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Yet another Spinoff Review of Books exclusive: first with the shortlist for the New Zealand children’s book awards

The embargo for the shortlist of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children was lifted at 5am – and this story went live at 5.01am. Sarah Forster reveals the shortlisted authors and books, and makes her picks for who will win at the awards ceremony on August 8.

Those who write children’s books do it, most definitely, for the children. Though a few talented sods will write a Hairy Maclary or a Little Yellow Tractor, for the most part, unless rights are sold internationally and the books are successful overseas, our children’s writers are eking out a below-minimum-wage subsidised-by-their-other-halves living.

So the advent of the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults is incredibly important. There is some pretty good money to be had. All category winners pocket $7500; and the grand winner of the night, awarded the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award, receives an additional $7500.

In addition, the judges may decide to award a best first book prize of $2000 to a previously unpublished author or illustrator.

There is also the issue of glory, of respect, of recognition for one’s art. As Elizabeth Knox wrote on social media the other day, “Whether you are shortlisted or not impacts whether books either vanish, fade or shimmer at the edge of the culture’s field of vision.”

Without further ado, here are the shortlisted titles, and who I’m backing to bag the prizes.

PICTURE BOOKS

Haka (Huia Publishers, $25) by Patricia Grace, illustrated by Andrew Burdan

Finding Monkey Moon (Walker Books, $27.99) by Elizabeth Pulford, illustrated by Kate Wilkinson

The House on the Hill (Scholastic NZ, $27) by Kyle Mewburn, illustrated by Sarah Davis

Aliss the Little Tractor (Millwood Heritage Productions, $19.99) by Sophie Siers, illustrated by Helen Ketteridge

The Little Kiwi’s Matariki (Duck Creek Press, $29.99) by Nikki Slade-Robinson

I was disappointed that Patricia Grace didn’t win the Ockhams for Chappy, because I wanted her to take out both sets of the 2016 awards. Haka is a superbly illustrated, accessible book, that tells the story of the origins of Ka mate, Ka mate – the most popular form of the haka. A shoo-in for the Te Reo award, and my pick for the win in the Picture Book category.

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Finding Monkey Moon is another finely illustrated work, telling a similar story to Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny stories, but with a less New York feel about it. Elizabeth Pulford has been doing fine work since being in Walker Books’ stable, while Kate Wilkinson is a brilliant newcomer.

The House on the Hill is an Edgar Allen Poe-inspired take on two kids walking to a Halloween party. I love how haunted the ghost children are, right to the end of the book. Lovely language, too. I once picked all the category winners, but failed to predict Kyle Mewburn to take out the main prize: so this would be my second pick if I was a gambling woman.

For me, Aliss the Little Tractor and The Little Kiwi’s Matariki are odd choices from the judges. I like both of the books, but they aren’t saying anything more than what has been said in other, better produced books.

RUSSELL CLARK AWARD FOR ILLUSTRATION

Changing Times (Potton & Burton, $29.99) by Bob Kerr

Finding Monkey Moon (Walker Books, $27.99) illustrated by Kate Wilkinson

Hush: A Kiwi Lullaby (Scholastic NZ, $27) illustrated by Andrew Burdan

Much Ado about Shakespeare (Upstart Press, $34.99) illustrated by Donovan Bixley

I’m torn between Donovan Bixley, and Bob Kerr, who I interviewed at  The Spinoff last year. Both are working at the top of their game at the moment.

ESTHER GLENN AWARD FOR JUNIOR FICTION

Lily Max: Satin, Scissors, Frock (Luncheon Sausage Press, $22) by Jane Bloomfield

The Bold Ship Phenomenal (Flat Bed Press, $19.99) by Sarah Johnson

Enemy Camp (Penguin Random House, $19) by David Hill

The Cutting Room Floor of Barney Kettle (Longacre, $30) by Kate De Goldi

The Girl Who Rode the Wind (HarperCollins, $24.99) by Stacy Gregg

This is the power category for me. David Hill and Kate De Goldi are among my all-time favourite writers, while Stacy Gregg has serious form with her current faction horse series. Newcomer Jane Bloomfield has produced a great book for the Babysitter’s Club-type audience. I’d have loved it, aged eight.

It’s hard to overstate how wonderful Barney Kettle was for me. Kate is my intellectual hero, and she writes brilliantly. Barney is quirky and irrepressible, and his sister Ren is just great. The city of Christchurch-that-was truly comes alive in this book, reminding us how much we lost. This is my winner.

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David Hill has knocked it out of the park with Enemy Camp : I loved it, and my reviewer on Booksellers gave it to her dad who as it happened, grew up in Featherston while the Japanese POWs lived there. He wrote to thank David for telling what felt like his story.

The Bold Ship Phenomenal was unexpectedly a swash-buckling tale of environmental vandalism and magic in a bottle. Sarah Johnson writes a little like early Des Hunt. I hope being a finalist does wonders for this self-published book’s sales, as it deserves a good audience.

The winner of this category will win the Book Awards, I think. If so, it will be the first time a Junior Fiction book has won the Book of the Year prize since Snake and Lizard in 2008.

TE REO AWARD (TE KURA POUNAMU AWARD)

Whiti Te Rā (Huia, $25) by Patricia Grace, illustrated by Andrew Burdan, translated by Kawata Teepa

Tamanui te Kōkako Mōrehu o Taranaki (Huia, $20) by Rebecca Beyer and Linley Wellington, translated by Kawata Teepa, illustrated by Andrew Burdan

Te Hua Tuatahi a Kuwi (Illustrated Publishing, $20) by Kat Merewether, translated by Pania Papa

I can’t give you a true commentary on these titles – I don’t speak te reo. However, in the sense of providing lasting value to readers, Whiti Te Rā looks difficult to beat.

ELSIE LOCKE AWARD FOR NON-FICTION

Anzac Heroes (Scholastic NZ, $30) by Maria Gill and Marco Ivancic

Changing Times (Potton & Burton, $29.99) by Bob Kerr

See What I can See (AUP, $34.99) by Greg O’Brien

The Beginner’s Guide to Adventure Sport in NZ (Penguin Random House, $35) by Steve Gurney

Who’s Beak is this? (Potton & Burton, $14.99) by Gillian Candler and Fraser Williamson

Non-fiction isn’t a genre of choice for me. However, Changing Times is a brilliant book, telling simultaneously the story of a town, and the story of a newspaper. It’s what you’d call faction I guess, or creative non-fiction, as the story it tells is of a fictional family.

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Greg O’Brien always brings the goods in this category, and See What I can See received a glowing review on the Booksellers NZ blog: “There is arguably no better arts writer in New Zealand.” It seems quite adult to me in comparison with his other kids’ books, but great for 10+.

Anzac Heroes is a library essential, with great illustrations. And The Beginner’s Guide to Adventure Sport in NZ carries on a series which began with the award-winning The Beginner’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Brilliant, but surely Steve Gurney didn’t write it all himself?

Who’s Beak is This? is a great junior non-fiction book focusing on NZ birds. Very good, as with anything by the wonderful Gillian Candler.

YOUNG ADULT FICTION

Battlesaurus: Rampage at Waterloo (Farrar, Strauss & Giraux, $25.99) by Brian Falkner

Being Magdalene (Longacre, $19.99) by Fleur Beale

Hucking Cody (self-published with Mary Egan Publishers, $25) by Aaron Topp

Lullaby (Text, $26) by Bernard Beckett

Sylvie the Second (Makaro Press, $25) by Kaeli Baker

I’ve read all of these books, and I can tell you the surprise of the finalist list for me is Battlesaurus: Rampage at Waterloo. You see the cover and the title and you think: big, action-filled, a bit schmaltzy and overdone maybe. Nope. Brian Falkner has learned to write elegantly since I last read him (around the time of Brainjack); I’ve always enjoyed his books for what they were, but this is a cut above the others.

I reviewed Being Magdalene and interviewed Fleur Beale for The Spinoff.

This coming-of-age and adjustment to a world outside a cult story is the best of this series for me, and as Fleur is too often the bridesmaid, my fingers are crossed for her to win on the night.

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Lullaby and Sylvie the Second are both tough competition though. Lullaby is a philosophical novella, written with Bernard Beckett’s usual compassion and deep understanding of teenage minds.

Sylvie the Second is my Best First Book pick, as Kaeli Baker has set her sights high with her story about the complicated life of a teenage girl. It has rape, self-harm, mental illness and alcohol abuse – someone alert Family First (please don’t!).

We’ll be there on the night, bringing you all the winners and the gossip that goes with the wins live from Circa Theatre. Good luck to all!

The winners of the 2016 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults will be announced at a ceremony on August 8 at Circa Theatre in Wellington.

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