Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Seals, skating and shady deals - a rich selection of YA fiction

by Philippa Werry

Dreamy, imaginative Jake is the main character in Rachael King’s new children’s novel Red Rocks. Set in Owhiro Bay on Wellington’s south coast, the book translates the selkie legend – of the seal that comes ashore in human form - into a local setting of wind and sea, cliffs, rocks and “talking stones”. The story overlays the contemporary and specific (Forest and Bird, Greenpeace, the Empire cinema and phrases like “whatever”) with a sense of what is timeless (the landscape, the sea, only one computer, no electronic devices, TV or cellphones.) The language is rich, warm and slightly mysterious, like the cover, and the seals themselves are beautifully described as they gambol in the waves and kelp, or dive into the water like a “silky missile”. 

 I wasn’t sure at first how old Jake was. When he first meets Jessie, he calls her a “little girl... no more than ten”, but Jake himself is still young enough to be told to “go and play” by his dad. Perhaps he is about 12, no older; at any rate, there is a close relationship between Jake and his dad, with whom he is spending the school holidays, and I was also glad to see that the Island Bay community looked out for a boy on his own in the dark after the movie finished. 

Rachael King has said that the idea for the book came to her as she walked her first baby son around the wild south coast and thought it a place where magic could happen. “We could all use a little bit of magic in our lives, don’t you think?” says Jake’s dad, and this is a story of enchantment, but also of a boy finding the inner strength to solve problems, fight bullies, protect his family and conquer his fear.

A world away from Jake are the street-wise kids in Ken Benn’s trilogy. The first in the series, Lethal deliveries, was released by Thomson New House in 2007 before being picked up by Penguin and re-released in 2010. The second (Trapped outside a cage) and third (Gutted) have now appeared simultaneously.

These teenagers are smart-mouthed 14- and 15-year-olds from the wrong side of town – or in this case, the wrong side of the skating rink. School doesn’t play a large part in their lives and they live in the shadow of a sleazy criminal underworld. Their parents are often absent or useless, but the kids themselves are resilient and resourceful. 

The books are told in short chapters focusing in turn on the main characters, and are full of references to streets and buildings in Palmerston North and surrounding small towns. They will tell you a lot about inline hockey, as well as what it’s like inside a youth detention centre and how to perform wheel spins in a deserted car park. Ken Benn teaches physics in Palmerston North, and he’s talked about his research for Lethal deliveries, including sleeping under a bridge with a group of streetkids. I found the scenes with Jack and Weta (in the local youth justice facility) some of the most convincing.

Lastly, The nature of ash by Mandy Hager is a fast-moving and thought-provoking story for an older YA audience, partly because of the stronger language but also because of the more complex issues involved.

Ashley and his brother Mikey are the two sons of Shaun McCarthy, well-known activist and union supporter. Having been brought up in the shadow of his father’s work, Ashley is relishing the independence of uni studies and hostel life, but a late night knock on the door brings the police, bad news and a return to Wellington. Ashley, his brother, and two other teenagers they barely know, Travis and Jiao, set off on what begins as an escape from danger, but turns into a mission to uncover the truth and save the innocent.  

Ash is forced to cope with grief, loss and betrayal, confront his own prejudices and take on responsibilities he feels too young for. He has to try and work out who he can trust, and risk getting it wrong for the sake of doing what he believes in. He is hard on himself: Ash by name, ash by nature. The stuff that gets discarded. The lightweight residue of other people’s fiery lives. But we also see him through the eyes of others: If I’d ever had a son, I’d want him to be just like you. Don’t ever change, Ashley McCarthy.

Chaos, terrorism and political intrigue make for a gripping plot, while the book also dwells on love, loyalty, the difficult business of growing up and the nature of family:
I finally understand where she’s at. No family means no life. No Love, simple as that

Four more great books from three notable NZ writers. Buy one or more for your own family, or to give away to a child or teenager you know.

Philippa Werry

Footnote:  Philippa Werry is a Wellington-based author who writes for children and young people and is an occasional reviewer and reporter for Beattie's Book Blog. 

1 comment:

Ann Neville said...

The Nature of Ash
Edward Nawotka defined a “great” read as “The sheer exhilaration of falling in love with a book.” This book did that for me -great characters, themes, fast paced, insightful. It made me both laugh and cry and I'm 62! It may be aimed at young adults but is a wonderful read for any age.
A Neville