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NZ Post Children’s Book Awards – 2013

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Congratulations to all finalists and Prize Winners in this year’s NZ Post Children’s Book Awards.

There were some surprises in this year’s winners, and some books that I felt deserved more recognition than they got.  I am only commenting on the Junior Fiction and Young Adult Fiction categories, as these are the ones for which I have read all of the finalists.  For the results click here

My prize list would have looked something like this:

The book I enjoyed the most and would like to pick up again:

Reach – Hugh Brown.

The book that has been most read and passed around by children in my three English classes:

The ACB by Honora Lee – Kate de Goldi

and

Honours in this category to

Red Rocks – Rachael King

The book that had the most compelling narrative:

Into the River – Ted Dawe

The book that is well written and informative, with a fresh perspective, but is it really written for kids (it won Junior Fiction):

My Brother’s War – David Hill

NZ Post childrens book awards

Some thoughts I have about the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards.

* Are three judges enough? Many judging panels for book awards are larger.  Does five sound unreasonable?

* Should there be more judges who are in touch with what children are actually reading? (This year’s panel were a very fine team of pe0ple, with Bernard Beckett – high school teacher and writer of Young Adult novels; Eirlys Hunter – writer, writing tutor at Victoria University and in Wellington Schools, and Lynn Freeman – wonderful host of National Radio’s The Arts on Sunday – which is always worth a listen).  My quibble is not with them, but where are the representatives for younger readers, and particularly those at the challenging ‘tween’ stage (specifically, Year 8, 12 and 13yrs)?

* Do we need a category for Middle Readers?  Young Adult, as a category, seems to have evolved into a beast of its own, important, but not relevant to most teachers and librarians who will not be able to put the books on their shelves, or in their classrooms, because of the explicit content.  Middle readers are very different to Junior Readers, in that they are wanting to read dystopian fiction that challenges the status quo and explores the separation from families that begins to happen at this age.  But, they don’t particularly want or need the serious relationship, drug and alcohol, and other stuff explored in young adult books.

* What really makes a great book?  For example, in my classroom of late, a series that has caught the imagination of the children and has been devoured by most of them is, ‘Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading’, ‘Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Extra Credits’, and ‘Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Summer Vacation’.  I have waiting lists for these books – with boys names on them!  Lots of names.  They are humorous.  They are full of action.  They deal with real issues in a very matter of fact way.  They are getting kids who haven’t been readers enthusiastically recommmending them to their friends.  I know this doesn’t make them great books necessarily, but they are well-written and they have a witty, current voice.

* Have we done the war theme now?  I kid you not…go back through the last few years of the NZPCBA and you will find acres of material on the war (WW1, WW2 – mostly).  Let me illustrate (in case I exaggerate, and have to eat my words).

2013:  My Brother’s War category winner– (1914-1918 – conscientious objectors, and war), Earth Fire, Dragon Hare finalist (1948 – 1954 Malayan Emergency)

2012: Nice Day for a War Overall winner and category winner (WW1)

2011: Zero Hour: The Anzacs on the Western Front category winner (WW1)

2010: Dear Alice Category winner (WW2)

…You get the picture.  I admired Mandy Hagar’s ‘The Nature of Ash’ to some extent, and Jane Higgins’ ‘The Bridge’ very much, for being New Zealand stories that place themselves in possible futures.  I’d like to see a little more dystopian, speculative fiction out there and being taken seriously.  I think also of Joy Cowley’s ‘The Hunter’, which plays with time in a uniquely New Zealand way.   Let’s get some real variety into the book award finalists lists.  Where’s the humour and fun edginess of Melinda Szymanik’s ‘The Were-Nana’?  I ramble, but I’m looking for diversity here.  Other favourites from the past, for me, include ‘The 10pm Question’ – Kate de Goldi, and ‘Juggling with Mandarins’ – VM Jones.

Next year is the 100th Anniversary of the beginning of the 1914-1918 Great War.  I am sure that has not slipped the mind of publishers, and I’m guessing a flurry of ANZAC books, but we really do already have some great ones, and some not so great ones.  If there is a flurry, I do hope that quality wins through and we find some new narrative persectives (as David Hill did, this year).

The most important thing to me is that the books that win their categories, and the overall prize, are books that children and young adults will read, and that will encourage them to read more.  I am sure that this years ‘Into the River’ could have an audience in the 15+ age groups, and ‘Reach’ falls well into the YA category.  I also felt that ‘The ACB with Honora Lee’ and ‘Uncle Trev and his Whistling Bull’ are well pitched as Junior Fiction.  ‘My Brother’s War’ is an excellent book, which, in my opinion would be best represented by a Middle Years category.  Congratulations to all writers in this award.  It was a fine vintage!

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Filed under Hugh Brown, Kate de Goldi, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Prize winners, Ted Dawe, Uncategorized

Reach – Hugh Brown

Reach

Firstly, I would like to say that there is not ‘a way that teenagers talk to each other’, as some reviewers have commented.  I have heard a few that actually sound quite literate – so, for me, the teenage conversation was fine.  (Perhaps I could read it as a translation of what they actually said!) The thing I found most surreal about this book was that there was not a cellphone, facebook page or electronic device involved.  Technologically speaking, this book was set in the 70’s. Evocatively.  And I liked that.

Will is a Year 12 boy who lives with his grandparents since his mother left to join a commune 5 years ago.  His father, Bill, (and yes that can get a bit confusing) parents a bit like a hawk – Will says, ‘Dad’s like that – circles around in the hills by himself most of the time, then every now and then he lands nearby, stares at you, silent and fierce, then he’s up and gone again.’  Will sees himself as a nerdy bookworm, and this is further verified when Woody (a rugby player of course) starts to bully Will at school.  At about the same time, Will meets Conway, a new girl at school, and the daughter of a Guidance Counsellor that he has a bit of an unfortunate conversation with when she queries his lateness to school each day.  In typical teenage fashion he decides to play with her a little, because he can, without further thought to how the mother of a girl he likes might interpret what he says.  Also, Will’s mother is now back in the country, and Will, having idealised her to bits, wants to visit her, feeling that she would understand him better than anyone, and help to put things right.  (We all know how that’s going to turn out, right?)  Conway appears to show interest in Will, and then backs off (mysteriously to Will, but obvious to the reader), Will learns martial arts and then one day Woody turns up…and – you get the picture.

This book is not about the plot.  It’s about the telling of the story. It celebrates language and plays with it all the time. Perky, Will’s best friend, speaks like a thesaurus, ‘A miniscule sun, a tiny luteous orb’ is how he describes a ball of earwax plucked from his ear.  When he flicks the wax, it lands on the board between red and wheelbarrow – William Carlos Williams.  Perky is quirky – no doubt about that, but as he says himself, it’s a pose – a defence mechanism, ‘Don’t worry, the dean’s very nice.  We’re great friends, though of course she is somewhat concerned about my extreme attention-seeking behaviour.  But hell, people who live in glasshouses shouldn’t shoot skeet.’

Young Will is inclined to a bit of verbal virtuosity himself, for example, when milking Hex, the cow (an hilarious scene), sounding almost Shakespearean, ‘set your foot, a hex on you, set your foot, poxy cow,’ he crooned.  In maths, a parabola turns into a poem

Why
equals rain, squared
plus sun? Cloud mountains
roil and mound.
Why equals
rai…

This book is such an interesting mix of ideas that every time I think about it, something else comes to mind.  Of course it brings to mind Atwood’s ‘The Blind Assassin’, having a novel within a novel, but also, ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’, with the dystopian, repressive society represented in Will’s journal.  Narcissus, from Greek mythology who turns into a daffodil, staring into the beautiful reflection of himself in the pond, is the tongue-in-cheek way Brown shows Will’s self-absorbed mother.  In a more ‘boy’ way, though, how can we not think of the Marvel comics – Clark Kent being brought up in the country, on a farm, with his ‘grandparents’.  It’s interesting that it is Conway, a girl, who is obsessed with the graphic novels – most books would have the boys reading the graphic novels and the girls being the book worms. But then Conway is an artist.  At times, Conway is drawn as a character from a graphic novel – when she mimics the finch-like behaviour of her mother, ‘she pursed her lips, put her head on one side and made her eyes round and glassy’ makes her sound more like a Manga than a person, or a finch!

Maybe this is a new form of fantasy writing – set in the here and now – but in a parallel universe where we still drive Valiants and Vdubs, listen to Elvis and have grandmothers who bake endless delectable delights – some of which I haven’t tasted for years.  Reading this nearly made me run for my other great Kiwi classic – the Edmonds Cookbook – to bake an Albert cake – whatever that is…and some ginger crunch (not mentioned in this book, but the best thing my mum used to bake on Saturday mornings, while Dad and my older brother were mowing the lawns.)  And this book does evoke that time.

Is it too removed from reality – I’m not sure.  After all, as this book points out in so many different ways, what is reality?  Is it what we experience, is it what people experience of us, is it the reality we build to protect ourselves, is it the reality that dawns on us piece by piece as we put the bits of the puzzle together.  This book is perhaps a meditation on life, ‘the point of meditation isn’t to get to a place where you have no thoughts, but where you aren’t involved in them.  Where you’re separate, able to observe them, or not, at your leisure.’

This book has been shortlisted for the Young Adult Section of this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, and also won the inaugural Tessa Duder  Award for Young Adult Fiction.

I’m off to offer it as a possibility to my RR, without telling him any of this, of course.  I’m pretty sure he’ll just enjoy the story.

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Filed under Children 12+, Five stars, humour, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Prize winners