It’s a middle grade book boom this 2024 (Image: Tina Tiller)
It’s a middle grade book boom this 2024 (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksJuly 6, 2024

‘Children can change the world’: Aotearoa children’s writers on why they write for kids

It’s a middle grade book boom this 2024 (Image: Tina Tiller)
It’s a middle grade book boom this 2024 (Image: Tina Tiller)

A stack of brilliant novels for children are out this year. Ten authors tell us why they write for kids, and what their books offer grown-ups, too.

Aotearoa’s legacy of great children’s novels is a hefty one: Margaret Mahy, Maurice Gee, David Hill, Sherryl Jordan, Kate De Goldi, Elizabeth Knox, Joy Cowley, just to name a handful of the authors behind some of our classics.

This 2024 sees a bumper batch of children’s novels by Aotearoa writers, each of them remarkable and remarkably different. But one thing they all have in common is that the authors behind them are serious about writing stories that children want to read, and that adults would ideally be devouring, too. Over in the UK this week, celebrated writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce was named the 12th UK Children’s Laureate. In his acceptance speech, Cottrell-Boyce said his laureateship will be about happiness, but also  about “calling for national provision so that every child – from their earliest years – has access to books, reading and the transformative ways in which they improve long-term life chances.” Cottrell-Boyce made excellent points about the fact that in an increasingly dangerous world, children, more than ever, need advocacy and tools to help them navigate uncertainty.

Children’s books don’t get as much attention as adult books and yet they’re the gateway into a lifelong habit of reading for happiness, building imagination, empathy and a hunger for information. For adults, children’s books offer the opportunity to say hello to their inner child, to remember how to yearn for adventure, and acknowledge those childish superpowers of coping with change, conducting emotion and revelling in awe and wonder. 

Here, 10 authors of the latest middle grade novels (generally for ages 8+) across Aotearoa explain the calling to write for kids (and their grown ups):

Jane Arthur, author of Brown Bird 

Brown Bird is a “quiet novel”: a beautiful, gentle story about an anxious child and the power of friendship and community. In this essay, Arthur says she wrote this kind of story because “I thought it might help someone. My life has been a series of thinking I’m the sole weirdo on the planet, or the weirdest kid in the room, or the only teenager who thinks like this, or the only person who is this way, interspersed with realisations that there are, in fact, other people who feel the same, only to feel alone again when a new idiosyncrasy kicks in.” Brown Bird (Penguin NZ) is available at Unity Books.

Leonie Agnew, author of Take me to your Leader

This wonderful alien adventure novel is a finalist in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults 2024. For Agnew, “the urge to write children’s books is simply there, tucked into my DNA alongside eye colour and a habit of pulling my hair when I’m thinking. If pushed, I would admit I’m drawn to writing humour and storytelling which shows children they can change the world. At other times, it seems the only way to enter a magical land is to build my own doorway. And who wouldn’t want to bring magic into the real world? Writing for children is a joy.” Take me to your Leader is available at Unity Books

Shelley Burne-Field, author of Brave Kāhu and the Pōrangi Magpie 

This is a stunning story of family, te taiao, and rising to an occasion (literally). Burne-Field is an acclaimed writer of short stories who has turned her exquisite prose to children’s fiction for this perfect, and perfectly concise, reason: “I wrote the book for that one kid who might need it.” Her work is also included in this excellent new resource produced by The Māori Literature Trust, showcasing all of the work published by Māori authors between Matariki 2023 and 2024. Brave Kāhu and the Pōrangi Magpie (Allen & Unwin NZ) is available at Unity Books

Stacy Gregg, author of Nine Girls 

Stacy Gregg is an internationally renowned author of pony books but for Nine Girls, Gregg drew on her own upbringing in Ngāruawāhia to create a spellbinding story, also a finalist in the NZBACYA (in the same category as Agnew, above, and King, below). In this article, Gregg says that “kids, particularly, should read whatever they want. I see parents sometimes in libraries dismissing the book a child is reaching for on the shelf on the grounds that it is beneath them. Especially if it’s a comic book or graphic novel. This idea that you should block something from your kid as too lightweight for the child’s reading age is a real misstep by parents. I loved comics. Asterix particularly. Honestly just let kids read what they want. Let them read up a level or down a level. Let them read endless banal fart books or whatever – it’s their call so stop making them pick up books they don’t want just because you think they are worthy material that looks appropriate in their hands.” Nine Girls (Penguin NZ) is available at Unity Books.

Lauren Keenan, author of Rimu: and the Tree of Time, an Amorangi and Millie Adventure

This novel is the sequel to the award-winning Amorangi and Millie’s Trip Through Time and the second novel that Keenan has published this year (the other being the adult historical novel, The Space Between). It’s history that weaves Keenan’s writing for children and adults together: “I’m a massive history nerd, and believe strongly in the importance of understanding where we’ve come from, both as individuals and as a nation. E kīia ana te kōrero: haere whakamua, hoki whakamuri. We go forward, but we look back – and failure to do so can undermine our ability to understand the present. But, alas. History is an epic snooze-fest if not taught well, and it’s nearly impossible to engage with something if it bores you so much it could double as an insomnia aid. My motivation for writing these books is to make New Zealand history exciting and accessible for kids. That’s why, although I’ve previously written for adults about this part of history, I also wanted to write for kids – starting with my own son and daughter.Rimu: and the Tree of Time (Huia Publishers) is available at Unity Books.

Rachael King, author of The Grimmelings

The Grimmelings is a thrilling folk story set in the South Island of New Zealand but drawing on an ancient Celtic myth. For King, who has written two very successful adult novels, the allure of writing for children is strong, as she explains in this essay on The Spinoff: “So why do I do it? Clearly I’m not doing this for the glory. Maybe I want to keep writing for children because I’m in touch with my old child self – essential for writing from a child’s point of view – but also now my own are older I have witnessed more closely what contemporary children want and need, how they interact with the world around them. I’m much more confident. I’m excited about the idea of pushing my passions on to young readers (my next book is about a primary school girls’ rock band, followed closely by a YA fantasy involving horses, a bleak windy island and folk horror). I can write books that are just as complex and interesting as any adult novel.” The Grimmelings (Allen & Unwin NZ) is available at Unity Books.

Claire Mabey, author of The Raven’s Eye Runaways 

Mabey’s debut novel is an adventure story set in an imagined world where reading and writing are restricted to an elite few. It’s a novel about the magic of books, and the power of friendship, and rebellion. “This story arrived in my brain, or at least, the door to it did. I didn’t think of it as a children’s novel or an adult novel, only that the story needed to be told through the child characters who are at the heart of it. As I explored the world and wrote it down I could sense my subconscious drawing on adult books like Wuthering Heights, and the visions of Hildegard von Bingen, and the gentle rebellion of Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I drew on those books just as much as I did on The Halfmen of O by Maurice Gee, and The Haunting by Margaret Mahy, and The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo. To me books for children and books for adults exist on the same shelves. What I loved about writing this novel was the ride of it: I craved adventure when I was a kid, and I still do. Writing this book brought my ancient 30-something self in line with my 10-year-old self: we explored the world together. And that’s what I hope for readers young and old: that they go to the world of the book and they bring a piece of it back with them.” The Raven’s Eye Runaways (Allen & Unwin NZ) is available at Unity Books

Bren MacDibble, author of The Apprentice Witnesser

MacDibble is an acclaimed children’s author, with titles like The Dog Runner, The Raven’s Song (with Zana Fraillon), and Across the Risen Sea. This latest is a beautiful story about an orphan who spins stories of miracles and who must go on an adventure to discover reveal the truth of her world. MacDibble says her books about hope and resilience are for the “child I once was”. A child that grew up in the era of Cold War anxiety, “met with the mantra, ‘it’ll never happen,’ – the opposite of soothing to a child with no trust that adults knew anything. I wanted see the worst happen and know what survival looked like. And, while we have the technology we need to prevent a climate crisis, we’re moving painfully slowly and I see the same kind of fear in the minds of modern children. I don’t say nothing will change. Obviously everything has to change: pollution, food, transport, energy, land use, or the environment will change everything anyway. I write to show young characters surviving with resilience and embracing the important things: love, friends, purpose and adventures in changed worlds. Adults are busy or easily overwhelmed by climate news and tend to shut those thoughts down, but young people see and hear so much more than they can articulate, so my books are a safe fictional space for any age to build up the language and ideas around climate change as well as wild adventures. Read them with your child or read them to soothe your inner child.” The Apprentice Witnesser (Allen & Unwin NZ) is available at Unity Books.

Steph Matuku, author of Whetū Toa and the Secret Spies 

Steph Matuku is a prolific writer for children, with novels, picture books and TV writing credits, too. The Whetū Toa series is a delightful, rambunctious ride; Matuku says she writes the books she wishes she had when she was young: “Where the Māori girl is the heroine, living in a world that I knew. When I was small, I knew a lot about bluebell forests and Christmas in winter and badgers, and yet had never clapped eyes on any of it (and still have not). I write for kids because my brain naturally bends that way – I seem to have peaked mentally at age 14. Anyway, the kids seem to like it. When they start hating it, I’ll stop.

“Adults should definitely read children’s books – especially if you have children. It’s fun to see what’s tickling their brains and why they’re drawn to different genres. And then you can discuss the book and characters, and have meaningful conversations. Adults should definitely read children’s books – especially if you don’t have children. You can connect with that little kid that you used to be. You can learn new slang and discover a new way of looking at the world. Besides, who wants to read about middle-aged professors agonising over their broken marriages, when you can read about witches in wardrobes, and space aliens with green gloop, and princesses who murder dragons? It’s just common sense.” Whetū Toa and the Secret Spies (Huia Publishers) can be pre-ordered from Unity Books.

Tim Tipene, author of Pipi & Pou series

Tipene’s Pipi & Pou series (illustrated by the brilliant Izzy Joy Te Aho-White) are junior novels with propulsive plots, super powers, and messages of care for the environment, and for people. For Tipene, who had a difficult childhood, children’s books can change lives. “Writing for me went hand in hand with the Warrior Kids Programme that I started in 1994, where I taught self control and social skills to children and teens in schools and in the community for 28 years. Initially my books were an extension of Warrior Kids, and they allowed me to explore issues that had come up for me in my own abusive childhood and played a part in helping to break the cycle. Having been raised in violence and trauma, I existed in an imaginary world as a kid, and it’s that playful child perspective that I draw on today in creating my stories. Good books, good stories gave me hope as a kid, helped me to get through. It’s a privilege to be a part of such a worthy tradition.” The Pipi & Pou series (One Tree House) is available at Unity Books.

All of the books above can be ordered at Unity Books, and at Bookhub

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