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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

BooksMay 6, 2023

Ten classic Aotearoa coming-of-age novels that would make great movies

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Inspired by the new film version of Judy Blume’s pivotal coming-of-age novel, Are you there God? It’s Me, Margaret, here’s ten Aotearoa teen reads that would make feel-good films full of grit, heart, and hormones.

See Ya, Simon by David Hill

A masterpiece. David Hill’s 1992 novel will bring any human with a beating heart to an ugly cry state and still manage to leave you with the lingering warmth of friendship with a character you’ll never forget. See Ya, Simon is narrated by 14-year-old Nathan who tells the story of his best friend Simon who is funny, bright, and flirtatious. The thing is that Simon has muscular dystrophy and a life expectancy counted in months, not years. This would make a widely adored, tissues-required movie event: a celebration of teenage camaraderie, the thrills, the vulnerabilities, the joys, fears and troubles. A shimmering heart-breaker for a new generation of Simon fans. 

Pōrangi Boy by Shilo Kino

Shilo Kino used her journalism skills to tell the story of the protest led by Ngāpuhi against the plans for a prison to be built at Ngāwhā, disrupting the habitat of the Taniwha, Taukere. In Kino’s hands the hero is Niko Te Kainga-mataa, uri of Hongi Hika, a Ngāpuhi chief.

This story has everything: essential local storytelling, a young hero to root for, conversations about land rights, colonisation, language and belief. 

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy

One of our best ever writers of YA novels, Mahy’s inventive and at times sinister stories make for thrilling cinematic viewing. Mahy’s supernatural masterpiece, The Changeover, was made into a film in 2017 which surely sets up the precedent for more, please. 

The Tricksters has the perfect setting: the alchemical family summer holiday at the beach over Christmas and New Year. And the perfect heroine: Ariadne (Harry), a secret fantasy writer with a potent imagination and a desire to explore desire. And the perfect premise: who are the three strange young men hanging about the beach who bear an uncanny resemblance to Harry’s secret book characters? 

This film would blow The Craft out of the water: The Tricksters is about learning to write your own rules when it comes to sexuality. It’s a story about who holds the power to your heart, your body, and how you think about sex, romance and personal politics.

An Aotearoa fantasy film you ask? Here you go.

Serpents of Arakesh V. M. Jones

The Serpents of Arakesh is a twisty book from the 2000s with a very 2000s plotline: an orphan wins a competition to be part of the worlds biggest and coolest game, at the behest of the game’s enigmatic creator. But the game isn’t really fiction, and Adam, the orphan, has to enter the world of Karazan to save his friends. It’s a Jumanji x Ready Player One x The Mysterious Benedict Society crossover that would make a ridiculously cool film. Plus it’s already a video game so we’re halfway there.

I Am Not Esther by Fleur Beale

Fleur Beale is a master of the craft. Literally all of her novels are gripping, psychologically captivating, and explore an aspect of Aotearoa history and society. Never out of print since it was first published over 20 years ago, I am not Easter is Beale’s novel about a teenage girl caught in a cult. And it would make one hell of a film. It’s compelling, it’s triumphant, it’s close to the psyche and frankly feels as relevant today as it did when it first came out. Think Women Talking but set in Aotearoa and with a heroine called Kirby Greenland. 

Flight of the Fantail by Steph Matuku

A rip-roarer of a novel, this is a no-brainer for translation to the big screen. When a busload of school kids crashes in the bush in a remote part of Aotearoa, a handful of teenage survivors are bullied by a supernatural force.

Our blood is already beating with the prospect of a bum-clenching, white-knuckled cinema experience complete with beautifully crafted teenage characters, a mystery to solve, a race against time, and grisly scenes spiked with comedic relief. Think Blair Witch Project but steeped in the Aoteraoa bush and its stories, and not as terrifying, and with more loveable characters.

The Halfmen of O series by Maurice Gee

Is this trilogy perhaps Aotearoa’s foundational fantasy landscape? Surely at least for Millennials, also forever affected by Wilberforces, it is. The Halfman of O, Priests of Ferris and Motherstone books are Gee’s story of cousins Susan and Nick who are tipped into the brutal world of O with a mission to save it from itself.

Forget Lord of the Rings, O has the hideous villain Otis Claw, the rascal good-guy Jimmy Jaspers, the Woodlanders Brand and Breeze. It has the plant Shy, it has Bloodcats and Vargs. The plot follows the downfall of a totalitarian society and the edification of the natural world.

We’re thinking animation, we’re thinking incredible soundtrack opportunities, vibing the work of Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon, responsible for such gems as The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and WolfWalkers. 

Three potential films ready to be screenplayed right here.

Red Rocks by Rachael King

Rachael King’s award-winning novel takes the allure of selkie mythology and transposes it onto Wellington’s South Coast. When Jake, the only child of divorced parents, goes to stay with his dad he discovers a seal skin hidden in a cave on the wild bite of beach that so many of us know and love. 

This story has the winning ingredients of adventure, danger and magic: a combination that translates to the big screen and would make for a scenic feast as well as a thrilling heart-squeeze.

Singing Home the Whale by Mandy Hager

New Zealand’s answer to Free Willy, this is the story of two young underdogs up against the harsh edges of human nature: one is a boy called Will and the other is an abandoned orca called Min.

Hager is a stunning writer and has plotted all the ingredients for a lush tale about environmental devastation and the power of art to connect us back into the life around us. Jackson is a victim of social media shaming and Min is alone in the world and accused of ruining the local fishing industry. There’s truth, there’s triumph and there’s orca.

If the animatronic orca from the Free Willy movies aren’t available then this could be another one ripe for animation treatment.

The Juniper Game by Sherryl Jordan

This book, first published in 1991, has it all. Juniper is beautiful, brainy and bohemian (and red-haired!). Dylan is an underdog, unremarkable but with the hidden power of fine art. When the unlikely pair discover they have a psychic connection they become embroiled in a parallel Medieval world. Will they be able to save Joanna, a Medieval healer woman, from being burned as a witch?

And that’s not even mentioning the 80s-style bad boyfriend; the marriage-breakdown subplot; and the hottest boyfriend-of-a-main-character’s mother of all time (who among us didn’t dream of living in Niall’s house truck?). Juniper Game hits all the right trends for 2023: witches, the evergreen theme of cool girl notices the talented yet average boy, mystic powers, lust, and a Medieval aesthetic (cue the award-winning costume design). Tempted to get this screenplay underway right now.

Keep going!