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‘A lot of it comes down to sex’: on the hot, tumultuous genius of Alex and other NZ young adult fiction

‘Now I’m old and introspective and critical,’ writes Scarlett Cayford, ‘let me tell you why the young adult fiction penned by New Zealand women in the 90s is some of the best in the world.’

When I think back to the first books I read, my first thought falls to Sweet Valley High, and my second to The Baby Sitter’s Club – soft, sweet, standard American novels, about 200-pages apiece. They dealt with issues: diabetes, cancer, kidnap, identity theft, cheating, competition, alcohol, a psychotic lookalike attempting to murder a twin and take her place in the family. The usual. I still remember going to the local library (Devonport, a small, low building by the sea, flanked by palms), and the thrill of seeing a new volume in stock. I lived and breathed those twins, that club. I was Elizabeth, and Kristy, in case you’re wondering,

I’ve always been a reader. In bed, on the toilet, hunched on the couch trying to hold a book open with one hand and eat a sandwich with the other. I was the kid with 20 books at the foot of her bed, stacked until I stretched at night and knocked half of them to the ground. A friend once walked in on me trying to read while blow-drying my hair. In every flat I’ve lived in, I’ve had a toilet book (Jeffrey Archer is a good candidate; hardy, thick, absorbent). When I was 22, I moved to Japan and into an apartment filled with the belongings of previous occupants, which led to me being awake at 3am as the sun the rose and the crows woke, reading David Lange’s autobiography.

My reading comes from my parents, who filled our house with books, paid my library card fines, stuffed my Christmas stocking with hardbacks. Everything by Daphne du Maurier, everything by L.M Montgomery. Roald Dahl coming out of my ears. Philip Pullman, Hardy, Jules Verne shoved sideways into the gaps at the tops of the shelves. I gobbled them all up, and it wasn’t all high-brow. The popular stuff, the books you scoffed in a single sitting, those were my favourite.

There was Marian Keyes and Harry Potter and a thousand slightly-differentiated works by Enid Blyton (dog-eared and broken-backed and scattered throughout the bathrooms and sitting rooms of our house with abandon). I read all the usuals, and I read all kinds of books I shouldn’t have. No one should read Valley of the Horses before they’re given the sex talk. I still remember looking up the word “nodule” in our thick family dictionary.

I read everything, including a slim yellow computer manual penned by my father. But the books written for me, for young adults like me, were my favourite.

My mother is British and my father a New Zealander and so our bookshelves were a mish-mash of old and new, Commonwealth and Kiwi and further afield. I didn’t discriminate or differentiate. They were all familiar to me, to a greater or lesser extent, through the pictures painted by the pages. Whether European or American or altogether imaginary, everywhere I read about was alive to me – but everything was far away and imagined and distant. They were worlds that existed worlds apart from mine, in parallel, like Lyra on her Oxford bench. And my authors – those strange magicians – were as real as my characters, which is to say, both entirely and not at all.

I still remember my confusion, imagined worlds colliding with real, when my parents took me to meet Tessa Duder, the author of my much-beloved Alex series. I thought it was impossible, akin to having Ginger Spice turn up at my front door, or Anne Shirley present me with blackcurrant wine, but as it turned out, she wasn’t a mythical genius-giant, but a nice blonde woman who lived five minutes down the road, and who handed me a signed book, and chatted to my dad about the general election. But even then, sat in her living room, looking at pictures of the daughter who inspired Alex Archer, there wasn’t much that made her different to Enid Blyton, or any of the others. At 12, I didn’t understand that there were better books, and worse books. Famous authors, and others. Books you flaunt and books you hide.

But now I’m old and introspective and critical. I read with some discrimination, and social media means I know more than I want to: which authors are dead, and which are racists, and which like to expunge at length on the value of the Oxford comma. I’ve been on a plane, I’ve seen the house where Frances Hodgson Burnett lived most of her life, I have context, reference points – my own sentiments and certainties to heap upon the books I read.

So that’s why I now feel educated and worldly enough to tell you that the young adult fiction penned by New Zealand women in the 90s is some of the best in the world. Sit back. Let me tell you what I know.

The key realisation came for me when I realised that Sherryl Jordan was a New Zealander. I was at university, and it was revelatory.

It seemed impossible to me that the author of The Raging Quiet, The Juniper Game, Winter of Fire, could possibly have come from Hawera. No one comes from Hawera, least of all someone who could imagine to life new worlds and post-apocalyptic eras and long-haired heroines who were infinitely smarter and better looking than their hapless male hand-men. I had to repurchase The Juniper Game (from TradeMe, an ex-library book with a laminated cover) and reread it to convince my post-colonialist brain that it really was that good.

Three of Sherryl Jordan’s many YA novels

By then, Sherryl Jordan had been in my life for nearly a decade. I was introduced to her at the age of 11, by an aunt who always gave the best books as gifts, in the form of Secret Sacrament, a novel about a rich young man who becomes a poor young healer and then saves a tribe by martyring himself. In the middle of all that, he also shacks up with a young tribeswoman and has a lot of carefully-rendered but genuinely eye-opening sex, every single instance of which resulted in “cries of astonishment and ecstasy”, because that, dear pre-teen Scarlett is what sex is.

YA fiction has never been more popular than now, with audiences spanning decades gobbling up the movie renderings of 300-page novels that contain, among other things, a defiant young woman, a firm-chinned love interest, an Achilles heel (usually family), a power-hungry leader, a destiny, and a distinguishing quality (bravery, stubbornness, talent with a bow, a good ear for puns). It’s been refined and honed, it’s an art-form, these touchingly teenage titans. Nowadays they’re more likely to be warriors than babysitters, this uncertain political climate giving rise to the likes of Triss and Katniss – but both are still testament to a doughty formula that’s stood the test of time.

Remember Alex Archer? A brilliant swimmer (distinguishing quality) in love with Andy (quite a firm chin, until he got hit by a car) beholden to a family trying to help her achieve her dreams (her Achilles heel) while coming up against staunch competitors (Mrs Benton, what a bitch, the Olympic selection committee, etc).

The formula is there, but there’s so much more in Tessa Duder’s glorious trilogy: her relationship with Keith, that performance of A Room With A View, the cross-dressing and the bravery and the swimming – oh, the swimming, which to a pre-teen spending two nights a week criss-crossing the black bottom of a public swimming pool, afterwards thrusting freezing feet into fetid Ugg boots, wondering what the point of all of it was, was everything – the way she spoke and sang and that scene with her sat in front of the mirror, stripping the silver paint from her Tin Man Face. This was a heroine because her battles were brought small; no empire to be toppled, only the Olympic committee to be swayed. The battleground is a pool; the adversary another teenage girl.

There was more to Duder than Alex, too, like The Tiggie Tompson Show and Mercury Beach, both containing characters you don’t find between pink covers in Zoella’s Book Club: fat girls, bullied and beautiful and smart, more than weight-loss, more than the space between their thighs, a depiction of body versus mind versus the world painted with more empathy than even (all credit to her Girls In Love series) Jacqueline Wilson could manage. There are threads that run through Duder’s heroines, but there’s nothing cookie-cutter about their failings and their flaws. They wouldn’t fit the dichotomy of cheerleader or nerd; artist or sportswoman. They’re complicated. And another thing – they’re all fucking.

Teenage kicks: NZ YA fiction by Tessa Duder, Kate de Goldi and Sherry Jordan

I’ve already mentioned sex; a lot of it comes back to sex in these books, stacked at the foot of my single bed.

Ancient ecstasy in a mud hut as brought to life by Jordan, or late 60s fumblings in the bottom of boat in Auckland harbour, as favoured by Duder. Sex has to come into it, in YA, doesn’t it? Burgeoning baby adults, on the edges of orgasms and their own confusing orifices. And yet: this modern American stuff, the shiny armoured girl soldier with arrows – even the Sweet Valleys and the Baby Sitter’s Club, all of that lot – where was it, the fumblings and the fantasy? Were we all happily complicit, child and adult, reader and writer, in the idea that the content was forbidden, even while stumbling across spent condoms in the changing room at the school swimming pool?

Not if you’re a New Zealand YA author, I respectfully submit, and I’ll submit it while inviting you to open Kate De Goldi’s Sanctuary, a coming-of-age novel in every sense of the word coming (sweatily, in the back of a van). Kate De Goldi doesn’t have quite the name recognition of Cowley and Mahy and Duder (despite winning all the awards), but she should, if only for her unashamed approach to teenage fornication. None of her books dance around the idea, but Sanctuary really hammers it home, really pounds it deep: I mean, the book is about brothers (brothers!) and a redhead (red hair!) who spend most of their time at a zoo (prowling animals, raw animal sexuality, doggy-style, you see where I’m going). It also has a rawness that made me cry but the sex! Guys, they do it in the back of a van. He bites her lip. The panther escapes (not a metaphor). Why is our homegrown YA feminist sex so much sexier than Jessica Wakefield pressed up against a school locker, or Triss shuddering on a bunk bed?

Maybe, at the heart of it all, it’s because it’s set in New Zealand. We’re weird and isolated, we say and do things differently. Kids do things younger – driving and experimenting and, yes, sex, but also figuring things out for themselves. We swim out deeper and stay out later and leave our shoes at home. Maybe there are hints of American sitcom and Gilmore Girls glory days in the way we Sit At The Table and Clean Our Rooms; the nuclear families and four-wheel drives – but there’s a touch of wild. I say this as a kid who would definitely cry if there was a spider in the bath. Our edges were less clearly defined. There was more opportunity and invitation to stray.

And so the YA books penned on those same streets teach the same; densely plotted maps on how to pick your way through a life largely pre-internet and certainly pre-Google maps. The girls I grew up loving were cruel and odd. They took advantage of their families, and stole horses and boats, they said “no” to people, they lied and ran away. And we were still allowed to believe that they were good – heroines even – as they took off their clothes for boys, and refused to take off their clothes for boys, and won things, and lost the same.

That’s why I’m going to say they’re better. Bolder, more nuanced, and better. I can say that because of the way they shaped me, and the way the characters stay with me still. I’m over a decade out of my teens, and I’m sure the canon has been enriched in a hundred ways since I first hunched over those edifying pages, so my point is simply this: a book doesn’t have to be penned by a heralded Brit to be a classic, and there is real value in keeping your literary horizons local, as well as broad. We are blessed with a back-catalogue of brilliance – but they’ll only stay in print if we keep buying, and the new New Zealand-based authors will only get the recognition (and royalties) they need if we pay due respect to the value of the homegrown to the young adult. The next Duder or Jordan or Mahy or De Goldi is sitting at her laptop somewhere (Hawera?) right now, and I want her on my bookshelf in 10 years’ time. Metaphorically speaking, of course.


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