Saturday, 29 March 2008

New Zealand Post Book Awards, 2007

New Zealand Post Book Awards, 2007

HISTORY WINS by Trevor Agnew

History was the winner at the NZ Post Book Awards, where our best books for young people are honoured. Showing my bias as a History teacher, I feel that almost all the finalists show an appreciation of the importance of the past.

Marcia Stenson’s Illustrated History of the South Pacific (Non Fiction winner, Book of the Year) is so readable and interesting that parents as well as children are reading it. Richly illustrated and attractively designed, it includes the heritage of every major group from French Polynesia to Fiji. Her book’s appeal stretches far beyond readers with Islands family ties, for as Stenson reminds us, we are all people of the South Pacific and this is our history too.

Reading history makes us view familiar events in a fresh way, and Janice Marriott’s Thor’s Tale (Junior Fiction winner) is a stunning example of this. Thor, a young Norwegian working in brutal conditions at a whaling station in South Georgia, is fascinated by the men of Shackleton’s expedition with unexpected results. Genesis (Young Adult winner) by Bernard Beckett is a skilfully constructed sf parable about future New Zealanders examining their past which may well be our future. Readers are craftily led into mind-expanding thought experiments and reflections on human intelligence.

Recently, young New Zealanders have been reading more historical fiction, like Bill O’Brien’s Castaway, a vivid account of the fate of the Dundonald’s survivors in the Auckland Islands. Castaway didn’t win but it will help make a new generation aware of the significance of that hand-made boat in the Canterbury Museum. Ted Dawe’s And Did Those Feet… performs the even more remarkable feat of making young people interested in the ideas of William Blake.
Fleur Beale’s A Respectable Girl, provides an evocative account of life in Taranaki on the eve of the New Zealand Wars, while in Matatuhi, Robyn Kahukiwa shows a young girl’s growing awareness of her own family history. Gavin Bishop’s Riding the Waves uses words and pictures to breathe new life into four Maori legends. In the non-fiction field, Neville Peat’s Winging It! puts Sir Tim Wallis back into the air, while Leon Davidson introduces the Anzac experience of the Vietnam War in Red Haze.

Some might argue that the winning picture books are not historical. Wrong. In The Three Fishing Brothers Gruff (Best First Book) Ben Galbraith uses an old legend (and plenty of humour) to show the flaws in our past use of the ocean’s resources. A Present from the Past (Honour Award) by Jennifer Beck, illustrated by Lindy Fisher brings a relic of the Great War to life. Kyle Mewburn, Ali Teo and John O’Reilly combine their talents in Kiss! Kiss! Yuck! Yuck! (Picture Book winner, Children’s Choice Award) to show a small boy’s desperate efforts to escape an aunt who is determined to kiss him. Is this history? Think back into your own past. Kiss! Kiss! Yuck! Yuck! captures an unforgettable moment from everyone’s childhood.

How fitting that all these marvellous books will now form part of a whole generation’s childhood memories.

This article by Trevor Agnew was published in The Press, Christchurch on 19th May 2007, following the announcement of the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

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