Just Looking, Thanks
ISBN 0 14 130681 5
Mallinson Rendell, $14.95,
ISBN 0 908783 43 4
Boots ‘n’ All
ISBN 1 86943 395 5
ISBN 0 14 130779 X
You read his reviews in the Listener and other publications; you hear his reviews on National Radio with Kim Hill; you turn on “Storytime” and hear one of his stories; you see the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards shortlist, and invariably, there he is.
David Hill, the witty, perceptive, knowledgeable reviewer and immensely pleasant fellow of the John Campbell ilk, is almost ubiquitous in the world of New Zealand children’s books. Talk to any High School group, especially boys, and they’ll most likely reel off a few Hill titles they’re familiar with, along with the Marsdens and Jennings and Cormiers. In fact, they’ve probably had a visit from him, as Hill is a popular member of the Writers-in-Schools circuit. And yet, despite his popularity and prodigious output (some would say because of it), critical attention paid to this well-known children’s writer is surprisingly slight.
The biggest splash was made with his first novel for teenagers, See Ya Simon, a funny, heart-warming story about the friendship between two boys, one of whom is dying of muscular dystrophy. It claimed a fistful of local and international awards and launched Hill’s Young Adult writing career. Several novels later, he’s yet to eclipse that first success.
Yet ask any 15-year-old boy whether or not Hill’s a successful writer and you’ll get a definite affirmative. Which suggests Hill is one of those writers approved of more by the readers than the critics. And in the muddied waters of children’s literature there’s still a debate as to whether we are writing for the children or the adults. Year after year Hill is shortlisted in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards (most recently for Time Out) and year after year, he’s passed over for the big prize.
What isn’t overlooked is how much this guy writes. Four David Hill novels were handed to me to review, all published in 1999. They weren’t all written in twelve months I’m told, but in most years he manages to complete two novels at least.
Of the four books, Just Looking, Thanks and Time Out are the meatier works. In the former, Joel is so hurt by the fact that his dad’s girlfriend is moving in with them that he takes off. But instead of having to survive in the bush or outdoors (territory well covered in other Hill novels), Joel decides to hide out in the local shopping mall. There he finds both enemies and allies, and is befriended by Tyler, a boy with Down’s Syndrome. The story culminates in their uncovering a couple who are pulling an insurance scam and trying to pin it on the boys. The slick twists of plot and well-handled suspense mean that we, like Joel, are forever expecting his cover to be blown and Joel to be caught.
The character of Tyler is what really makes the book come alive. He tells awful one-liner jokes. (“What do you call a man with paper bags on his feet? Russell. A woman with one leg? Eileen. What goes ha ha ha ha thud? A man laughing his head off.”) He touches people affectionately. He asks if he can be Joel’s friend. (“Hell, guys don’t say that!”) And when the duo are in desperate danger at the climax of the book, Tyler isn’t a hero – he panics, bawls “Mum!” and tries to run away. In other words, he’s real, he’s believable and he’s lovable. He (and Joel’s growing friendship with him) add the character and “x-factor”, if you like, to an otherwise well-made urban adventure. As for Joel, he comes to realise how much he misses home, and how kind his father’s girlfriend really is. That side of the story is wrapped up rather simply, if not simplistically. Oh, and he gets the girl (more on this later).
Time Out is riskier in concept. Kit, the typically geeky, self-conscious Hill teenager with a gift for running, disappears into a Black Hole and reappears somewhere else in a type of parallel universe. Kit believes it’s some sort of weird astronomical phenomenon. In fact, it’s all explained in terms of a car accident – he’s in a coma for the duration of the book, and the “parallel universe” is his reality while unconscious. Perceptive readers will work this out (he keeps hearing his parents telling him to “Hold on, Kit”) but just how he will find his way back to his former state is a matter of some tension. The storyline in the parallel universe centres upon Kit and a group of friends training for an upcoming cross-country championship in which the winner takes all. Hill works the double concept well – most characters exist in both worlds, but with a different spin: his parents have become his age, fellow-runners in the race; his Science teacher has become his cross-country coach; the two doctors tending him become his “host family”. The idea of the race works on two, if not three, levels as well – the simple cross-country championship, the race back to life from the coma, and the general race of life in which Kit is learning he can be a winner. There’s a girl in this one too, Alrika, who plays a key role in the race and, it’s intimated, in Kit’s future.
This is a more layered, sophisticated novel and Hill writes well about the compression of past, present and future and the mysterious happenings surrounding this state: “Then the enormous black cloud-mouth was on him. The summer sunlight shrank, rushed to a tiny point like the picture on a switched off TV, and disappeared.” It’s almost a disappointment that the story is rationalised at the end (all except for Alrika, that is) because this is a surreal, slippery novel that could have invited multiple interpretations.
Kit’s parents, like Joel’s, have separated – and like Joel – Kit is confused and angry. At the end of Time Out there is a passage in which Kit observes his parents together, relieved that their son is safe. It is almost identical to one in Just Looking, Thanks: “Kit watched them smile at each other … They’re friends now, he understood. They mightn’t be together again, but they’re friends.”
Which introduces one of the major themes in Hill’s work – that of family. I can hardly find an instance in his novels of a teenager who is just plain bad. There are baddies, but they are almost without exception given their own story. And almost invariably, the reason they are bullies, or rebellious, or cynical, or criminal, is because of their home background. In Boots ‘n’ All the story revolves around an unlikely hockey team, made up of girls and boys of indeterminate age. Each is a clear type: stammering Adrian, never good enough for his father; bullying Tyron, whose father hardly knows he exists; dreamy Fern, whose parents are hippies (Fern’s the one who stops to pick up a butterfly before hitting the hockey ball near it!). Foster, who tells the story, has “sensible” parents, as does the object of his affection, Mele, and her friend Apryl.
Some of these types are set up to be played with: dreamy Fern’s twin sisters have fist fights; macho Tyron becomes nervous Adrian’s ally etc. But behind the narrative is a clear message, and it’s one that you find behind a great deal of Hill’s writing. Kids’ behaviour is a direct response to their home environment. Kids are good at heart; they only go bad in response to hurt. And the easiest way to hurt them, the most damaging thing of all, is the lack of love from two parents.
That’s not to say that Hill’s a right-wing family values reactionary. In fact more often than not his characters come from “broken”/single parent/reconstituted families and usually the parents (as in Joel and Kit’s case) are well-meaning and loving, just rather preoccupied with their own relationship meltdown:
At dinner, he asked, “Dad rung today?” His mother’s face went heavy, and Kit wished he could suck back his words.
“No. He’s probably too busy with that fancy new girlfriend of his.” She left the room. A minute later, Kit heard a glass clink in the kitchen.
In Impact, Fraser, a keen astronomer, and his new friend Courtenay get tied up in the excitement of tracking down a meteorite, and the subsequent intrigue as everyone wants a piece of the action. The background story is a different slant on the family theme. Fraser’s older sister Jemma is pregnant to Vinny, a slack, self-centred muso. Jemma’s story and the heartbreak within the family as her parents struggle with her loyalty and devotion to the useless Vinny, is both instantly familiar and poignant.
Hill says that he writes from a male point of view because he doesn’t trust himself to get an authentic female voice, but that he sees it as important to suggest to boys that expressing tenderness and vulnerability in relationships with the opposite sex “offers lots of rewards”. In almost all of his novels there is a girl who is the object of the main character’s affection. I think this is more than just the traditional male “girl as prize” thing. She’s usually a rather idealised kind of smart, sensible girl, the discovery of whom seems destined to be of great importance in the boy’s life. It does appear sometimes (Just Looking, Thanks is an example) as if the girl exists in a rather cut-out way for this sole purpose, and I certainly think that particular book could have existed perfectly well without her – which begs the question, why is she there? It seems some sort of vital message Hill has about life, a message especially for adolescent boys about expressing emotion and love, and pursuing meaningful relationships.
Meaningful relationships. Humanity. Tolerance. There’s not a sniff of cynicism in David Hill’s novels. Accepting, caring, sensible and compassionate, his authorial voice always takes teenagers’ needs and concerns seriously, as you’d expect from one of the many teacher-turned-YA-writers in this country. And although there’s plenty of humour, it’s always the ha ha ha ha thud type, never just dissing. (I found myself thinking how interesting it would be if you had a Down’s Syndrome kid who delighted in racist jokes – but that’s not Hill’s territory.) He says himself, “I am aware my kids are too nice, too often.” It’s something “he’s working on”, but you get the feeling he’s working against his very nature.
As a children’s writer, Hill is a liberal traditionalist, if you like. He puts story first, second and third, editing his language hard, but preferring accessibility and rhythm over complexity or clever thematic play. He knows how to work a plot and wring it for pace and tension. He knows how to use teenage dialogue that is both credible and inoffensive (never easy); he knows how to use humour to its best advantage – to bring people together. His characters are primarily the marginalised or overlooked, the second rung of middle-status kids who have yet to find their feet and voice in the social jungle. But always, they are good kids, well-meaning, sensitive kids, more easily hurt than we’d expect, and strong if only we give them the chance. There’s an unerring tone of hope in Hill’s work, and if that means that some of the plots can feel a bit predictable, well, that’s the trade-off for knowing they’ll never disappoint or hurt anyone.
There are critics and writers who occasionally mutter, “What if David Hill really screwed himself down to one big work? What could he do?” It’s a partly insulting question, suggesting he isn’t doing well enough now, but it is fair to note a similarity of tone and content in his junior fiction that intimates some recycling. Hill, a baby-boomer, the conscientious provider, may feel hesitant about breaking new ground when he’s producing so successfully in the 25,000-word junior novel slot. It may be that there is a deeper, more substantial book waiting to be born. It may be that the supernatural subject matter of Time Out, handled with such confidence, is a pointer to some new directions. But in the meantime, I think his books do good. I think they are tolerant and affirming – and kids like them. And I think that that is exactly what David Hill wants.
Paula Boock is a Wellington writer and editor.