Up until a day or so ago I had no idea who Markus Zusak was. If he had sat down next to me and started yarning I would have thought he was a good bloke with a bloody good handle on the inner sanctum of the NRL and its rugby league teams.
I have done exactly that. I sat down for a yarn with Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, a pukapuka taonga that sits alongside the Harrys and the Lords of the best-ever selling booklist.
We said nothing about flogging books or howling hounds or when and what is next on his best-selling hit list.
To use a NRL analogy, Markus is to Australian writers what Wally Lewis is to league - the Kings; but we sat at a flash function down on the waterfront in the land of many lovers - Tamaki Makaurau, Auckland, and not a word about the written word of our best-selling books was spoken.
Markus, myself and my loyal editing word wizard Jenny Argante attended as presenters at the 35th IBBY International Congress with more than 500 writers, storytellers and book lovers from 65 countries - by chance, or divine appointment, we ended up having a yarn.
Our theme was books from our own backyards.
Like most, if not all children's authors, there is a perception held about us that knocking up a kid's book has a degree of difficulty akin to jumping off an Olympic diving board with a pair of gumboots on. Chances are you are still going to hit the water: it just might take a little longer to reach the surface of success.
But not so. Long after you have kicked the gumboots off it is the panel of peers who will judge you the hardest on your chosen words to make your book float. For me this is the fun part of being an author who self-publishes his pukapuka and lets the ears and eyes of his audience judge the degree of difficulty of his creative dive.
When the supreme award winner of the Hans Christian Andersen tohu Cao Wenxuan (China) delivered his korero at the flash function, the barrier of language was removed as quickly as the gumboots, allowing the taonga of his pukapuka to reach out and across the audience, like a korowai - a cloak of cleverly-constructed words to cover our own vulnerability to criticism as authors trying to sprinkle a little joy on a sometimes sad world.
Cao painted a picture that creating a children's book is like building a whare brick by brick, each brick a word that will remain forever in the hearts and minds of those who need the message most, the tamariki of impoverished countries where many of the delegates had a whakapapa to.
I couldn't help smiling as I sat with the hardcase, straight-up Aussie author who'd been jumping off a diving board with gumboots on all his literary life. While the scribes hung off every wise word from the crowned Chinese laureate, we stayed with rugby.
The gold medal moment at the IBBY Congress came when local Tauranga word wizard Jenny and I followed the gurus of global storytelling and held our own without drowning.
My gumboot dive was to test out the water with not a single word written down, and it seemed to go swimmingly. My only regret was I didn't use a lot more colourful "street" language - my respect for the best-selling book thief was well-founded when he let go the perfectly timed f-word to his adoring audience who would have given him a standing ovation without a single word spoken.
If Markus was the man - and he clearly was the rock star of writers at IBBY - then the rising star is Rotorua writer Tom E Moffatt. Humour is a powerful teaching tool and his masterpiece Barking Mad will stamp his mark all over the diving boards of children's literature.
The sweetheart award, if there was one, would have to go to Dr Libby Limbrick one of the co-directors of the IBBY Congress. Libby danced around IBBY for five days and never put a foot wrong. If I were to jump off a diving board with gumboots on - to test the waters of my fellow-writers and lovers of the written word, then Libby and the Book Thief's Markus would be perfect partners to do it with.
If we are to break the cycle of poverty and trauma let's help vulnerable children escape into a safe world of words, stories and books - preferably books from their own back yards.
- Tommy Wilson is a best-selling local author and writer