starting school on nature guides in New Zealand. Most importantly, it provides a suitable space for painters; Cartoonist Gisele Clarkson is a staple. They always genuinely focused on Te Wiki o te Reo Māori: they published the te reo version of each piece first, then dropped one English version a day later. Two years ago, that week, Nadine Ann Houra worked as a guest editor.

Cartoon showing a girl sitting on the floor reading, text above her saying
Gisele Clarkson, Gisele Clarksoning (Image: Supplied)

I think my favorite article is one written by Sarah, Call It ends up terrifying dude Alex Archer in the popular Alex series by Tessa Dodder: “Tom is eight years older than Alex, but that doesn’t stop him from falling in love with her right away. This, as an adult, made me feel uncomfortable, as he does a lot of the things he does.” : making his way into the Olympic complex disguised as an interpreter, watching a train, and working as a tour guide after convincing others to trust him; these are all we call “grooming” in our time, given the imbalance of power.

Tom, a. Always hate that guy.

I knew editors were getting overwhelmed, but I was still dumbfounded in October of last year when they announced they had hit the wall. on Twitter: “The Sapling is dead, long live The Sapling. I’m just kidding. Sure the sapling isn’t dead – but we’re out of breath, we’re taking a breather…”

and of them the news: “We had to make this very difficult decision to help us achieve a better balance of workload, family life and well-being. However, we hope to take the next few months to rebuild the site, and strive to make its operation more sustainable.”

The editors conducted a survey, asking readers for their thoughts and observations. They have planned a glorious revival in August, in time to announce the winners of this year’s New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Youth. They applied to Creative New Zealand for funds to pay their shareholders and editors, as well as cover operating costs. They are good at these applications; They received $30,000 in 2018, $36,000 in 2019, and $43,000 in 2020. What they asked for this time wasn’t quite far from those amounts.

But last week they found out that they had backed off.

We don’t know why at this point. I just hope evaluators don’t view the gap as a sign of instability: surely, after the past two years, knowing when to step back and regroup—and do so with forethought and agility—should be considered a strength, not a weakness.

The editors have already sought permission to advance again in the next round.


The finalists for the Children’s Book Awards were announced earlier this month and of course Sarah at The Sapling was ready to go. She read all the books, sketched her favorites, pointed out some notable omissions, introduced us to the judges, and did it all with decency and great readability. Keep in mind that she also did so without funding, about her full-time job as Communicating, via a site allegedly on ice. She did it because she cares so much.

Spinoff cares too, of course, and we provide proper coverage of children’s books whenever we can (see our appreciation for hunger Gamesour profiles for Gracie Kim And the Chloe JungOur patriotism for Hairy Maclary, 2 months Bestseller Kids Charts). Sick go on and on About children’s books given half a chance. But there is no substitute for focus, specialized knowledge and time. An embarrassing example in this regard: This year I didn’t have to read, let alone write about, all of the Book Awards finalists. (My only compelling thoughts so far: The eight gifts for Te Whke By Steph Matuku and Laya Mutton-Rogers, an absolutely must-have illustrated book category, and Spark Hunter By Sonia Wilson Little Fiction – Both are victories. Gorgeous Gavin Bishop Machine It is my choice for non-fiction, and Margaret Mahi’s book of the year.)

So I urge you to head over to Sarah’s piece in The Sapling, and then you have my curiosity into the delightfully big house of children’s books that she and other editors have built over the past five years, and show them the feisty cacophony of children’s publishing talents in this country of which you also care so much. Perhaps you could even write a letter of support for the editors, to help them cross the line on the upcoming CNZ tour. And then, I suppose, cross your fingers. The seedling lives.

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