A little too obvious, Judith Holloway

Take it Easy
David Hill
Mallinson Rendel, $19.95,
ISBN 0 908783 043

Kick Back
David Hill
Ashton Scholastic, $9.95,
ISBN 1869432207

Curtain Up
David Hill
Heinemann Education, $14.95,
ISBN 1868636908

See Ya, Simon
David Hill
Mallinson Rendel, $21.95,
ISBN 0 908606850

New Plymouth writer David Hill is by training and temperament a teacher and counsellor and it shows very much in his writing. I rather wish I could have had one of his teenage novels to hand when I was a gawky, too-obviously‑bosomed teenager; if I had, I would have discovered that those tall, quiet, skinny, reliable‑seeming chaps who were into sports and endless banter may not have been as indifferent to us girls as they made out. In fact, they were possibly extremely shy of us and terrified of being regarded as “dorks”. Knowing this would have given my confidence a huge boost.

Three new novels about teenagers by Hill have been published or are due to be published, this year. They are Take it Easy, Kick Back, and Curtain Up. In each story, the central character and narrator is a vulnerable young college boy.

The setting for Take it Easy is Tongariro National Park where six teenagers (three boys, three girls ‑ each with his/ her own problem) meet for the first time at the beginning of an arranged tramping trip into the park. They are taken in by their leader, an older man, a very experienced tramper called Harvey. Shockingly early in the story (reminding me of the film Psycho) Harvey dies in his sleep, leaving the teenagers to find their way out of the bush to get help, to get home. How they eventually manage this and how some of them are changed by the experience is the guts of the story.

Except for the protagonist Rob Kennedy (from whose perspective the story is told) no one knows a thing about bushcraft or the basic rules of tramping. In the initial panic after discovering Harvey’s body, they make major mistakes, becoming increasingly lost ‑ without enough food or clothing, without maps, first aid or matches. On top of these handicaps, it rains fiercely for days on end and one of the girls almost dies from exhaustion and exposure. It’s a highly believable account of a near‑disaster and Hill the teacher and tramper manages to get across to the reader many dos and don’ts about surviving in the bush. It’s a very New Zealand theme which many writers have touched on but to my knowledge only Jack Lasenby and David Hill have explored in stories for young readers.

Curtain Up is very short (136 pages). It takes another bunch of kids ‑ fifth formers ‑ through the fun and intrigue of putting on a play performance. The story is told in the first person by Nick Wilder who lands apart in the play but is constantly distracted and bedevilled by his longing to get close to the beautiful Jemma Jackson. During the course of the story we get to know a little about a number of the others rehearsing the play ‑ particularly Michael the brain, Ruth the christian, the full‑on Chrissie and the drama teacher, Ms Bright.

There’s a lot of humour in poor Nick’s constantly thwarted plans to impress Jemma, then kind Ruth (after Jemma shows a preference for someone more macho) with his man‑of‑the‑world wit and style. But the most vivid characters are in Nick’s family. His wildly ambitious mother power‑dresses for her job as a real estate agent and is constantly rattled by the sight of her easy‑going second husband Geoff flopped out in front of the television sports programmes in his holey old work jersey, drinking beer with his young “animal” cousin Brad. (Though Geoff usually manages to set her right with a bit of smooching.)

Brad is a great invention ‑ a fit‑as‑a‑fiddle League player whom the feminist revolution has left completely undented; he refers to schoolgirls as “lovelies” and wears too‑tight T‑shirts to advertise his muscles and talents (“world’s greatest lover”) to best advantage. Then there’s the family dog, Bigmac, a big eater and prolific pollutant. And Gran who is always ‘fine thanks, dear”, driving her electric buggy dangerously but with insouciant style along suburban suburbs as she checks up on her elderly mates, most of whom she suspects of being on the verge of being “opened up” by a surgeon.

You could shift the characters (even the dog) from Curtain Up to Kick Back and they’d feel quite comfortable. This time, however, the story focuses on the two passions of Chris Atkinson ‑ for tae kwan do and a girl named Stacey James, who early in the book also enrols to learn tae kwan do and immediately shows an impressive natural talent.

Chris and Stacey never mention the word love but slowly they move closer together through this common interest. They kiss and hold hands and Tracey is finally able to tell Chris why any other touching (his hand on her hip) throws her into a spasm of fright. Once again the perspective is the boy’s, and readers are taken on his journey to try and feel at ease about his maleness. We are privy to his agonising over whether or not to telephone (will she think he’s being pushy?); over memorising a cool opening gambit when next they speak, over whether she’d have a fit of horror if she should glimpse his bare, shiny chest; over when it’s cool or definitely not cool to ride your bike; over whether mum and her laid‑back, live‑in partner Les will embarrass him with wisecracks in front of Tracey.

Such crises of confidence over ordinary behaviour are the raw stuff of adolescent self‑consciousness. But Chris also has the stabilising force of supportive adults ‑ his mother and his tae kwan do instructor, Selwyn. Selwyn embodies the values of the tae kwan do philosophy, both in his brilliance as a black belt and in his penetrating understanding of the needs of his pupils, to whom he quietly dispenses maxims (“the strong heart wins, not the fast body”; “see with both eyes”; “make any habits good habits”) and provides opportunities to overcome their individual weaknesses. To me, this is the most interesting feature of the book. Hill shows great skill in introducing the reader, through Chris’s eyes, to the philosophy and atmosphere that permeates a tae kwan do learning place. Judging by his description, it is a very impressive world which could provide many a troubled teenager with a rare form of inspiration and solace.

Besides these three new novels, there is David Hill’s 1992 international award‑winning See Ya, Simon to consider. [Times Educational Supplement Nasen award in 1994 for children of special needs; second placing in both the 1994 Sheffield book awards and the British Federation of Children’s Book Groups 1994 children’s book award, featured by the American Child Study Children’s Book Committee in their 1995 children’s books of the year list; shortlisted for New Zealand’s AIM children’s book awards.] With this, his moving first novel, Hill took his readers into the mind of a rather goofy but nice boy as he bumbles through his domestic and school life, has joyous chortles with his mates, tries secretly and in vain to attract the interest of the gorgeous Brady West, looks after his brave and witty mate Simon who has muscular dystrophy and is in a wheelchair and finally has to face the fact of Simon’s death.

It is a very tender‑hearted piece of writing that has been widely praised. Besides presenting a realistic portrait of a marvellous kid whom fate has struck down, the book is valuable for its exploration of a true friendship between two teenage boys, kindred spirits who greatly appreciate each other ‑ without mentioning such a thing, of course.

This was Hill’s first go at looking at the refusal to admit to vulnerability and the obsession with self‑image that characterise adolescence and it works very well. The book’s also loaded with the corny, raucous humour typical of fourth form males ‑ one example being the running gag of the headlines of the local paper, The Northern (Sp) News, which inspires them to invent madly witty T‑shirt slogans to comment on their life and mates. Thrown into the action are some bit players who are interesting in themselves (for example, a liberal, imaginative, lively English teacher) or who play out running dramas with the narrator ‑ Nathan’s (solo) mum, his sister (Fiona the moaner), the macho dude of the form, Alex Wilson, friend Simon’s admirable seventh-form sister Kirsti and the nuisance family dog ‑ a Labrador/brontosaurus cross. As well, the reader learns a great deal, in lay boy’s language, about the debility and treatment of muscular dystrophy.

All in all, it’s a book that teaches, inspires, entertains and, at the end, offers consolation in the face of sorrow. There’s not much more a reader could want from a book. With See Ya, Simon, Hill hit upon a winning framework for the younger teenage reading market.

The new novels don’t quite match the quality of this first one. The exploration of skills and specific experiences is great, but (except in Take it Easy) the structures are not dynamic, the stories tend to meander and the action is somewhat repetitive. There’s a distinct impression that certain key characters are being repeated also. Their style, their language, their values and their humour are very similar. This could be, I feel, the style of the author himself intruding a little too freely into his narrators’ sensibilities. While I can appreciate all the books’ entertainment and informational value ‑ particularly to those 11‑15 year‑old boys whose main passion is sport (and it may well be Hill’s intention to cater for just this group) ‑ there are, of course, other teenagers whose personalities are crying out for examination ‑ kids I’m sure Hill would know very well: anarchists, musicians, scholars, the gifted and outspoken leader type who terrifies the teachers by refusing to conform to silly school rules. And how about that “muscleman who gets the girls”? It would be good to get an inside look at him.

I feel, too, there are a few other problems creeping in ‑ probably due to the exigencies of writing fast and furiously to meet publishing deadlines. The prose is breezy, but it feels a little inappropriately breezy at times, dealing out platitudes and humour that’s a little too obvious. And aren’t the messages and requests from parents and teachers taken on board rather too readily? And ‑ accidentally perhaps ‑ a few new stereotypes are suggested: that pretty girls are untrustworthy, dumb or insincere; that muscly blokes are thick show‑offs; that kids get into danger if they don’t keep their parents informed of their movements.

There’s such an absence of chaos, radicalism, vicious language and behaviour, real confrontation and other forms of excess depicted (so far) in the teenage world Hill writes about that it seems a bit of a distortion of reality.

In truth, exploring truly negative situations poses a serious problem for most people who write for children. They tend to be, like David Hill, of an optimistic and tenderhearted temperament. They are often also practising or ex-teachers and lean towards the ideal of encouraging kids to feel self‑confident and hopeful. Though painfully aware of the traumatic lives some young people are forced to lead, they draw back from exploring problems that are manifestly unsolvable by the child ‑ family poverty, ignorance, violence, alcohol and drug dependency, sexual exploitation. Maybe in turning away from these really hideous extremes, they turn away from too many milder forms of poor behaviour, misery and tyranny as well.

It is perhaps the curse of the children’s writer to wish to present children with an innocent world of possibility, charm and kindness, with just a little palatable sadness thrown in. Yet there are many young people who are in a fix ‑ either because of awful adults or because of their own inability to take charge of themselves ‑ not just in their relations with the opposite sex, but in dealing with uncontrollable rage, depression, the inability to get out of a tunnel of vagueness and learn ‑ and so on. They need very much to see themselves in literature. There is such solace in finding out you’re not the only person with your particular handicap and in realising there are possible solutions.

Not that providing solace should be the first concern of the writer, of course. To write a good story is the most important thing. It is up to the reader to discover the themes, and most writers (especially those who write for children) are very much aware of the sub‑textual messages their work contains. But you can’t avoid nastiness if you’re trying to get at the truth, and focusing on it doesn’t imply approval. A good reader will always understand that, but in the field of children’s books, there are a lot of people who don’t seem able to make this necessary distinction.

In inventing his famous Fat Man, Maurice Gee has given us a story that explores an unpalatable subject in an entertaining, thought‑provoking form for younger readers. It is likely that other writers will take courage from this and follow suit. Should David Hill come up with a few dysfunctional adults and consider the effects of them on a couple of teenage characters, there will be instant recognition from a vast number of kids and his already extensive readership will increase even further.

Judith Holloway is a writer for children and a tutor in writing for children at Whitireia Polytechnic, Porirua.

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Posted in Children, Literature, Review and Young adults
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