Boy germs, Eirlys Hunter

The Flytrap Snaps
Johanna Knox and Sabrina Malcolm (illus)
Hinterland Press, $22.00,
ISBN 9780473179960

 

Just Jack
Adele Broadbent
HarperCollins, $19.99,
ISBN 9781869508869

 

Super Finn
Leonie Agnew
Scholastic, $19.50,
ISBN 9781869439996

 

The Puffin Books of my childhood carried an advisory notice. Editor Kaye Webb wanted children to be matched to their reading, so she included helpful advice on the front page. After the description of the plot of A Rutgers van der Loeff’s classic Children of the Oregon Trail, she wrote: “Especially for boys over 10, but also for girls who enjoy robust adventure.” She recommended Jane Gardam’s A Long Way from Verona, “for girls, and perceptive boys, of eleven and older”.

No contemporary editor would risk alienating potential readers so overtly, but many children’s books are branded as being “Especially for Boys” in more subtle ways. It’s the reluctant boy readers that parents, teachers and librarians are trying to woo. And we all believe the shibboleth that girls read omnivorously, but boys are picky and will only read about boys.

Boy readers are well served in this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. Four out of the five YA finalists, and all five junior fiction finalists, have boy protagonists. Two of the junior fiction titles, The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer by James Norcliffe and The Travelling Restaurant by Barbara Else have recently been reviewed in New Zealand Books; this review considers the other three on the shortlist, two of which are first books.

The Flytrap Snaps is the first book in a projected eight-book series called The Fly Papers by Johanna Knox, with line drawings by Sabrina Malcolm. Twelve-year old Spencer Fogle lives in a movie-industry town called Filmington. His parents’ catering business StuffUp is not getting any orders, and although he is a lot more organised and financially savvy than they are, they won’t take his advice. So he decides to start his own business, to show them how it’s done.

The Flytrap Snaps features venus fly traps that can run around and talk, a laboratory for genetically modifying creatures for horror films, and a very modern villain called Jimmy Jangle, who ruthlessly makes money out of everyone’s misfortune. This satire on the movie world is a wildly imaginative, action-packed read.

At the conclusion of book one, the central mystery of what Jimmy Jangle is up to, and what The Fly Papers are, remains unsolved. More will be revealed in book two, which, the last page suggests, will feature Tora, a girl with a head full of dreadlocks and her own venus fly trap. Knox has set a trap herself here: Tora is peripheral to this first story, but if they want to know what happens next, boy readers may have to expose themselves to Tora’s girl germs.

Hinterlands is a new press set up by Knox and her designer partner Walter Moala, and Knox’s first book is an object lesson in self-publishing. Not only is it illustrated, but also beautifully designed, printed on good quality stock, with generous margins around the text. There is nothing amateurish or penny-pinching about it at all. And the sophisticated cover design is age- and gender-neutral.

KW might have said: “A funny and fast-paced adventure story to be enjoyed by boys, and girls, aged from eight upwards.”

Fourteen-year old Jack feels inadequate compared to his all-rounder big brother; he’s no good at sport, he’s not as handy around the farm – and he’s small. Everyone calls him Wee Jack but he longs to be Just Jack. What Jack does have is a way with horses: he loves to ride, and horses trust him.

It’s the Depression, and opportunities are few and far between. Jack goes to Napier to become an apprentice jockey but his alcoholic boss mistreats him, and the other apprentice makes his life miserable.  After much misery Jack finds a better employer, and begins to blossom into happy adolescence. Then the Napier earthquake strikes. The stables are damaged, and he has to find the strength and resourcefulness to rescue both people and horses.

Adele Broadbent’s grandfather was an apprentice jockey in Hawke’s Bay in the 1930s, and she has constructed a well-shaped fictional narrative out of his experiences. Many young readers may find it hard to believe that Jack’s world existed within living memory – that not so long ago all communication was by letter, a 14-year-old might have to make his own way in the world, a bicycle was the only transport available to most people, and the pool hall provided the only recreation. Broadbent’s recreation of Hawke’s Bay life in 1931 is completely convincing, but she doesn’t allow the research to dominate the story of Wee Jack’s transformation to Just Jack.

The book’s title signals “boy protagonist”, though the young rider galloping over a fractured landscape in the cover image could be a boy or girl. The image is a bit misleading: there’s a lot of grooming and mucking out inside, but not a lot of riding. It’s not a “horse story” as girls would understand the genre; rather, a story about growing up in difficult times. KW might have written: “For boys of nine to 13 and girls who are interested in the past”.

The jacket of Super Finn shows two cartoonish boys with cash and chocolate bars bulging out of their pockets, against an eye-catching yellow background. The message is clear: “Boys, pick me up – you’ll enjoy this.” And indeed they will, but it would be a shame if girls, and adults who want to understand boys better, were to judge this book entirely by its cover, because Finnigan Marsh, would-be superhero, is no cartoon character.

Finn is the kind of well-intentioned child who finds it hard to navigate the world of adults. When his teacher Mr Patel says, “Well?”, what does he want Finn to say? Finn experiences every question adults ask him as a test, and he sucks at tests. Money is tight in Finn’s single-parent household, and when Mum economises by cancelling their World Vision sponsorship, Finn becomes obsessed with the need to raise money to save Umbaba, the child they’ve been sponsoring.

He’s always wanted to be a superhero – and saving lives is what superheroes do. Together with best mate Brain who is smart (but dyslexic – he’s actually called Brian), and with help from older brother Seymour, they embark on a variety of fund-raising schemes, which teeter on the brink of farce. But behind all the good intentions that end in disaster is a boy who has been grieving and confused since his Dad walked out on the family.

This strand of the story is lightly drawn, but absolutely believable, and provides powerful fuel for Finn’s actions. When Mr Patel tells him he may have to repeat the school year if he doesn’t try a lot harder, Finn thinks: “Try? Like that’s going to fix anything. I could try out for the All Blacks or try to fly off the gym roof with a bunch of balloons tied to my arms. Trying doesn’t make things happen.” Despite this, Finn tries very hard to raise money for Umbaba.

Leonie Agnew is a primary school teacher and she has been watching and listening closely. The school and home relationships are both lovingly drawn, and the dialogue is terrific. The manuscript won her the 2010 Tom Fitzgibbon Award for a previously unpublished author, for which publication with Scholastic New Zealand is the prize. It is a great debut, very funny, but not slight. Perceptive readers will enjoy the irony in Finn’s determination to raise money to stop Umbaba from starving by smuggling lollies into school to sell in the playground at lunchtime. And the fun that Agnew has with Finn’s nemesis, Mrs Crabtree the school principal, a woman with an obsession about healthy eating. She insists on daily lunch box checks for banned junk food, which means there are lots of potential customers for Finn’s illicit sugar. “Mrs Crabtree’s eyes bulge. ‘In case you haven’t heard, obesity kills!’ ” As KW might say: A very funny story for all readers over eight, especially boys.

So, lots of good books, especially for boys. But where are our young heroines? Where are the Pippi Longstockings? The Ramonas? The Lyras? The Coralines? These are difficult times for publishing. Are girl protagonists being abandoned by writers and publishers, in response to marketing departments’ anxiety about the need to reach the widest possible demographic? Or is this a social trend? Girls need to see themselves represented in good fiction as much as boys do. And not just dealing with “girl” issues but having adventures and living a little wildly. And maybe boys need to be persuaded to try a more balanced diet.

 

Eirlys Hunter teaches writing for children at the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington. 

 

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Posted in Children, Literature, Review and Young adults
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