Book Awards: the Young Adult fiction finalists

As part of our coverage of this year’s NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, we’ve asked the publishers of the YA finalists to explain why, and how, they published the books. Their responses are compelling and passionate, and you may need to get your wallet ready…

Coming Home to Roost, by Mary-anne Scott

Coming Home to Roost was one of those rare books that won me over in the first chapter. It was the very first scene, in which Elliot accuses his parents of punishing him for dropping out of school to be with a girl, and they respond that, actually, he’s having to live with the natural consequences of his choices. This conversation just rang so true – I think most teens and parents would have a very similar talk at some point in their relationship. The entire novel is set up so beautifully in that first scene: this is a very close and caring family, but there’s been a rift. It’s killing Elliot’s parents to push him out of the nest and it’s clear that Elliot is going to go out there and make mistakes, because he’s unrealistic and immature.

As I reached the end of the first chapter, it struck me how well the author Mary-anne Scott had captured both sides of the conversation – the parents with their hearts in their mouths, and the terror and bravado of the son, suddenly in full possession of his freedom and stepping out into the unknown. I was compelled to read on to know where all this was going. Elliot’s predicament was presented with such a great mixture of warmth and empathy and wry humour that I couldn’t help but care about him and how it would all turn out. In fact, the reader almost cares more than Elliot does himself, with his frustrating hope that as long as he procrastinates, the whole mess might tidy itself up without him. While it’s an understandable wish, life just doesn’t work that way.

Besides its authenticity and quality of writing, Coming Home to Roost impressed with the freshness of its approach to its subject matter. A huge point in its favour was the fact that it would be the first New Zealand-published young adult novel about unplanned parenthood told from the male point of view. Teen fatherhood raises many different and interesting questions. The novel also deals beautifully with wider issues of leaving home and school, joining the workforce and stepping up into adult responsibility. As such, I felt that Elliot’s rocky journey to taking charge of his own life was highly engaging and relatable. For the publishing team, it was an easy yes to publication, and Penguin Random House published it especially thinking of teenage readers who, like Elliot, might not be interested in pursuing academic pathways and are wondering what life might hold for them beyond school.

Catherine O’Loughlin, Children’s Publisher, Penguin Random House NZ

Coming Home to Roost

By Mary-anne Scott

Published by Penguin Random House NZ

RRP $19.99

Buy Now

Kiwis at War: 1916 – Dig for Victory, by David Hair

It seems fitting somehow, that David Hair’s 1916 Dig for Victory historical fiction sits alongside Brian Falkner’s Shooting Stars in this year’s NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. There is a degree of connection between the two in that both David and Brian are authors in Scholastic’s ‘Kiwis at War’ series. This series is founded on a collaboration between five contributing authors, a linking of characters over the war years that the books span, and essentially a ‘passing of the storytelling baton’ from one author to another.

I first approached David Hair with our Kiwis at War proposal in 2013, and asked him if he would consider joining us on this project, specifically with a pivotal third title addressing the involvement of the Māori contingents and the formation of the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion in 1916. To this day, I am both humbled and amazed at the whole-hearted and unshakable way in which all the Kiwis at War authors embraced this idea. David expressed his interest immediately and, after a more detailed brief and further careful consideration, he accepted the challenge and scheduled this project into his very full writing programme.

We are incredibly grateful to David for his unwavering commitment, even though, just quietly, I am pretty sure he would have loved to have been tasked with Brian’s warplanes and flyboys episode! Due to the requirement to make connections to other Kiwis at War characters, David could not fully craft his manuscript until Susan Brocker’s 1914 Riding into War and Diana Menefy’s 1915 Wounds of War titles were complete. David forged ahead with research and an outline that was essential to have in place two years prior to the proposed release of his 1916 title, because on August 4th 2014, David joined the panel of Kiwis at War authors (Susan Brocker, Diana Menefy, Brian Falkner and Des Hunt) for the series’ launch at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and presented the outline of his 1916 title, which came to be called Dig for Victory.

Fast-forward to September 2015, when David submitted his finished manuscript, and our publishing team had the chance to meet Leith McArran, Tamati Baines, a squadron of Otago lads, and the boys of the Māori Pioneer Battalion for the first time. With them came the toil and sweat of digging the trenches and building the barracks during this harrowing chapter of the Great War. The blood-red butterflies swarmed too, in a military mystery style of historical fiction that proved impossible to put down.

Over the next months, Penny Scown, our senior editor, and David worked back and forth on edits, and in September of 2016, we were thrilled to release David’s impeccably researched and entirely captivating work in 1916 Dig for Victory

Lynette Evans, Publisher, Scholastic New Zealand

Kiwis at War: 1916 – Dig for Victory

By David Hair

Published by Scholastic NZ

RRP $18.99

Buy Now

Like Nobody’s Watching, by L.J Ritchie

What makes you pick up a manuscript of an unpublished book and think, ‘Yes!!’?

Is it the writing? The writing definitely matters, although in a manuscript there might still be quite a bit to fix up about the writing.

Is it the story? The story definitely matters – that sense that something is going to happen here. Something that I as a reader really want to find out about.

Is it the very beginning – the first sentence or two, or the first paragraphs?

For Like Nobody’s Watching, it was all of these things. I picked up the manuscript and read the first sentence: ‘You can’t observe something without also changing it.’ Straight away I started arguing with it. What does that mean? Is it true? Then by the end of the first page I was hooked. Very good writing, and something was definitely going to happen. I read the manuscript, and knew we’d want to publish it.

Of course it’s not that simple. Escalator Press, who published Like Nobody’s Watching, has a reading group that reads submitted manuscripts and decides what to publish in the next year. The reading group was unanimous – they all wanted to see this book in print.

A book isn’t just a book – it’s also an author. And we wanted to back L.J. Ritchie. He’s young, clever, thinks a lot about the world, writes very well and works incredibly hard. That’s a recipe for success, in the best possible way. This is his first book, and we think it’s just the start.

Escalator Press is a very small publishing house. No one gets paid to do the work – well, the authors get paid, but no one else does. We do it because we love books, and we want to publish books that have a new voice or perspective, and are a great read.

But we also want to publish books that matter. We don’t mean earnest, heavy books that hit you around the ears. We want to publish books that tell a great story, but have something more to say. Some people argue you can’t do that – you can’t load up a YA novel, for example, with a serious subject. We believe that you can. And Like Nobody’s Watching is a great example. It’s a gripping page-turner – you have to keep reading to find out what happens – that’s also about some big issues in our society: cyber-bullying and surveillance. It’s a book that will certainly make people think. We like that a lot.

But because we’re such a small publisher, we have to be sure that the books that we publish will sell. No one is going to make a fortune, but the book has to pay for itself and then we want it to make some money for the author. From the start we were confident about Like Nobody’s Watching. And we were right. Here it is in the NZ Children’s Book Awards. We’re very proud.

Adrienne Jansen for Escalator Press

Like Nobody’s Watching

By L.J Ritchie

Published by Escalator Press

RRP $24.99

Buy Now

It sure wasn’t comfortable, my first encounter with Brian Falkner’s Shooting Stars. It wasn’t particularly elegant either. I mean, for a start, I was on the edge of my seat. Then I had that prickly goosebumps feeling and before long, there were tissues involved. I probably haven’t shed that many tears since we lost the America’s Cup in San Francisco! There was just as much adrenaline and action though, and decidedly more laughter. What became immediately and startlingly clear, was the instinct that Egan’s diary simply HAD to be published. This incredibly moving, ultimately uplifting and intensely New Zealand story of Brian’s needed to be brought to readers no matter where in the world they are.

Rewind to late 2014 when we had invited Brian to take part in the launch of the Scholastic ‘Kiwis at War’ series, which he was writing for. Brian approached us with another proposition and asked Penny Scown, our senior editor, if he could send Shooting Stars our way. Needless to say, the response was YES. Actually, I lie. It was Yes, yes, yes. Brian sent us a synopsis and the first few chapters – Penny, Sophia and I wanted to see more, no doubt about that, and the rest? See above.

But then there was Hurdle #1. This story contained scenes so gritty, so heart-wrenching and so close to the bone, it pushed the boundaries of Scholastic’s target audience and our traditional channels for fiction, firmly launching us into rare YA territory. Would we have a chance of getting the green-light from our acquisitions team? Could we make this work?

The first step was to meet with Brian to discuss the best possible strategies for remaining true to the integrity of Egan’s story and Moma’s Code of Honour, while at the same time ensuring this project would be commercially viable. We decided that if we were going to publish Shooting Stars, we would do so fully embracing the raw power and shocking emotion of Egan’s story, no half measures, and with the confidence that it was tempered with some downright funny parts, some undeniably inspiring parts, a cast of compelling characters and a very original integration of diverse text types and illustrations. I believe the sheer force of our conviction and enthusiasm convinced our acquisitions committee, who completely supported Shooting Stars. Fast-forward through the nitty-gritty of top-notch editing, design and illustration stages (the jacket, aahh, enter Hurdle #2, that is a whole other story) and in November of 2016, Egan’s story was unleashed.

We got our shooting star.

Lynette Evans, Publisher, Scholastic New Zealand

Shooting Stars

By Brian Falkner

Published by Scholastic NZ

RRP $18.99

Buy Now

When reading submissions from unknown writers, I have to be won over: it’s a thrill when I am, but I don’t expect it. With a manuscript from a writer of the calibre of Maurice Gee, that thrill is there at the outset, but because of that I’m usually steeling myself against potential disappointment. Maurice’s last adult novel won the Montana NZ Book Award, to add to his long list of achievements, but it was seven years since his previous young adult novel – would this book stand up to his formidable reputation?

That anxiety lasted for all of two seconds with The Severed Land, replaced with another anxiety about whether we could do justice to such a fine work. For the book hooked me from the start, and I barely put it down until I’d finished the last word. It is truly gripping, brilliantly written, fresh and powerful; you really feel you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.

His imaginary world becomes apparent without any obvious descriptions or laboured rationale. I have read a lot of fantasy manuscripts that are good, but you’re too aware of the author trying to explain their world to you, you’re too aware of it straining your credulity, and/or you’re too aware of elements that have already been used to far better effect elsewhere on the screen or in other books. Not that everything has to be original; J.K. Rowling wasn’t the first to write about a wizard school, for instance, but she made such existing elements her own. So, too, with The Severed Land and its invisible wall. I totally bought into its world and became immersed in the story, rooting for Fliss and even the unlikeable drummer boy, avidly turning the pages to find out what would happen next.

And, indeed, the novel keeps us guessing right up to its unpredictable ending, but there’s so much more to it than its wonderful fast-moving, high-action plot and intriguing characters. There’s a vivid and varied social structure described in a deliciously evocative vocabulary that is both archaic and newly coined: thief masters, dippers, mudlarks, bait-girls, drain-sliders, wall-men, etc. The fabulous language is matched in richness by the many different angles that the book subtly explores, such as social and racial divisions, the inhumanity of both power and poverty, confronting our own prejudices and learning to trust others.

The book circumvented the critic in me and simply demanded publication – in other words, I couldn’t not publish it; it was irresistible. I felt the excitement of engaging with a story from a brilliant writer who was totally in control. When I feel that excitement, I know others will, too. And the book was a sheer delight – and huge privilege – not just to read, but also to work on.

Harriet Allan, Fiction Publisher, Penguin Random House NZ

The Severed Land

By Maurice Gee

Published by Penguin Random House NZ

RRP $19.99

Buy now