It’s our final installment of the NZCYA finalists before the winners are announced next week. Briar Lawry gets the downlow from her high school students on what they think of the finalists, with some insightful if not judgemental reckons.
The judgement of teenagers is astounding. Not necessarily in ‘accuracy’ of their appraisal, but when it comes to deadset certainty and strength of conviction? Unparalleled.
So who better to pass judgement on the books for a young adult audience than young adults themselves? Sure, I’m an adult who is wistfully told ‘oh, you’re so young!’ by colleagues more hardened to the teaching game, but I’m certainly not a ‘young adult’ when it comes to book demographics. That honour goes to the students in my classroom.
I had a chat to a range of teenagers about the finalist titles to see which ones would pass muster if presented to them as a book recommendation from a teacher or librarian – or given as a set text. The one thing that was universally agreed upon across the 40 or so kids between 13 and 17 was that a sticker on the front saying that a book was award-winning would get their attention. Beyond that? Well, you’ll see.
Iris and Me, by Philippa Werry (The Cuba Press)
Iris and Me, a beautiful verse novel inspired by the life of author Robin Hyde, provoked a range of reactions. When charged to judge the book by its cover, one student commented that it looked like the Titanic and the ‘olden days’. It looks like it would have a nice old book smell, and gives off old, antique vibes that clearly mark it as a historical book. One student, brimming with self-confidence, said that the cover looked ‘like a cartoon I would draw as a kid’. Consensus was: it’s historical and it looks interesting, especially the fact that it’s inspired by a true story.
There were a range of takes on who the audience would be. Some thought it looked too young for their Year 10 selves, others thought it was bang-on for 15-to-16-year-olds. One thought it was suitable for teens through to adults, as long as they are interested in history. Another said it seemed ideal for ‘history nerds’ and ‘old souls’, especially those who are interested in writing – which I personally quite liked as a descriptor.
When it comes to what they’d think if someone recommended it to them, some thought that they would be inclined to give it a go based on the cover. Others noted that it looked pretty easy to read so they would happily try it. As an English teacher with a background in bookshops and libraries, I have put in valiant efforts to get kids into verse novels by virtue of the fact that they can be a quick read with far fewer words per page than standard novels of the same page count – it’s nice to see that tactic is effective among some. As for if they had it assigned to study, most commented that it seemed like a pretty good, standard type of book to look at for a text study. Which, considering the reaction that some students have to texts they are given, is a pretty glowing rec.
Iris and Me
By Philippa Werry
Published by The Cuba Press
Eddy, Eddy, by Kate de Goldi (Allen & Unwin)
As for Eddy, Eddy, Kate de Goldi’s winding and weaving tale of an orphaned boy’s life, love and grief in post-quake Christchurch, students had some interesting takes. One was impressed by the cover, describing it as like the ocean or radio waves. Another thought that the surname de Goldi sounded like the name of someone who worked as a ‘goldfish walker’ (great visual). It was deemed to look like it was for adults by some, with others deciding that it seemed like it was for 12-to-14-year-olds based on how thick it was.
Exploring the book further made some reconsider who they thought it was for and what the key takeaways were. Most felt it was for a young audience, since it’s not a ‘grown-up topic’, while some thought it was appropriate for people going through the same things and or dealing with some struggles in general. The idea of ‘grown-up topics’ and lack of relatability to or interest in characters younger than themselves is an interesting teen tendency that comes up from time to time, and seems to have done so here with some of my older students.
It felt to the kids like a book that would require commitment and reading enthusiasm in order to tackle. One admitted that they might not read it only because they’re not a big reading fan, but that if they were, they’d probably find it interesting – which may speak to an appeal of the themes and ideas if they were in a visual context, for instance. Another, somewhere in the murky woods of canniness and sassiness commented that it did seem as though it would be a set book in English chosen for ‘good quotes’ for essays. Perceptive? Judgemental? Both? I’m not mad at a book being both good and essay-ready, myself.
By Kate De Goldi
Published by Allen & Unwin
Andromeda Bond in Trouble Deep, Brian Falkner (Red Button Press)
Brian Falkner’s Andromeda Bond in Trouble Deep is a tricky one – not just a sequel, but a sequel coming some 14 years after the original. The students took it in their stride, however, and lasered on on details pertinent to them. It screamed space, and was definitely one that they all agreed was targeting teenage boys – especially those into comic books, a few noted. This seemed interesting especially considering that the protagonist is female, but who are we to judge their judgements in turn?
Jumping into things further, the book sounded interesting, with video games fans seeming to be the main target – in their humble opinion. It could be for someone of any age, some agreed, as long as they are into action stories. One noted that it seemed to be dialogue-heavy, with several classmates describing it as ‘Hunger Games in space, but it’s a 12-year-old called Andromeda rather than a 16-year-old called Katniss’. Considering the popularity of Suzanne Collins’ series and the resulting movies, that sounds like a win to me.
Some wore more won over by the blurb and contents than the cover itself. One said that she probably wouldn’t pick it up immediately, but if someone recommended it to her and described the plot she would be really keen to try it. Most didn’t think it would be the sort of book that they would be assigned as a set text, but one keen bean noted they would be really happy and interested if it did turn up on their desk in class.
Andromeda Bond in Trouble Deep
By Brian Falkner
Published by Red Button Press
Miracle, by Jennifer Lane (Cloud Ink Press)
Hopping across the ditch to Jennifer Lane’s Miracle and its mystery tale of its staunch 14-year-old protagonist and her complex family life, we have a range of takes. Several thought the murky chartreuse cover represented something toxic and apocalyptic – with a couple really putting their close reading hats and wondering if the burnt-out match meant that time is running out. Others thought psychological thriller or murder mystery – across the board, it was seen as some kind of compelling and challenging genre. More so than any of the other books, students thought that this one looked like it was for older readers – with someone suggesting it looked like it was for ages 16 and up, and another saying it looks like a book her mum would read.
Their take on the target audience shifted when they examined the books more thoroughly. Once the age of the protagonist was established, they tended to wind back their imagined audience. The general consensus was it would be best for Year 9s or 10s – students around the same age as Miracle. Another thought it could be quite appealing to a preteen who doesn’t read a lot – and also noted that it sounds interesting with all kinds of interpersonal gossip she wants to know about. Readers who enjoy thrillers and crime stories are the likely target for this one.
Recommendation-wise, people reckoned they would be receptive if it was pressed into their hands by their friendly neighbourhood librarian – with the action and crime angles key parts of why it appeals. Other older students noted that they probably would have enjoyed it when they themselves were closer to Miracle’s age – and thought that it could be a great set text for junior students. One student in that age bracket was effusive about her enthusiasm for that hypothetical situation – some kids just love murdery books.
By Jennifer Lane
Published by Cloud Ink Press
Indigo Moon, Eileen Merriman (Penguin Random House NZ)
Eileen Merriman was a name that some of the students were familiar with, but none had yet delved into Indigo Moon or the dystopian trilogy that it follows on from. Time travel and transformations lurk between the pages – but what did the teens think? First things first – the cover immediately said teenage or pre-teen girls to everyone involved. It didn’t feel like dystopia from the visuals – one said it feels like it could be about a life journey. One student observed that it looked like it could be for Millennials or Gen Xers who want to be part of Gen Z. I can’t quite tell if I or the publishers should be offended by that.
When reviewing the storyline of the book, one said it seemed like it was ideal for teen girls who are interested in ideas and genres like mystery, drama, adventure and romance. They decided it looked interesting, and would be best for someone who already reads a lot and enjoys stories with a lot of detail to follow and unravel, as it did seem like a complicated plot to them. Some of this may come from jumping into a world that had already been established in the previous trilogy.
Even some people who aren’t typical dystopia fans found themselves curious to give it a go – so it could be a cool option to get kids into something new by making the genre more accessible. Near-future dystopia by local authors and in a local setting is a handy bridge between ‘real life’ and the wide world of far-future storytelling. Some were concerned about the complexity of jumping between perspectives chapter to chapter. When considering it as a novel study text, one student confessed that they don’t typically like novel studies but that this looks more interesting than those they’ve studied in the past.
By Eileen Merriman
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
Briar Lawry is an English teacher and writer from Tāmaki Makaurau. She worked in bookshops for years, most notably Little Unity, and judged the NZCYA Awards in 2020. She was also one of the editors of The Sapling between 2019 and 2023.