Bookseller Top Picks: Overcoming Struggles

We’ve canvassed so many amazing bookshops in our From The Shop Floor feature over the years, and it only seemed right to return to some of those bookshops for another check in. But to mix things up, we’re now asking some of our favourite booksellers for their top books in a genre of their choice! Today, Lucy Black from The Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie, Wellington gives us recommendations focused on overcoming struggle – from Lucy herself and some of her brilliant colleagues.

These are trying times; getting out of bed in the colder mornings can be a struggle, suddenly homeschooling your kids is a new struggle, fighting the urge to let those kids watch every episode of their favourite Netflix show just so you can get some work done is a struggle…. And kids around the country are struggling too. It must be rough for them having their routine worlds turned upside down. Most kids living under level 3 can’t see their mates, go to school, have holidays or celebrate birthdays. Lots of kids are desperately missing grandparents and parents and some kids won’t have a safe place to be right now.

John McIntyre founded The Children’s Bookshop and one of his favourite and most recommended books was The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. It was the book that turned John on to reading he often told how it was a wet lunchtime at Waimea College in the 1960s and John (who normally played sport and didn’t read) was killing time in the library. The librarian gave him The Silver Sword to read and the story blew him away. He said: for a kid whose main thought was what would be for dinner that night, I was riveted by the ordeals that Ruth, Edek, Jan and Bronia experienced traipsing through war-torn Europe in search of their parents.

A The Silver Sword-themed birthday collage for John McIntyre.

I’ve been emailing with my colleagues about what our favourite books about overcoming struggles and this is the list we came up with together, they’re in vaguely age-appropriate order:

It’s a No-Money Day by Kate Milner

Poverty is a heartbreaking crisis in Aotearoa and it has negative effects on countless kids. This beautiful book confronts the reality of not having enough and although it never shies away from the discomfort and shame of being poor, it is not a dark book, it doesn’t wallow. The story is told from a small child’s point of view, it is cosy, colourful and sweet like the child. So, although the mum may feel desperation and shame, those are not the key points of the story.

Annie and Moon by Miriam Smith

This is my all-time comfort book and maybe other children of the ’80s will remember it fondly. Annie and Moon tells the story of a young girl who moves houses a lot over a short period of time but has the constant companionship of her cat Moon. I didn’t move house as a kid but I recognised the Wellington streets depicted and related a lot to Annie’s loneliness. I longed for a cat and enjoyed the simple conflict and resolution storyline.

Bravo! by Moni Port

This is a very interesting book published by Gecko Press. It is the story of a young introvert living in a family of extroverts, particularly her father who shouts too much. At first read, I thought it may be about abuse or anger but really it is about the young protagonist learning to set boundaries, find her own voice and come to terms with her family dynamic.

A lot of Shaun Tan books

Shaun Tan has long been a favourite among staff at The Children’s Bookshop and many of his beautifully illustrated books have themes of overcoming struggle. The Lost Thing is about loneliness and finding friendship, The Red Tree tackles depression, The Arrival is about a refugee in a new country and The Cicada is about workplace bullying. His books lean into the darker aspects of our society but always manage to tenderly offer hope and solutions. The art is always breathtaking and kids are drawn to his fable-like writing style.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Although as an adult I find some of Dahl’s themes a wee bit problematic, as an adolescent I thoroughly enjoyed Matilda. Is your tween feeling hard done by and like they don’t fit in? Are they a bookworm who likes to sit quietly at the window seat and ignore their family through level 3? pass them a copy of Matilda. It is a funny and sweet story of discovering your people, overcoming bullies and finding peace.

The 10pm Question by Kate De Goldi (Recommended by Bella)

In a time where well being is more openly discussed than ever, The 10pm Question has increasing relevance for young teenagers. It follows Frankie, a 12-year-old who can’t seem to stop the constant stream of questions that run through his mind; and the only person who listens is Ma. The 10pm Question does a great job of depicting the life of a young boy who is grappling with important issues in his life.

The Runaway Settlers by Elsie Locke (Recommended by Ruth)

I got this for my 12th birthday from my grandparents and still have my copy. I was a prolific reader as a child but this book really stayed with me because it was about a family escaping from a cruel husband/father in Australia and settling into farming life near Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula. I read it to my children who also both loved the story. It’s the classic story of pioneers succeeding against the odds.

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (Recommended by Bella)

The true autobiography of a young Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban at age fifteen. Perhaps one of the most well-known stories of recent years, I am Malala gives an insight into Malala’s life growing up in Pakistan and taking a stand for girls’ right to an education from a young age. First published in 2013, Malala’s story is a powerful inspiration to stand by your beliefs and to fight for what you think is right.The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall (Recommended by Sasha)

In their collecting of and competition over wartime shrapnel, the children of Garmouth have made their own silver lining, more accepting of their “new normal” than parents and authority figures. In spite of the title, it’s not the machine gun falling from the sky that challenges the world they thought they knew, but a foreign pilot, wounded and not much more than a child himself. Broken people, broken values and broken societies can only begin to repair when we re-learn empathy and kindness, and that weapons do more harm than good, regardless of intentions.

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne (Recommended by Lucy Bailey)

Pierrot is a sweet young boy when we first meet him in Paris in 1935 although his home life is troubled. He is swiftly orphaned, whisked off to an orphanage and then taken by his aunt to live with her – at the Berghof, the home of Adolf Hitler, where she is the housekeeper. A lonely boy in a difficult situation, will he make the right choices? No, he really won’t. This may seem an odd choice for a list of books on overcoming struggle but some readers will find comfort in experiencing the consequences of making the wrong choices through the safety of a fictional character. I am certainly one of them. Sometimes you need to know what might happen if you fail. Sometimes it helps to think that, even though you may have made some rubbish decisions, at least you’re not a Nazi.

If your older kid is particularly into the theme of overcoming struggles and enjoys quests and fantasy we would also highly recommend these series:

The Harry Potter books by J.K Rowling

The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin

The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper

The Akata Witch books by Nnedi Okorafor

The Hungry Cities Chronicles by Philip Reeve

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is coming out shortly!)

My daughter also asked me to include this one that she has read during lockdown and very much enjoyed: The Death-Hunters is the first in The Royal Orchid series by young Wellington writer Denika Mead.

Ngā mihi nui,

Lucy Black with contributions from the rest of The Children’s Bookshop team: Ruth, Lucy Bailey, Sasha, Jem, Kieran, Bella and Isla.

Lucy Black

Lucy Black is a writer and reading promoter. She splits her time between the cosy school library she manages and her book-filled home at the edge of the city.