As part of our coverage of this year’s NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, we asked the five Wright Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction finalists four questions about their book and characters. The finalists are: Lyla, by Fleur Beale (A & U); The Thunderbolt Pony, by Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins); How to Bee, by Bren McDibble (A & U); How NOT to stop a kidnap plot, by Suzanne Main (Scholastic); and Dawn Raid by Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith (Scholastic).
1. What was the first part of the book you came up with and how did this idea come to you?
Fleur Beale: I didn’t have to come up with the overarching idea because Allen & Unwin wanted a story based on the Christchurch earthquakes for a series they are publishing about young people coping with natural disasters and asked me if I’d be interested in writing it. I liked being given a brief and told what to write about as I always struggle to find the next idea. They gave me a deadline too – perfect!
I decided that it would be more succinct in terms of the plot to start with the February quake and just refer to the September one. I wanted to start with life being fairly normal still and not badly disrupted for Lyla so that the contrast between ordinary and life after the quake would be very stark. She’s got her close friends with her and is looking forward to her grandparents arriving to celebrate her mother’s birthday. I wanted her to come across as a carefree 13/14 year old whose life isn’t especially out of the ordinary.
Stacy Gregg: Originally I’d been wanting to write something about the earthquakes in Canterbury. I’d toured Christchurch several times post-quake and had been really struck by how much post-traumatic stress the kids were under, and how they were coping with it.
Then Kaikoura happened, and the story just fell into place: a girl struggling with her OCD, travelling alone 64 kilometres overland after an earthquake has struck to save her horse, dog and cat. My hero, Evie, is travelling from Parnassus, which is not only a real-life South Island town but also the home of the Greek Gods, with a horse called Pegasus – which overlaid a Homeric quality to her odyssey.
…a girl struggling with her OCD, travelling alone 64 kilometres overland after an earthquake has struck to save her horse, dog and cat.
Bren MacDibble: The first part of the book was Peony wanting to be a hand-pollinator, a bee. I fell for the idea while looking at a Huffington Post article with big gorgeous pictures of people in a valley in the Sichuan who spend their days hand-pollinating pear trees because there are no bees left in their valley, and bee-keepers won’t bring them in. Overuse of pesticides has killed off all the bees. I’d been looking to write a farm kid story for ages, and when I saw that, I knew that’s what my character wants to do.
Suzanne Main: As my first novel, How I Alienated my Grandma, has been popular with kids, I decided my next story should employ the same two main characters but in a completely new adventure.
I began by choosing the type of villain my protagonists would encounter – and settled upon kidnappers. I was determined the story should be more than a simple linear kidnap-and-rescue sequence. It had to have some twists to make it as exciting and intriguing as it could be, with an embedded mystery. In keeping with my first book, there needed to be plenty of comedic moments. I wanted to include a strong female character along with a secondary plotline about friendship and overcoming prior misunderstandings or hurts.
The final plot was a gradual evolution taking into consideration all those factors. It took a fair bit of nutting out!
I wanted to include a strong female character along with a secondary plotline about friendship and overcoming prior misunderstandings or hurts.
Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith: Informing young people about the Dawn Raids and the Polynesian Panthers was the main purpose of the book.
However, when creating it, the first part that came to me was the antics of Sofia’s little brothers. I knew first-hand how younger brothers can get themselves into all sorts of bother in lots of ways. I could recall from childhood the many times that my parents were left gasping in disbelief at the crazy and sometimes dangerous things my brothers would do. My brothers now laugh about this and proudly compare their battle scars. I think my Mum and Dad never knew the half of what the boys got up to.
2. Tell us five key personality traits of your main character, and how they informed the action in the book?
Fleur: When I was working out what sort of person Lyla would be, I had an image in my head of how police dogs just want to get into the action. As soon as they’re released, they’re off and getting stuck in and I wanted Lyla to have that same urgent feeling of wanting to help. Emergency workers like her parents seem to have the ability to assess a situation and instantly get in and start helping and she takes after them in that aspect, whereas her brother is completely different.
Lyla is a loyal friend, doesn’t do too well with people who aren’t kind and she’s a risk-taker.
Stacy: Evie’s struggle to overcome her OCD is based on my own daughter. Many of the compulsions that Evie has in the book, the need for rituals and counting, the overwhelming urges to slam a car door twice or turn a light switch on and off again, are the same. It was an intensely personal book to write because of this and of course I asked my daughter’s permission, discussing it with her thoroughly before I undertook it. The book is dedicated in part to her clinical psychologist Hilary Mack who brought so much insight to the text but more importantly empowered my daughter to manage her OCD and recover from it.
Of course, Evie is more than just her OCD. She’s deeply courageous, loves her animals and is fiercely ambitious and independent. She’s a very cool kid.
Bren: Peony is naive because she’s young, but she’s also determined, loyal, loving and resilient. Peony is not swayed by the complexities of the adult world. Money, education, status, mean nothing to her.
Peony is not swayed by the complexities of the adult world.
She really drives the narrative with her determination first to be a bee, then to keep her family together on the farm. When her mother’s adult world clashes with the one Peony knows and loves, even that won’t stop her in trying to get everyone home where they belong.
Suzanne: Like many children, my main character, Michael, is a blend of positive and not-so-positive traits. He’s a good kid at heart (is that a personality trait?) but he’s also impulsive, terrified of public speaking, courageous, and resourceful.
Although Michael doesn’t actively seek out trouble, it seems to find him anyway. When it does, he’s unable to turn to the adults in his life for help because they typically don’t believe a word he says.
In How Not to Stop a Kidnap Plot, Michael overhears a kidnap plot whilst on a punishment. He doesn’t know who will be kidnapped or by whom; nor where, when or how. He just knows he must stop it (or face becoming lead in the school play – his worst nightmare).
Fortunately, Michael’s positive traits make him the perfect person to meet the challenge.
Pauline: Silently stroppy – Sofia’s determination means that once she starts something she will see it through. Even though the things she ends up doing make her uncomfortable at times, she would never back out once she has started something. She surprises herself by getting into a fight, excelling at public speaking and enjoying group performances.
Strong sense of justice – Sofia should have been born under the sign of Libra as her values are strongly influenced by fairness and justice. This trait motivates her to find her voice, speak up and influence others.
Inquisitive/Curious – Sofia’s drive to find out more is fuelled by learning about injustices of the Dawn Raids and Maori land confiscations.
Idealist – Sofia’s is challenged by attitudes and events in the story that cause her to question the actions and views of some adults. She is often questioning why people can’t see things the way that she does, and this sometimes includes her Dad.
Ambitious – She has goals and she wants to do well. She is encouraged by feedback and support from others.
3. Tell us three interesting things you did while researching your finalist title.
Fleur: I spent a lot of time on the web looking at videos, reading personal accounts and getting timelines from a very useful blog published in the paper.
I talked to people in Christchurch which was very often pretty heartbreaking.
I forced myself to remember quakes I’ve experienced which were nothing compared with Christchurch, but doing that helped with trying to get the feeling of the helplessness quakes engender.
Stacy: I drove to Kaikoura along the coast road as soon as they opened the highway from Christchurch to Kaikoura after the quake, taking the same route that Evie would take. I travelled alone because I wanted to feel isolated and be in the same headspace as Evie.
Obviously the OCD stuff in the text came all too easily – if you are living with a kid with OCD then you know intimately their rituals and counting how real the condition is to them, how something as simple as moving their toothbrush can throw them into an anxiety attack.
I did a lot of research on earthquakes too, talking with people who’d been through the quakes, trying to get the sense of how quakes feel, and also what it’s like to live through the aftershocks – the underlying stress of never knowing when, or if, another big one is going to strike.
Bren: Despite the fact there are no bees in my book, I read a lot about bees and the crops they pollinate.
I also went to a bee festival and chatted to beekeepers and bought honey straight from the hive, feeling sad that they’d died out in the future of my book, because that honey was delicious.
And I sat in an old bluestone church and listened and watched an art installation. It was a video of bees coming and going from the hive and the sounds of buzzing were interlaced with strange gothic music. I didn’t understand it at all, and it was a little terrifying, but a Kiwi had created it so I sat there feeling like bees were invading my brain, because clearly, her art journey was to be part of my art journey, and art is nothing without a little terror.
…I sat there feeling like bees were invading my brain, because clearly, her art journey was to be part of my art journey, and art is nothing without a little terror.
Suzanne: My book has oodles of technology so this is where the bulk of my research was focussed. I spent hours on YouTube figuring out whether a drone can actually do the thing the story needed from it. One evening while out walking I came across a guy flying a drone and we got talking. He was kind enough to land his drone for me to look at, and to answer my questions.
I also researched cyber security, and how long it takes to brute-force crack passwords. Eleven-character passwords take 10 years to break; seven- character passwords take just a few hours. It makes you think!
The other subject I learned about was the dark web. I don’t go into it in any detail in the book, but it is briefly referenced as my villain uses it. I’m fascinated by technology so none of the research was a chore.
Pauline: I travelled from Invercargill to Auckland three times to interview Polynesian Panther Party members Tigilau Ness, Dr Melani Anae and Reverend Alec Toleafoa. It was inspiring to talk face to face with brave history makers.
I was a bit stunned to learn from my Mum, that my Dad had been tracked to Invercargill by the immigration department and asked to produce his paperwork. I thought I was researching the history of others, when all of a sudden it became part of my own family story!
I was a bit stunned to learn from my Mum, that my Dad had been tracked to Invercargill by the immigration department and asked to produce his paperwork.
Because of the interest in the book I decided to create an exhibition about the Dawn Raids and the role of the Polynesian Panthers. This was opened in Invercargill at the local Museum and Art Gallery the same week the book was launched. I couldn’t believe my luck when I sourced an original 1970’s lounge suite in mint condition for this.
4. What do you see as the most essential thing for a book for this age group to give a reader, and how have you achieved that with this book?
Fleur: The most essential thing, I think, is an authentic story and fiction needs to be authentic in terms of the characters’ reactions, thoughts and emotions. Up there with that is the need to have a good story. I hope I’ve achieved both of those things, but I find it impossible to judge my own writing! Once the book was finished and the edits done that A & U asked for, I did feel that I’d done the best I could.
Stacy: When I toured with the book throughout New Zealand last year I was amazed at how often kids came up to me after I spoke to say that they had OCD and that the book meant so much to them because it made them feel less alone. There’s such a prevalence of anxiety disorders now and I feel it’s important to encourage dialogue, to make kids feel like they can talk openly about what they are experiencing with their parents, teachers and peers.
As a writer though I didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that I’m there to entertain and uplift my readers, to make them aspire to be heroes. The Thunderbolt Pony is still a classic Stacy Gregg book – an epic animal-and-action adventure.
Bren: I like to think young readers want a character they can empathise with and get behind, but also one they can trust to lead them through an adventure.
Young readers seem to trust Peony more than adult readers. Adult readers see that Peony is naive, but young readers understand that her ideals are good. Love, family and supporting each other, family, friends, community, this is what’s important to Peony. Young readers have such strong morals, uncorrupted by having to make the thousands of compromises adults make throughout their lives, that they can see that Peony is right, and they want her to succeed.
Suzanne: I write for 8-12 year olds – the perfect age to hook kids into reading. Too many young readers drop away after this, so this can be the last opportunity to get them addicted to reading! To achieve this, kids should find reading pleasurable. I believe, therefore, that the essential thing a book needs is for readers to enjoy it. This translates into stories that grab kids’ attention and cling tenaciously onto it!
Stories need to be relevant and reflect the lives, experiences and concerns of today’s kids (who are increasingly urban- based and technology savvy). Child protagonists (not adults) should be central to the plot and resolve the dilemmas thrown at them. Humour also helps to keep young readers engaged.
Stories need to be relevant and reflect the lives, experiences and concerns of today’s kids…
How Not to Stop a Kidnap Plot achieves this through fast-paced, humorous, child-focussed adventure featuring mystery and modern technology; with underlying universal themes of friendship and overcoming misunderstanding.
Pauline: It needs to be relatable to kids regardless of their generation. Dawn Raid uses everyday situations that people can understand to allow them to engage emotionally. For example, we all know the pain of trying to save really hard for something and being tempted by other things so that before you know what’s happened you have spent your money and have to start again.
Humour is also essential as there are some tense themes but it is possible to combine sensitive, hard-hitting themes with humour. As I was writing I would find myself laughing out loud as an idea came. I thought if it makes me laugh it will probably make others laugh, actually it still makes me laugh which is great!
Lyla: Through my Eyes
By Fleur Beale
Published by Allen & Unwin
The Thunderbolt Pony
By Stacy Gregg
Published by HarperCollins NZ
How to Bee
By Bren MacDibble
Published by Allen & Unwin Children’s
How Not To Stop A Kidnap Plot
By Suzanne Main
Published by Scholastic NZ
By Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith
Published by Scholastic NZ