Book List: NZ-focused young reader novels

In response to a request The Sapling put out on Twitter, teacher and author Sarina Dickson has compiled this wonderful list of New Zealand titles for those young readers who have finished Harry Potter and are reading above their age level at primary school. Advanced readers, assemble!

As a child I loved to read. By the age of eight, I was reading anything I could get my hands on and in desperation had moved onto the books my mother had read. I read all about what Katy did at school, about lashings of ginger beer, and even about Napoleon, Snowball and Squealer.

What I was really looking for was more of the delicious little morsels in the school journals. I loved those stories so much that I would write to the authors, and once Beverley Dunlop even wrote back with the suggestion that I could write my own stories. She had also written books, The Poetry Girl and The Dolphin Boy which provided novel-length scenes that I recognised, language I was familiar with and themes that resonated with my life in New Zealand.

It felt comforting to see place names and features I recognised, but more importantly it gave me a sense of place in the world. Through the characters’ familiar language and actions they felt very much like friends that I might one day meet. Without me realising it they gave validity to my own experiences and encouraged me to look around for inspiration in my own early writing, and to recognise and write about my own story.

So it gives me great pleasure to recommend some New Zealand books for your child or students who are looking for adventure that doesn’t stray too far into romantic relationships, trauma or other topics they may not be ready to tackle. I could have happily listed several titles for nearly all of these authors so I encourage you to check out what sits next to these ones on the shelves. And while my beloved Beverley Dunlop’s books are now out of print I highly recommend grabbing them off a library or second-hand bookshop shelf if you spot one.

Avis and the Promise of Dragons, by Heather McQuillan (The Cuba Press)

Avis dreams of working with animals, so when a scientist with a witchy-looking house offers her a job as a pet-sitter she jumps at the chance. But it turns out Avis is not looking after pets at all – the animals in Dr Malinda Childes’ backyard are as eccentric as she is and Avis has to promise to keep them a secret. But one promise and one secret leads to more promises and more secrets, and before long Avis finds herself overwhelmed by promises and secrets and responsibilities and one very BIG chocolatey dragonish problem. (Pub date Oct 1 2019)

The Travelling Restaurant, by Barbara Else (Gecko Press)

When 12 year old Jasper Ludlow’s parents flee the city, he gets left behind and finds refuge on The Travelling Restaurant, a sailing ship captained by old Dr Rocket and crewed by feisty Polly. Jasper faces challenges, adventures, storms and hungry pirates. Should he go in search of his parents, or his lost baby sister? Who should he trust? And why is Lady Gall hunting him?

Awatea and the Kawa Gang, by Fraser Smith (Huia)

It’s the holidays, and Awatea is staying with his grandparents at the beach. He’s got lots of time and freedom to explore, visit the tree house, and have adventures with Carrot, the talking parrot. Awatea catches fish, cooks over a campfire and spends a stormy night in the tree house with Carrot for company. When fending off some territorial magpies and keeping an eye on a pair of leopard seals, Awatea and Carrot notice signs of poachers. So Awatea and his friends at the beach work out a plan to stop them. (Released in October)

The Strange Sagas of Sabrina Summers: The Uncooperative Flying Carpet, by Michele Clark McConnochie (Morgan James Kids)

The first in the trilogy, The Uncooperative Flying Carpet tells the story of Sabrina Summers, her little brother and her friends whose lives are turned upside down when Sabrina’s father marries a witch. When the kids are accidentally sent to the very strange land of Dralfyina, the kids become old-fashioned fairy-story characters who battle bats, witches, goblins and deal with mistrust and betrayal so they can get back home before they are grounded for life. Unfortunately, all they have to help them is an uncooperative flying carpet, a unicorn with gas and their own wits.

The Loblolly Boy, by James Norcliffe (Random House)

Audio Version

For as long as Michael can remember, he has lived in the Great House – a home for abandoned children, its gardens surrounded by high walls. One day he meets a boy all in green (rather like Peter Pan) who can fly and is invisible to most people. Michael is keen to be free of his miserable life and changes places with this Loblolly Boy. But the price of freedom is high…

Conrad Cooper’s Last Stand, by Leonie Agnew (Penguin)

Conrad Cooper needs a favour. He’s just found out about Tane, the god of the forest, and he’s decided that Tane is the perfect guy to solve his family problems. After all, the more high-profile gods probably have huge waiting lists, right? In return, Conrad will do anything to repay Tane, no matter how much trouble it causes. But will a Māori god listen to the prayers of a ten-year-old Pākehā boy? And, worse still, does Tane even exist?

The Mapmakers Race, by Eirlys Hunter (Gecko Press)

Sal, Joe, Francie and Henry misplace their mother as they are about to begin the race that offers their last chance to escape poverty and find their lost adventurer father. Their task is to map a rail route through an uncharted wilderness. They overcome the many obstacles posed by nature, bears, bees, bats, river crossings, cliff falls, and impossible weather, but can they survive the treachery of their adult competitors? This is a fast-paced and charming novel. Its children are brave and competent but not always right. Its world is magical enough to be intriguing, but close enough to our own to keep the reader on firm ground.

Red Rocks, by Rachael King (Penguin)

While holidaying at his father’s house, Jake explores Wellington’s wild south coast, with its high cliffs, biting winds, and its fierce seals. When he stumbles upon a perfectly preserved sealskin, hidden in a crevice at Red Rocks, he’s compelled to take it home and hide it under his bed, setting off a chain of events that threatens to destroy his family. Red Rocks takes the Celtic myth of the selkies, or seal people, and transplants it into the New Zealand landscape, throwing an ordinary boy into an adventure tinged with magic.

Dunger, by Joy Cowley (Gecko Press)

William and Melissa have been roped into helping their old hippie grandparents fix up their holiday home in the middle of the Sounds. They’ll have no electricity, no cell phone reception, and only each other for company. As far as they’re concerned, this is not a holiday.

The May Series, by Phyllis Johnston (Phyllis Johnston)

Originally published in the 1980s and recently reprinted, Phyllis Johnston’s iconic New Zealand pioneering books are a rare glimpse into pioneer life, seen through the eyes of May Tarrant and her brothers. The series of five books starts with May and her brothers in the early 1900s and covers 50 years of New Zealand history. These books do briefly mention adult topics; stillbirth, suicide, death of soldiers.

How To Bee, by Bren MacDibble (Allen and Unwin)

Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand. All Peony really wants is to be a bee. Life on the farm is hard, but there is enough to eat and a place to sleep, and there is love. Then Peony’s mother arrives to take her away from everything she has ever known, and all Peony’s grit and quick thinking might not be enough to keep her safe.

Under the Mountain, by Maurice Gee (Penguin)

Beneath the extinct volcanoes surrounding the city, giant creatures are waking from a spellbound sleep that has lasted thousands of years. Their goal is the destruction of the world. Rachel and Theo Matheson are twins. Apart from having red hair, there is nothing remarkable about them – or so they think. They are horrified to discover that they have a strange and awesome destiny. Only the Matheson twins can save the world from the terror of what is under the mountain.

Ringlet and the day the oceans stopped, by Felicity Williams (The Cuba Press)

An eleven-year-old mergirl has better things to do than save the oceans from deadly stagnation. Except there’s no one else. And worse still, something monstrous is hellbent on stopping her. It’s Ringlet against time and tides … and there’s not much left of either.

The Dark Blue 100 Ride Bus Ticket, by Margaret Mahy (HarperCollins Publishers)

When Carlo and his mother, Jessica, accept a free bus ticket from a strange old woman in the supermarket, they are really only being polite. Secretly they think she must be slightly batty, with her talk about a hundred free bus rides to the supermarket at the end of the world. And yet, right outside their supermarket, which is of the most ordinary, everyday kind, a Number 13 bus pulls up … dark blue and with gold stars, just like the ticket.

The Traitor and the Thief, by Gareth Ward (Walker)

Discovered thieving at Coxford’s Corn Market, fourteen year old Sin is hunted across the city. Caught by the enigmatic Eldritch Moons, Sin is offered a way out of his life of crime: join the Covert Operations Group (COG) and train to become a spy.

At Lenheim Palace, Sin learns spy craft while trying not to break the school’s Cast-Iron Rules. Befriended by eccentric Zonda Chubb, together they endeavour to unmask a traitor causing havoc within the palace. After an assassination attempt on the founder of COG, Sin realises that someone closest to him could be the traitor.

Maddy West and the Tongue Taker, by Brian Falkner (Brian Falkner)

Maddy West can speak every language in the world. When she is asked to translate some ancient scrolls, Maddy is excited, but the scrolls hide many secrets. Secrets that send Maddy on a wild adventure with a stowaway ninja, a mysterious monkey, a Bulgarian wrestler, and a fiendish witch.

Girl Called Harry by Philippa Werry (Scholastic)

Harry (short for Harriet) is supposed to be having her best year ever at school, but it’s not turning out that way. Her brilliantly creative projects aren’t always appreciated, and neither is her wild imagination. Then Mallory, the new girl with the unpronounceable surname, turns up, and Harry’s imagination really takes off.

The Silent One, by Joy Cowley (Penguin)

Jonasi is deaf and is growing up in an isolated Pacific village. Separated from the villagers by his silence and their prejudices, Jonasi finds solace in his underwater world where he develops a special relationship with a huge white turtle. However, the superstitious villagers see both Jonasi and the turtle as evil spirits. A series of natural disasters and a struggle for leadership within the village sweep Jonasi toward his strange destiny.

Twice Upon A Time: A very good very bad story, by James Norcliffe (Penguin Random House)

What happens when you find yourself trapped inside a story? Ginny and her strange new friend, Digger Dagger, must navigate their way through this upside down, topsy-turvy world where Don’s Dairy has become Nod’s Diary, the fish and chip shop is full of tropical fish tanks and wood chips, and the ghost train at the funfair really is a ghost train. Sometimes the answers are right there in front of you.

Speed Freak, by Fleur Beale (Random House)

Fifteen-year-old Archie Barrington is a top kart driver, aiming to win the Challenge series and its ultimate prize of racing in Europe. He loves the speed, the roar of the engine, the tactics and the thrill of racing to the limits.

Craig is his main rival, and there’s also Silver. Archie knows he’ll need all his skill and focus to win. But sometimes you need a lot of luck too. Can Archie overcome the odds and win?

Sarina Dickson

Sarina Dickson has worked alongside families and children with emotional and behavioural special needs in the UK, USA and NZ as a classroom teacher, mentor and advocate since graduating from Canterbury University and Christchurch College of Education in 1999. She has worked in the Family Violence field with women and children in assessing needs, co-ordinating services and developing programs. Sarina is the author of 'Wishes and Worries' (2015) and 'Rising Tide' (2016) and is the Teacher Notes Author for Hachette, and previously Scholastic NZ. She has two picture books out this month, A Stick and a Stone, illustrated by Hilary Jean Tapper (Hachette, NZ) and The Fairies' Night Before Christmas, illustrated by Sarah Greig (Hachette, NZ).