Unplanned pregnancies, surveillance and war on the books at NZ Book Awards

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Coming Home To Roost, by Mary-Anne Scott: 2017 Copyright Licensing NZ Award For Young Adult Fiction finalist.

1916 - Dig For Victory, by David Hair: 2017 Copyright Licensing NZ Award For Young Adult Fiction finalist.

Like Nobody's Watching, by LJ Ritchie: 2017 Copyright Licensing NZ Award For Young Adult Fiction finalist.

The Severed Land, by Maurice Gee: 2017 Copyright Licensing NZ Award For Young Adult Fiction finalist.

Shooting Stars, by Brian Falkner: 2017 Copyright Licensing NZ Award For Young Adult Fiction finalist.

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These are the books the experts think young Kiwis should be reading: Stories about surveillance at a Wellington high school, racism in a French battle field and teenage pregnancy from the perspective of a boy soon-to-be-father.

The New Zealand Book Awards will on Monday announce its favourite local stories from the past year. The early shortlist shows a range of themes, but in the Young Adults category they're all particularly gritty.

Judging pannell convenor Pam Jones says these hard-hitting themes should come as no surprise.

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"If you think about young people today, they're in very complicated space," she says. "I think the literature that's coming through today really illuminates these issues that are surfacing."

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Jones is urging local teachers to pick up these books for their classrooms. The five novels in the running for the Award For Young Adult Fiction all encounter relevant issues for today's teenagers, she says.

As a young adult and children's librarian, Jones says many schools are yet to pick up modern New Zealand literature. "I know some high schools are still using set texts that I was reading in high school 40 years ago," she says.

Perhaps one of the most realistic tales, Mary-Anne Scott's Coming Home to Roost is a coming of age novel that tells the story of a boy facing imminent fatherhood. The story follows Elliot's excitment as he leaves home and drops out of school with barely a care, but then faces becoming a father.

Kiwis at War: 1916 - Dig For Victory by David Hair.
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Kiwis at War: 1916 - Dig For Victory by David Hair.

Jones acknowledges many people are concerned about exposing young people to topics such as this. She says it would be more worrying if teens never encountered challenging material.

"The authors aren't making anything up. These issues, they're out there. I respect the fact the authors are working to tackle them well and bring up these conversations for young people," she says.

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Another of the finalists, Kiwis at War: 1916 - Dig For Victory by David Hair examines racism during wartime New Zealand. It follows a young Maori and Pakeha men's friendship in the trenches, while also teaching young readers about the World War I.

While it isn't set in modern times, Jones argues it is still a relatable read.

She says Hair hasn't painted a patriotic picture of war, but there is hope in the story. "It can leave the characters or readers optimistic and hopeful, in situations that are maybe not so hopeful. It portrays these human situations with care, while not glamorising it [war]," she says.

Librarian Pam Jones  convened the judging panel for the New Zealand Children Book Awards
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Librarian Pam Jones convened the judging panel for the New Zealand Children Book Awards

Across the board, the young adult books vying for the top New Zealand prize cover confronting subjects with complex and imperfect characters, she says.

"I know I hear a lot of people saying should these topics be in the writing for kids today... Some people, they just say 'these kids are reading this and will start doing it', that's being at the mercy of the novel," she says.

On the contrary, Jones says the aim of these novels is to allow young adults to consider their futures and question the status quo.

"I think it's really what young adult novels are about; they're charting those waters, they're putting the reader into a situation that could be part of nearly all young people's lives."

 Shooting Stars, a Brian Falkner novel set in Auckland tackles a current issue: homelessness, and an eternal issue: death. It's about a boy raised in the bush on the Coromandel, who encounters the rest of New Zealand only when his mother goes missing. It doesn't have a typically happy ending, Jones warns.

Yet Jones thinks these are all exceptionally positive tales.

"There are some absolutely magical, amazing moments that leave you smiling," she says. "They might have tackled other issues but there was always an optimism."

In Shooting Stars, the boy leaves a legacy, she says, which left her seeing light in the dark ending.

On a whole, Jones says any theme could have made their shortlist. The stories that did, however, needed to connect with young readers, she says.

"The protagonist is always a young person tackling young stuff, like teens are tackling today, and they're often pushing the envelope."

 - Stuff

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