Breaking barriers

by David Larsen / 20 December, 2008
The best releases for younger readers in 2008 defy age limits.

YOUNG ADULT FICTION

My book of the year, whether for adults or children, is Kate De Goldi's THE 10PM QUESTION (Longacre, $29.99). This hilarious, poignant portrait of an unusual Kiwi family as seen through the eyes of its youngest child is not just De Goldi's best book to date, it's one of the best novels about childhood I've ever read. The writing is so sophisticated, actually, that I began to doubt whether it was really a book for children (as opposed to about children) at all. So I passed it to my 12-year-old son, who drank it down in three straight hours and loved it as much as I did.

This is the key thing about Young Adult fiction: the distinction between it and adult fiction is based not on complexity, but on subject matter, emphasis, and, as often as not, arbitrary fiat. Consider Margo Lanagan's astonishing TENDER MORSELS (Allen & Unwin, $37.99) , which turns a retelling of Snow White and Rose Red into a study of a brutally abused girl's retreat into fantasy and her painful, triumphant emergence into adult life. Is it a YA book? Sure: it says so on the tin. But find me a more ambitious, poetic or powerful book for adults. Likewise, Patrick Ness' debut novel, THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO (Walker, $35) , is a brilliantly conceived science fiction page-turner and a classic coming-of-age story. GRACELING (Gollancz, $38.99), Kristin Cashore's debut novel, is a compulsively readable medieval fantasy... and a classic coming-of-age story. YA for all ages, in both cases.

Margaret Mahy's THE MAGICIAN OF HOAD (HarperCollins, $39.99) , another medieval fantasy, is, for good and for bad, one of the strangest things she's ever written. Dryly intellectual for much of its length, it still has an epic sweep and fascinating characters, and when, in several extended passages, Mahy slips the leash on her descriptive powers, the effect of the sudden soaring lyricism is overpowering. Another flawed book too good to ignore is Sherman Alexie's autobiographical novel about growing up dirt poor on the Spokane Indian Reservation, THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN (Andersen Press, $19.99) . Alexie doesn't so much write as rant, pouring out a scathing, hugely entertaining first-person flow that slowly coalesces into a bitter-sweet story of friendship and loss.

Chains (Bloomsbury, $19.99) by Laurie Halse Anderson is an involving story about a darker part of American history even than the contemporary treatment of Native Americans. Isabel is a slave in 1776 New York, caught up in a revolutionary war that promises her no freedom whoever wins, unless she can use the turmoil to escape. An even better exploration of this area is Ursula Le Guin's fantasy Powers (Orion, $19.99), the story of a boy raised in a slavery that he takes, for many years, to be benign.

The roots of EL Konigsburg's The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World (Walker, $16.99) are in Nazi Germany, but the story branches out in all sorts of unguessable directions, and the overall mood is far more joyful than the dark central mystery might suggest. A lonely boy in a new town helps sort through his elderly neighbour's accumulated possessions. He finds a friend in another roped-in helper, and the two of them start asking the neighbour for the stories behind her clutter.

The Players and the Rebels (Girls Gone By, $40) , the second half of Antonia Forest's two-book series about an Elizabethan runaway who becomes William Shakespeare's apprentice, is the most exciting reissue of the year, a long out-of-print masterpiece featuring one of the best-ever fictional treatments of Shakespeare. (The equally good first book, The Player's Boy, was reissued last year).

If you can imagine the Flambards books rewritten in the style of early Iain Banks, you're about halfway to Michelle Cooper's A Brief History of Montmaray (Random House, $19.99) . Sophie FitzOsborne is a princess of a tiny island kingdom off the coasts of France and Spain. It's 1936, the Spanish Civil War is well under way, an altogether larger war is on the horizon, the kingdom is bankrupt and severely underpopulated, and Sophie ... is in love with the wrong boy. Heady and delightful. Terry Pratchett's Nation (Doubleday, $49.99) is set on a very different island, and further back in history. A South Pacific tsunami has wiped out all but a handful of the inhabitants and grounded a European ship, forcing the young survivors to work together to build a new society. Pratchett's best book in years.

Non-teens may not have noticed, but the publishing sensation of the year was Stephenie Meyer's Breaking Dawn (Atom, $34.99), the fourth and last book in her Twilight series. (Its initial New Zealand print run sold out in one day.) There's a straightforward reason why these books, indistinguishable at first glance from the current glut of supernatural romances, have proved more popular than any recent YA title not bearing the magic words "Harry Potter": Meyer is a first-rate natural storyteller. I stayed up late rather than go to sleep with this unfinished.

INTERMEDIATE FICTION

Diana Wynne Jones, one of the great living storytellers, returns to form with House of Many Ways (HarperCollins, $22.99) . As with many of Jones' best books, a synopsis would make this one sound exciting (which it is) and yet largely miss the point. The sorcerors, the insectile demons, the time- and space-twisting house - they all contribute to the page-turning charm, but without them the book would still be a delight. Jones takes you inside her grumpy young heroine's head and makes you care about what happens there. Everything else is details.

Jones is also on the cover of The Graveyard Book (Bloomsbury, $32.99) , proclaiming it "the best book Neil Gaiman has ever written". It certainly has the widest appeal of all Gaiman's books: a genuine "ages eight to 108" story, riffing productively on Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books. Here the orphaned child with the dangerous enemy is raised not by wolves, but by a historically diverse assortment of ghosts, allowing Gaiman to write dialogue of every flavour, from ancient Celt through modern.

My Friend Percy and Buffalo Bill (Gecko, $16.99) is the third of Ulf Stark's gentle, funny books about the growing pains of a Swedish boy and his oddball best friend. The flavour of Stark's writing is unique, and yet thoroughly familiar, perhaps because he captures so much of the feel of childhood on the cusp of adolescence. David Hill's The River Runs (Mallinson Rendel, $18) explores the same general territory, but through a very different lens: in 1967 rural New Zealand, a bookworm is being bullied by his athletic cousin. Hill's spare, exciting story allows both boys to emerge as complex characters, whose gradual progress towards mutual comprehension makes satisfying reading.

Of the year's many, many attempts to fill the unfillable shoes of Harry Potter, far and away the best are Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth (Puffin, $25) and Garth Nix's Superior Saturday (Allen & Unwin, $18.99) . Both continue ongoing series, Riordan's about Greek demigods in today's America, and Nix's about a human boy's involvement in an interdimensional war. Samurai Kids: White Crane (Walker, $16.99) by Sandy Fussell launches an appealing new series aimed at newly emerging readers, using simple language to tell quite an involved story about five disabled children training as warriors in a well-realised medieval Japan.

In Amazing Tales of Aotearoa (Raupo, $30) , Glenn Colquhoun weaves his own retelling of Maori myths into the contemporary story of two young girls growing up in a Kiwi coastal community, a balance of the new and the traditional that gives the old stories resonance and relevance. Frank Cottrell Boyce's third novel, Cosmic (Macmillan, $29.99) , has a wildly outlandish story - an unusually tall 12-year-old manages to pass himself off as an adult and lucks his way into a commercial space mission, which goes badly wrong, leaving him in charge, in orbit, and in major trouble. But its appeal is mostly a matter of Boyce's distinctive voice, at once unassuming and sharp as tacks.

The combination of tall tales and a winning voice also works well for Jack Lasenby, but he throws unforgettable characters into the mix as well. Aunt Effie and Mrs Grizzle (Longacre, $17.99) takes us back to a New Zealand where no adventure is too unlikely to happen to Aunt Effie, friend of prime ministers, plunderer of the lost treasure of Rangitoto and owner of the largest pig dogs in captivity.

PICTURE BOOKS

As in most years when he publishes at all, Shaun Tan has produced this year's stand-out picture book. Tales From Outer Suburbia (Allen & Unwin, $39.99), text-heavy and superbly illustrated in a wide range of different styles, opens curiously shaped windows on a haunting, quietly absurd suburban landscape where Franz Kafka would feel entirely at home. I'd throw this in the path of a pre-teen reluctant reader; I'd read it to a story-loving five-year-old; and I'd hide my copy from any keen older readers I knew, because they quite likely wouldn't give it back.

For the very small, the year's best books are Who's Hiding? (Gecko, $29.99) by Satoru Onishi and Not a Box (HarperCollins, $24.99) by Antoinette Portis. Both offer the kind of lap-snuggling interactive reading experience that children from 18 months or so adore, with a different spot-the-animal picture puzzle on each page of Who's Hiding? and a sequence of "what's the little rabbit pretending her box has turned into?" questions in Not a Box. Either makes a textbook example of how so much can be conveyed by the simplest of line drawings.

For slightly older pre-schoolers, Mending Lucille (Lothian, $29.99) by JR Poulter and Sarah Davis is an unflinching yet deeply reassuring story about a mother's death and the father's eventual remarriage. Simply told, beautifully illustrated, heartbreaking but never mawkish: this had me in tears.

Duck, Death and the Tulip (Gecko, $29.99) by Wolf Erlbruch (illustrator of The Story of the Little Mole who knew it was None of his Business) is simpler, starker, but equally beautiful, and one of the best books about death I've ever seen, for any age.

Pepetuna (Penguin, $29.95) by Denise Whitmore is a visually sumptuous celebration of New Zealand's natural heritage, based around the five-year life cycle of the largest native moth, the pepetuna, but effortlessly drawing in a wealth of other information. The text is two-year-old friendly (and nicely reminiscent of The Very Hungry Caterpillar), but the pictures are rich enough to interest much older children.

Bubble Trouble (Frances Lincoln, $29.99), a madcap family adventure about a lost baby, has a similarly broad appeal, thanks not so much to Polly Dunbar's vibrant pictures - good as they are - as to Margaret Mahy's astonishingly fluid alliterative rhymes, which absolutely demand to be read out loud.

Gavin Bishop's There Was An Old Woman (Gecko, $19.99) retells an old nursery rhyme about an old woman who flew up "seventeen times as high as the moon" to clean the cobwebs from the sky. Bishop pairs the simple rhyme with very strong, simple illustration, and pulls off an equally simple, equally effective format trick: the spine of this sturdy board book is at the top, not at the left, meaning that it opens out vertically, not horizontally. The novelty factor will get children's attention, and Bishop knows how to keep it once he's got it: he uses his long, narrow pages to create a wonderful sense of soaring heights.

By far the most welcome picture book reissue of the year is The Church Mouse (Modern Classics, $27.99) , the first of Graham Oakley's wonderful, quintessentially English series about a group of obstreperous mice and their long-suffering cat, Sampson. Somewhat long and complex for under-fours, but older children will love Oakley's understated humour.

My Place (Walker, $24.99) by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, another significant reissue, is one of the rare books capable of giving young children a sense of the historical depths that precede their own birth. Every new page drops the story back another decade, showing the same piece of Australian land through a new child's eyes, over a total span of two centuries.

I Am Invited to a Party (Walker, $11.99) by Mo Willems is purpose designed as a first reader for five-year-olds, but its simple story is so funny that younger children will want it read to them. (Possibly defeating the ultimate goal, since they're likely to want it read so often they'll end up memorising it well before anyone asks them to try reading it.) One of a series, the Elephant & Piggie books.

The Pencil (Walker, $29.99) by Alan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingham is a modern creation myth, and the sweetest story imaginable. A lonely little pencil makes friends for itself by drawing them. The friends need places to live: it draws them, too. Everything's too drab: it draws a paint brush, who colours everything in. But then everyone starts complaining about how they've been drawn, so the pencil draws ... a rubber. And everything goes wrong. Hugely inventive, both visually and conceptually. And huge fun.

Te Rauparaha: Legend of Aotearoa (Penguin, $17.95) by Maureen Cavanagh and Bruce Potter blends myth and history to create an involving retelling of the great chief's early triumphs. In this version, Te Rauparaha's besieged people escape their enemies partly through his cunning and partly through the intervention of the gods. Potter's pictures interweave realism with fantasy seamlessly.

The environmental fable Varmints (Koala, $31.99) by Helen Ward and Marc Craste would be too preachy to work if it were not so very, very gorgeous. In terms of design, production standards and the piercing beauty of the illustrations, this is unquestionably one of the year's very best books. The story lets the side down slightly, wearing its heart on its sleeve and then waving the sleeve back and forth to make sure you don't miss it. But it also leaves many of the details of its dystopian world intriguingly under-explained. Older children are likely to enjoy puzzling out exactly what's going on.

NON-FICTION

If you buy your child only one non-fiction book this year, make it Gregory O'Brien's Back & Beyond: New Zealand Painting for the Young & Curious (AUP, $34.99). The reproductions are high quality and plentiful, but the real draw is O'Brien's gift for simple (but never simplistic) explanation. What is art, who are these artists, why did they paint the way they did? Any school-age child will learn a lot from this. (So will most adults.)

For younger children, Creatures Aotearoa (Gecko, $18.99) by Dylan Owen pairs beautifully simple poems with well-chosen and again excellently well-reproduced New Zealand art works.

Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs (Frances Lincoln, $29.99) by Kathleen V Kudlinski and SD Schindler isn't just a solid introduction to current theories about dinosaurs, though that on its own will endear it to many four-year-olds. It's also a thorough rehearsal of all the ways our dinosaur theories have been wrong in the past. The implicit lesson about the nature of science can't be learned too early. For more things that can't be learned too early, turn to Bill Bryson's large format, heavily illustrated A Really Short History of Nearly Everything (Doubleday, $45) . From the Big Bang to climate change, Bryson's highly accessible adaptation of his adult bestseller opens many intellectual doors.

Swords: An Artist's Devotion (Candlewick, $34.99) by Ben Boos is a beautiful pictorial study of edged weapons throughout history and across the world. There's a lot of incidental cultural knowledge to be gleaned here, but let's not pretend that's why my 10-year-old keeps going back to it.

Cool Stuff Exploded: Get Inside Modern Technology (Dorling Kindersley, $55) by Chris Woodford uses computer-generated images to show how a wide range of machines - everything from bikes to satellites - would look if all their parts were separated out and suspended in the air in pre-assembly configuration. It's a surprising and effective teaching tool, and the written explanations are easy to follow.

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