Giving them what they want, Linda Burgess

Donato and the Cartege Blade
Fiona Jordan
Mary Egan Publishing, $25.00,
ISBN 9780473437367

1918: Broken Poppies
Des Hunt
Scholastic, $19.00,
ISBN 9781775432821

How Not to Stop a Kidnap Plot
Suzanne Main
Scholastic, $17.00,
ISBN 9781775434801

Dawn Raid
Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith
Scholastic, $18.00,
ISBN 9781775434757

Unlike the other books reviewed, Fiona Jordan’s Donata and the Cartege Blade is not set in a current or historical New Zealand. Its setting is recognisable, though. Time – Middle Ages, round about: place – fantasy land. This means there are monasteries, cloaked monks, ruined abbeys, looming mountains, ancient castles with dark passages, attempted assassinations and more than a hint of issues to do with identity. Indeed, quite early on in the novel, the protagonist learns he is no ordinary boy. He is the child of important parents, and who they are is one of the main threads running through the story. As a baby, it became clear that he was at risk of being murdered, so he was deftly swapped with another baby. Which was rather unfortunate for the replacement baby, for whom the swap turned out to be fatal.

Jordan is an intermediate school teacher and she knows her target audience well. Sometime round about puberty, boys in particular love the escape that fantasy novels allow them. What they ask of the writer is quite straightforward. They want a central character with whom they can identify, they want strong evocation of place, they want tight plotting, they want conflict and crises that are resolved, they want pace, and a happy ending. Jordan offers all this by the bucketload.

This is very visual writing; you sense that as Jordan sits at her computer she’s seeing the action on her internal screen. What it’s let down by is the writing’s lack of freshness. I suspect, though, that its audience won’t be quite as bothered by clichés as this picky reader. Cheeks burn, blushes deepen, princesses sigh, hearts warm, glances tend to be suspicious. Arms are folded and chins are set. Sudden noises stop people in their tracks. To be fair, when the author does attempt fresher language she can come a cropper: at one stage, “a ball of cursed trepidation whirled around Donato’s stomach.” Ouch.

Des Hunt is also an educationalist, and he’s an environmentalist. Scholastic have published a series named Kiwis at War, and Des Hunt’s 1918: Broken Poppies is the fifth and final book.  

Hunt’s novel is based on the lives of two young men from his own family, brothers George and Henry. Both sign up to fight overseas, but one doesn’t return. This was the situation faced by a tragically large number of New Zealand families who saw their boys off on boats to the other side of the world. Like all good historical fiction, the story is personalised, right down
to following the plight of Poppy, a small dog rescued by Henry. 

Scholastic do a good job on these books, which I suspect are mostly bought by schools and libraries.  They know their audience and know how illustrations add appeal. In this one, there’s a map of the Western Front, photos linking to the time, a time-line, a glossary, facsimiles of real letters. This slightly old-fashioned book is a story well-told, but the pace is pedestrian and not particularly gripping. The characterisation is the same – Henry and George feel like they’re from the olden days, when they should feel like imaginable young men that a junior fiction reader can recognise. Unlike Dawn Raid, it lacks immediacy. I, for one, am glad that at last WWI is over. 

Suzanne Main’s How Not to Stop a Kidnap Plot has an irrepressible bounce to its step, an infectious energy, that makes it instantly likeable. It is formulaic in a good way: initially, the central protagonists are kids who are marginally outsiders – as in, they’re inclined to have freckles, or star in the school spelling team, or have embarrassing names like Elvis. So they’re nerds, but not in an irredeemable way. There’s a popular, slightly quirky, English teacher (as an ex-English teacher, I’m always pleased when the job gets good press). There’s a Dad who’s an inventor and, consequently, is a bit muddled and eccentric. And the narrator, although young, is neither a naïve nor unreliable narrator. In fact, he’s smarter and more observant than most adults.

But this book quickly goes beyond formulaic, and there’s pleasing character and plot development. The narrator faces challenges which force him to reassess his opinion of a boy in his class. Also, there’s a very nice emergence of a back story: two fathers at odds, one a property developer, one an ecologist worrying about the fate of native frogs. The way this impacts on the friendship of their sons is nicely handled.

While humour in books for this age can make an adult cringe, this book is genuinely funny. The scene in which narrator Michael and his friend Elvis are abandoned, trapped inside fake trees during a practice for the school production, is hilarious. It’s also a turning-point, as “it’s not every day that you overhear a kidnap plot while you’re trapped inside a giant wooden tree during a fire alarm”.

Main also has a nice grasp of what her audience is interested in: technology. Elvis’s inventor dad is involved with advanced technology of the most interesting kind – small drone-style things called spibots which go past so quickly that you can’t even be sure you’ve seen them. In contrast, in one of the few bum notes in this book, the kidnappers talk as if they’ve come straight from an Ealing comedy. As in, they say “ain’t”. This reader immediately assumed cockney accents.

Main’s language is far more vigorous and authentic than the kidnappers’. She is the master – mistress – of the audience-appropriate simile: “His skinny body had been tossed around like a chippie packet on a windy day.”

I wonder if Scholastic encourage their authors to choose settings that are universal. Other than a teacher called Mr Parata, the school attended by these boys could be anywhere in the first world. Indeed, the fact that the school has a sit-down cafeteria serving hamburgers places it outside of New Zealand.  

Like Main’s novel, Dawn Raid by Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith was a finalist in The New Zealand Book Awards, and it won the award for best first book. I have to agree with the judges’ choice of these two books and feel either of them could have taken out first prize.

Scholastic are to be commended for their series My New Zealand Story, which are “vividly imagined accounts of life in the past.” Their aim is to bring history alive. David Hill wrote the first 15 years ago, and since then there have been nearly 30 more. All share the same form – the diary of a young person alive at a significant time in New Zealand’s history. Hill’s narrator was there for the Tangiwai disaster in 1953. Since then, we’ve had a wide range of topics, from the first missionaries in New Zealand, the Spanish flu in 1918, to the Napier and Christchurch earthquakes. If there’s been a significant happening in New Zealand, there’s a writer for teenagers keen to cover it.

The thing about fictionalised diaries written by teenagers is that the reader has to be prepared to believe that a young teenager writes about what’s going on in the world. It tends to be a narcissistic age; the focus of most young diaries is what one wore, or who one saw on the way home from school, not what the government is doing to protestors. So we have to believe that our narrator is the sort of person who not only observes what’s going on in the larger world, but who also comments on the ideals of others. Well, I’m prepared to believe in Dawn Raid’s 13-year-old diarist Sofia, because her point of view is so deftly handled. She does, indeed, write about what she’s wearing (her love of go go boots, fashionable 10 years before this book is set, is one of the few anachronisms), but she is also a terrifically credible portrayer of her times. Smith’s skilful techniques do the trick. The unlikelihood of a young diarist telling us who’s in her family, for example, is overcome by Sofia presenting us with the speech she has written about them. 

The story is significantly strengthened by our observing, through Sofia’s eyes, the politicisation of her father. At the beginning of the book, he is conservative and law-abiding, sure that if you obey the rules, no harm can befall you. He’s intolerant of activism, mistrusts the Pacific Panthers who, because of their name, he feels must be a gang. When he’s personally involved in what’s happening to Pacific Islanders at this time, his mind is changed.

At the beginning of the book, Sofia’s brother has a Māori friend Rawiri who is involved in the hikoi that started in the north and grew and grew as it advanced towards Wellington. As a lead-up story, this is terrific, preparing both Sofia and the reader for the events that follow.

Because family life is affectionately drawn – a stand-out passage is the family’s car trip from Wellington to Auckland – this book feels totally authentic. As is the author’s decision to use the speeches Sofia (reluctantly) writes for speech competitions: as a recurring motif, it works brilliantly. Her final speech, “Polynesian Panthers, Gang Members or Good Guys?”, is a most satisfying climax. 

With books linked to issues, as many of this series are, there is always a risk of slightly preachy worthiness. Smith avoids this trap, and even her historical note at the end of the book is clearly and interestingly written.

I’d like adults to read this book, too, as, given what is happening to immigrants around the world, it is extremely timely. We can feel smug living in New Zealand, thinking we would never act like this. This book acts as a reminder of those shameful, shameful times, when the term “overstayers” was used to target Polynesians when, in fact, they formed a small proportion of illegal immigrants. This book is a reminder of a time when New Zealand felt as if it could become a fascist state. 

A book about the dawn raids is an inspired choice by the publishers, because, unlike wars and major disasters, it’s a subject that has not been particularly well covered. Here’s hoping that its target audience will find it impossible to believe that there was a time when police were forced to stop Pacific Islanders in the street to demand to see their papers, and encouraged to burst into their houses at four o’clock in the morning.

Linda Burgess is a Wellington writer.

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review
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