• The Sapling

Book Awards: The Best First Book Finalists

One of our favourite bits of the lead up to the NZCYA Awards each year is getting the finalists in one of the categories to interview one another—and this year is no different. Each of the finalists in the Best First Book Award came up with a question for their fellow finalists, and we've gathered up the answers that we got back for your reading pleasure. Remember that many of these finalists are also up for other awards, so check out all our NZCYA 2021 coverage to get your fill of everything!



Jonathan King: What is the ‘I can’t believe I’m drawing these again’ object in your life / work?

Kate Parker: I can’t believe I’m drawing these at all is probably the thing i’m saying the most. Or I can’t believe I’m actually drawing (reserved for when I’m actually drawing). But in regards to something I come back to again and again, a small girl or child falling through space, floating underwater and running. Always something important to get to or get away from, even if its aiming to get away from myself.

Laura Shalcrass: The two things I seem to find myself drawing most often are probably birds and flowers, but I love it. The textural organic shapes are my favourite to draw, so even though I draw them often, I enjoy the process every time. There is a spread in my new book, What Colour is the Sky, where Ruru is drawn over a two-page spread and by the last feather, I was getting a little tired of feathers, but I finished that a few weeks ago, and now I'm ready to go again! Ha ha!


The textural organic shapes are my favourite to draw, so even though I draw them often, I enjoy the process every time.

Amy Haarhoff: I seem to cycle between 'drawing phases' in which my sketchbook is tormented by one particular animal or pair of animals. A few years ago, it was mice. Then I went through a phase of drawing watercolour chickens and cows. More recently, I've been drawing a rat going to battle on a guinea pig. At the moment, I keep drawing a black squirrel with a massive tail, and a trio of invented creatures with extremely long noses and tiny eyes.


Amy Haarhoff: If you had a magic wand to change two things about the children's publishing industry, what would they be and why? Kate Parker: I’m rather ignorant about the industry not having been in it very long. But, nothing could ever be hurt having more kids in charge. They cut straight to the point, eliminating complex adult type reasoning. Oooh and more straight funding for writers/illustrators. How does anyone actually make a living? Make MORE, make heaps? Sell overseas? Laura Shalcrass: I don't see myself as experienced enough to have any worthwhile criticisms of the children's publishing industry, so honestly, I'm unsure what I'd change. My publishing experience has been super positive, and I look forward to learning more about how the industry works, but for now I'll just watch and learn.


Jonathan King: Gosh, I wouldn’t presume to say what should be changed about children’s publishing—I feel like I’ve been very lucky to have a great experience with it … but I guess the biggest change I’d hope for would be that NZ books had a bigger market—meaning more books sold, more people reading them … and more income for creators of children’s books. Whether that means our books get to international markets more, or our audience could grow at home, or a combination of both, would, I imagine, make the biggest change to authors and artists and publishers out of anything. This is a time when, I’m sure, we count ourselves hugely lucky to live here … but all NZ artists understand the trade-off we make in terms of market for what we do.


I feel like I’ve been very lucky to have a great experience with [the children's publishing industry] … but I guess the biggest change I’d hope for would be that NZ books had a bigger market...

Kate Parker: What's your best procrastination excuse?

Laura Shalcrass: Oh gosh, so many! The dogs need walking, dishes need doing. I probably need to drive to Cromwell to pick up some more animal feed. While I'm driving, I should probably start a new audiobook, and since it's such a good one, I couldn't stop it now, so the dogs probably need another walk up into the hills, and oh gosh, it's time to pick up the kids? Make dinner? Sit on the couch and watch a true crime doco? Oh well, there's always tomorrow.


Amy Haarhoff: Probably that I need to search for a job that actually pays me.


Jonathan King: Oh dear. I’m afraid it’s the internet. At very best it’s research—that leads to into rabbit holes far away from what I thought I was looking for (which sometimes yields wonderful results, but more likely just lost time); at its worst it's Twitter—catching up on things that Seem Very Important … but aren’t. Naps, on the other hand, I am a big fan of—and always find them productive for solving writing problems or springboarding ideas in new directions.

Laura Shallcrass: What research did you have to do to create your book?

Kate Parker: I looked at many black and white photos of huge kauri trees both standing, being chopped, sawed and dragged. Along with smoke filled valleys. Logs going down rivers, on precarious train tracks around rugged coastlines, piled up in estuaries.


I looked at many birds and plants and rare natives, I visited sanctuaries and heard kokako. I read stories and listened to radio interviews. A old man who could do a huia call. A old woman who saw a moa when she was little on their farm.I read and talked with people about Patupaiarehe. I read about indigenous kaitiakitanga across our planet. That thinking that the Earth does not belong to us but that we belong to the Earth.


Amy Haarhoff: I did a lot of research in to native New Zealand flora and fauna. I didn't grow up in New Zealand so I wasn't familiar with very many of the plants or animals I needed to draw. It was great fun learning about New Zealand's creatures and it's really nice to be able to walk along in the bush and say "oh look! That's a ...."


It was great fun learning about New Zealand's creatures and it's really nice to be able to walk along in the bush and say "oh look! That's a ...."

Jonathan King: While most of my story research was imaginative … I researched a lot for place. I wanted my world to feel real, and to feel authentic—certainly my style leaves less room for fudging than others might—so I took a lot of photos, went to some interesting places, as well as exploring places online. Some of the best places I went to that feature in the book include the basement of the Whanganui Museum; Astoria, Oregon, when my Museum’s exterior building is; Lyttleton out of Christchurch, for the main setting of my book; Cannery Row in Monterey, California; and Larnach Castle in Dunedin.



Shilo Kino: What book did you read growing up that made you want to become a writer?

Kate Parker: I don’t think I ever thought it was possible, for me to be a writer. That and the dancing, which someone once told me I could make a career path. But I can’t do the splits, I thought, and that is surely what all dancers must be able to achieve….?

One day I will grow up and become a writer and the book I will remember inspiring me will be anything by Shaun Tan or Lauren Child. And I will also become a marine biologist. I really wish I could dive down like that guy in My Octopus Teacher. Down into the cold water to watch and listen and wait. To see a story evolve from the experience of being in the moment. I wish things came more easily, more clearly directed. I also wish to give myself more ups. More liberty to just be a writer, a maker, and perhaps some determination to be a scientist in the environmental field. Sometimes fear answers too many questions.


I also wish to give myself more ups. More liberty to just be a writer, a maker, and perhaps some determination to be a scientist in the environmental field.

Laura Shalcrass: I loved so many books growing up, but I don't know that I even considered becoming a writer until my late 20's and then only by necessity because I needed to tell the story I wanted to illustrate. I still feel a little uncomfortable calling myself a writer, if I'm honest! But some favourite books from my childhood are A Lion in the Meadow by Margaret Mahy, Bimwili and the Zimwi by Verna Aardema and The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base.


Amy Haarhoff: I don't think I ever read a book that made me want to become a writer. I very much appreciated all the authors who made the books I read as a kid, but I didn't think I'd ever want to be locked in a room by myself with nothing but a half written book and a deadline. As it turns out, I love being locked in a room by myself with a project and a deadline, as long as that project involves drawing as well as writing. That way, when I get sick of writing, I can draw and when I get sick of drawing, I can write.


Jonathan King: A formative book for me was The Black Island by Hergé—the first Tintin book I ever read, which I got for my fourth birthday. It’s everything you could want an adventure story to be—mystery, disguises, train travel, villains, dangerous creatures … and it set me onto a love of comics—particularly European ones, with great writing and beautiful images. Some other books that transported me in ways that I’ve always hoped to be able to transport readers include Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster and Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne.





The Midnight ADventures of Ruru and Kiwi

Clare Scott

Illustrated by Amy Haarhoff (finalist)

Published by Puffin NZ

RRP $19.99

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The Inkberg Enigma

Jonathan King

Published by Gecko Press

RRP $29.99

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Hare and Ruru

Laura Shalcrass

Published by Beatnik

RRP $30.00

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KOwhai and the Giants

Kate Parker

Published by Little Love

RRP $30.00

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The Porangi Boy

Shilo Kino

Published by Huia

RRP $25.00

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Check out our coverage of the other Book Awards for Children & Young Adults categories:

The Picture Book finalist books get the 'from the mouths of babes' treatment

The Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award for Te Reo Māori finalists get talked up by their publishers

The Young Adult finalists answer our Q's about their favourite characters as well as the inspiration and audience for their books

The Russell Clark illustration finalists give us exclusive insight into the process of illustrating each book

The Elsie Locke for Non-Fiction finalists share the story behind their books

The NZCYA finalists announcement, including reckons from editors Sarah, Briar, Nida and Simie