WA based Eve Pownall Award Judge, Helen Adam, gave Reading Time the lowdown on the Eve Pownall Award. Who was Eve Pownall? Why is there an award named after her? What treasures have the Eve Pownall Judges unearthed so far in 2015? Is the Information Book dead? Helen answers all these questions and more…
The Eve Pownall Award for Information Books has been a part of the CBCA Book of the Year Awards since 1993. This is a very important category and an interesting one to judge. The 2015 awards have seen a wide range of interesting books in this category. I have drawn together some interesting threads regarding this category in order to frame discussion around this year’s entries.
Who was Eve Pownall and what is the significance of the Eve Pownall Award?
According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography (2012), Eve Pownall was an Australian historian and author who was born in 1902 and died in 1982. Eve Pownall was an early supporter of the New South Wales group which subsequently formed to become the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA). Pownall played a central role in helping to establish both the Reading Time journal and the annual Book of the Year Awards. In 1980 she published a history of the CBCA.
In 1952, when there was only one category in the Book of the Year Awards, Eve Pownall, won the Book of the Year award herself for The Australia Book, which was described as a social history of Australia for children.
In 1988 Eve Pownall’s family initiated the Eve Pownall Award for Information Books in her honour and since 1993 this has been included in the CBCA Book of the Year Awards.
This leads to the consideration of what is meant by an Information Book? To some this is a term that can be considered as a fairly bland and straightforward term, but if we look at Eve Pownall’s own work and then at the judging criteria we can see it is anything but.
During a talk Eve Pownall gave in 1977, she stated:
“They used to have an old saying when I was young, ‘Geography is maps, history is chaps’. It’s the chaps I go looking for, and the chaps’ wives and the kids . . . what were the kids playing . . .? How were their mothers coping out on the frontiers . . . [or]during the grey days of the Depression?” (Pownall 1977, cited in Roberts, 2012)
So Eve Pownall was interested in the people, the lives and times not just dates and facts and events and this influenced both her writing and her work – including her strong advocacy for children’s books.
It is clear then, that Eve Pownall did not just see information or facts as important, but “life” itself. She wanted to represent the times and the nature of humanity: what was life like? what obstacles did people have to overcome? What fun was had? and so on.
This philosophy and approach of Pownall bears a striking connection to work from another great Australian scholar and advocate for Australian’s children’s literature- Maurice Saxby – who has had undoubtedly left his own great legacy to Australian children’s literature. Saxby’s own writing on literature makes very clear the connection between literature and life:
“Literature entertains. It allows, too, for the re-creation of thoughts, sensations, dreams, feelings, fears, aspirations. It causes awe and wonder. It can bring Joy. It can set off reverberations that are echoes of far-off, distant insights from times past. It can propel the reader into a more secure future as self-awareness and understanding is nourished and grows. Literature is life, illuminated and sweetened by the artist.” (Saxby, 1997)
Therefore, when we consider the term Information Book in the light of the statements of Pownall and Saxby, the term comes alive and gives birth to a delightful challenge to authors and illustrators: to present information – educational material – in a way that brings to life this world of ours, times past, current matters, scientific and social understandings in a way that illuminates our world and leads readers to a deeper understanding of this world, and their own place and significance in it. And in the books the judges have encountered this year that is what has been seen.
Considering the criteria
The criteria for the Eve Pownall Award for Information Books state that the award will be made to outstanding books which have the prime intention of documenting factual material with consideration given to imaginative presentation, interpretation and variation of style. Judges are guided to consider the relative success of the book in balancing and harmonising the following elements: Style of language and presentation; Graphic excellence; Clarity, appropriateness and aesthetic appeal of illustration; Integration of text, graphics and illustrations to engage interest and enhance understanding; Overall design of book to facilitate the presentation of information; and, Accuracy with regard to the current state of knowledge.
These criteria both link, and do justice, to Eve Pownall’s own approach and the words of Saxby, particularly in regard to imaginative presentation, interpretation and variation of style and integration of text, graphics and illustrations to engage interest and enhance understanding. It is apparent that to win this award a book needs to do much more than simply present information – it needs to bring to life this world of ours, something that Pownall herself was passionate about.
The books in this year’s Eve Pownall category.
We live in a time where technology gives us the means and ability to source knowledge quickly with a few clicks and buttons and there are sometimes arguments or opinions on what this means for books, particularly information books. If a child wants to know information such as what year a significant event happened, or the life cycle of a particular animal, simple searches on the internet can provide answers very quickly. As a result, there are some who question the need for information books.
However, with the books we have seen this year we need not be concerned; information books are alive and well! The judges felt a tremendous sense of privilege and delight to see the variety and high standard of so many of the books entered this year.
In particular we have seen great diversity of approaches to presenting information in engaging and creative ways.
One of these ways seems to be a rather strong evolution of a type of hybrid text (for want of a better word) in which authors are presenting information – whether it be history, science, health and well being, social justice or social messages – through the combination of narrative with specific components of the more traditional notion of informational texts.
So we saw books with a narrative that could well have happened or could well happen that present times past or present phenomena or life happenings, through the eyes of fictional characters with accuracy to the state of knowledge of the life and times. These stories have been skilfully combined with historical artefacts such as newspaper clippings, timelines, or scientific facts. And, through these, we have seen a variety of imaginative presentation, interpretations and style.
This variety of imaginative ways of blending both narrative and “information” has resulted in books that truly do illuminate life, past times, ways of being, the “chaps”, multiple perspectives and viewpoints. With a result that the reader not only gains knowledge but gains insights and understandings into this world, its past, its present and our place in the world. Books that children can devour, share with others or curl up with in a corner –to emerge the richer for having spent time in that book.
As stated earlier, perhaps the increasing prevalence of this type of information book could be due to increased availability of knowledge itself online. Whether this is a response to the availability of online knowledge or not, the results are wonderful. A triumph for the writers, publishers, and especially for the readers – the children.
Along with this evolving hybrid or combination text type, the texts that follow the more traditional notion of an informational text also demonstrated careful and creative design elements that enhanced the topics whether they were history, science or social science. The illustrations in many of the books were outstanding works of art in themselves and many books were further enhanced with, as mentioned earlier, photographs of historical artefacts, newspaper clippings and even historical Australian artworks.
For the judges this great variety of text types within the one category led to rich and deep discussions about our judging criteria – about what is an informational text? And, how do we identify that the key aim of a book is to document factual material? There were many consultations with each other and frequent reference to the judging criteria. The outcome being that this also shone the light on the other criteria resulting in our evaluations and justification of selections really articulating these criteria as part of our deliberations.
Influences on and between these texts and society.
We often teach or hear that books reflect the society in which they were produced but it is also wonderfully true that what and how authors write about society influences society itself – often challenging society’s ways or views, promoting new ways of being; rethinking the past; and, opening minds. So yes, society influences what authors write about but what authors write about influences society – often very powerfully. And the books this year reflect both what is topical in our society and educational policy but also in turn promote deep thought, reflection and diverse perspectives on these same issues and foci – these authors and illustrators are not just presenting information they are inviting the readers to think, to reflect, to learn and in some cases to act.
So this year we have seen books reflecting current interests and focuses in our society, such as: the First World War (current 100 year anniversary); topical issues such as mental illness; and, perspectives of those from non-dominant cultural groups. Included in this can be see curriculum and childhood policy influences such as areas highlighted in the Australian Curriculum and the Early Years Learning Framework: in particular; history, science, intercultural understandings and well being.
To discuss in depth the relationships between these factors – society, education, authors and illustrators would be a paper in itself. However, in the light of this year’s Eve Pownall Award it is enough to say that children are winners here! The books we have seen see authors and illustrators presenting relevant, topical information in ways that encourage, and extend multiple perspectives; that present gentle messages to encourage children in their own lives; that bring to life the world around us – both past and present and through the use of imaginative interpretation and presentation. The interplay between author and illustrator always leaving room for the other important player in the reading relationship – the reader – to enter into a world that in the words of Saxby “can propel the reader into a more secure future as self-awareness and understanding is nourished and grows”.
In closing, – in this year’s Eve Pownall Award has seen a truly remarkable variety of books in which, in the words of Eve Pownall, “the chaps” have been discovered and brought to life, and in Saxby’s words we see “life, illuminated and sweetened by the artist.”(Saxby, 1997)
Roberts, J., ‘Pownall, Marjorie Evelyn (Eve) (1902–1982)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pownall-marjorie-evelyn-eve-15495/text26710, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 15 June 2015.
Saxby, M (1997) Books in the life of a child: bridges to literature and learning. Macmillan. South Yarra