There has been an ongoing discussion in New Zealand bookish circles about YA books for boys; stirred up, in part, due to the controversial banning of Ted Dawe’s Into the River last year. It’s a discussion that has thrown up some interesting questions. What kind of content is suitable and/or unsuitable for younger readers? What control do we (and should we) have over the content young people consume? And perhaps most importantly; How do we get (and keep) boys reading?
It’s an important conversation, and one that should involve less ‘talking at’ or ‘talking around’ and more ‘talking with’ real teenagers. Let’s face it, we all have opinions. And those opinions are mostly based on our own experiences or values rather than on anything concrete.
I’ve never been a teenage boy, and so in that regard I feel quite underqualified to review Coming Home to Roost. But while saying that, there were times when I was reading this that I felt the author didn’t nail the teenage voice. I’ve never heard a teenager (even a musical one) describe watching an orchestral performance as a high similar to smoking drugs, and I felt that the Peter Pan/Elliot ‘boy who never grows up’ analogy was an insult to Elliot’s development in the tradition of the bildungsroman (Holden Caulfield would never have described himself as a whiner).
While there is a glimpse of on-the-nose social realism here, which explores some very real and engaging issues – I’m told that Coming Home to Roost is the first NZ novel to cover teenage pregnancy from the male protagonist’s point of view – I couldn’t help but feel like this story has been sterilized in terms of characterization, content and morality.
To me, the beauty in social realism is struggling with decisions alongside characters. It’s that gut-churney feeling of realising that real lives and real decisions are varied and complex and double-edged and just plain hard. Too often while reading this I felt like I was being fed a moral agenda, like the ‘right’ decision was there all along, and I just had to wait for Elliot to ‘grow up’; to ‘be a man’. And I couldn’t help but ask myself, is that really what our boys want to read?
I am not a teenage boy; and I’m sure many New Zealand teenagers will read and enjoy this book. There is a solid story here. And despite my griping, I still believe it’s a story we need more of.
Reviewed by Emma Bryson
Coming Home to Roost
by Mary-Anne Scott
Published by Longacre