Friday, 21 March 2008

Adventure Novels for Young Readers

And Did Those Feet… Ted Dawe, Longacre Press, 192 pages, paperback, NZ$18.99
ISN 1-877361-49-6
Too Close to the Wind, and other stories Tessa Duder, HarperCollins, 169 pages, paperback, NZ$16.99 ISBN 1-86950-608-1
Where Cuckoos Call Des Hunt, HarperCollins, 175 pages, paperback, NZ$16.99
ISBN 1-86950-607-0
The Amazing Adventures of Razza the Rat Witi Ihimaera, ill. Astrid Matijasevich, 54 pages, paperback, NZ$19.99
ISBN 1-86978-004-3

In the same month in 2007 that Investigate magazine claimed (falsely) that there are no healthy adventure novels for young adults in New Zealand, I received eight for review. Here are the first four.

When his mother dies and his father fails to cope, Sandy is sent to live with his Uncle Frank and Aunt Lorna on their Taranaki farm. In the lively first-person narrative of And Did Those Feet…, Sandy adjusts to the different routine of country life, pulling turnips, milking, and befriending a pig. Sandy’s acceptance of country life is humorously drawn but a more interesting issue lies at the heart of this novel. Uncle Frank is no ordinary farmer; he has developed a philosophy of life based on the writings of William Blake, which at first baffles and then intrigues Sandy. At school, Sandy is viewed with suspicion as a ‘cultie’ but finds acceptance and fulfilment during a traumatic class camping trip on Mount Taranaki. This is a strikingly original novel with well-drawn and likeable characters. As well as winning prizes, it is also likely to have young readers seeking more information about William Blake.

Des Hunt’s novels follow an enjoyable pattern where a young person becomes aware of the importance of nature. On his twelfth birthday Ben Mansfield finds a Shining cuckoo chick and tries to raise it, in Where Cuckoos Call. Ben has no illusions. “Cuckoos are parasites,” he declares but he soon has Bigmouth thriving. The rest of Ben’s life is not going as well. His father is ill and the family’s Coromandel Peninsula farm is being developed into a coastal marina.
A keen birdwatcher, Ben tries to protect the local coastal birds, erecting fences and signs, but hostile trail-bikers destroy some nesting sites. When all seems lost Ben receives a message from Vanuatu: Bigmouth has migrated there. The unexpected events that follow, including Cyclone Alex, create a roller-coaster of surprises for Ben and his readers. A well-paced, often exciting novel.

Environmentalists were depressed that a monitored rat named Razza had swum half a kilometre to Otata Island, but Witi Ihimaera scented a story. The Amazing Adventures of Razza the Rat follows Razza as he defies his tribal elders and heads off on the ultimate OE. Razza swims and flies (on an albatross) to several world capitals, survives a tsunami and collects a Mousehood from the Queen on the way. By the end, Razza has his beady eye on even higher goals: “one long step forward for mousekind.” Ihimaera uses a frisky mixture of poetry and prose to produce a light yarn for young readers. Astrid Matijasevich’s colourful cartoon illustrations add to the genial mood.

Tessa Duder has been publishing stories for more than quarter of a century and Too Close to the Wind brings together ten of the best. Duder’s sailing and swimming interests predominate, especially in my favourite, the very funny Freddie Bone, where the main character’s plump build proves an advantage in a midwinter endurance race. His wily sponsor’s horror as dogged Freddie reaches 109 laps for $9500 is well portrayed. Other stories have young people recognising their abilities in everything from making music to telling stories. One of the several boating stories contains a good joke in its title; when big-headed Robert goes over the side, Robin calls ‘Person Overboard’ because ‘you’re no man.’ Fresh and lively reading for a range of ages.

Trevor Agnew

This review first appeared in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on 10th March 2007.

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