Children and young adult books including Flip and Dirt Bomb review

by andrew.mcnulty / 02 July, 2011
Ann Packer’s monthly roundup of books for children and young adults.
‘Ever wake up in someone else’s body?” The tagline for UK adult writer Martyn Bedford’s first novel for teens, FLIP (Walker, $16.95), brings to mind pop-lit classic Freaky Friday – but this brilliant mind-swap novel doesn’t require such a suspension of disbelief. Alex, 14, wakes one morning to find himself in the body of Philip, aka Flip (perfect title) – six months on from his last memory. From Alex’s first glimpse of his new body in the Garamond family’s bathroom mirror, there are shocks in store – taking a pee in another boy’s body freaks him out; it’s days before he can shower. Flip is a girl magnet, good at German and an elite cricketer – none of which comes easily to loner Alex. And where is Flip, anyway? A convincing exploration of the apparently invented notion of “psychic ­evacuation”.

Patrick Ness’s powerful, moving and beautifully illustrated novel A MONSTER CALLS (Walker, $31.99) is based on an idea from Siobhan Dowd, the first posthumous winner of the Carnegie Medal – after her death from cancer aged 47. Like Alex/Flip, Conor has recurring nightmares – arising from his refusal to face his greatest fear: the death of his mother.

The monster Conor unwittingly summons doesn’t frighten him at all; significantly, it takes the form of a yew tree, source of a potential cure for breast cancer (which is what took Dowd’s life) – but we don’t know till the very end whether it will save Conor’s mum. As heroic as any character from Ness’s mammoth Chaos Walking trilogy, yet much more accessible, Conor and his alter ego battle it out as his mother fights for her life. Prepare to weep.

When Fleur Beale wrote her first story for boys, way back in 1992, it was out of desperation; the teens she was teaching at the time wouldn’t be caught dead reading. Now the winner of the Young Adult fiction category at this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards has come up with a cars-and-cows tale to hook the most reluctant reader. DIRT BOMB (Random House, $19.99) follows the fortunes of a trio of Taranaki teens as they attempt to get an old wreck out of a roadside ditch and into working order so they can hoon around a paddock. Jake, born lazy and forever on the cadge, eventually realises the quickest way to acquire some dosh is to take the work that’s most readily available – milking cows.

AGAINST THE ODDS (Allen & Unwin, $19.99) is Dutch author Marjolijn Hof’s story about a girl whose medico dad is often absent from home – off helping kids caught up in war zones. Her dad tells her about the man who was afraid of everything, who didn’t dare leave his home, then a tree fell on it, but Kiki is convinced that even so the chances of his coming back will be greater if others die: the family’s fat and farty old dog, an elderly mouse she buys hopefully. As in Ness’s A Monster Calls, this is a waiting game.

Death is eloquently introduced to a younger audience in Kazumi Yumoto’s THE BEAR AND THE WILDCAT (Gecko, $29.99), from the publisher that brought us Duck, Death and the Tulip. Bear’s friend the bird has died; he makes a box, lines it with petals and carries his companion everywhere with him. His other friends urge him to forget, but he can’t; he retires to his home to sit in the dark and mourn. When he emerges, he goes walking and meets a wildcat with a violin who empathises with him, plays for the lost bird and gives Bear the courage to bury the box. Exquisitely imagined by illustrator Komako Sakai in black and white with just the tiniest colour accent, this is a rough-cut gem.

Ann Packer is a Wellington writer and reviewer.
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