Mallinson Rendel, $16.95,
With Lots of Love from Georgia
Allen and Unwin, $19.00,
Allen and Unwin, $19.00,
The Unknown Zone
Random House, $18.99,
The mission offered me was to review four-fifths of this year’s short list for the young adult section of the New Zealand Post Book Awards. This is certainly a challenge. There has been controversy about omissions from this year’s list, and argument about some of the inclusions. As ever, a different panel of judges might have chosen differently. Anyone who has watched the short lists for a few years knows some lack more lustre than others. As a judge of the awards in 2004, I knew the anxieties of waiting to learn what others on the panel thought of my own favourite books – then, when the short list was announced, waiting to duck any flak from publishers, authors, authors’ friends, booksellers and public. And having been in the book trade for a goodly time now, I know you can’t please all the people all the time.
Would I have chosen any or all of these four books? I can’t tell without reading all the novels submitted in the category. I might not have chosen any of the controversial omissions either. But I can look at the criteria and see how, in my opinion, each of these four books fits.
The objective of the awards is to promote excellence in children’s literature and provide recognition for the best children’s books published here annually. Some books can’t be submitted for various technical reasons or don’t fit the categories, so the pool from which the excellent are fished is perhaps limited. Eligible books are judged on whether they extend the reader’s experience and offer insight into the teenage world, whether they show command of narrative technique, language and mood, and character development. Each of these criteria has several sub-criteria.
There are three judges to decide how well each book sits against the criteria. Two are selected because they’re experts in writing for children, either as authors themselves, booksellers, or with some other close connection to books. I’m not sure why the awards still need the third judge to be a celebrity. Over the years, while some Famous Names have been knowledgeable, I doubt they all have. The awards now have a national presence that says, to me at any rate, that the public doesn’t need to be seduced into taking notice of them by there being a celebrity on the panel. I wonder if the Famous Name has sometimes pushed the short list towards his or her own political or other preferences and to heck with the criteria.
David Hill, versatile and technically superb, is totally dedicated to his readership. Running Hot, the story of a group of college kids working to raise money for a school trip, must be one of Hill’s most exciting adventure stories. It’s a mix that has worked before: a main character going through some sort of rite of passage, engineered by a group of disparate individuals having to cope in the natural environment. Running Hot works all this in triple-time. The teenagers are pruning pine saplings for Forestry when a pair of hoons in a 4WD sparks off a fire. One of the culprits is trapped with four college kids and a supervising forestry worker in an increasingly desperate situation.
Tension builds and builds. I wanted Hill to stop it. At each crisis point, I thought the children and supervisor would have to be rescued – but yet another thoroughly believable and thoroughly frightening event would happen. The characters are clearly tagged, the landscape is tactile and gritty. Readers absorb a great deal of information about fires and forests, while the characters sort out their views on other people and their view of the world and deal with more danger than I want to remember. Hill’s research is superb, his use of it creative and spot on. Tone and language are perfectly pitched.
Brigid Lowry, like Hill, has won awards for her young adult fiction. With Lots of Love from Georgia is packed with understanding about the heart and soul of a plump girl with wavy red hair, an overly helpful mother, one boyfriend on a pop star poster and a more tangible potential boyfriend stacking supermarket shelves. Georgia makes funny, often touching, lists to help her through the small but heart-breaking crises every teenager experiences. They’re little poems, showing Lowry’s gift for quirky words and odd insight into the everyday:
Things you can’t see
Your mother’s wedding day
A wish leaving your heart
The next word you will write
Snow before it falls
The tooth fairy
The buried penguin of Antarctica
The narrative has gentle drive and the characters are recognisable. Perhaps the most interesting and appealing aspect of them is how nice and ordinary they are. I wondered if Georgia was perhaps too kind to her mother before remembering my own teenage daughters had been very kind to me. (Note to self: beware a wish for tension created by stereotype, something Lowry would never do.) Being with Georgia was like being 15 again, cosied up on a wet afternoon with a sweet, honest, mad best friend, delving into the tangled package that is the heart of a teenage girl.
Kaitangata Twitch is by New Zealand’s greatest writer for children (undeniably, now she’s this year’s winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award). Mahy has created moody, atmospheric Kaitangata Island which punches towards the sky like a rocky fist. Its isolation is threatened by a property developer. Teenage Meredith finds herself strangely in league with the presence of the island, sleepwalking, perhaps sleep-canoeing, making wishes she knows are wicked, drawn back and forth over the shifting boundaries of dream and reality. The language is as controlled and evocative as expected from a writer of this calibre, poetic but simple:
Sometimes she thought that strange, urgent island voice might echo in her head for the rest of her life, stinging and throbbing every now and then, like a slightly anxious tooth. She might get used to it and just shrug it away. At other times she was sure it was waiting for some weak moment, and then, whether she wanted to or not, she would answer its call.
Effortlessly, Mahy creates mysterious unseen links between terrible aspects of the past, her characters, and the environment. Ultimately, the novel celebrates family life and the unique qualities of each individual.
The last of my challenge, The Unknown Zone is by a newcomer to fiction, Phil Smith. It’s a narrative of two strands: in 1808 a group of sealers is taken captive by a group of Ngai Tahu, and in 1965 a 15-year-old boy, Hemi Ratana, finds a human skeleton high in a tree. Around its neck is a key. The strands alternate until the mystery of how the key got there and what it signifies is unlocked.
The story has all the right elements: brutality, courage, love, and land rights. There is gruesome detail, which the readership will love and hate (in other words, it works). It’s a dramatic rite of passage story with the underdog finally triumphant and generous. However, for me, the political elements in the novel were not fully supported by the craft. The style in each narrative strand could have been more polished and tightened without losing either the 19th century flavour or the necessary raw quality of Hemi’s point of view. Because of these issues with style I found the characters didn’t convince and engage me as strongly as I wanted. There is a rushed passage towards the end, where Hemi seems to jump from teenage victim to successful adult business man too fast to be fully believable.
It’s easy for publishers and judges to get overexcited by theme and message and by brave new talent, and push it too soon. Early success can have the effect of making writers stop challenging themselves. I hope it doesn’t happen here because Smith has talent and intensity.
In my opinion, therefore, the award criteria hold up taut and twanging on all counts for three of these books, not so strongly for The Unknown Zone. And anyway, what about the readership? Books for this age group should help teenagers feel positive about being young, should celebrate what is valuable in society, human relationships, the world in general. That can be done even if the subject matter is dark and the protagonists suffer. I think writers of fiction for children and young adults share all the responsibilities to craft and creative imagination of any fiction writer. But there is this extra responsibility, something more important. The writing should give full value to the age of the audience, not patronise, not judge, most certainly not fudge issues, nor settle for less by going for the easy way out with material, character or attention to style.
Barbara Else is a Wellington writer and the editor of Like Wallpaper: New Zealand Short Stories for Teenagers.