Books

Writ­ing books for young­sters may be con­sid­ered an easy op­tion but David Hill begs to dif­fer.

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Writ­ing for young­sters is no easy op­tion, says pro­lific au­thor David Hill.

Mau­rice Gee got into trou­ble once for say­ing that writ­ing a kids’ novel was eas­ier than writ­ing an adult one. OK, he meant only that it was eas­ier for him, and as a multi-award win­ner in both gen­res, he’s al­lowed to make such a com­ment.

Other, dim­mer lights fre­quently say the same. Pretty well ev­ery writer for au­di­ences up to Year 13 gets asked:

“Have you thought of writ­ing an … adult book?” The hes­i­ta­tion is be­cause the speaker was about to say “proper”.

Mustn’t grum­ble. And of course, a lot of cur­rent New Zealand chil­dren’s au­thors also write for big peo­ple. Kate de Goldi, Joy Cow­ley, Nor­man Bil­brough, Tessa Duder, Jack Lasenby, Bernard Beck­ett are no­table ex­em­plars. I’ve had a go, too. After all, it’s eas­ier in some ways.

Most writ­ers for adults treat me sim­ply as a fel­low trades­per­son. Fair enough – the ba­sic skills are the same in each genre. You just need authen­tic, en­gag­ing char­ac­ters; a plot that en­grosses, deep­ens and sur­prises; and lan­guage that fits, moves and evokes. See – it’s easy, no mat­ter what age group you’re writ­ing for.

But there are things you can get away with when you write for over-18s that are an in­stant face plant if you try them on

I’ve had let­ters telling me that I’ve per­verted in­no­cence, stolen child­hoods, “tipped a bucket of slime over our young peo­ple”.

kids. There are pits of sharp spikes you can lurch into. I’ve watched it hap­pen to some adult au­thors. Did I snig­ger? Of course not; I al­ways breathe this way.

Ernest Hem­ing­way wrote that writ­ers need a built-in bull­shit de­tec­tor. Young read­ers al­ready have it. They can pick up “fine writ­ing” two para­graphs away; they’re off the page and on their phones be­fore you can say “ex­tended metaphor”. Adult read­ers will ac­cept a cer­tain amount of por­ten­tous ver­biage. Young ones won’t have a syl­la­ble of it.

They won’t put up with any lec­tures, hom­i­lies or moral apho­risms, ei­ther. Why should

they? They al­ready get it at home and school. The fingers of adult-fic­tion writ­ers can point out Les­sons to Us

All. The fingers of good chil­dren’s writ­ers stay firmly in their pock­ets. Show, don’t tell, as I be­lieve the odd cre­ativewrit­ing teacher may have men­tioned.

Books for chil­dren get judged both on lit­er­ary qual­ity and on moral tone. They reach their au­di­ence mostly via the fil­ter of adult buy­ers, who re­serve the right to pro­tect in­no­cent read­ers. And of course they have that right, though John Mars­den did point out that pro­tec­tion was a po­ten­tial first step to­wards re­pres­sion.

The fact is that kids can han­dle al­most any­thing. They don’t need to be co­cooned or cod­dled in terms of con­tent. Sure, you’re care­ful how you present vi­o­lence, trauma and in­jus­tice, but you don’t deny their ex­is­tence. That would be ly­ing to your read­ers.

I’ve had let­ters telling me that I’ve per­verted in­no­cence, stolen child­hoods, “tipped a bucket of slime over our young peo­ple” (great phrase, eh?). The let­ters were all from adults. Re­ac­tions from kids tend to be along the lines of: “You gonna write an­other book like that?”

You can’t be pre­cious if you’re a chil­dren’s or YA au­thor. I run most of my drafts past read­ers of the rel­e­vant age group (paid read­ers, but don’t ring me). So, Cody, aged 9, tells me, “It was all right – bor­ing some­times, but I just skipped those bits,” and Han­nah, aged 17, gen­tly ex­plains, “I didn’t fin­ish it – but I was re­ally busy last week.”

Good chil­dren’s au­thors can make kids’ worlds more rich and resonant. They give them friends, yearn­ings and voy­ages. They el­e­vate and en­er­gise them. Joy Cow­ley puts it near-per­fectly: “Who­ever said, ‘We only live once’, wasn’t a reader.” I just hope Cody didn’t skip that bit.

Two of David Hill’s books ap­pear in our top 50 kids’ books of 2018 list. He was writ­ten dozens more in his award-win­ning ca­reer.

life in the out­doors, it looks like he might not last the dis­tance, un­til an en­counter with a real-life swag­man teaches him some sur­vival skills.

SOME­DAY by David Le­vithan (Text)

It’s six years since Le­vithan’s novel Ev­ery Day in­tro­duced A, who wakes up ev­ery morn­ing in a dif­fer­ent body. Fall­ing in love, set­ting up a com­pli­cated plan to re­visit Rhi­an­non, he must grap­ple not only with chang­ing time zones and gen­ders but the shock­ing dis­cov­ery that there are oth­ers like him out there.

JU­NIOR FIC­TION IN­HER­I­TANCE by Ca­role Wilkin­son (Black Dog)

Nic has a lot of catch­ing up to do when she comes to live with her grand­dad in the coun­try. Be warned: there’s a vi­o­lent act at the heart of this book – but also a pas­sion­ate plea for hu­man dig­nity, wrapped up in a darned good time-travel yarn. The de­tail, as you’d ex­pect from an award-win­ning his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist, is spot on. For ages 10-plus.

LENNY’S BOOK OF EV­ERY­THING by Karen Foxlee (Allen & Un­win)

In mid-70s Amer­ica, Lenny is big sis­ter to a boy who just won’t stop grow­ing. Their mother, “made al­most en­tirely out of wor­ries and magic”, strug­gles to raise them alone. The high­light of their week is the next in­stal­ment of Bur­rell’s Build-It-atHome En­cy­clo­pe­dia, an in­ge­nious lit­er­ary de­vice that holds the un­rav­el­ling plot to­gether. We know it will end in tears – but it’s a richly re­ward­ing read.

THE MAP­MAK­ERS’ RACE by Eirlys Hunter, il­lus­trated by Kirsten Slade (Gecko)

This rip-roar­ing ad­ven­ture about four kids and a par­rot called Car­rot is clas­sic read-aloud fare. Sans par­ents, the re­source­ful San­tanders per­sist in their quest to map a route through hos­tile ter­rain, against das­tardly adult com­pe­ti­tion, us­ing only the most ba­sic equip­ment and sis­ter Fran­cie’s gift of en­vi­sion­ing the land­scape from above. A win­ner.

EV­ERY­THING I’VE NEVER SAID by Saman­tha Wheeler (UQP)

Locked in­side the prison that is Rett syn­drome, re­liant on oth­ers for her ev­ery need, Ava can com­mu­ni­cate only by scream­ing her frus­tra­tion. As a fam­ily tragedy breaks down bar­ri­ers, a young ther­a­pist of­fers new ways of open­ing her world. A mov­ing fam­ily story.

THE FIRE STAL­LION by Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins)

From Welling­ton to Ice­land, film­mak­ing con­nects peo­ple and horses a world apart in this pow­er­ful time-shift ro­mance. Twelveyear-old Hilly, ac­com­pa­ny­ing her cos­tume-de­signer mum on an Ice- landic film shoot in­volv­ing leg­endary war­rior woman Brun­hilda, feels a mag­netic pull to the is­land … and to the young lead, An­ders. Breath­tak­ing.

SWAL­LOW’S DANCE by Wendy Orr (Allen & Un­win)

In 1625 BCE – the Bronze Age – the Greek is­land now known as San­torini was oblit­er­ated by a great vol­canic erup­tion. Orr ( Nim’s Is­land) was so taken with a lo­cal fresco show­ing girls in cer­e­mo­nial dress that she con­structed this dra­matic yet charm­ing story around them.

FIND­ING by David Hill (Puf­fin)

The story of seven gen­er­a­tions liv­ing by a New Zealand river will res­onate with many Ki­wis, re­gard­less of whether their fore­bears came from Scot­land, Eu­rope or else­where in the world. WUN­DER­SMITH by Jes­sica Townsend (Ha­chette) Poor Mor­ri­gan Crow. She thought she’d be safe in­side the city of Nev­er­moor. But her woes are just be­gin­ning. The se­quel sees our heroine banned from classes, miss­ing her men­tor, Jupiter, and hardly ever see­ing best friend Hawthorne. The first book in the Nev­er­moor se­ries won a slew of awards; this will no doubt do the same.

BRIND­ABELLA by Ur­sula Du­bosarsky, il­lus­trated by An­drew Joyner (Allen & Un­win)

Pen­der and his artist dad live in a sim­ple old stone house on the edge of the bush with their dog, Billy-Bob. When a hunter kills a kan­ga­roo, the boy finds a joey in her pouch. A sat­is­fy­ing tale for younger read­ers about the en­dur­ing bond be­tween wild an­i­mals and hu­mans. BOB by Wendy Mass & Re­becca Stead, il­lus­trated by Ni­cholas Gan­non (Text) Two top US writ­ers cre­ate a mag­i­cal story about an Amer­i­can girl vis­it­ing her Aus­tralian gran – and a short, green crea­ture in a chicken suit, called Bob. A story of re­mem­ber­ing and for­get­ting across vast dis­tances and gen­er­a­tions.

THE FAM­ILY TREE by Mal Peet, il­lus­trated by Emma Shoard (Bar­ring­ton Stoke)

Sad, beau­ti­ful, haunt­ing, this mem­oir of a fa­ther’s fall­ing apart will have you tear­ing up be­fore the tree­house is

Show, don’t tell: David Hill.

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