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


Blog Tour: Sylvie the Second, by Kaeli Baker + a giveaway

I loved this book!

cv_sylvie_the_secondI have spent a great proportion of the last 19 years reading YA material, thinking of how to engage teenage boys, my target readers at Scot’s College (fact of life: where you work to some extent dictates what you read first!).

So to read this was a delightful, tearful, poignant, thought-provoking , feminist-in-a-good-way, funny, clever and all too short treat! Thanks, Kaeli Baker. Keep writing please.

So down to more thoughtful critique:

Kaeli Baker clearly has a handle on teenage behaviour. And on adult behaviour. And on psychological difficulties in kids and adults. And generally on life. For such a young writer, she demonstrates a wealth of understanding which many people can only imagine exists.

The novel is about Sylvie, the second of two daughters, who has poor self-esteem (she’s maybe a bit chubbier than she’d like), few friends (see previous comment) and a sister who is in and out of psychiatric care; Sylvie feels that her parents simply don’t see her. She flips out a bit, and ends up in a seriously horrible situation. So far, similar plot and problems to many other YA novels.

Where this one differs is primarily in the writing, which flows well and carries the reader along, and has enough humour to get you through the tough parts. The characters are all credible and Baker’s insight into the teenage psyche just makes Sylvie and her friends leap off the pages.

I variously wanted to take characters by the scruff of the neck and shake some sense into them, take them out somewhere and quietly dispose of them, or name and shame them. I am not often stirred to such thoughts when I read.

Also, I think that although the protagonist is a girl; the challenges, the turmoil, the innocence (or lack of street-smarts) are all things which are relevant to teenagers of whatever gender or orientation, so there’s no reason to label this as a book “for girls”. When a book works, as this one does, it does not need a designated target market. But it does deserve wide, wide readership. If you know a teenager, give them this book.

It’s a timely, gutsy, thought-provoking read, and I encourage all schools and public libraries to promote it widely. Yes, even the single-sex boys’ schools. It may not get wide readership there, but for each boy who reads it and takes on the points Baker is making, that’s a win in my opinion.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman, former Library Manager at Scot’s College, Wellington

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

We have a copy of Sylvie the Second to give away, to be in to win just leave a comment below by the end of Friday 18 March, telling us the most recent book you have read that has made you go “Wow.” 

Sylvie is on a blog tour! Check out these other blogs and dates for more reviews and interviews:

Mon 14 March:
Tues 15 March:
Wed 16 March:
Thur 17 March:
Fri 18 March:
Sat 19 March: