Primitive satisfaction, Norman Bilbrough

The Real Thing
Brian Falkner
Mallinson Rendel, $16.95,
ISBN 0908783825

Seal Boy
Ken Catran
Random, $16.95,
ISBN 1869416112

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? 
Sandy McKay
Longacre Press, $14.95,
ISBN 1877135976

Colin Goes Bush
Sandy McKay
Longacre Press, $14.95,
ISBN 1877135917

Finn’s Quest: The Slave Stealers
Eirlys Hunter
Scholastic, $16.99,
ISBN 1869435672

I enjoy the guileless and direct quality of children’s literature. This is a genre whose substance, or lack of it, cannot be obscured by stylistic guises and affectations. Children’s fiction needs to be, mostly, pure and direct story: the reader opens the door and goes directly into the body of the house: the place where all the living and the drama takes place. So I am an adult enjoying and judging stories that were never written with me in mind. (Indeed the children’s stories that are meant to charm Mum or Dad first, always seem contrived and unsuccessful.)

This constitutes a dilemma. How does an adult reviewer with a comparatively sophisticated outlook, an amount of worldly cynicism and definitely more conservative taste, judge a children’s book? And what makes a book children would enjoy and value, as opposed to a book I would think worthy? Or, to put it from another angle: who am I to judge what is an appealing book for younger readers? How can I possibly know? I can’t, but I can make an educated guess.

I enjoyed about half these books, and assumed a younger reader would agree with me. Quite possibly the two I didn’t warm to (and the one I found mildly distasteful) would be really popular with their intended readership.

Like Brian Falkner’s first novel, Henry and the Flea, his second has a gimmicky subject as its focus. Only three people in the world know the secret recipe for Coca Cola. They are kidnapped, so no new drink can be manufactured. Into this high-pressure corporate landscape comes a Kiwi lad with extraordinary taste buds – Fizzer Boyd. Along with his mate Tupai White, he’s primed to help out the mother company and solve the kidnapping problem.

Despite the appropriate age of its protagonists, the striking thing about The Real Thing is that it’s not junior or YA fiction. It’s a novel that makes a gesture towards Raiders of The Lost Arc movies and it reads like airport fiction with a couple of superhuman teenagers thrown in to capture a younger readership. It’s essentially an adult novel in its consciousness. I found it distasteful because it was so obviously commercial: slick and shallow characterisation, adult authorial perceptions and glib observations – all clinging to a mediocre idea.

But of course I’m exercising an adult’s critical judgment: I think this novel is cynically written, and curiously lacking in integrity. It doesn’t employ younger reader-friendly language, and such a reader would not understand a lot of its cultural innuendos (it’s observed that one of the characters has a “trophy wife”). But older kids, especially boys, could well be grabbed by it. The central idea is quirky and current enough to amuse them. And we all want boys to read.

Seal Boy by Ken Catran was the next novel on my B list. This was a disappointment because I am a Catran fan. Catran knows the value of a good story presented without fuss. He also writes on worthwhile themes: life on the front in WW1 (Letters from the Coffin-trenches); the clash of divergent cultures on the early New Zealand goldfields (Lin and the Red Stranger). He’s a master story-teller and those previous books are memorable because of their passion. He seems blessed with an imagination that draws up great story ideas from its depths.

Seal Boy seems poised to confront and explore similar interesting historical issues. Set in the 1840s, it is the story of rich kid Emmet Taylor who is kidnapped from Boston and travels to the South Seas in a whaler. He flees Kororareka, then ends up on a small wild island close to the Chathams. Here he becomes a self-appointed guardian of a colony of seals. The story is quite traditional: it owes much to Coral Island, Treasure Island and even Robinson Crusoe, and it’s quite male. It seems of real importance that Emmet be accepted and respected by the men he is forced to crew with. But pithy issues aren’t confronted, the story is not gripping; it recycles old myths and rituals, and I did not find it interesting. So I’ll stick my neck out and predict that young readers may not find it interesting either. Or that it will have a narrower readership.

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? occupies an uneasy place on my appreciation table: somewhere between the A and the B lists. The Guests are an ordinary Dunedin family who win $6 million, and this story tells how the win wreaks havoc on Mum, Dad, Gran, Billy (7), Gavin (obnoxious 16), and Hannah (12) – the protagonist. At first I found this novel distasteful (my adult pernickitiness coming into play here) because it was hysterical and tacky. But then, maybe winning Lotto is tacky – and if I won it I’d be more than hysterical. So its mood and theme are totally convincing; and I suspect the tacky, glitzy and greedy world that results from such a windfall will really capture young readers.

In the beginning Hannah and her best friend Ursula visit a palm reader who warns Hannah of the impending fortune. The money arrives and, as well as pizzas every night for the unattractive Gavin – and a shift to a huge ostentatious house – Hannah loses Ursula’s friendship. This is an odd aspect of the story because Ursula is such a prize bitch I couldn’t understand why Hannah would be so upset. As well, the big kidnapping drama at the centre of the story seems curiously unreal. But I suspect that unreality is the predominant tenor of everything when you win Lotto.

This novel is essentially about hysteria – and thankfully the Guest family gets past it and their lives return to some level of sanity. And it’s a measure of Sandy McKay’s talent as a writer that a reluctant reader like me was pulled on towards the end. Kids will probably love this book and possibly they’ll be initially drawn to it because it’s about the instant and star-struck culture they’d like to be swimming in.

Colin Kennedy inhabits a very different kind of world in McKay’s Colin Goes Bush. This is a sequel to the author’s Recycled, and Colin is a thoughtful lad who is fired up by a passion to save Planet Earth. But the real story tends not to be how Colin is going to fulfill his destiny as an eco-warrior, but how is he going to cope with his upwardly mobile land-agent Mum, his downwardly mobile lawn mowing contractor Dad and Allie his insensitive and trendy older sister. It’s the story of a dysfunctional family. Mum is becoming a ruthless human being in her need to make a sale; Dad ploughs up the front lawn to grow carrots. Nobody is interested in Colin’s eco desires.

Then lo … several areas of native forest on the West Coast are to be felled, so Colin and his platoon (plus Dad) dress up as kiwis and head off to tie themselves to trees. The heavies arrive with chainsaws – and a dramatic climax seems about to manifest. Except it doesn’t. Disappointment! Thereafter, the story – a bit like Dad’s life – fizzles. Still, despite this strange narrative sag, I think kids would enjoy this book. McKay grabs readers simply through the strength of disparate characters, and Colin is, basically, endearing.

Eirlys Hunter’s book is the final volume in her Finn’s Quest trilogy. Finn is a Kiwi teenager who, in the earlier books, stumbles on a medieval and magic world via a computer game entitled The Ultimate Adventure – a quest-type adventure that could mean life or death for the participant.  So once again he’s back in the kingdom of Coralia, and set to rescue slaves from the neighbouring fascist state of Pellis.

The trilogy is really inventive, and each story flicks along at a tremendous pace. There are a lot of characters in the worlds of The Ultimate Adventure, and a lot back home in suburban New Zealand, a world that is always, infuriatingly, summoning Finn back. But these characters all play their part in a layered narrative. The author doesn’t pull her punches. The book contains death and cruelty. But it’s also about love and pacifism – and realisation (on the part of Finn). Hunter is a deft and thoughtful story builder, her stories never flag, and in The Slave Stealers the quest comes
to a satisfying resolution.

So on the one hand this is a snappy breathless adventure and, more covertly, a coming-of-age tale: a charting of growth out of the chaos of youth. Quest stories such as this, if they are well-written and have the added hook of working on a number of levels, always have a kind of primitive satisfaction for readers of all ages. I really enjoyed this volume (and the two previous ones) and have no doubt younger readers will feel the same. Finally my educated guess about what makes fiction work for children can only be founded on my ability to put aside adult preconceptions – as good authors do when they write for young readers.


Norman Bilbrough writes for children and adults. 



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