A child’s-eye view, Anna Mackenzie

The Mapmakers’ Race
Eirlys Hunter
Gecko Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781776572038

Time Twins
Arne Norlin and Sally Astridge
Submarine, $25.00,
ISBN 9780473406325

David Hill
Puffin, $20.00, ISBN 9780143772392

The bonds of family and place, seen from an appropriately youthful viewpoint, are the key players in three recent offerings for younger readers.

A good rollicking read for 8- to 12-year-olds, The Mapmakers’ Race recounts the adventures of a group of children who have a month to journey through uncharted wilderness while battling the elements, their unscrupulous rivals, and their own fears and limitations.

Set in a not-quite-anywhere world that offers a richly described geography of mountains and marshes, rivers and ravines, the four Santander children misplace their mother on the eve of a critically important route-finding contest. The prizes on offer will secure their future (and the means to find their similarly misplaced father), but the 28-day challenge will stretch the stamina and talents of every family member. 

Can a team of children ranging from four to 14 possibly overcome the many obstacles in their path? With limited options and some timely encouragement from local lad Beckett – who rounds out the skillset nicely – the youngsters make the decision to forge on. Pitted against them are teams of professional mountaineers, explorers and scientists, not to mention roguish ruffians and crooked cowboys. A classic quest, the story romps through a series of credible and well-paced challenges, ranging from mountain crossings, accidents on scree slopes and near drownings in rivers, through to fits of temper and food shortages. 

The unscrupulous adults of the rival teams conform to a ready set of stereotypes, and perhaps readers of this age could manage something a little less predictable. But what carries the story are the bonds, and occasional battles, between the four siblings. The character of each is well delineated and between them they field a wide range of complementary abilities. There’s serious Sal, the mathematician who excels at worrying; optimist route-finder and explorer-in-training Joe; his mute twin Francie, without whose secret talent and artistic skill the whole venture would be sunk before it begins; and the charmingly boisterous Humphrey who, despite being not-quite-five, is an excellent walker and has usefully “noticing eyes”. The family’s new friend, Beckett, at 15, adds an almost-adult edge, as well as the day-to-day practical skills that the collected Santanders lack.

Eirlys Hunter has produced half a dozen titles for younger readers. The Mapmaker’s Race comes after a lull of more than a decade, and is unquestionably her best yet. Nestled somewhere between An Rutgers van der Loeff’s Children on the Oregon Trail and Joyce West’s The Sea Islanders, this height-of-the-steam-era tale has a slightly quaint feel, which will be welcomed by parents and grandparents reading the book aloud (and oh, how well it lends itself to that). This is good old-fashioned story-telling, a classic quest with challenges in every chapter, a well thought-out narrative arc and plenty of in-jokes for all ages, ably supported with appealing illustrations. The production values, as one expects from Gecko Press, are excellent. The beautiful cover entices and the maps that echo each chapter’s advance enrich the written text. 

Rich and detailed description will snag and spark the young (and not-so young) imagination: “They watched the golden light cutting through the dark shadows of the branches. The stripes of sunshine would be perfect for tigers to hide in…” As well, there is a sense of the familiar in the landscape which will allow readers to place it within their own experience: 

[From] a clearing at the top of a rise the view opened up for miles over the top of the forest. In the distance was a wall of greeny-grey mountains, and behind that floated a cigar of white cloud, and above the cloud, a line of shining white peaks gleamed against the brilliance of the sky.

But, while the geography is fundamental to the story, it is the young characters who will win readers’ hearts. There are beautifully observed moments: “Humph was galloping ahead of the dray, waving a stick and arguing with himself. He was being a horse, the kind of talking horse that holds a sword in its front hooves.”

The story’s end is satisfying without being saccharine and, while fully rounded and complete, it also leaves the partially reunited family in a position to set off on an even more significant quest. Readers of the first book will be looking eagerly for a sequel. 

Co-written titles can be a risky undertaking. Time Twins, from Sweden’s Arne Norlin and New Zealand’s Sally Astridge, doesn’t quite manage to convince, in part because the merging of the main characters’ storylines feels slightly superfluous – the characters’ independent lives are ultimately more compelling than the “time twins” motif.

Born at the same time on the same day, 11-year-olds Astrid and Tamati discover they can visit one another’s lives, despite being separated by 17,500 kilometres. Tamati proves the more accomplished astral traveller, regularly appearing in Astrid’s bedroom after lights out (which causes less consternation than it might). Presented as a consequence of their shared moment of birth, Tamati’s grandfather shares their ability and schools them in utilising it – which, intentionally or not, potentially generates an inference that astral travelling is an aspect of Māoritanga. 

Once Astrid has recovered from the shock of a strange boy appearing at her bedside, an easy friendship develops between the two youngsters, with differences between their families, countries and culture gradually revealed. Swedish Astrid is, fortunately, a fluent English speaker – and more tolerant than Tamati deserves, given his own linguistic limitations, of his tendency to correct her grammar.

Astrid is struggling with the dynamics of Queen Bee classroom politics and overt bullying. For years, Henrietta has been the class victim and, rather perplexingly, makes no attempt to defend herself, even as the bullying worsens into something little short of serious physical and sexual abuse. It is entirely understandable that Astrid is initially hesitant to intervene and offer support, potentially exposing herself to the same treatment. The class teacher’s malicious and persistent favouritism towards the bullies, to the extent of ignoring the blatant physical assault of an 11-year-old girl during class, is a little less explicable. Ultimately, the school principal is right on-side in the anti-bullying campaign – but readers might be forgiven for wondering where he’s been up to that point. The growing friendship between Astrid and Hetty is nicely depicted, with details of their families’ lives providing a broadly textured backdrop that also shows us something of modern Sweden.

Tamati’s problems are on a scale appropriate to his age (and that of readers). He struggles with the expectations and demands of his grandfather, dislikes his mother’s favourite food but doesn’t want to upset her, worries about the ramifications of defending a younger boy against bullies, shepherds his school enterprise group in a successful popcorn-selling venture.

The novel is delivered in alternating viewpoints, with compact chapters that make it an approachable read for intermediate age readers. The preponderance of italics in the text is distracting, coming across as authorial interruption – “read this sentence this way!” – and the use of contemporary slang – “that’s fully sick” – feels slightly strained and risks rapidly dating the novel. 

There are some strong and worthy messages woven through both characters’ storylines. It is particularly good to see bullying depicted in multiple forms requiring a varied range of approaches. 

The difficulties faced by the main protagonists are age-appropriate and realistic, but, even though Tamati and Astrid provide each other with advice and moral support in dealing with the issues they individually face, the novel is ultimately not a novel about being time twins, but two independent stories about dealing with common problems presented by school and family. 

Having written about many pivotal moments of New Zealand’s history, the elder statesman of New Zealand’s literary scene for younger readers, David Hill, in his latest novel Finding, gathers a succession of key moments of our history into one cohesive whole. A mammoth undertaking, you might think, but with his story told through the eyes of seven successive generations of two intertwined families, Hill neatly skirts around potential pitfalls.

Written partially as a tribute to his own family’s origins, the threads that run through the generations reflect Hill’s regular themes of family and loyalty and love, but it is the river that fixes this tale firmly in place, holding both families secure (while also threatening lives on occasion). 

In 1886, Aggie and her family set sail for New Zealand aboard the Princess Louisa, leaving behind Scotland and – they hope – poverty, for the promise of a new land. En route, Aggie suffers an illness that significantly changes her life – and lays the foundations for a friendship with local Māori that will see the family survive the challenging years that lie ahead. 

A decade on and the story passes to Aggie’s younger brother, from where it skips lightly down the generations. This tag-telling allows us to stride swiftly through the decades, with a glance aside now and again to fix us in time. In an appropriately child-centric view, it is the events of the moment and the place that impact in our story-tellers’ lives, while wider world issues are referenced through the experiences, told in passing, of the family’s adults. 

As the telling moves to each subsequent generation, I found myself eager to discover who would carry the story on in each chapter, and how we would learn the fate of the previous baton-holder. A minor cavil is that the “who” is less clear than it should be through voice; there is too little differentiation between eras and genders. The Scottish dialogue of the early immigrants is slightly strained but, by the time we reach 1918, Hill, a master of fast-paced action, has really hit his stride.

Duncan’s anger-driven accident kept me riveted:

I drew back the axe… putting all my weight behind it. Beneath my foot, a wood-chip rolled sideways. I lurched as the heavy steel blade flashed down at the wood. It hit the knot, skidded off, and sliced into my left leg, just above the knee. I felt no pain. But I heard the noise it made: a chock like Mother’s meat cleaver slicing into the roast as she prepares dinner.

The orchard that is planted where Duncan was felling totara, the school that the timber builds, the handle of that axe, all become talismans that stay with the family – and us – over time. There is also a Scottish bracelet and a Māori pendant in play, but these are almost surplus to requirements. 

In the flash flood of 1957 we feel as if we are half-drowned with Tipene, gripping that axe handle with Alan. The only off-farm excursion is Aisla’s Springbok tour jaunt, and whanau and talismans play a part in keeping us grounded there, too. Drawing out some of the issues surrounding racism and our own conflicted viewpoints also serves to counter any sense that the open-hearted friendship between the Scottish immigrants and local Māori was a little too easy for the era.

On a spiritual level, encompassing both Scottish and Māori families, the hawk that hovers above the swamp provides a timeless image of the treasure that is our history, our land, our whanau.

Another refrain that echoes through each chapter is the “I’ll tell you more about that later” interjection offered by many of the story-tellers. I found these a distraction, intruding into the narrative, but, for younger readers, another thread linking the narrators together over the generations may be helpful.

Callum’s final section, set in 2018, reinforces each of the previously explored threads then leaves readers to make up their own minds about what comes next, with just the right degree of understated craftsmanship. 

As a potted history of New Zealand through the eyes of successive generations, an exploration of important themes that underlie community, and as a jolly good read, there is no doubt that Finding will prove a popular book amongst primary and intermediate readers.

Anna Mackenzie writes in a range of genres, teaches creative writing and mentors aspiring writers.

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