There are five Young Adult titles shortlisted for the NZ Post Book Awards. Tonight I will be on a panel discussing them at the opening of the new Te Tai Tamariki premises in Victoria Street. It seems trite to say the standard is very high, obviously they wouldn’t have been nominated if they weren’t excellent books! Suffice to say, after reading all five, I didn’t have a sense of one particular book as being a clear favourite for the top spot. Each one has its own star appeal. But I think it would be hard to overlook Mandy Hager’s The Crossing and Tanya Roxborogh’s Banquo’s Son for emotional punch.
The Crossing is described on the cover by Margaret Mahy as “1984 for teenagers”. Conceptually it is a brilliant dystopian sci-fi fantasy. The survivors of an ocean liner that has grounded on a tropical island during a world-wide plague outbreak have gradually enslaved the locals. They prey upon them for new slaves and their plague-free blood. It is an appalling vision of what a powerful elite can achieve when morality is thrown out the window. The hero, young Maryam, is the equivalent of Winston Smith – she gradually realises that being one of the privileged chosen is a two-edged sword. And she decides not to stay around to be slowly bled to death.
To be honest I didn’t find the comparison to 1984 to be particularly relevant when trying to convey to someone else the emotional climate of the story. It is far more like The Handmaid’s Tale than Orwell’s great classic. And it does read like a winner – not surprisingly, because Mandy Hager has already won the LIANZA Esther Glen Award for fiction in 2008 for her novel Smashed.
Yesterday, I was privileged to hear Tanya Roxborogh speaking at Avonside Girls’ School about her novel Banquo’s Son. I had intended reading it anyway, but started unenthusiastically with the thought: I have to read five books by … so I had better get moving … My plan was to read a chapter or two, then switch to the Lee Child on my bedside table that constitutes my real reading pleasure. But I found pretty quickly that I didn’t want to put Banquo’s Son down. Like Tanya I had taught Macbeth for years in the classroom and always wondered how Banquo’s children got to be the rulers of Scotland, when the play ends with Malcolm and Donalbain (the dead king’s sons) firmly back in the running. Tanya explores the “what if” raised by the Scottish play and introduces us to a Fleance any mother would be proud to call her own.
She mentioned in her talk that the young man’s face on the cover is not the perfect Fleance she imagined in her dream of him. But I don’t think there were razor blades in medieval Scotland, let alone hot showers and deodorant. It’s a great cover image and it manages to convey the dark elements of the narrative. Although, not a tragedy – in the strictest sense, it is a tale full of sound and fury. Plenty of action for boys and a strong romantic thread for lovers of that genre. It is the first of a trilogy, the next is about to go to print.
So in conclusion, the world of YA literature in New Zealand has plenty to write home about. Although I wondered whether one of these two novels might be the eventual winner, the one that kept me up late on a Saturday night turning pages as quickly as I could, was End of the Alphabet by Fleur Beale. It is a deceptively simple tale of Ruby Yarrow, who decides one day after talking with her friend, that she is not going to be a doormat anymore. If you want to find out more, I recommend you get a copy … it’s not surprising that Fleur’s book is so readable because she is also a past LIANZA Esther Glen Award winner: Juno of Taris in 2009.
But of course, half the fun of literary competitions for readers is trying to guess the winner and I am sure you will have your views on who it should be. I am content to wait and see.