On the open shelves, Barbara Murison

Jolt  
Bernard Beckett
Longacre Press, $16.95,
ISBN 187713550X

Tiggie Tompson All at Sea  
Tessa Duder
Penguin, $15.95,
ISBN 0141313234

The Name of the Game
David Hill
Mallinson Rendel, $15.95,
ISBN 0908783639

I opened my parcel of titles for review with the usual mixture of pleasurable anticipation which receiving books by mail always brings, but also with some caution. What if they were all books I actively disliked? However, as the wrapping came off, I realised they were all familiar and ones I had read over the past months, mainly with enjoyment and admiration.

These novels are all aimed, according to the publishers’ documentation, at that rather nebulously named market, Young Adult. Who exactly are Young Adults? Do they read the books designed for them? Forty-five years ago, when the Young Adult Collection was first put together at Wellington Public Library (it had been running in other centres for longer), there would have been no doubt. It was a fought-for, 250-title collection with its own budget, and eligible readers, aged 13-17, had to have their cards stamped “Young Adult Borrower”.

The stamp was, in part, to eliminate older subscribers, mainly women, who were justifiably indignant that many of the titles in the new collection were ones they had “on reserve” at sixpence a book in the interestingly defined “Popular Library”. Mainly, however, the stamp was to stop children under the age of 13 from getting their innocent hands on books by writers like Virginia Holt, Daphne du Maurier, Dennis Wheatley, or by the many emerging American writers for teenagers like Jean Bothwell, or books of “inappropriate” non-fiction (usually bearing some amazingly dreary title). Books on (speak the words softly) sex education were not allowed on the open shelves of the YA collection. A discreet notice on the desk informed borrowers that this material was kept across the foyer in, of all places, the “Commercial Library”, and anyone wanting it had to be personally escorted by the Children’s Librarian and then, sign for it.

I remember a whole Heads of Sections’ meeting, chaired by Stuart Perry, the then City Librarian, given over to this and other problems created by the acknowledgement that readers at this stage of maturity actually existed. Services to children and teenagers were then not high on the list of priorities, and children’s librarians were fighting a battle, which in some places still sadly rumbles on.

Back in those days when I myself was a children’s librarian selecting new books, what would I have made of this trio by Beckett, Duder and Hill? I’d certainly have been intrigued by their frankness and full of praise for their storylines. However, pressure from on high – where everything was carefully vetted and the selector often grilled over their choices – would probably have resulted in the books being banished to the “Commercial Library” for controlled borrowing. Thank God we have all changed!

2

Bernard Beckett has not been a published writer for long. Lester, his first book, came out in 1999. Last year saw Red Cliff, and now here is his most complex book so far, Jolt. Three well-received books in three years is an admirable record, and Jolt is currently being promoted enthusiastically on the Web through the New Zealand School Librarians’ site. A recent quick flick on the web through the borrowing records of five of New Zealand’s main public libraries, all of which held multiple copies, showed only one on the shelves.

The story has two levels. On the first level, Marco and his fellow students are taking part in a coast-to-coast through the Tararua Ranges when horrendous things happen. Wellington is partially destroyed by a major earthquake, and Ms Jenkins, the teacher accompanying the group, is killed by a party of trampers. One of the trampers later resurfaces as a doctor in the psychiatric ward at Masterton Hospital from which – on the other level of the story – Marco, confused and unsure, is writing his account of these events.

Through this scenario Bernard Beckett successfully explores a combination of themes which would probably not have appeared in many children’s books in the past – except, of course, in fairy tales and Greek tragedies, but no one seemed to notice that fact back then! There is death, revenge, and the strange workings of the human mind. There is sex, integrity, and allegiance. Beckett is successful, too, in introducing humour into the text. Jolt is a book that repays a second reading to appreciate some of the subtleties of the story.

During an interview with him in November 2000, I asked Beckett whether, were he not a teacher, he would still write about and for this age group. “No,” he replied, “… I don’t consciously try to capture the ‘contemporary teenage voice’ or any such thing. It’s just a case of writing about what I know and I, for my sins, know teenagers.”

3

Tiggie Tompson All at Sea  presents us with a more confident, physically lighter Tiggie than the character readers met in The Tiggie Tompson Show, the winner of last year’s New Zealand Post Senior Fiction Award. Now Tiggie is to star in a TV drama about Eliza, a young English immigrant, who arrived in New Zealand in the 1860s. Parallel to Tiggie’s story is the account of the “real” Eliza: her desperate and pregnant departure from London; her stifling and frightening trip across the world by sailing ship; her last letter to her parents from Auckland on the eve of her wedding in 1868. Tiggie in real time – which runs up to the millennium and the America’s Cup – has problems of her own. Her mother, a TV documentary anchor woman, and her out-of-work father are both temporarily in Australia. Tiggie herself is being harassed by e-mail by a hitherto unknown stepbrother, suffers a near-death experience on a training ship, agonises over her love for would-be boyfriend Gareth. At times, I felt I was reading through a glass, darkly; there seemed to be so many unanswered questions. Particularly, I kept waiting for the two stories, Eliza’s and Tiggie’s, to merge in a more obvious way, but, for me, the merging never happened. Perhaps this is to be made clear in the final book in the trilogy.

I asked Duder last year what she felt were the main differences between her well-loved character Alex and the new heroine Tiggie Tompson, two young women who “live” 40 years apart. She explained the difference like this:

Tiggie begins as a blob and discovers her innate resourcefulness and her previously hidden talents. Alex began as an achiever, confident and busy, albeit one who can’t organise her life. They also reflect their times. Search the four Alex books and, though she hates being tall, you won’t find a single reference to second marriages, soap operas on TV, “body image” or guilt about eating. She’s fit, eats well in a rock-solid family where her mother cooks three sensible healthy meals a day. Tiggie’s mother doesn’t set breakfast tables and she’s either into elaborate dinner parties to impress her television colleagues or meals on the run. 

4

David Hill has a rich background of working with boys and girls, both as a teacher and a writer, and I talked to him recently about what influence this has on his work. He replied:

I’ve got a long list of humiliations and lovely kids and also sad kids to draw on. I keep hearing their voices. I’m touched by their vulnerability. I often rewrite things so I can do them better in the book! I also want to honour a lot of the kids I taught. There are some lovely young guys and young women around and I’d love them to feel they are not alone.

 

Although Hill has said several times he writes about boys because he feels he understands them better and, of course, they are  the main protagonists in all his stories, it seems to me his female characters always have some identifying strength, which makes them memorable. Donna, in Hill’s latest book The Name of the Game, an open-minded account of the 1981 Springbok Tour, violently opposes what is happening, and is one of the protesters who nearly turn the country into a war zone. Her thoughts and actions and those of Alan, an Auckland High School student, who lives mainly to play and watch rugby, are skilfully balanced against each other; and the reader is given a clear message of the importance of identifying one’s own beliefs and thinking for oneself. Switching from Alan’s family talking around the TV to discussions going on in classrooms, then moving out into the cities and provinces, Hill manages to cover all the main events of the tour without losing the excitement of a good story well told. An arresting jacket and short, easily read chapters make this a book that even less enthusiastic
readers will pick up.

Here, then, are three feisty 21st century New Zealand writers – Beckett, Duder, and Hill – who are magically able to speak in the voices of their characters. And who are going to be the readers of these three books? For those who need to be given a general age-grouping, my guess would be probably around 11-14 year olds. But I hope Jolt, Tiggie Tompson All at Sea, and The Name of the Game will be read by just about anyone – teenager, younger or middle-aged reader – anyone, in fact, who picks up the book and decides for themselves: this is for me.

 

Barbara Murison is a Children’s Book Consultant.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Young adults
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