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Speech

New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards

Issue date: 
Wednesday, 5 April 2000
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Nga hau e wha nga iwi e tau nei tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

The Children's Book Awards, and the Festival that surrounds them, have become one of the high points of the literary year in New Zealand, and we certainly relish the opportunity to host the Award ceremony here.

Some, perhaps, might argue that these Awards have little or no significance for people outside the 'industry'. But what we are celebrating here, today, is actually something much greater, something much more important — an occasion for writers, publishers, and some readers, and everyone associated with children's books, to meet, to discuss, wrangle perhaps, but above all to celebrate: to celebrate a year's achievements, but even more than that, to celebrate the very special art, the very particular skill, of writing and illustrating for children and young people; and all that this genre brings. It is an art that brings laughter and tears, a sense of wonder and excitement, it fires imaginations, it opens new worlds, and leads to new adventures of the mind and the spirit. And all this from the pages of books.

About a month ago, a visitor to New Zealand, an academic in the field of computer science, claimed that the age of the written word is coming to an end. That's a view that's been expressed by others in recent years, often approvingly, just as often uncritically. This particular person suggested that literacy would be, and even should be, replaced by a "resurgent" oral culture. This is to be made possible, he explained, because of computers into which we will be able to talk, and with which we are going to be able to hold conversations, and which will read out to us, or show us on video, all that we will want or need to see and hear. And so, with no pressing need for reading and writing, those skills can be allowed to atrophy: The technologies that surround the written word have reached their limits, he said.

That's one point of view. Let me share another, from an article in a recent Harper's magazine: "We shall not understand what a book is, if we forget how important to it is its body, the building that has been built to hold its lines of language safely together through many adventures and a long time. Words on a screen have visual qualities, to be sure, and these darkly limn their shape, but they have no materiality, they are only shadows, and when the light shifts, they'll be gone. Off the screen they do not exist as words. They do not wait to be reseen, reread; they only remain to be remade, relit. I cannot carry them beneath a tree or onto a side porch; I cannot argue in their margins; I cannot enjoy the memory of my dismay when, perhaps after years, I return to me treasured copy of Treasure Island to find the jam I inadvertently smeared there still spotting the page precisely at the place where Billy Bones chases Black Dog out of the Admiral Benbow with a volley of oaths..That book and I loved each other."

That says it all, I think. For if people who once would have been readers, instead shut down their minds to stare at screens, if people who once would have been readers confide only to computers and never to paper, they will surrender so much of their imagination, of their skill in reasoning, even some control of their very lives. And they will lose the potential for making lifelong friends.

This seems an excessive price to pay for the benefit of having computers which can answer when you speak to them. If these electronic servants were ever allowed to banish the written word, they would, indeed, be the sort of servants that, just as in some of the old tales, robbed their masters.

A book, as we all know, is a friend for life, as no other medium of communication can ever be; and those who make books for children create the longest lasting friends of all. That's why we welcome you all here today. We still have our own childhood treasures, and we share them now with our grandchildren. And we share with them too the books that come to us for these annual award ceremonies, and the books we find, in many an exciting foray, on the bookshop shelves. We are grateful, as thousands of New Zealand children, and their mothers and fathers, and grandparents, are grateful, to those who give them to us.

And so you who still believe in the immense power and the immense value of the written language are very warmly welcome here to Government House. You all contribute greatly to the richness of our national life.

I now ask Judith Fyfe to proceed with the ceremony. Ms Fyfe.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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