Three’s a Crowd
Lothian Books, $19.95,
Going for Gold
Earlier this year I realised to my surprise and slight dismay that I have been working with and promoting books for children and teenagers for nearly 50 years! Fifty years since I started working in the then School Library Service operating from a “suite” of rooms in the basement of Parliament Buildings. For a determined and hungry reader to be surrounded by such a bounty of books stacked high on towering, green steel shelving was exciting in itself. Then, on my first morning I was greeted at the door by Hector Macaskill, the Director, with the amazing words: “I encourage my staff to take the books home. No, no need to issue them. You’ll bring them back.” And I knew the doors of heaven had opened.
I gobbled my way through the newly published C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, through the piles of Pippi Longstocking titles and through the mass of innocuous teenage books that were beginning to find a market in the States. The books, mainly fiction, about which we felt so passionately, were those of the 1950s written for a generation of pliant and, by today’s standards, innocent children and young people who no longer exist. Many of the books were straight-out adventure stories, lots of fantasy and nearly always with the inconvenient parents being removed on the first couple of pages so the real story could begin. And where were the books by New Zealand writers? Joyce West’s Drovers Road was still three years away; and, as for Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley, Jack Lasenby, they were still waiting in the wings, honing their crafts and waiting to take flight. Children’s Book Awards? The Esther Glen Award initiated and presented by the then New Zealand Library Association was in its infancy, having begun in 1947 with the presentation to Stella Morice for The Book of Wiremu. Official reviews of children’s books in the general media? Forget it!
Now, 50 years down the track – thanks to pioneers like Dorothy Neal White in the Dunedin Public Library, to another Dorothy, Dorothy Butler from Auckland who has dedicated her life to matching children and books, to New Zealand writers for children and teenagers who have bloomed and flourished since the 1960s – we have come to a real wealth in the genre.
I wish Hector Macaskill, who was also a pioneer, could have been in the chandelier-sparkling ballroom at Government House, Wellington, on 5 April this year for the announcement of the winners in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards 2000. He would have been surprised, maybe a bit cynical about all the hype, but, I think, very proud of all that has been achieved in those years from the time in the cold and stuffy basement suite when the books by New Zealand writers would fit on one green steel shelf.
Here are four of the books shortlisted for the awards this year – as different from those early School Library Service books as are the children for whom they are written. One title became a triple prize-winner. All make splendid reading with topics ranging from humour to history, from sport to friendship.
Penelope Huber, from Dunedin, is a first-time writer and her book, Three’s a Crowd, was written while she and her family were living in a small crib on the banks of the Waianakarua River. It is the rural scene she knows so well in which she has chosen to set this story about the hurts and satisfactions of adolescent friendships, the miseries of homesickness, and some of the real scariness of being fourteen and starting to see the world away from the protection of home. Anna, who tells the story, is asked by Polly, a self-contained and rather blunt character, to spend part of the long summer holiday on the family farm. Anna goes, hoping this will cement her friendship with Polly for the coming term, but, on arrival, she finds she has to contend with another “friend”, the frail but manipulative Sylvie, and with Sylvie’s older brother, sinister, glittering-eyed Barry. She also finds she is expected to help paint a farm cottage in the blistering Otago heat and to pick fruit to sell at the roadside stall.
There is a strong plot, satisfactorily resolved, but it is the interaction and development of the two main characters which make this book special: Anna, with her admiration for Polly’s good-looking brother and her feelings of insecurity and anxiety, and Polly who juggles her new friendship for Anna against her established one with Sylvie. I felt Sylvie and Barry, both strong candidates for the counsellor’s couch, were not drawn well enough and almost became caricatures of themselves. Although they were threatening, Sylvie, the invalid, with her seeming desire to break up the closeness between Anna and Polly, and Barry, the possible molester, didn’t really convince me. However, the atmosphere of the countryside is painted with imagination and economy and never overcomes the pace of the story which will appeal mainly to girls aged eleven to fourteen.
2MUCH4U was written while Vince Ford was a student at the Whitireia Polytechnic Writing Course, amidst much laugher and encouragement from his fellow writers. Then it was rejected by the first publisher it was sent to. But Ford’s confidence was restored when the manuscript received the Tom Fitzgibbon Award in 1998. This award is for previously unpublished writers and with it goes the guarantee of publication by Scholastic. Since then, 2MUCH4U has been enjoyed by an enthusiastic band of readers aged from about ten years through to adult. There are funny, real and some dangerous characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds giving the book a wide appeal. It is also a great story to read aloud. This year it was one of the winners in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, not only being honoured with the Junior Fiction Award but also being chosen as Best First Book.
Set in rural Carterton, 2MUCH4U is basically a story of Kiwi ingenuity and initiative. Poor Davin means well but somehow he manages to trash his mother’s car – and to be responsible for the non-payment of the insurance premium. He sets up an odd job business to try to earn enough to buy another car but things don’t turn out well. His first venture is to feed a pack of snarling, barking, hungry pig-dogs, his next to pluck wool from dead sheep and his last to try and win a car in a keep-your-hand-on-the-car-until-the-last-competitor-drops competition. It’s a convincingly told story that never slides its pace, builds to a crescendo in the last chapter and leaves the reader wholly satisfied with the sudden and unexpected final twist to the plot.
Vince Ford, an enthusiastic outdoors man, is in his early thirties with plenty of time to develop and explore his significantly original style. I look forward to reading a shelf full of books from him over the next decade.
Ken Catran’s Golden Prince tells the story of the taking of Troy, seen through the eyes of Pyrrhus, son of warrior king, Achilles. Pyrrhus runs away from home and arrives at the siege determined to live up to his dead father’s reputation, to be a great warrior capable of leading his troops into battle, and to avenge his father’s death. It is a plot full of gore, love, death and revenge, which could have been a weighty read but is written by someone who is also New Zealand’s foremost writer of science fiction for young adults. All his books have the same skills of pace, excitement, down-to-earth description and sympathy with his characters. In Golden Prince we smell the stench in the alleys as Pyrrhus sloshes through the mud to catch the galleon, waiting “low and wide-bellied in the water” at the end of the quay. We feel the terror of hand-to-hand fighting with seasoned swords and spears and we agonise with Pyrrhus on the death of Polyxena whom he loves.
Ken Catran is one of the few writers of historical fiction working in the Young Adult area today. He has said several times (most recently in an interview with Julie Harper in the July 2000 issue of Magpies) that he was very much influenced as a child by the historical writings of Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece. Both these writers had a wonderful way of presenting history as both dramatic and real, but they are, sadly, only read by a limited group today. Ken Catran has a way of knowing exactly what will interest his readers, and his experience as a script writer for TV must also be to his advantage.
Going for Gold by Trevor Wilson is one of a series of books from Scholastic under their general “Sports Max” title. These are books in which the publishers stipulate that readers should, by the time they have finished, feel they understand the specific sport and why it is played. Further stipulations are that there must be no more than five main characters and no significant sub-plots – all of which sounds rather limiting. However, such is Trevor Wilson’s skill in storytelling, he has accommodated all these instructions and produced a focused tale with wonderful moments of laugh-out-loud humour that will be enjoyed by those in the ten-to-thirteen-year-old bracket. I have found it is also being read by many not-so-keen readers.
Zane Watson is determined to do well in the interschool cross-country competitions, and his coach, Old McKenzie, is equally determined the team will win gold. Zane’s mother excelled at the sport a decade before (no conveniently disposed-of parents here), and it is she who works with her son to improve his running technique and tactics. The focus of the story is the importance of working together in cross-country running; and when the coach decides he wants another member of the team to actually win the gold, Zane, who by now is suffering from nerves, works out some tactics of his own. Another character is Yasmin who has cerebral palsy and is writing a book about her condition as “something she knows all about”. It is her inspiration that makes Zane forget his nerves over the race and go for it. The contrast between the frail Yasmin and the athletic, healthy Zane came, for me, within a hair’s-breadth of sentimentality. However, in the last few pages – where the race is described so intensely, Yasmin is so neatly involved in the final outcome and the plot is turned around – I discarded that concern completely.
These are four books all quite different in style and topic but all with the basic ingredients for a good children’s story. They tell readers something more about themselves and the world in which they live. They are books which engage without condescending, which entertain without moralising or ever getting heavy and which , above all, tell a great story.
Barbara Murison is a Wellington children’s book consultant.