Sylvie the Second heads Into the River

cv_sylvie_the_secondThere is no getting around it, Sylvie the Second tackles teenage issues that would quickly become the scourge of the extreme right should it have the temerity to call itself a ‘children’s book’. While the ‘F’ and ‘C’ words are not used that I recall in the book – putting it at least a little below Ted Dawe’s Into the River in terms of the Family First agenda – there are other serious issues dealt with in the book –rape, self-harm and alcohol abuse for starters – which are relevant and important to the YA audience it was written for.

Sylvie the Second is our protagonist Sylvie’s name for herself: she always comes second. She feels invisible, and is having trouble figuring out where she fits in the newly teenage boy-crazed world she appears to have landed in. After a drastic change of image spurred by her sister “Calamity” Cate’s most recent suicide attempt, she suddenly gets noticed, but not all of this attention is healthy. One fateful night she goes to a party because a hot boy notices her: what happens there changes her life, seeing her turn to alcohol and self-harm to help with the pain.

cv_into_the_riverThe reality of teen life is there in all its nastiness (I was so grateful I was no longer a teenager), but this book is not as gritty as Into the River. The kids aren’t nicer, not at all, but it doesn’t feel as dangerous – perhaps because the adults are distracted & self-absorbed, rather than providing the tools of destruction. Sylvie the Second isn’t an entirely negative portrayal of teen life; the ending is overwhelmingly redemptive. Nevertheless, we wanted to ask Kaeli a few questions about her tightrope-walking book.

As Sylvie the Second went to print with newish publishers Makaro Press in September 2015, Family First had scored a new win, in appealing the Classification Office’s decision in August 2015 to remove the 14+ restriction with the New Zealand Film and Literature Board of Review, which lead to the interim banning of Into the River, the 2013 Margaret Mahy Children’s Book of the Year.

Did this make Kaeli a little nervous, I wondered – and what did she think of Into the River?
“I think it’s a brilliant book and it deals with a lot of relevant issues. I can understand the fears society has regarding teens reading about issues deemed to be “adult,” but in reality teenagers are also having sex, doing drugs, swearing like sailors etc. Obviously not all of them, but reading about it certainly isn’t going to destroy their innocence and it won’t make them have more sex or do more drugs or engage in more violent behaviours. Teens are known for pushing boundaries, so I think making those things a taboo subject is a dangerous game. ”

Since becoming a finalist for the Book Awards for Children & Young Adults (the YA was added back into the branding in 2014, after a 4-year break), it had crossed Kaeli’s mind that Sylvie the Second runs the risk of becoming a new drum for Family First to beat – but she stands by the fact that these topics are important and relevant. How is she so certain she is right? Kaeli, who goes by a pseudonym, works in youth mental health. Much like Ted Dawe, she sees and works with young people every day. She knows her audience well.

“We need to be able to be able to name these issues and give them some space, otherwise they’re more likely to erupt and consume us. Young people are bright and smart and like to think they have all the answers, but sometimes they make the wrong choices. When that happens they need adults in their life that they can come to at their most vulnerable, who they trust aren’t afraid of their darkness and can walk alongside them as they find their feet. Just being there and being brave enough to have difficult conversations is so important.

“As for any suggestion that Sylvie the Second could put the idea of self-harm / suicide / underage drinking into teenager’s heads: books are not responsible for people’s actions. Romeo and Juliet killed themselves because their parents didn’t understand them, and this has been taught in schools for centuries.”

Why we have to talk about these issues in YA books is neatly summed up in one line from the book. “I got the impression that adults tended to discuss everything but the difficult topics, as opposed to teenagers who focused only on the hard stuff.”

Sylvie the Second has some tough competition to win the YA category this year’s Book Awards for Children & Young Adults, but Kaeli herself is certainly a writer to watch, and she is a top contender to receive the Best First Book prize. This book is one to buy and keep, for adults to remind them what teenagers are like, and the tools they have to destroy each other; and for teens to remind them that everything is connected, and you will overcome.

by Sarah Forster

Sylvie the Second
by Kaeli Baker
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780994106537


Going West Festival: Anna Smaill and Paula Morris in conversation

cv_the_chimesAnna Smaill’s dystopian adventure story, The Chimes, has perched itself on a shelf inhabited by my favourite books. It sits with Atwood and Byatt and Janet Frame and McEwan and Orwell. And it well and truly holds its own. This young New Zealander has crafted a vision of post-‘Allbreaking’ London, which is poetry and music and quest all in one. Smaill spoke with author and friend Paula Morris about her novel, just a few days before the announcement of the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize.

Smaill is disarmingly articulate. She dances us through the concept of the book, and recreates the setting – an indeterminate future in London where a musical instrument, the carillon, casts a mass amnesia over the bulk population. She describes the city and ‘the under’, the complex of tunnels below ground wherein the protagonist and his pact mudlark for palladium. She tells us about the way music is both breaker and maker of memories, and describes how people can use music to encode a sort of topographical map, by which they might navigate during the course of a day.

It would seem that music, and the order that promotes it, is an oftentimes malevolent force in Smaill’s story. But she tells us it is more Platonic ideal, a striving for order, a weeding out of ‘dischord’, than malevolence per se. That leads Morris to question Smaill’s own relationship with music. Smaill relates her past as a musician and a student of music, her own limitations as a violinist, and her ambivalence about the musical world. She hints, however, that she may make a return to playing, with a different instrument.

pp_anna_smaillSmaill and Morris discuss memory, and the lack of memory, as a very central aspect of the book. Smaill talks about the difficulty of creating first person narrative under such constraints. Simon, her central character, is under the grip of the carillon’s amnesiac chiming, and so has a slippery hold on notions of other characters and events and places. Smaill tells us that, with these conditions in play, she was unable to employ many of the usual tools which help a writer create an idea of character.

Morris asks Smaill about the lexicon of her story – the portmanteaus, neologisms, musical terms and archaic words. Smaill says that many of the words, especially the portmanteaus, came about ‘organically’. There are words, too, where spelling has been chosen to give a word multiple meanings, as with her use of ‘mettle’. She credited Riddley Walker as an inspiration here.

Smaill and Morris also spoke about living in London, and about Smaill’s own process of, once back in New Zealand, trying to remember the city she left so as to finish the novel – a process, Morris notes, that is akin to the straining-to-remember that her characters endure.

Finally, there was talk about Young Adult fiction as a genre, whether The Chimes fits the Young Adult brief, and Smaill’s dismay at the banning of Ted Dawe’s award-winning book for young adults, Into the River. Oh, and she mentioned that she’s creating a new novel, set in Tokyo.

A splendid session. Anna Smaill was all I imagined her to be, and then some. I thoroughly recommend you acquire a copy of her novel.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Morton
Sunday, 13 September at Going West