Children Creating Their Own Books
For almost forty years, the Western Australia Branch of The Children’s Book Council of Australia has organised a free competition for children to make their own books. Run entirely by volunteers, with the assistance of sponsorship from local booksellers and government departments, the annual Make Your Own Story Book Competition has been a source of inspiration and encouragement for thousands of children down the years. Teachers and parents of children from inner and outer metropolitan and regional areas and from government, independent, correspondence, and home-school situations have encouraged and supported these young creators in their endeavours. Always aligned to the national Children’s Book Week™, the Awards Presentation Ceremony is a highlight long remembered, especially the handshake from a well-known author or illustrator.
The year 2017 will be the 40th anniversary of a free competition that was inaugurated in 1977 by the Western Australia Branch of The Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) and from the outset was held in conjunction with the national Children’s Book Week. While there have been many other writing competitions for children, both nationally and statewide, the Make Your Own Story Book competition (MYOSB) was unique to Western Australia until 2015, when the Australia Capital Territory CBCA Branch instituted a similar competition.
Children are invited to work alone, or in pairs, to write and illustrate their own story to be submitted in a sturdy format suitable for inclusion in a library. The work must be original, and to avoid plagiarism, the entry form is to be signed by the student and teacher or parent, confirming that it is their original work. The conventions of book production are to be observed, and so it should include front and back [End Page 50] covers and a title page with the names of author and illustrator as well as their profile, which may be accompanied by a photograph. Creativity and imagination are not confined to just the written word or the illustrations but may also be demonstrated in the presentation of the book.
Book covers have been lovingly designed from a wide variety of textures and creatively held together with a range of fasteners. Conventions of book production include dedications that are a way to thank a parent, teacher, family member, or friend for their support. Book reviews are often imagined tributes to previous work or entries. The name of the publisher often reveals wit and wishful thinking, while the ISBN number, QR Code, and Barcode reveal a knowledge of current publishing practice, and even a library call number on the spine shows an understanding of typical library requisites.
There have been many changes since 1977, when the first flyer was sent to schools in the form of an A4 roneoed, one-sided page. It announced a competition for a complete book to be judged on originality of story, literary merit, quality of illustration, and physical presentation. In the first competition, there were three categories: two for primary students and a category for students over fourteen years of age at 31.12.1977 and still in fulltime education. During the subsequent four decades, opportunities for secondary students to participate have varied considerably, and the initial attempt for over–fourteen-year olds was abandoned. Due to curriculum changes, Years 8–12 were included and from 1993-2003 included a novel category. This did not prove viable, and the secondary school category changed several times until 2015, when the statewide change to amalgamate Year 7 into the secondary system resulted in Years 7–8 becoming a separate category.
As a voluntary organization, the WA Branch of the CBCA has been flexible in adapting to the demographic, curriculum, communication, and technological changes seen in our vast state. At the beginning of our academic year, late January/early February, MYOSB flyers are sent to government, private, home schooled, and correspondence schools inviting children to participate. In recent years, the introduction of our website at http://wa.cbca.org.au/wamyosb.htm has been a quantum leap, overcoming many difficulties with its clear instructions of the criteria required, samples of winners’ work, and points to consider when introducing the concept to a school and colleagues. For parents and teachers—whether living close by, in outer metropolitan and regional areas, or remote communities—the web has been invaluable. This has saved much volunteer time and phone calls and has been reassuring for parents, teachers, and students. Each convenor has brought their own unique gifts and talents to the role and contributed new ideas, richness, and diversity to the competition.
Changes in technology have also added to the challenges of judges. Word processing is now accepted as a matter of course compared to earlier years. Skilled use of scanners, illustration software, and electronic devices allow some of our creative and technologically-skilled students to produce work of a very high presentation standard. The need for the entry form to be signed by student, teacher, or parent is paramount, and trustworthiness a significant component. Once it was only necessary for an entrant to acknowledge they had taken all the photographs used to illustrate their story.
Some aspects of the MYOSB have remained constant and contributed to the longevity of the competition, which has survived and thrived when many government initiatives have long since disappeared. It is the passion, commitment, and professionalism of the volunteers—who desire to give children the opportunity to express themselves in a creative way—that has contributed to this annual event. The entries, due about four months after the initial announcement, are always sent to a central gathering point, where volunteers unpack and check all entries to ensure that the criteria has been met before they are then divided into age categories to be distributed to outside volunteer judges (usually teachers or school librarians). Current experience has shown that two months is the approximate judging period required.
The annual Awards Presentation Ceremony is always linked to Children’s Book Week, and thanks to our grants officer, this is always a significant celebration. Our winners and family members are invited to receive their prize, which includes a certificate and a book voucher from local booksellers, and a short talk and a handshake from a published author or illustrator. Since 2008 this has been a local [End Page 51] Western Australia author/illustrator as we now have an established pool of talent and no longer need to import visitors from the eastern states. Two winners from the older categories are also now invited to talk about their entry. In the past, winners of the MYOSB competition had their names published in the local newspaper, but unfortunately, this ceased after 1993. A feature of earlier competitions was the chance to attend a workshop conducted by the guest author/illustrator and was well remembered many years later. From 1977 until 2015 all winning books have been on display in a public exhibition, where family, friends, and neighbors have been able to see the children’s work.
The value of the competition for children can be seen in some of the responses of our early competitors, who later became published authors. Our most renowned competitor is Shaun Tan, 2008 HCA Australian nominee for illustration, 2011 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award winner, and Oscar winner for Short Animated Film in 2011. In 1983, nine-year-old Shaun won second place in the Year 4–5 Story Book category for The Land Beneath the Sea and is shown here receiving his certificate.1 Commenting on the importance of this experience, Shaun writes,
The competition was always a big thing I recall for those kids, like me, interested in writing and drawing. In fact, I was probably more focused on this at the age of nine (in 1983) than I am now, in the sense of just being unselfconsciously, uncritically passionate. Making story books was just SO MUCH FUN. These days it’s more like work! A lot of people are inclined to make the assumption that writing and drawing as a child leads directly to the career I’m doing now, but my interests diverged widely in the space between (eg., almost became a scientist, and never consciously pursued picture books as a career until I was about twenty-two), there is not actually a direct thread. But it is ironic to then win CBCA awards as an adult, decades later, and particularly under the old logo, which still has the same kind of reassuring resonance. I think as a kid the MYOSB represented a kind of distant, authoritative judgement about art and literature, so just getting any kind of mention or prize was like a word from some divine realm, from outer space: very exciting. At the same time, I was conscious as a kid that awards were more of an “adult thing,” and it was more important at ground level what my friends and family thought of my drawings and stories; I didn’t win any prizes on other occasions, but didn’t mind at all. (I was also occasionally befuddled as a kid by the CBC’s choice of book award winners.) Of course, these days I know that award judging is highly subjective, having been a judge myself on many occasions, so I can put it in context. It’s very exciting the win, but I don’t see it as a comparative thing so much, less as a “competition.”
Anyway, I actually feel the Make Your Own Story Book competition was a hugely significant thing, regardless of whether one wanted to be an author or illustrator, because it was getting kids to feel closer to the books they read and loved. Basically, [End Page 52] “I could do that.” It’s very important that art and writing are seen as accessible and doable, it’s about getting deeper into what it means to be a reader. Books are materially simple things that anyone can make, so this was always an important reminder. Secondly, having a place to send work to, and a kind of deadline, was important for my child self. Competitions inspire actual work that way, regardless of the outcome. I need to get a book finished by such and such a date to get it in! Kids don’t often have places to send the work they do, so the MYOSB is very important in that way, and it was always a big thing on my own school calendar. I also loved seeing the other books that kids did, especially those that won (always impressive). I think kids learn about art and writing from their peers as much as from teachers, so such competitions create a kind of forum for kids to be looking at each other’s work, especially in the pre-internet 1980s.2
In these last words, Shaun made a point that to my knowledge has not been previously acknowledged or highlighted during the long life of the MYOSB. The point he made is that the importance of the competition for children lay in the learning and appreciation gained from seeing each other’s work. Peer support and appraisal, with the cross fertilization of ideas is fostered and encouraged through the shared creative process. Shaun is noted for his encouragement and support of his work being transformed into puppet, orchestral, theatre and film productions as well as exhibitions and murals and the pleasure and challenges of working with other creators.
Some years later, Year 8 student Karen Blair won equal third place in the 1991 Year 8 Picture Book Category with Mollie and Charlie. She reflects,
Making my picture book for the MYOSB in 1991 was one of the highlights of my schooling. It was so great to go through the process of making a book, both writing and illustrating, in a structured way with my English teacher (with a deadline!) and appreciated that the competition meant there was value in creating books. My book, Molly and Charlie, about a little girl who forgets to take her old teddy to kindy, won third place and it planted a seed that maybe I was pretty good at this!
I remember going to the award giving at the State Library of WA and seeing the display with all the other entries and thinking, wow, the winning book in my category is amazing! I wish I could remember her name and see whether she is making books as an adult now too! When my books have been shortlisted in the CBCA book of the year awards, I get that same feeling: my books are in great company amongst books by incredible Australian book makers. I was given a $15 book token and never spent it because it was too special.3
Karen has since become an award winning illustrator and has been a shortlisted illustrator and Honour Book winner with a number of titles in the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards and other state awards.
Popular workshop presenter and illustrator James Foley was twelve years old when he won third place in the 1994 Year 6–7 Picture Book Category with Furlock Mouse. The Judges’ Comments appropriately foretell his In the Lion, included in the 2013 White Ravens List. “The author has used a most effective play on words and has produced an original story. The cartoon type illustrations are individual and provide an extra dimension to the humorous text.”4 Remembering the Awards Ceremony James writes,
I entered the Make our Own Storybook competition twice as a child—once in Year 6 and again the following year. It was a class project; everyone had to make their own book. I didn’t win a prize the first time, but that was okay; I had been given the excuse to make a book and I loved the process. The second time I entered, I wrote a picture book called Furlock Mouse and the Case of the Missing Cheese. It was a thinly veiled parody of a Sherlock Holmes mystery, with cartoon animal protagonists and conveniently specific clues. I had a [End Page 53]
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great time making it—and this time, I won third place in the grade 6/7 category. It was a very proud moment for me; it made it seem possible somehow that one day I could actually make a “real” book and be a published author-illustrator. And eventually, I did. I’ve still got the two books that I made for the competition, and the certificate I received. I am eternally grateful to the Western Australian branch of the CBCA for running the competition back then, and I hope that as it continues to run, it encourages the development of new author-illustrators in WA.5
Other published entrants include Briony Stewart, who was the visiting guest author/illustrator at the 2008 Awards Presentation Ceremony; she showed the winners her first book, an MYOSB entry and, although not a place getter, is still treasured.6 Her recently published textless picture book The Red Wheelbarrow was amongst the Silent Books on display during the 2016 IBBY International Congress in Auckland. Sonia Martinez was commended in the 1989 Years 4–5 Story Book Category for Ankloysaurus, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus Rex₉ and is a published illustrator for Fremantle Press.7 Our youngest published illustrator is Kirra Sommerville, who won third place in the 2004 Year 4–5 Story Book Category with Lizard Gang,8 which was published by Magabala Press in 2006.
In addition to published authors, in the fortnight prior to leaving for the 35th International IBBY Congress in Auckland, I happened to meet a number of former participants and family members who have vivid and fond memories of the competition. Several remembered their Junior School Coordinator, who played such a strong role in encouraging the importance of words and their schools process and achievements during the 1980s and 1990s. Echoing Shaun’s words, I met a young professional who clearly remembered and named a classmate’s competition entries—such was their impact, which is still vivid in her memory. I also discovered someone whose book won the third prize in the Year 1–3 Picture Book category in 1980 and is still a treasured keepsake. Finally, the mother of the third prize winner of the Year 8–12 novel in 1994, the first year the novel was introduced into the competition, enthused over her daughter’s efforts and commented that it sowed the seed that her daughter believed she could write, and she is still writing today.
The continued contribution of volunteers from the WA Branch of the Children’s Book Council of Australia have ensured the Make Your Own Story Book competition has become part of the reading and writing community of our state. Unlike so many educational directives, this project has survived for nearly forty years as a result of the dedication of these volunteers.
What does the future hold for this competition? With increasing technological and curriculum changes, is there still a place for such a print based competition, especially given the rapid changes to the illustration process? Certainly, the words of our published authors and illustrators would indicate a resounding yes.
JENNI WOODROFFE, past Vice-President/Secretary IBBY Australia, is a former academic and committee member of the WA Branch of The Children’s Book Council of Australia. Jenni also worked as a Primary Teacher/Librarian in an independent Catholic school in Claremont, Western Australia and was a Convenor of the Make Your Own Story Book Competition 1999-2000.
1. Wanneroo Times. Tuesday, 16 August, 1983. Page 6.
2. Tan, Shaun. Email to author. 21 June, 2016.
3. Blair, Karen. Email to author. 29 June, 2016.
4. Children’s Book Council of Australia. WA Branch Inc. Judges’ Comments.
5. Foley, James. Email to author. 24 June, 2016.
6. Children’s Book Council of Australia. WA Branch Inc. Newsletter. August, 2008. Page 4.
7. Children’s Book Council of Australia. WA Branch Inc. 1989 MYOSB Announcement.
8. Children’s Book Council of Australia. WA Branch Inc. Newsletter. August, 2004. Page 5. [End Page 55]