Boys’ own journey, Chris Szekely

The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty
Rhys Darby
Scholastic, $18.00,
ISBN 9781775434979

Between
Adele Broadbent
One Tree House, $20.00,
ISBN 9780995106420

Slice of Heaven
Des O’Leary
Mākaro Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780995109247

I reckon I had the best summer break in ages: lots of sunny days, lots of sleep-ins, and a trio of junior-fiction books to read for pure pleasure. At the beach, on the couch, under a shady tree, it felt like the school holidays for a grown-up.

Is it wrong to suggest that these three titles might all be books for boys? “Boys”? Well, let’s say young males aged nine to 14, give or take. Of course, a good read is a good read regardless of reader gender, and of course we don’t want to pigeonhole young reading tastes. It is true to say that these books are all about boys or youths, and a diverse set of personal journeys.

First up is Buttons McGinty: 12 years old, only-child of adventurer parents who were last seen six months ago. Buttons usually stays with Nana when his parents are away, but she’s a bit old now and keeps mixing him up with a cactus. So Buttons is sent to Ranktwerp Island Educational Fortress for Gifted Lame Unruly Minors: R.I.E.F.G.L.U.M. 

And so, an adventurous journey begins, with mystery, monsters and onstage magic. The unruly male minors form alliances, the adults are mainly all baddies, and there’s an honorary girl member of the group whose name Buttons never quite gets right. The title character is curious, precocious, resourceful and intrepid, a bit like Tintin, but without Snowy.

Rhys Darby will be known to many as the Kiwi comic who found international success via Flight of the Conchords. The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty is his first book for kids, written with his own sons in mind. With its cliff-hanger ending, it is pitched as the first of a series. Adult Darby fans will recognise the silly, clever brand of humour dialled to junior mode: inventive fun that revels in the ridiculous. Lots of lads will enjoy Buttons with its Morse code, maps, and messy handwritten words and pictures. And, as Buttons continues his quest to find his mum and dad, perhaps a few parents will find a smile, too.

Good onya Rhys. Bring on book two. 

Next, we have another 12 year old: Olly, the central character of Between by Adele Broadbent. “Olly loves soccer, his mates … and ghosts, or anything to do with the weird and abnormal,” says the book’s back cover. It’s just him and his mum and not much money. His dad died before he was born. Then there’s the aunt who’s a pain-in-the-neck busy-body, and a “strange” old lady he’s forbidden to talk to.

Mostly, though, there are his mates: Egg and Loon. Together, they are a trio of friends who tease each other, help each other, dare each other, and scrap with the bad guys. And eat! Boy, do they scoff: cakes, biscuits, chips and whatever else is on offer. After all, they are growing up, and growing pains need fuel.

Olly’s school holiday is ruined when he is unfairly grounded and loses a well-earned, fees-paid spot at the soccer camp. His mates, whose families can afford their fees, go without him, leaving Olly home alone with nothing to do but watch episodes of Haunted. Cue Mad Martha, the old lady, a psychic who seems strangely familiar. 

“Be careful … something bad is going to happen,” she says. And, sure enough, bad stuff starts happening; serious, life-threatening stuff. Until finally … .

Is it a plot spoiler to say there is a supernatural aspect to the story? I hope not, because although that adds suspense and intrigue, what Between is really about is relationships, and how an adolescent boy on the edge of teenage makes sense of things without a dad. How do you cope with a bullying vendetta from a privileged rival? Or a girl who “likes” you when you’re not in that space? (Yes, two girls in this story; one more than Buttons.)

There are gentle life messages around tolerance and empathy, friendship and loss, parental grief and regret. And secrets. Olly is a likeable, believable, capable character that a reader can invest in. No longer a kid, but not quite a teenager; how does one traverse the space in between? 

The story is deftly told with short chapters, double-spaced text and good dialogue; enticements for the reluctant reader. Bravo Broadbent, bookseller, reviewer, librarian and author. How about a sequel with Olly’s former rival and the girl who believes in Bigfoot? They’re interesting characters. I reckon there’s more gas in the tank for Olly’s supporting cast.

And so to Des O’Leary’s Slice of Heaven, a story firmly and proudly located in South Auckland. I declare a particular personal interest: this is where I grew up. I know the names of the streets, the neighbourhoods and the schools (and can guess the ones where the names are changed). While the demographics and dynamics have moved on since my time in uniform, the setting remains familiar. O’Leary succeeds in evoking an authentic sense of place and culture.

A rag-bag of year 10 detention detainees are press-ganged into playing softball; a punishment that is only slightly better than picking up rubbish. These fellas are not sporty or sportsman-like. In fact, some of them are downright dangerous with a bat in their hands or blade in their bag. But, first thing’s first… how will they each find the $20 player’s fee? As one teacher observes, “it’s a lot of money for some families.” 

The main character, Sione, is Samoan, shy, generally placid, a bit hapless and occasionally trouble-prone. Around Sione is a large ensemble, multi-cultural cast that shares one common characteristic: they are all hopeless at softball. With a bit of practice, they get a bit better, but the real game is what they learn about themselves and each other through the process of becoming a team.

Where are the girls? They feature mainly as a kind of Greek chorus, led by the brilliantly-named “Charity”, goading the guys, with no mercy, from the sidelines. 

This story definitely has sharp edges: parents who are out-of-it, gang-recruiting and violent home punishments. But there is also family love, a bunch of burgeoning friendships and an abundance of humour, thanks especially to some great dialogue. Slice of Heaven is mostly hilarious. 

Don’t expect every thread in the story to be nicely tied up at the end. Authenticity is the great strength of this book, and O’Leary, who taught at a South Auckland school, knows better than to muck it up with pat happy endings. Most of the characters move further along pathways that may lead to brighter futures. As readers, we care enough about them to hope they keep going. 

I enjoyed all of my holiday reads. But, boy, I really enjoyed Slice of Heaven. Thanks Mr O’Leary, or should I say, Sir.

Chris Szekely is a librarian, children’s author and sometimes bureaucrat. A review of his book, Rona, from NZB issue 118 can be found in our online archive: nzbooks.org.nz/archive.

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