When I was a kid, there weren't that many truly New Zealand books for kids around. The landscapes of my favourite stories were the prairies of pioneer America, the wintery world of Narnia, and the Hundred Acre Wood. It was years before I realised that some of my favourites were even by New Zealanders, because stories like A Lion in the Meadow and My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes could have been from anywhere. I can still remember the thrill I felt the first time I read a book set right here in Christchurch. It was the Changeoever, by Margaret Mahy. Even though Mahy renamed Bishopdale as "Gardendale" in the book, I recognised my city in the descriptions, and I felt there in a way I never had before! How wonderful it must be for kids these days to be able to read so many books that are so very much New Zealand stories. Of the five books in the Junior Fiction category in the New Zealand Book Awards, three have a distinctly New Zealand setting, which I think is really awesome! I've already written about two books in this category, The Memory Thief and the Uprising, in an earlier blog post, so now I'm moving on to the final three, which happen to be the ones set right here in Godzone.
I'm a child of the '80s. Back to the Future is my jam, so time travel stories always grab me! Not only is this a fun time travel story about two kids who have to rescue their Mum from the past when she suddenly disappears back in time, but it also has the added bonus of exploring a bit of New Zealand history along the way. Millie and Amorangi learn first hand about events like the invasion of Parihaka, the Musket Wars, and the eruption of Mount Taranaki. They meet lots of their ancestors and learn what it was like to live during different eras. The nitpicker in me has to point out that legwarmers were popular at the start of the '80s while TV3 didn't start airing till the end of 1989, so they were not actually concurrent (minor detail!). But it's a fun, fast-paced read, which emphasises the importance of family and knowing your roots. Just when the moving back and forth in time was about to get a bit repetitive, the story took a wee bit of a twist, and the kids were able to save not only their mum, but (spoiler alert) their grandma too.
Things are pretty tough for Phil in The Tomo by Mary-anne Scott. While his Mum and Dad head to Auckland for experimental cancer treatment for Dad, Phil has to spend the Christmas holidays on a farm working for grouchy Chopper. Chopper makes no effort to hide his feelings about being lumbered with "babysitting" a useless teen, and gives Phil all the crappy farm jobs. Phil has brought Blue, Dad's prized heading dog and faithful companion, with him to the farm, but Chopper isn't keen to trust Blue with the mustering. And then disaster strikes when Blue falls into a deep underground cave or tomo. Chopper thinks rescuing Blue is too dangerous, but Phil can't bear to lose the family's beloved dog. What lengths will he go to do save Blue, and will he be able to prove himself to Chopper, and to his own family? The Tomo is actually based on events that happened to author Mary-anne Scott's own grandfather, who had written a brief account of it in his diary. Being able to read about the story behind the story gave the book a little something extra for me. I did enjoy this one. It's fast-paced and pretty thrilling, and moving too. Fun fact, the author's mother is Joy Watson who wrote the wonderful Grandpa books. I guess good writing is in their genes!!
Please note: here at Christchurch City Libraries, we've catalogued The Tomo as a Young Adult book, but it's been shortlisted in the Junior Fiction category, rather than the Young Adult category.
Spark Hunter is Sonya Wilson's first novel, but she's been telling stories one way or another for years, and I think this really shows. The book beautifully weaves together real stories of Fiordland explorers and missing people, the conservation work of the Kakapo Recovery Project, and Māori mythology, into a fantastic Fiordland fairytale. The story opens with 12-year-old Nissa about to pull the trigger on her first kill. I really wasn't expecting that, and I was so glad and relieved when Nissa defied her family's expectations and refused to pull the trigger! Instead, she shouted at the stag, scaring him off, and saving him from becoming a trophy on their wall. Unlike her dad and brother, Nissa had no interest in hunting deer, and had only joined the hunting trip for the chance to explore the beautiful Fiordland forest. Ever since she was five, Nissa had had odd experiences in the bush, and was convinced that some sort of fairies lived there. She was desperate to find out the truth behind this stange phenomenon, so, while on school camp, she took off into the bush by herself. And so began her Fiordland fairy spark adventure. To the outside world, Nissa was lost, becoming yet another myseriously missing person. But deep in the forest, Nissa had been found—by a spark! Each of these little spark creatures is directly linked to a species of native animals or plants, and they are in trouble. When a species becomes extinct, their spark dies with them. I loved how the book mixed in emails, social media posts, and news reports that revealed the other side of the story, while the main story focused Nissa and the sparks. I also loved that the book's conservation message of the importance of perserving our beautiful world never became preachy or didactic.
So which book should win? I quite liked The Tomo and Amorangi and Millie's Trip Through Time, but the two that really stood-out for me were The Uprising and Spark Hunter. I love the different world in The Uprising, especially how vividly and beautifully it's described, and I really love the kids with all their different, unique talents, and the way the family works together. But I love Spark Hunter too! I love the magical version of Fiordland forest and creatures that Sonya Wilson has created, I love Nissa, who is so compassionate and gutsy. I love how real and fantastical it is all at the same time. And most of all, I love how "Kiwi" it is. Once again it's a tough choice!
Spark Hunter has been nominated in two categories, so if I really was a judge, perhaps I could award it the NZSA Best First Book Award, and give the Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction to The Uprising, that way they would both win? But if I have to pick only one, I think I'm going to have to go with Spark Hunter!
Clearly my plan to read and rank the shortlist was a bit ambitious, because I've only managed to get through three of the seven categories! But it's been great fun, and I can't wait to see if any of my favourites win! The winners will be announced tonight! So watch this space.