The parent problem, Joan de Hamel

Sandy McKay
Longacre Press, $14.95,
ISBN 1887135496

My Dad the All Black
Sandy McKay
Longacre Press, $14.95,
ISBN 1887135690

The Dare Club
Vince Ford
Longacre Press, $14.95,
ISBN 1877135682

Jan Thorburn
Mallinson Rendel, $17.95,
ISBN 0908783671

Aunt Effie
Jack Lasenby
Longacre Press, $16.95,
ISBN 1877135720

One of the judges for the 2002 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize made the following comment:

If we are to believe some authors, the gap between children and their parents has never been wider and the bridge of love and trust is extremely shaky …. Adults … are often given a horrible mauling for being self-interested, short-sighted, unreliable, even violent.


Parents present problems. The solution? Is it flight or fight? In the English books for children that older New Zealanders were reared on, chapter one separated the children from their mothers and fathers. Then the adventures began – discovering borrowers, clocks that struck 13, lions and witches and weirdstones.

In New Zealand, Elsie Locke, as early as 1965, wrote The Runaway Settlers, in which the mother and children escape from a disastrous marriage in Australia to make a new life in Governor’s Bay. In the small number of New Zealand books for children written before the 1980s, horses usually had more character than adults. Within a decade, however, parents were promoted to major roles. Alex would never have made the Olympics without her supportive family. How might Hannah, Mikey and Sky, and especially Ethan, have grown up without Joe and Sophie at the helm?

Problems do not disappear. As real-life marriages became less stable, books reflected the trend. Parents separated, divorced, then added incest to adultery. William Taylor’s Possum Perkins was published in 1987, Ruth Corrin’s Secrets in 1990. Children’s lives were blighted by their parents’ behaviour. There was no escaping the hard facts of life by snuggling up with books of this genre –  not that escape is the only reason for a good read.


In four of the five books under review, the emphasis has shifted. Parent problems are prominent, but they are not the only, nor even the main, theme. Sandy McKay’s and Vince Ford’s kids accept that adults have troubles and hang-ups. They turn to each other for support, not to their mixed-up parents: a compromise fight/flight solution.

Sandy McKay’s Recycled, written in the first person, has a strong ecological theme. Colin goes overboard to persuade his family to be environmentally responsible, but his timing and tact are disastrous. Dad is unemployed, and Mum, who occasionally escapes from everyone by going hang-gliding, is working as a real estate agent:  “Mum was sounding more and more like a sleazy businessman these days, not like a mother at all.” And “whenever Mum sells a house he (Dad) should be happy. But he’s not. The more houses she sells the more down in the dumps he gets.”

Colin meets Paddy, who runs the Roseview Rubbish Rescue Centre. There is an ongoing storyline about the council’s decision to shut down Paddy’s enterprise, which becomes a clash between Paddy’s and Mum’s interests. To help Paddy, Colin delivers, literally, information on “your average rubbish bag” to the Council Refuse Department, and then organises his school-mates to attend a protest meeting. The unexpected climax to this brings hope for the future of Colin and his family – and for recycling.

Equally readable, but more serious, is McKay’s second novel, My Dad the All Black. The storyline is related in the first person by Will, whose mum is an embarrassment and a problem from the opening sentence: “What would you do if your mum had her picture on the front page of the paper, propped up in a sleeping-bag, reading the Encyclopaedia of All Black Legends?” Mum was queueing at Carisbrook. Will can be thankful she was indeed inside her sleeping-bag because she “wears tops that don’t tuck in so she can show off her pierced belly button.” He worries about her health and her boyfriend and especially about her ambitions for himself. Will’s search for himself is the book’s main theme, gift-wrapped in football.

Mum’s passion for rugby includes the certainty that Will will become an All Black like his father, who was killed in a car smash when Will was a baby. Will wonders how he – with his skinny legs – could ever grow into a man with legs like fence-posts. He has a natural ability at football which is as much a problem as an advantage. He is fond of his mother and, although he criticises and argues, he tries not to hurt her feelings.

Always, in the background, he worries over the facts of death. Eventually his uncle tells him the truth about the fatal accident. But it is Kate, the same age as himself, to whom he eventually turns, and who talks honestly about death and her own experiences. A few details don’t tie up well, but the football is convincing. Now that Will understands his father as a person, not just as a hero, he may well make it to the top himself.

I enjoyed the breezy vernacular in both these books, a style that gives immediacy and authenticity, but limits the vocabulary. Nevertheless, there are some brief, effective, descriptive passages. Will and his uncle drink tea: “Neither of us says anything. We concentrate. Stirring and coughing, stirring and coughing, stirring at the tea and pretending like it’s a normal situation. Silence wobbles between us like a birthday jelly.”


The two boys and two girls in The Dare Club are mates at school, which is tyrannised by the younger brother of the local gang leader. The rules of the club state that whoever draws the short straw has to do the dare and also gets to ask a truth question of anyone else in the group. The dares are exciting and terrifying; the truth questions probe deeply, exposing parent and sibling problems at home. Confiding the trouble and talking about it to friends releases tension and expurgates guilt. Forget family conferences, friendly class teachers and understanding uncles, these kids will see each other through, keep each others’ secrets and, when the chips are down, literally fight for each other. Mateship is the theme of this book.

The Dare Club is related in the third person. The conversations are in school vernacular, but the fast action comes alive with a wide vocabulary of punchy verbs. There are evocative descriptive passages. The video arcade, for instance: “Strange electronic voices yelled warnings out of dim corners, anxious faces were lit up by the screens as players concentrated, their hands flashing to the buttons, controlling small electronic worlds.” Quiet moments contrast with the tumult and the shouting of school and the “throaty growl” of the gang’s V8. The boys explore a deserted churchyard, “a place that needed whispers and soft feet”.


Jan Thorburn’s first book, Stranded, is well-titled. These boys are indeed stranded, by being washed up on a beach after a boating accident, and also by their lack of knowledge and initiative. It takes them four days to find a cliff path that is frequently, if not recently, used. The story, narrated by Sam, the New Zealander, proves that his father, a deerstalker, and his aunt, who takes him tramping, have not succeeded in teaching him basic survival skills: such as displaying their life-jackets as markers visible from the air or maintaining a smoky fire and conserving food. The social studies teacher (an ex-pat New Zealander, you bet!) in a London school has imparted more information to English Toby, “a typical townie … a lonely geek”, who applies book knowledge intelligently.

The boys despise each other, but gradually discover a shared sense of humour. Toleration, in fits and starts, then real respect, emerge as the mateship theme is developed. This becomes convincing as the boys’ personal backgrounds are revealed. Yes, there are parent problems, Toby’s apparently insoluble. A thoughtful book in this respect. Full marks for an understated but effective “happy ending” in the penultimate line.


And so to Jack Lasenby’s Aunt Effie, altogether another kettle of fish! I could fit Aunt Effie herself into the semblance of a proxy parent figure who is “self-interested, unreliable and violent” as per the comment of the Children’s Fiction Prize judge. She is indeed all these things, but transcends definitions, as does the book itself, with swirling flights of fantasy alongside stark realism and meticulously accurate detail, all amazingly captured in David Elliot’s illustrations.

The story is told in the first person plural, we. “We” are Aunt Effie’s 26 nephews and nieces, only occasionally distinguishable one from the other. “We” love Aunt Effie, whose personality eclipses us all. When she calls, “we” rush to jump onto her enormous bed and listen to an outrageously imaginative version of New Zealand history. Soon “we” are actively involved in the realities of early colonial enterprises.

The machinations of Lasenby’s imagination are as often surreal as real, and may take some getting used to if you haven’t been reared by Uncle Trev and Harry Wakatipu. However, the essence of  fiction lies in tension between truth and imagination, and Lasenby is past master at tightening and slackening the knobs and screws and strings.

Aunt Effie swashbuckles and imbibes, complains and bellows, and exaggerates the story of her life and marriages. She drives “us”, her descendants, across an unspecified number of years, working “our” guts out to accomplish dangerous and challenging tasks. “We” fell a giant kauri, saw it into logs, build a dam and float the logs down river. “We” build a scow from keel to rigging and sail it for several years through both storm and calm, across pirate- and serpent-infested seas from the Coromandel east coast to Auckland – via the equator and the Sargossa Sea. As Aunt Effie says, “You’ll find it pays not to worry too much about time, Daisy. Like distances … I always think time and distance are much the same.”

When “we” are not engaged in these enterprises, “we” drop back into everyday life, into that past which country-raised grandparents may just remember, when every member of the family had to put their backs into accomplishing the seasonal tasks of farm life. “We” maintain fences, prune trees, make hay, dig potatoes, harvest and preserve fruit and vegetables, stock up with wood, kill pigs, smoke hams, bring the stock safely into shelter and batten down for the winter. These are everyday survival skills that self-sufficiency and rigorous economy still demand. Modern life with electricity is meagre in comparison.

The detail on how all this is accomplished is encyclopaedic. The vocabulary is specialised and technical; also mysterious and mesmerising. Daisy interpolates on behalf of “the little ones” with requests for definitions. Her glossary is included at the back of the book. I referred to it constantly and found it interesting reading in itself.

The judge of the 2002 Guardian award included the comment that “only a handful of writers thrilled the judges by treating language for what it is; a wonder and a glory … a sort of music.” I would include Jack Lasenby in this handful.


Joan de Hamel is a Dunedin writer.


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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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