New Zealand YA Novels
“I could find out more about New Zealand by reading fiction rather than Fodor’s facts.”
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On my way to LAX, it occurred to me (again) that the young are going to have lives very different from our own. On the airport shuttle was a twenty-something with an English accent and a perky haircut like that of young chef Jamie Oliver. He was accompanied by his French girlfriend and they were on the cell phone asking an American friend if they could use his Los Angeles apartment before they flew on to Mexico. While the “international” still has glamour for me and others my age, for many in the younger generation, global culture doesn’t seem remarkable but simply the way of life–eating sushi, say, while listening to reggae.
On my part, I was on my way to the airport to travel to the Southern Hemisphere where everything is upside-down: where I would spend the longest night of the year while those in California celebrated the longest day; where natives drive on the “other” side of the road; where temperatures were a wintery 8C instead of California’s forest-fire highs of 95F — indeed, where even temperatures are measured in different ways. Clearly, New Zealand required new thinking.
When journeying somewhere new, I usually buy the relevant Lonely Planet book or another travel guide. This time my idea was to come to know a place by studying its “shared dreams.” More specifically, I queried a dozen experts to identify the four most popular young-adult writers in New Zealand and then the best novel by each. It was my thinking that I could find out more about New Zealand by reading fiction rather than Fodor’s facts. As the poet Wallace Stevens observed, more important than “the look of things” (mountains, rivers, etc.) is what the inhabitants “feel about what they see.”
There was an unexpected benefit to my decision to study the nation’s young-adult fiction. As I carried around this or that novel, young people in New Zealand struck up conversations with me, telling me why the book was great and recommending others. So, it occurred to me, a really clever parent ought to do just that: proffer books like these to adolescents accompanying them on trips abroad; in this way, the teen might learn about the likes and dislikes of their age peers at the foreign destination and, maybe, make some friends along the way. That said, I would encourage reading of the books mentioned below even if one is not bound for the Southern Hemisphere. There are many ways to travel and many ways to become international.
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Margaret Mahy: The Catalogue of the Universe
Considered New Zealand’s top writer for the young, Margaret Mahy has penned numerous books but her The Catalogue of the Universe is considered among the best; strangely, this prize-winning novel is only available in the U.S. on a sometime basis. Here is the familiar story of Beauty and the Nerd, only this time their names are Angela & Tycho and they are unlikely pals until the end of the novel when they discover romance in each other’s arms. Angela, born out of wedlock, wants her absent father to acknowledge her; she fails, though she does strike up a friendship with her paternal grandmother. Our nerd Tycho is an autodidact and bonkers on Big Science and Carl Sagan and Angela. What I like most about the book is its Kiwi ambience: life in the countryside outside town where cars always seem to be breaking down; independent kids and free-spirited adults living together extemporaneously, in messy houses and loving families.
Witi Ihimaera: Whale Rider
You would likely know this work by Maori writer Witi Ihimaera because of the terrific movie made from it. While Angela in The Catalogue of the Universe wants her father to acknowledge her, Kahu (the heroine of this book) longs for the attention and affection of her grandfather. It is enough to break your heart. But the old man is fixed in his wish to preserve the disappearing Maori culture of Whangara and equally fixed in his patriarchal belief that women have no place in this. If you remember the film, you will know Kahu solves her dilemma by becoming (like her legendary ancestor) the Whale Rider. Her sexist grandfather learns to be open-minded, but he also learns tradition can only be kept alive through change.
Maurice Gee: Salt
Imagine a dark version of the movie “Blue Lagoon” set in a post-apocalyptic world. Instead of the movie’s Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins, Gee’s futuristic novel features Pearl (a fair complected girl from the ruling families of the Company) and Hari (a dark-complected boy from the indigenous peoples confined to the Burrows). In what seems like a fantasy abstraction of race relations in New Zealand between Maori and Pakeha (whites of European ancestry), these two young people form an alliance in the midst of class wars and internecine struggles; they can communicate without speech and eventually they discover love. Gee’s novel is a page-turner made more exciting by the ticking time bomb of a radioactive substance known as Salt. It is surprising the book hasn’t been made into a film. It is also surprising that the book is not yet available in the States. Order it.
Bernard Beckett: Genesis
Like boxes within boxes, Bernard Beckett’s sci-fi novel has stories within stories within stories; and it moves between these various levels in deft ways until the dizzying shifts of its surprising conclusion. At its heart, if that’s where our attention should reside, is an account of brilliant and cunning conversation between the imprisoned Adam (a self-interested rebel in a Big-Brother-like society of the future) and Art (a robot with artificial intelligence who has the ability to self-program itself as it interacts with Adam). In Beckett’s novel, nothing is as simple as it appears and eventually the reader is drawn into a cat-and-mouse game with the author that echoes Adam’s attempts to “game” the robot.
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This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (September 2008). I traveled to New Zealand in June of 2008, stopping first in Auckland to meet with Wayne Mills (of the Kids’ Lit Quiz). Then after a stay in Rotorua, I passed on to visit friends in Wellington and give a lecture at the ACLAR convention at Victoria University. During my stay in the country I also appeared on New Zealand television when, during a stop on Waiheke Island, I was approached by a camera crew and asked to comment upon a wine that had just won top honors at the Los Angeles County Fair. This required a number of glasses with the crew to prevent my rendering a hasty judgement; after which, to their delight, I mugged for the camera and declared the vintage “prize-winning.”