YA reviews: Clover moon, Don’t even think about it, and Think twice

Want the skinny on books? Check out what the Cashmere High School Read and Review Team have to say.

Clover Moon by Jacqueline Wilson

Cover of Clover moonYet another (amazing) book about a broken family. This sad story about a young girl who lives in rags is definitely a must-read for Jacqueline Wilson fans. I loved the connection with Hetty Feather! The beginning of the story is all rather upsetting, with almost no chance of getting any better. But at the end things turn out just fine! Clover is a sweet girl who loves to look after children, she doesn’t tend to get along well with kids her age however Clover is brighter than most of them! She uses her intelligence to find her place at The Girls’ Institute and finally a more permanent home.  I would love another book about Clover to see what she gets up to!

Don’t Even Think About it & Think Twice by Sarah Mlynowski

Cover of Don't even think about itI absolutely love this two-part series about telepathy! Jam-packed with an amazing plot and heaps and heaps of love triangles. Before reading this book, I warn you that the ending contains a massive plot twist; that requires a little knowledge about chemical elements. Some of my favourite things about these books, besides the unique use of telepathy, was probably the range of personalities. Each character was different and all of them went on different journeys, experiencing their ESP (telepathy) in different ways.

Both reviews by Genevieve (Y9)

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Book to film: The Changeover

Cover of The ChangeoverMargaret Mahy’s young adult novel, The Changeover was already several years old when I first picked up a worn copy in my high school library at the age of 15.

I was so taken with it that even before I had finished reading it I was re-imagining it in my head as a movie.

In that peculiarly obsessive way that teenage girls sometimes are about their favourite things my mania lead me to imagined locations and camera angles, and I had a very long list of songs to be included in the soundtrack. Most of which, upon reflection, were terrible.

When Margaret Mahy died in 2012, I felt moved to write a heartfelt blog post about how important her writing, and this book in particular, had been to me.

A couple of years later at a WORD Christchurch panel discussion on The Changeover, I learned that a film of the book was in development and felt conflicted in that way that book fans often do. Because how could that film ever live up to the book, or indeed my own imaginary movie of it?

Stuart McKenzie is, with his wife Miranda Harcourt, co-director of that film which recently finished shooting here in Christchurch.

The Changeover directors Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie
The Changeover co-directors Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie. (Image credit: Dean McKenzie)

Perhaps not fully understanding the degree of my fangirl obsession, he agreed to answer some questions about what their version of Mahy’s story will look like.

Margaret Mahy wrote a number of terrific books for young adults – what made you want to film The Changeover particularly?

We felt The Changeover was really cinematic. It’s a supernatural thriller about a troubled teenager who’s got to change over and become a witch in order to save her little brother from an evil spirit. So, it’s got a great central conflict! And its genre is very clear — yet at the same time it puts this compelling twist on it by feeling very naturalistic.

Its themes of love, loss, sacrifice and change are primal. Laura Chant feels like a real person — she struggles with herself and her kind of dispossessed place in the world, but she’s got big dreams. In other words, she’s a complex and powerful heroine who our audience can really identify with!

Another thing that made the book feel so cinematic for us was Christchurch. We updated Margaret’s story to contemporary, post-earthquake Christchurch. For us, the brokenness and reconstruction of Christchurch is like a visual metaphor for Laura’s own damage and subsequent transformation.

The Chant home set
The Chant family home in the Red Zone (Image credit: Dean McKenzie)

The book (and Margaret Mahy herself) are very beloved, by me and many others. Does that place extra pressure on you to do a good job with the film?

All along we’ve wanted to make something Margaret would love: raw and lyrical, tender and tough and true. We wanted to keep the story feeling very contemporary, as the book itself was when it was first published in 1984. Like Margaret, we wanted to find the magic in the real world, not drift away into fantasy.

We were lucky to have Margaret’s blessing from the start. Before she died, she read and loved an early draft of the screenplay. So that was a great feeling to carry through the development of the project and into the shoot itself. She really encouraged us to find the spirit of the story and not be bound by the literal form of the book. We had this quote in mind by the great French film director Jean Renoir, “What interests me in adaptation isn’t the possibility of revealing the original in a film version, but the reaction of the film maker to the original work.”

I guess you could think of the book and the film as two reflecting worlds — much in the same way that Laura herself discovers the connectedness between two powerful realities — magic and the everyday — and finding in fact that they’re really one and the same.

Margaret was always clear that Laura’s changeover into a witch is a metaphor for her becoming a young woman, an active journey to embrace her own creative power. And Laura’s story itself is a metaphor for the challenges we all face in our lives and the changeovers we all have to go on in order to grow.

Oh yeah, back to the question about doing a good job… Yes, we really feel that! And we’ve still got a lot of work to do in post-production. Helps to have great people to work with, which we have.

On the one hand The Changeover, if you’re familiar with Christchurch, is very recognisably placed here, on the other hand it’s also very vague about where it’s set. The name of the city is never mentioned. The suburbs and street names in it are all made up. Christchurch is certainly its spiritual home, but you could make a very good argument that it’s not a story that needs to be specifically told here, and yet you are telling it here. What made you want to shoot here rather than in Auckland or “Wellywood”?

As you say, Christchurch is the “spiritual home” of The Changeover and we always wanted to make it here. I was born and bred in Christchurch and spent my early teenage years in Bishopdale which Margaret calls Gardendale in the book.

The Changeover was welcomed to Christchurch by Ngai Tahu in a moving whakatau — as a production we felt hugely embraced by Christchurch, the people, the Council, the environment itself.

Shooting in central Christchurch
Nighttime shoot in central Christchurch (Image credit: Dean McKenzie)

Miranda and I were determined to film in Christchurch because its flat vistas give the film a unique look. Cinematographer Andrew Stroud and Production Designer Iain Aitken helped us reflect the everyday and often unexpected beauty of the place.

Christchurch also allowed us to explore the division between social worlds which is a key feature of The Changeover. Laura comes from a solo-parent family struggling to make ends meet. By contrast, Sorensen Carlisle lives in an architect-designed home with fine art on the walls and a sense of history and sophistication. The developing romance between Laura and Sorensen means first differentiating and then bridging these two worlds.

Mahy herself described The Changeover as having a lot of folk tale elements – there are “evil” step-parents and an enchanted brother, for instance –  but also that “the city is simultaneously a mythological forest”. Will your film retain those suggestions of a modern day fairy tale?

Yes it does and that is in the very DNA of the story. At heart The Changeover is an emotionally powerful female rite-of-passage keyed into a primal fairy tale tradition. It’s true that those fairy tale elements are more overt in Margaret’s novel.

We wanted the film to feel very contemporary and naturalistic so in our story the fairy tale nature is felt rather than seen. We often thought about Bruno Bettelheim’s groundbreaking study on fairy tale called The Uses of Enchantment. He says, “This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence — but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.” That is something we experience through Laura in The Changeover.

In terms of characters, it strikes me that Sorensen Carlisle, at least how he’s written in the book, is something of a contradictory figure – dangerous yet vulnerable, jovial yet dark, aloof yet intense – that must present some challenges when it comes to casting. How difficult was it to find someone who can be all those things in a convincing way?

We had great casting agents in NZ and in the UK. We looked long and hard to cast this film. When we auditioned young UK actor Nick Galitzine we knew we had found our mysterious and compelling Sorensen Carlisle. And Nick and Erana James who plays Laura Chant have a powerful chemistry together. We have always said that this intensity is our special effect!

Reading the book as a teenager it was incredibly important to me that Laura was of mixed racial heritage both in a personal sense, as it was quite unusual to read about someone like me as the heroine of a novel, but also in that it marks her as being different and something of an outsider, which I think adds to her story. I’m really pleased that you’ve cast a part-Māori actress in the role. Was that always the plan?

This was totally important to us too. We love how in the book Laura is part-Maori but Margaret Mahy doesn’t make a big thing about that, it’s simply part of the unique world of the story which in fact helps make it feel universal. It’s true that Laura being part-Maori means that by her very nature she finds herself between two worlds. That’s the journey Laura is on — to open herself to new worlds, new experience.

We looked for many years for our Laura Chant — and we kept coming back to Erana James who we had met early on in our process. Of course, financiers want to cast someone in a central role like this who already has a profile. Erana hadn’t acted in a film before so she was unknown in NZ let alone internationally. But with the support of the NZ Film Commission we made a “tone reel” last year with Erana playing Laura. She was fantastic in it — and the international people involved in the project — like our sales agent and even Tim Spall or Melanie Lynskey — could immediately see that this young woman had something special.

Erana James on set as Laura Chant
Erana James on set as Laura Chant (Image credit: Dean McKenzie)

Could you hope for a better villain than Timothy Spall?

You are so right! But what drew us to Tim in the first place is that he could reveal the humanity in Carmody Braque. It’s this which makes him such a powerful adversary for Laura — because there is something of Braque in Laura herself. A desire to live more fully and expand her horizons.

We are so lucky to have Timothy Spall in The Changeover. He is mesmerising. I think Margaret Mahy would have been thrilled!

It’s clear from his answers that Stuart McKenzie is as much a fan of The Changeover as I am, so I feel much more relaxed about the movie adaptation now.

In addition to the film coming out late next year, McKenzie says there will also be a movie tie-in reprint of the (currently out of print) book. So roll on 2017!

Find out more

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Want to instantly feel better about being a teen? Be thankful you’re not peculiar…

miss-peregrines-home-for-peculiar-childrenMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs is a book was so weirdly compelling it had me from the moment I saw the strange image on the cover – it had to be different from your average vampire romance.

A bestselling story for young adults that appeals to a wide audience, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is based on a fantastical collection of sepia photographs, of children with strange abilities.

Following clues left from his Grandfather’s violent death, Jake becomes linked with the fate of the original and colourful characters that fill a slip of time, hidden on an island. The reader becomes drawn in too, unable to stop reading late into the night. That’s always the sign of a great book.

Leaving room for a couple of sequels in the series, which is up to book 3: The Library of Souls, this first story begins an epic journey of self-discovery and adventure for Jacob and his new friends as they try to escape those who would expose them.

Are ghosts a photograph of time? What is really behind the spooky photographs that are sprinkled through the pages? The really scary thing about this book is that images in the antique pictures seem REAL.

The very exciting news is that Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is making the transition to the big screen! It will be in cinemas this week, with a star studded lineup which includes Dame Judi Dench as Miss Avocet.

Before you see it, I urge you to read the book.

If anyone can do this book justice, Tim Burton can? I have high hopes…

The Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture: David Levithan — WORD Christchurch

Imaginary things, once properly imagined, will grow as powerful and lucid as if they were true. —Margaret Mahy, Memory

Growing up David Levithan didn’t see himself in literature, or if he did, it was with an undercurrent of unease — queer characters were often sidelined, or the subject of tragedy. Levithan seeks to address that with his engaging, often humorous stories of young love between boys, and he’s not alone, if the growing movement of We Need Diverse Books is anything to go by.

David Levithan. Image supplied
David Levithan. Image supplied

The cure that literature can offer, the panacea or the help that we can give, the hope that we can give, is empathy. It is the notion of a common humanity. It is the notion that another human being has so much more in common with you than difference with you.

Empathy becomes even more important when faced with today’s prevailing political winds, closing borders and minds as it blows. Fiction at its best provides other perspectives, other contexts for living. Levithan believes that inherent in Young Adult literature is a belief that there is an ability to change things, not just a diagnosis of a problem but providing the compass pointing the way out. Even bleak books such as M. T. Anderson’s Feed and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War try to provoke action in readers where the characters themselves might despair.

The co-writing process — an exercise in trust

Cover of You Know Me WellLevithan is very non-monogamous literarily. Co-writing brings out something unexpected in his writing, and he approaches every collaboration with the spirit of experimentation. He always maintains his own chapters, honing his own character while having only limited control over the story. This can provide difficulties for his collaborators; Levithan recently discovered that Nina LaCour usually writes her books out of sequence, which made the chronological narrative of You Know Me Well a little challenging. Levithan publicly declared his intention to continue joining forces with other authors, his next release (The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily, co-written with Rachel Cohn) being released in October.

Making characters real

One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers can make is to think that conflict has to be Conflict with a capital C in order to be worthy of a story. Smaller conflicts can be just as compelling, such as fighting with your best friend. To make characters real, try writing out the thoughts of your characters, as flat characters don’t have thoughts. It’s important to establish what the main character is thinking even if this doesn’t make it into the final text.

Cover of Two Boys KissingTwo Boys Kissing

When asked to be part of an anthology about queer teens, Levithan decided to explore the dimension of history. Two Boys Kissing is therefore narrated by a Greek chorus of the gay men of the AIDS generation, of his uncle’s generation, while looking down on the generation below Levithan — the current gay teens with their (relative) freedom. The plot came from hearing about Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello, who’d just broken the Guinness World Record for Longest Continuous Kiss.

Why do you do what you do?

For the readers. The books aren’t important; it shouldn’t matter what book is better than the other. What authors want is not to win awards or earn money (although I’m sure they wouldn’t say no), but for their books to matter to a reader.

Sometimes teens need someone on the outside to help them work out what they’re feeling on the inside.

Not just teens, David Levithan, not just teens. Thanks for visiting Christchurch.

Suggested reading

More WORD Christchurch

Reading favourites – WORD Christchurch

Is there anything so satisfying as introducing someone to a book that you love? In librarianship it certainly falls under the categories of both personal passion and professional responsibility (see our own Staff Pickles for examples). And the Reading Favourites session at WORD Christchurch yesterday had a similar vibe – of reading enthusiasts, well, enthusing.

Renowned New Zealand children’s author, David Hill; editrix of Tell you what, and comparative literature PhD, Jolisa Gracewood; and author and founder of the Academy of New Zealand Literature, Paula Morris, all took the stage to wax lyrical about their favourite New Zealand reading. Poet Chris Tse was also supposed to be part of this panel but was unable to attend due to illness. A shame, and it would have been good to have another, and yes I’m going to say it, younger voice in the mix but it was still definitely a session worth attending regardless.

Things kicked off in a jovial manner with Paula relating the ridiculous predicament of having flushed her reading glasses down the toilet and having to make do with some hastily bought, budget ones.

And then, because it’s National Poetry day, each read a short poem, Jolisa and David both choosing pieces from well-worn copies of 100 New Zealand Poems edited by Bill Manhire. This is a collection that Jolisa called “subversive” due to its lack of attribution of the poems unless… you refer to the index, a device that perhaps forces the reader to engage with the poem on its own merits.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve already forgotten the name of the 4 line poem that Jolisa recited, but do clearly remember that I liked it, and can accurately report that David Hill’s choice was The Adorable Thing about Mozart by Elizabeth Smither.

Paula Morris encouraged us all to read some other piece of poetry for ourselves, preferably out loud (or possibly in public), reflecting that “…you can do anything in Christchurch these days…”

Well not quite, but surely, on a wild and wet winter day a verse or two of Hone Tuwhare, either whispered or shouted at the sky wouldn’t be considered too transgressive?

Cover of Wednesday's childrenJolisa’s first choice of favourites was Wednesday’s children by Robin Hyde. Her copy of this novel about a woman who wins the lottery and “lives as she pleases” has its own story. It was bought here in Christchurch at a library book sale and still retains its borrowing slip, and cards in a pocket at the back. Initially it went unread (by her) for quite some time and it wasn’t until a boyfriend of Jolisa’s started reading it and really enjoyed it that it came back onto her radar – a unexpected surprise of a read.

Wednesday’s children set in the 1930s and is about women, women on welfare, and women with children – all things that are as relevant now as they ever were. Though sadly it is no longer in print (so get a reserve on a library copy if you fancy trying it).

cover of From the cutting room of Barney KettleDavid Hill’s first choice was much more current, namely last year’s From the cutting room of Barney Kettle by Kate De Goldi. David admitted it made him both weep and laugh and said that De Goldi’s writing was “crystalline” and sharp. Moreover the adults in it are depicted as “fallible, real human beings and not caricatures”. He said he was “honoured to be thrashed by her in the children’s book awards”.

Jolisa’s second choice for favourite read was by another Christchurch author, this time Margaret Mahy, and her young adult novel The Tricksters.

Cover of The trickstersSet in the general vicinity of Lyttelton Harbour, Jolisa went into movie trailer voiceover mode describing its tagline as “The Christmas it all fell apart…”. It’s a story about a family and an earth-shattering revelation but it also has elements of the supernatural. Even as a confessed rationalist she still enjoys books that “ask you to take on faith that there are other worlds…” which is something we have in common. I can’t abide notions of magic or “woo” in real life yet find this not only permissible but desirable in fiction.

This book too, is sadly out of print, but Jolisa’s hope is that with the film of The Changeover (based on Mahy’s novel) being made, other “adjacent” Mahy young adult fiction will receive renewed interest. (If we’re casting votes, may I also suggest The Catalogue of the Universe and Memory? Please and thank you.)

Cover of Going westDavid Hill’s second choice was Maurice Gee’s Going West. He described Gee as very “modest” and the least “show-off” writer he knows, and described a tension between his quiet style and the quite shocking events that unfold. In fact, he’s so good that “I’m not even jealous”. Happily Going West is still in print, and via someone in the audience, who presumably has the inside line on things Gee, we learned that there will be a new young adult novel out in February 2017.

Digressions were common (and welcome – at least by me) throughout the session, and Paula Morris’s reflection that Gee’s novels being set in Henderson, where she grew up, meant something led into the question of whether or not New Zealand writers should include New Zealand place names in their work. What if it’s jarring or too “foreign” for non-Kiwi readers? Apparently these are questions that publishers want to know the answers to, as David Hill has been asked this himself.

I liked Paula Morris’s sarcastic remark on this that readers would surely be completely bewildered – “I thought this was happening in London… but apparently it’s Taihape…”

Well, quite.

David Hill went as far as throwing the question to audience member Ted Dawe aka “another author who beat me in the children’s book awards”, who said that he didn’t like to be too specific about anything in his books, but even so the US version of Into the river has a 130 word glossary, providing meanings for every Māori word used, for instance.

Cover of The book of famePaula Morris also picked two favourites, the first being The book of fame by Lloyd Jones, a really funny book that nevertheless got sneering reviews in the UK but which “everyone I’ve ever recommended it to has really loved it”.

She also recommended Māori boy by Witi Ihimaera which, as a memoir, is necessarily “full of lies” but is “searingly honest” as well.

The session veered off at the end towards discussing the eternal question of why people don’t read more New Zealand fiction. Kiwi authors do well with children’s books but somehow this doesn’t translate to adult readers.

Jolisa suggested that being forced to read something at high school in an “eat your veges – this is good for you” kind of way could harden a reader against particular writers, and I must admit I still bristle at the suggestion I read any Janet Frame again, ever. So I think there may be some truth in that.

Paula Morris in particular highlighted some of the odd “prejudices” that create barriers to people reading New Zealand fiction – the notion that it’s all doom and gloom, “man alone” stuff when that’s demonstrably not the case. Would reading one depressing British author put you off reading British authors for life? So why does that seem to apply with local literature?

I couldn’t help thinking that this is very similar to the problem of representation and diversity in media generally. We’re used to what we’re used to and what we’re used to is a particular kind of voice. In movies this has typically been male and white and probably American. But things are slowly changing. Kiwi films are going gangbusters at the box office, ones with indigenous faces and voices, even. And there was a time when a nightly Kiwi soap opera was a risky proposition rather than an institution. Perhaps the next Ghostbusters reboot or Hunt for the Wilderpeople* of New Zealand fiction is just around the corner?

Here’s hoping. In the meantime, we’ve all got some favourites to try.

More WORD Christchurch

*Technically the Hunt for the Wilderpeople of New Zealand fiction is Wild pork and Watercress, but you get my meaning.

Aussie teen fiction

Cover for Looking for AlibrandiOh, Australia. Home of red dirt, too many snakes, and some super readable YA fiction. I picked up another one from the new book pile yesterday entirely due to the blurb quote by Melina Marchetta. Marchetta writes books about — brace yourselves — teens with issues (so, all teenagers, because who doesn’t have issues?), but they’re funny and sad and beautifully written. She’s probably best known for Looking for Alibrandi, which was made into a movie, but the one I return to most often is Saving Francesca (and sequel The Piper’s Son).

Cover for Feeling Sorry for CeliaAnother favourite writer from across the pond is Jaclyn Moriarty, author of Feeling Sorry for Celia and sequels. She writes quirky novels told through notes left on the fridge and letters from a character’s subconscious and other epistolary ephemera, which is a favourite trope of mine (see my Epistolary Novel list). Two of her sisters are also authors (I recommend Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, currently being filmed as a TV series), albeit for adult readers — what a disgustingly talented family.

Cover of WildlifeFiona Wood rounds off my top three Aussie contemporary YA authors — a colleague wrote a lovely post about my favourite of hers, Wildlife, which covers grief and friendship and living out in the bush with a bunch of teenagers. She’s also written Six Beautiful Things, a modern genderswapped retelling of Cinderella, and Cloudwish, a super sweet story about Vietnamese-Australian Van Uoc Phan, wishes, and Jane Eyre.

Any other fans out there? I’ve been writing down Marchetta’s recommendations from her blog and adding them to my list of Aussie YA, so if you’re stuck for something to read do take a look. Or let me know if I’m missing someone amazing!

Cover for YellowCover of The Yearbook CommitteeCover of The First ThirdCover of The Flywheel

YA reviews: All the bright places, The catalyst and The originals

Want the skinny on books? Check out what the Cashmere High School Read and Review Team have to say.

Cover of All the bright placesAll the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

“Sometimes when we’re in the darkest places, we find the brightest light.”

Extremely moving, will make you feel joy, sadness and inspired all at once! All The Bright Places is an amazing book, it keeps you on your toes and is impossible to put down! I totally recommend it for teenagers!

– Genevieve (Y9)

Cover of The catalystThe Catalyst by Helena Coggan

It has been eighteen years since the world they knew was ripped apart around them, eighteen years since the ‘Veil’ between their world and the beyond shattered. Human were split into the magically Gifted and the non magic Ashkind.

Rose Elmsworth is fifteen year old Gifted working with her father at the Department, an organisation that holds power in the crumbling war-torn society. In Rose’s world monsters reside within men and women, and there is no one you can truly trust, not even yourself.

The Catalyst establishes a unique dystopian world that is the perfect setting for this dark fantasy story and leads perfectly into the second book in the series (The Reaction). It was an enjoyable read with interesting and intriguing characters.

I would rate The Catalyst 4 out of 5.

– Cassie

Cover of The originalsThe Originals by Cat Patrick

Elizabeth Best is a name, not a person. Elizabeth is the name used, and split, by 3 sister-clones: Lizzy, Ella and Betsy. Their mother is a scientist and cloned 3 “test subjects”. She intends to kill the two clones that aren’t ‘perfect’ but instead she gets too attached to the girls and runs away with them. She makes the girls live a third of a life until, one day, the girls have had enough.

I’ve read this book twice and the second time, even though I knew what was going to happen, I felt myself sitting there holding my breath! This book is amazing and you would be silly not to read it.

I rate it 4 out of 5.

– Eibhlin

YA reviews: Cosmic, Fault line, and Thicker than water

Want the skinny on books? Check out what the Cashmere High School Read and Review Team have to say.

Cover of CosmicCosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce

This book is so good. So this boy is like 13 but is like so tall and has a moustache so he fakes being a girl’s dad and wins a father and daughter trip to space. He goes to space and has an awesome adventure. Get this book and read it because it is way too good for earth!

Rating: Infinity stars

-H.M. Year 10

Fault line by C. Desir

This book is strictly senior fiction. It is about a relationship between a boy and a girl. At a party, something terrible happens to the girl and the rest of the story is about how she deals with the aftermath of the event. The writing of the book was sensational it had me feeling the tears rolling down my face before I had known they had fallen. It told a heart wrenching story that touched on many themes that few people seem to want to talk about. A very good book, well worth reading.

Rating: 4 out of 5

-Grace Y11

Cover of Thicker than waterThicker than Water by Brigid Kemmerer

A crime story. A story of loss and finding love. A paranormal thriller. What’s to love about this book? Everything.

Thomas Bellweather’s mother, the only person who truly cared about him, the only true family he really had, is dead. Murdered, to be precise. The doors were all locked, there were no signs of forced entry and only Thomas and his mother were in the house. He is now the only suspect. But Thomas would never knowingly hurt someone he loved … so who was it? A brand new house in a brand new town means that no one trusts Thomas. Even his cop stepdad can’t help him from police and town ridicule. Only one person believes Thomas is innocent and she is a sister to three protective cops; Charlotte knows the police are missing something, and is determined to help Thomas in uncovering the truth.

I simply loved everything about this book. The story was well-paced and engaging, the premise was original and thought-provoking and the author created characters who were relatable and displayed a good sense of humour and irony. Brigid Kemmerer has mastered changing both voice and writing style between chapters so that Thomas and Charlotte have distinctive voices that are shown well when they take turns narrating the story. I also enjoyed the different levels and themes this book had, and came away with the distinct impression that this story wasn’t about Thomas at all; it was about Charlotte. As with any love story, the characters learn more about themselves as they learn more about each other, and through this, they grow and develop. This development is shown most prominently through Charlotte’s character.

The underlying theme of feminism was the aspect that earns Thicker than Water a place on my must-read list. I mentioned previously that I found the story to be more about Charlotte than about Thomas; so here’s my rationale. Charlotte is presented as a vulnerable girl (through her illness) who would look much more at home playing a 1950s housewife. Her mother and grandmother insist she knows how to cook, and expects her to clear and wash the dishes for the whole family while her father and three older brothers relax and do not contribute. Charlotte’s grandmother appears to be still caught up in the gender norms set for girls in her youth and openly disapproves of Charlotte’s decisions towards something as simple as clothing choices (e.g. a skirt above knee-height). However, in helping Thomas find his mother’s killer, she ends up finding out that the way she is treated at home is very different from the outside world, and I believe falling in love with someone like Thomas, someone who doesn’t expect her to do housework or clean, was probably the best thing for her to do.

I rate Thicker than Water by Brigid Kemmerer ten out of ten.

By Saoirse (Year 11)

Front lines: Michael Grant – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Michael Grant is the author of some 150+ books, including the very popular young adult Gone series. He also co-wrote the Animorphs books with his wife, Katherine Applegate.

Michael Grant
Michael Grant (Image supplied)

At the Auckland Writers Festival last week he sat down with Kiwi young adult author Jane Higgins to discuss his books, how he comes up with his ideas, and his approach to writing. He spoke with a good deal of humour, to an audience that was a little younger than most at the festival, and had an easy, affable manner (and dimples, which I am rather fond of on a person).

Cover of Front linesHis latest book, Front Lines, the first in a trilogy, is set during WWII but with one key fact changed – a US Supreme Court decision means that women may be drafted to fight in the war.

In some ways a war setting is one that suits Grant well as he was raised in a military family with a dad who was a “lifer”. Despite this background, he has no love of guns, having misfired one in his youth, which left him having to explain to the downstairs neighbour why there was suddenly a hole in his ceiling. He’s sworn off having a gun in the house ever since. These days his only interaction with firearms are for research – viewing WWII training films on YouTube, for instance.

Research for books also forms the foundation of his holiday plans – his upcoming trip to Europe might not be what the younger members of the family were hoping for when he announced – “Kids, we’re going to Buchenwald*!”

He has a strong interest in history which he described as “the backstory of the human race” and he compared trying to view current events without this as akin to watching the most recent Marvel movie and not understanding why Iron Man and Captain America are fighting. You need the backstory of these characters to understand their motivations.

MIchael Grant at the signing desk
MIchael Grant at the signing desk, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-14-DSC00950

Grant admits to being a horrible workaholic, typically writing two books a year, and he becomes agitated and irritated when he’s not working – to the extent that he felt a little out of sorts taking a few days off to be part of a literary festival.

This compulsion probably explains his attitude towards the notion of “writers’ block” –

Writers’ block is self-pitying nonsense for lazy writers… If you just keep going, you tend, in the end, to get somewhere.

 

When the discussion turned towards the Gone series, a young man in the row in front of me did a double fist pump, which gives you an idea of how popular those books have been.

When asked about his inspirations for the series which features a world suddenly without adults and which the survivors live under a dome, Grant is keen to point out that he wrote the first book before Stephen King’s “Under the dome” came out (so no, he wasn’t copying that idea). Rather the inspiration for the books came from the TV show Lost, and Robinson Crusoe, both of which he believes to be riffs on the biblical tale of the expulsion of humanity from the Garden of Eden.

Festival bookshop - Michael Grant
Books by Michael Grant at the festival bookshop, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-12-DSC00894

Fans of the Gone series may be interested to know that he is planning, not a sequel exactly, but another novel set four years down the track in the same universe, in which some old characters may appear.

As a writer of fiction for young adults, he does his best to keep the language clean, but not for the reasons you might think. He doesn’t have a problem with swearing, and doesn’t think young people doing it is something to be concerned about, rather the lack of bad language in his books is for the benefit of… librarians.

Grant likes librarians (in a former life he was a law librarian), and doesn’t want them to get “wrath of God” grief (presumably from parents and school boards?) for stocking his books in their libraries.

Find out more

*Buchenwald was the site of a concentration camp in Germany.

Identity and race in young adult fiction

Ahh, who doesn’t love heartbreaking books about family, racism and explosions? No? Just me? In a follow up to my previous post about race in YA fiction, I’ve had to add three more outstanding books to my Bibliocommons list. (Not all of them are super upsetting, I promise!)

Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Perez

Cover of Out of DarknessNaomi is Mexican, recently moved with her two (white-passing) half-siblings to live with their father in East London, Texas. This hasn’t been great for her — her step-father seems more interested in a housewife than a step-daughter, so she spends more of her time washing his oil-stained shirts than trying to keep up with schoolwork. Naomi is strong in a quiet way; she protects her twin siblings, she keeps her budding relationship with (African American) Wash secret, she plans their escape. It’s not her fault that the school starts using untreated gas from the local oil fields…

See No Color, Shannon Gibney

TCover of See No Colorransracial adoptee Alex loves two things more than anything: her (white) family, and baseball. She’s one of the best players on the team and spends most of her time training for, talking about or playing the game. Unfortunately some spanners are thrown in the works: puberty (hampering her baseball performance) and the discovery of letters sent from her African American biological father. Cue identity crisis, fairly par for the course for a YA novel, but with some added angst related to racial identity (raised white, born black, hello imposter syndrome) and a complicated romance with African American baller Reggie.

Peas and Carrots, Tanita Davis

Cover of Peas and CarrotsAnother book about adoption! This time we follow white Dess and her transferral to an African American foster family (in order to live with her biracial little brother). Dess has a hard shell to crack, having dealt with physical abuse from her father, multiple foster and group homes, and a drug-addict mother. Luckily her foster sister Hope (Bambi eyes, bookish) and the rest of her lovely family manage to warm her heart and mine after some inevitable conflict.

My heart is bruised and battered but still up for more. Can anyone recommend any more fantastic books that make you reach for the tissues? Although I’ve just started The Ballroom, which is set in a mental asylum in 1911, so maybe some lighthearted reads would be a good change of pace.