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(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

BooksJune 1, 2023

All the books vying for the 2023 NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

Welcome to the authors, illustrators and publishers on the shortlist for this year’s New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Books editor Claire Mabey offers her thoughts, alongside comments from student readers.

It’s hard to write a great children’s book. The kind that will be reprinted and re-gifted and re-read for years and years. Like Atua by Gavin Bishop (last year’s big winner) and The Changeover by Margaret Mahy and Hairy MacLary by Lynley Dodd. The knack is to captivate both the harried adult reader and the distractible child at the same time, which entails excavating an emotional depth with linguistic precision, while at the same time opening an intellectual portal and ideally striking the funnybone, too. 

The finalists for this year’s awards reveal an encouraging overview of the state of children’s publishing in Aotearoa, with a handful of books that have the potential for a long reading life. And, in a refreshing move, the Book Awards Trust asked students from across 15 primary, intermediate and secondary schools to pitch in with their opinions. Below I’ve published my thoughts on each category along with selected comments from the student readers.

To remind you of the stakes: there are six categories in the 2023 New Zealand Children’s Book Awards for Children & Young Adults: Picture Book, Junior Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Non-Fiction, Illustration and te reo Māori. Winners are announced on August 10 and will each bank $7,500. Of those winners, one will be named the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year and will pocket an extra $7,500. The Best First Book prize winner gets $2,500.

Picture Book Award finalists 

Duck Goes Meow – Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Carla Martell (Scholastic New Zealand)

Farewell, Anahera – Vanessa Hatley-Owen, illustrated by Scott Irvine, translated by Kanapu Rangitauira (David Ling Publishing)

How My Koro Became a Star – Brianne Te Paa, illustrated by Story Hemi-Morehouse (Huia Publishers)

Roo and Vladimir: An Unlikely Friendship – Minky Stapleton (Scholastic New Zealand)

The Lighthouse Princess – Susan Wardell, illustrated by Rose Northey (Penguin Random House NZ)

My thoughts:

The Lighthouse Princess is a clear standout for me. Beautiful language, feminist flippage and illustrations that tell their own story alongside the text.

Two books on this list – Farewell, Anahera and How My Koro Became A Star – are about death. Not sure if this constitutes a trend, but it does underline how kids’ books can help parents educate on the existentially complex facts of life. I get a lot of questions about death (But, where do you go? What happens to your body? Can you still use your eyes?) from my five-year-old and books that successfully set death within a satisfying narrative are a go-to. 

A final fist pump for rhyme queen Juliette MacIver. It’s fiendishly hard to rhyme well – even Julia Donaldson can produce a clunky couplet – but MacIver never fails to hit the beat. Duck Goes Meow has the feel of a classic, perhaps particularly because its tone and aesthetic is reminiscent of perennial fave, The Noisy Book.

Student thoughts:

On Duck Goes Meow, Seatoun School students said: “We see the cow a lot and they are always very nice to the duck.”

Grey Lynn School on How my Koro Became A Star: “It has a beautiful story and the front cover is super pretty. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves their ancestors.”

A spread from Farewell, Anahera by Vanessa Hatley-Owen, illustrated by Scott Irvine, translated by Kanapu Rangitauira (David Ling Publishing).

Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Junior Fiction Award finalists

Below – David Hill (Penguin Random House NZ)

Children of the Rush – James Russell (Dragon Brothers Books)

Jason Mason and the World’s Most Powerful Itching Powder – Jason Gunn and Andrew Gunn (Bateman Books)

Masher – Fifi Colston (Penguin Random House NZ)

Pipi and Pou and the Raging Mountain – Tim Tipene, illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (OneTree House)

My thoughts:

Pipi & Pou and the Raging Mountain by Tim Tipene is a favourite in my house: fast, superheroesque, with perfectly placed illustrations by the bloody brilliant Isobel Joy Te Aho-White to keep minuscule attention spans engaged with the page. David Hill is a supernova of children’s writing in Aotearoa. His classic, See Ya, Simon, is one of my favourite books of all time (destroyed by it, still) so it’s a nostalgic boost to see him in this list with Below, the story of two kids who have to overcome their differences in order to mastermind their way out of a railway tunnel (survival and subsistence stories are always a hit: it’s the tension, the vicarious terror).

Student thoughts:

On Jason Mason and the World’s Most Powerful Itching Powder, Manchester Street School said: “The layout is awesome. Each page has words in bold, little pictures and icons. Very appealing.”

Central School Te Kura Waenga o Ngāmotu had heaps of great things to say about Tim Tipene’s Pipi & Pou: “The storyline was fantastic because it was almost like they were talking about our maunga. It included so many kupu māori and we knew what a lot of them meant which was cool. There was also a lot of reference to te ao Māori in regard to being a kaitiaki and being in touch with the environment and what is happening around you. The inclusion of kaumatua and the marae made us feel like they were talking about us.”

Young Adult Fiction Award finalists

Andromeda Bond in Trouble Deep – Brian Falkner (Red Button Press)

Eddy, Eddy – Kate De Goldi (Allen & Unwin)

Indigo Moon – Eileen Merriman (Penguin Random House NZ)

Iris and Me – Philippa Werry (The Cuba Press)

Miracle – Jennifer Lane (Cloud Ink Press)

My thoughts:

Kate De Goldi is one of the best writers in the country and I’m picking that Eddy, Eddy – a post-Christchurch Quake novel about an orphan – will be difficult to beat. Even while I suspect Eddy, Eddy is a challenge for some teenage readers, the voice of the novel is a giddy rush of quirk and icons and animals: it pushes at the limits of what YA can be but holds true on redemption, and love, and growing up.

Student thoughts:

Rototuna High School scribbled some superb thoughts on Indigo Moon by Eileen Merriman: “The book looked very interesting when I first saw it. I thought that it might be a very confusing book after reading the blurb on the back of it. When I started reading the book I was pleasantly surprised to find it very easy to follow. I would say that it is simplistically mind-bending. It introduces mind-blowing technology and ideas in such a great way that anyone can understand what is going on. I think that people who enjoy adventure, romance, sci-fi and fantasy will enjoy this book!”

South Wellington Intermediate were taken with Philippa Werry’s verse novel about writer Iris Wilkinson (pen name, Robin Hyde): “The story is really unique because it is formatted like a long poem, with short little snappy sentences and little snippets of direct pieces of writing from Robin Hyde’s books. This makes the story move at a quick pace and makes you want to keep reading to know more. The language is poetic and descriptive, it paints a picture of Iris’s thought and what her writing was like and it creates a rhythm that helps hold together the story.”

Rototuna High School on Miracle by Jennifer Lane: “I really felt myself wanting to read it once I took a look at the blurb. Overall though, it was utterly thought-provoking and I would recommend the story to people who enjoy mystery stories.”

Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction Finalists

A New Dawn – Emeli Sione, illustrated by Darcy Solia (Mila’s Books)

Freestyle: The Israel Adesanya Story – David Riley, illustrated by Ant Sang (Reading Warrior)

Sylvia and the Birds – Johanna Emeney, illustrated by Sarah Laing (Massey University Press)

Te Wehenga: The Separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku – Mat Tait (Allen & Unwin)

Weather and Climate New Zealand – Sandra Carrod (Oratia Books)

My thoughts:

Mat Tait’s Te Wehenga: The Separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku impressed me when it arrived last year. The illustrations aren’t like any I’ve ever seen: and the text is part of Tait’s art so that it’s a seamless fusion of word and image. On the other hand Sarah Laing’s stand-out style in Sylvia and the Birds makes for a charming and effortless experience (if, perhaps, a bit long for younger readers).

Student thoughts:

Grey Lynn school concluded that Freestyle: The Israel Adesanya Story “makes people think”. 

Russell Clark Award for Illustration

A Portrait of Leonardo – Donovan Bixley (Upstart Press)

Four Yaks and a Yeti – Ant Sang, written by Peter Hillary (Bateman Books)

Roar Squeak Purr – Jenny Cooper, edited by Paula Green (Penguin Random House NZ)

Te Wehenga: The Separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku – Mat Tait (Allen & Unwin)

The Lighthouse Princess – Rose Northey, written by Susan Wardell (Penguin Random House NZ)

Donovan Bixley is a mainstay of this category and I loved A Portrait of Leonardo. There’s so much energy in Bixley’s work: the lush, painterly detail; the aliveness of the young artist. There’s an irreverence too which is always a relief. I have deep respect for Paula Green and Jenny Cooper: hardly anyone writes poetry for children these days so to have a whole cacophony in Roar Squeak Purr was a treat. But for me, Ant Sang’s Himalayan world is outstanding. For an insight into how Sang crafted the characters (human, animal and legend) see this interview in The Sapling.

Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award Finalists

He Raru ki Tai – Jane Cooper, illustrated by Story Hemi-Morehouse (Huia Publishers)

Kua Whetūrangitia a Koro – Brianne Te Paa, illustrated by Story Hemi-Morehouse (Huia Publishers)

Te Kōkōrangi: Te Aranga o Matariki – Witi Ihimaera, illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, translated by Hēni Jacob (Penguin Random House NZ)

We are thankfully in a time when there are more and more books in Te Reo. Much of this is down to Huia Publishers, celebrating over 30 years of indigenous publishing. Both of the Huia books listed above are illustrated by the talented Story Hemi-Morehouse who you can read about in-depth in this interview in The Sapling. Isobel Joy Te Aho-White’s illustration of Witi Ihimaera’s Matariki story are typically sublime, revealing her to be, yet again, one of the country’s most talented story-telling artists.

NZSA Best First Book Award Finalists

Echo – Arlo Kelly (Sparrow Press)

Holding the Horse – J L Williams (Ocean Echo Books)

He Raru ki Tai – Jane Cooper, illustrated by Story Hemi-Morehouse (Huia Publishers)

Kidnap at Mystery Island – Carol Garden (Scholastic New Zealand)

The Lighthouse Princess – Susan Wardell, illustrated by Rose Northey (Penguin Random House NZ)

My thoughts:

Arlo Kelly is 16 years old!

Student thoughts:

South Wellington Intermediate School had plenty of thoughts on Kidnap at Mystery Island: “Because this book is set in the 2080s it has a futuristic vibe and the language contributes to this with lots of abbreviations and shortened words, making it have a different feel and flow to a normal chapter book. Also, the font is very blocky like the writing on a digital clock, this adds to the futuristic theme. The dialogue between characters is believable – as the main characters are kids, they talk casually and they use slang and new words that you can imagine being used in the future.” 

So, if you’re due a refresh of your bookshelves, there’s your shopping list sorted. Congratulations to the judges and to the administrators of the awards who also mastermind the most epic reading competition in the country, the Hell Reading Challenge, which has so far encouraged kids to read nearly 16 million books. The basic idea is that you give a kid a “pizza wheel” where each of the seven “slices” is a book. Once they’ve filled each slice with a book they can exchange it for a free Hell pizza. Look, it’s bribery, but it works.

You can buy all of the books listed above at Unity Books Wellington and Auckland (including Little Unity, which is dedicated to children’s books).

Keep going!