Hooked on NZ Books: Eirlys Hunter on YA

New Zealand Young Adult fiction is as good as any in the world. So why doesn’t it have a higher profile with young readers in Aotearoa, and what can be done about that? Writer, reviewer and teacher Eirlys Hunter tells us about one solution, Hooked on New Zealand Books He Ao Ano, a new website focusing on book reviews of New Zealand fiction for young adult readers – and by young adult readers.

New Zealand young adult literature travels way under the radar. Teens know all about New Zealand music, New Zealand television, film and web series, but have little awareness of which books were written here.

How would they? Reviews are few and far between, and author profiles and interviews almost unheard of in the mainstream media. As a result, it’s not easy for teenage readers in Aotearoa to find out about books specifically written for them.

Louise O’Brien and I started the website Hooked on New Zealand Books He Ao Ano last year, as an offspring of New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa, (the quarterly journal that celebrates and reviews the country’s best books). We had two interlinked aims: to encourage teenagers to practise the art of reviewing, and to shine a spotlight on New Zealand’s fabulous and overlooked fiction for young adults, which, as Sarah Forster argues, is world class.

Book reviews are important, and there are far fewer outlets for professional reviews than there used to be. We won’t see any increase in the space devoted to reviews unless there’s an upsurge in demand. Readers need to have the expectation that they will be able to find reviews of books that they will want to read, and that thoughtful long-form reviews of New Zealand books are worth reading. And for that to happen young readers need to become both reviewers, and consumers of reviews.

[…] young readers need to become both reviewers, and consumers of reviews 

Informal chats in schools indicate that peer recommendation is by far the most powerful driver when teenagers are choosing their next book, so it makes sense to provide a platform for reviews by young readers, for young readers.

To help them get going, the website includes guidelines on how to write a great review, with tips from experienced reviewers including David Hill and Harry Ricketts. We made the decision that the reviews we publish should be at least 500 words long, because we wanted to push writers to develop an argument, provide evidence, and generally go beyond a plot summary. The only other condition is that reviews be of a New Zealand book that’s interesting to 13-18 year old readers. We’ve had responses to poetry and adult novels as well as YA fiction, and I still get excited every time a new review comes through. More please!

Reviewers can find their own book, or request one via the site. We get review copies of most New Zealand young adult books, and some general fiction. Potential teenage reviewers can contact us to request the list of books we currently have available, select the one that appeals to them and we’ll post it out. Review a book and you get to keep it.

Even with free books, it’s hard to get traction; there’s a lot of competition for young readers’ time and attention, so we’ve started running reviewing workshops in schools around the Wellington region, in which we discuss what makes a good review. We introduce students to the website, give them a free copy of New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa, and invite them to choose a book to review.

Most of the recent issues of New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa have carried a student review reprinted from the website, chosen by editor Louise O’Brien. Young reviewers with writerly ambitions get quite a buzz to see their work alongside that of some of New Zealand’s best writers and scholars.

Some of our reviewers also get a chance to connect with the author of their book. We’ve facilitated interviews or Q&As with Fleur Beale, David Hill, Kate de Goldi, Whiti Hereaka, Glenn Colquhoun and Anna McKenzie so far; New Zealand YA writers are a generous bunch.

Another feature of the website is an extensive archive of professional reviews of New Zealand YA fiction from print, online and radio sources from the year 2000 onwards. This is a resource that may be useful to teachers trying to choose a class text, as well as to browsing students. (A side issue: how is it possible that, in many secondary schools, a student can study English for five years without meeting a single New Zealand book on the curriculum?).

How is it possible that, in many secondary schools, a student can study English for five years without meeting a single New Zealand book on the curriculum? 

We also commission occasional articles on aspects of writing, which include Mandy Hager discussing sex and swearing in YA novels , and Anna Smaill reporting back on what it’s like being reviewed.

We’re always open to new ideas for the website, and would love input from teachers, librarians, and all readers and writers of YA. According to the Book Council’s recent survey, only 45 percent of 10 to 17-year-olds read a New Zealand book in the last year, though this might partly be because respondents don’t always know where the books they read originate from. I’ve found that there is little awareness of New Zealand children’s and Young Adult fiction by undergraduates enrolled for the Writing for Children workshops at the International Institute of Modern Letters, and even less among the secondary students at reviewing workshops.

At a recent undergraduate workshop I said how much I was looking forward to seeing the film of The Changeover. The young adults in the room looked blank.

“Margaret Mahy? You know, The Tricksters? The Catalogue of the Universe? Memory?

None of them had read any of Mahy’s extraordinary young adult novels. To them, she was a writer of picture books – and to some, the fact she was a New Zealander was news. They’ll know differently by the end of the year when they’ve seen the movie, and read the new edition of the book.

There doesn’t seem to be a canon of classic New Zealand YA novels as there is of books for younger children, probably because teens choose their own books without an adult steering them to old favourites. Since reading Scarlett Cayford’s article A Lot Of It Comes Down To Sex on The Spinoff I’m particularly curious to find out how today’s teenagers respond to the YA books of the 1990s. Go on, young readers, explore the stacks! Retrieve those treasures that made such an impact twenty-five years ago, that you’ve never heard of – and write a review for Hooked on New Zealand Books He Ao Ano.

Cayford mentions Tessa Duder, Kate de Goldi and Sherryl Jordan. I’ll add Margaret Mahy and more recent but still-forgotten titles by Elizabeth Knox (Dreamhunter and Dreamquake), and Bernard Beckett (Genesis).

Why does it matter that Kiwi teens read Kiwi books? So many reasons. It’s important that readers encounter the particular rhythms of our voices, our vernacular, and the stories that reveal and reflect our history and the flavours of our multi-cultural lives. And it’s important that readers gain insight into the lives of all those people who don’t feature in their own personal bubble.

It’s important that readers gain insight into the lives of all those people who don’t feature in their own personal bubble.

Year 12 students Abby Loader and Abby Simpson reviewed Whiti Hereaka’s Bugs for Hooked last year. They wrote:

Bugs is set in modern day Taupō, somewhere that for us has always been a holiday destination with stunning views, hot beaches and water-skiing, but only “if you’ve got the bucks” as pointed out by Jez. From the get-go of Hereaka’s novel, Bugs is disdainful of tourists in Taupō, as she watches them enjoy the benefits of her town, yet remain blissfully ignorant of troubles boiling below. However, the theme of tourism spreads further than your traditional definition; Bugs compares herself to a tourist when visiting Jez’s flat, calling herself “a prissy little tourist, out sightseeing, believing I know how he lives because I’ve visited a few times” and, in turn, considering Charmaine to be doing the same in their lives. This pushed us to consider how we act as tourists, not only in new places, but also when visiting friends. Hereaka highlights the unhappy existence of the class system in New Zealand and the detachment and resultant tourism between tiers.

Let’s face it, we mostly read mainstream novels from American authors, but Whiti Hereaka with Bugs and her insight about Taupō has converted us to New Zealand fiction. It was as refreshing as a jump in the lake on a hot day to finally read a book where we were familiar with the sights and the culture of the people.

Teenagers read dystopian novels more than any other genre. In these novels, protagonists inevitably battle inequality and injustice, and readers respond with empathy for the down-trodden. But if they never came across a novel like Bugs, they could kid themselves that none of that applies in Godzone, and what a skewed worldview that would be.

What to do? How about some New Zealand book pride to match our music pride? In 1995, New Zealand songs only took up 1.6 percent of the airtime on commercial radio. Money was invested, New Zealand Music Month was introduced, and by 2005 nearly 23 percent of airtime on commercial radio was being dedicated to New Zealand music.

To translate that sort of change to literature would need investment and commitment, but imagine it: special funding for New Zealand books in every classroom and for irresistible library displays; children’s and YA book festivals starring New Zealand writers; profiles, articles and pull-out supplements in every magazine.

A parade down Queen St for the winners of the Book Awards. News clips of children’s writers visiting sick children in hospital. Everyone staying up to read the new YA books being released a chapter each night.

A parade down Queen St for the winners of the Book Awards. News clips of children’s writers visiting sick children in hospital. Everyone staying up to read the new YA books being released a chapter each night. And forget about Scandi-noir, what about all the TV series that could be based on New Zealand YA? Movie rights, new editions …

Okay. I’m dreaming. But that’s what books do to you. Help you imagine. Imagine what a different country this could be if there was a lot more imagining.

Eirlys Hunter
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Eirlys Hunter has written books for both children and adults and has been working on a YA novel for some time. She convenes the Writing for Children workshop at the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington.