Book Review: Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand, by Chris Brickell

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_teenagersThe photograph on the cover of Chris Brickell’s Teenagers, which we learn inside is a New Year’s Eve party at Caroline Bay in 1962, is typical of the way many of us still see the quintessential New Zealand teenager: lanky, big-eared white baby boomer lads and soft-featured white baby boomer sheilas, living it up and looking cheeky. Because the ‘teenager’ as a phenomenon was first recognised in the post-war era, and the generation on whom the term was bestowed started celebrating their youth even before the war had ended, the image of what it is to be a young person in New Zealand seems as frozen in time as these cheeky faces: a 50s/60s mash-up of marching girls, milk bars and the Mazengarb report.

All of that is in Brickell’s book, along with a pretty comprehensive and never dry guide to the time’s socio-political factors, pressures and new freedoms. Given the ease with which baby boomers will talk about this sort of stuff, and their appetite for hearing it repeated back to them, it must have been tempting to give this sliver of time even more space. Key to Brickell’s success here, as in his excellent Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand, is the balance he strikes between representing a plurality of experience while recognising common themes and behaviours over time.

It’s not untrue to say the book proves again that youth is youth and always will be, but that isn’t the only lesson here. It is the differences, not the similarities, which make Teenagers so engrossing. Brickell’s attention to those groups which fall outside of our received image of the past (see cover photograph) allows him to reveal a messier, more class-conscious New Zealand. Yes, there are stories of individuals revelling in teenage joy and discovery, but the various troubles of New Zealand’s teenagers often reflect all too neatly wider tensions around national security and identity.

The book is laid out chronologically, and the reader is drawn in to individual lives through diary excerpts, letters and oral accounts. Brickell only covers that time up until the 1960s, but it’s clear through the book’s closing chapter that the period of his own youth is just as fraught and storied as any which precede it. The book is rich with stories and diversions chosen with percipience, but there will always be more to say.

Reviewed by Jonny Potts

Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand
by Chris Brickell
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408688

Book Review: The Hate Race, by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Available now in bookshops nationwide. A must-read. cv_the_hate_race

Maxine and I grew up in the same country, during the same era. As a New Zealander, I was also a little different, and I was discriminated against by one particular teacher, but this wasn’t widespread. I am white. My best friend was Australian-Indian – she was born there, but her parents weren’t. Reading this book made me think harder about what the impact the colour of her skin must have had on her. To me, she was my BFF. When we returned to NZ when I was 11, I was none the wiser about her experience.

What happened to Maxine Beneba Clarke by virtue of the colour of her skin, growing up in a small town in NSW, Australia, was unforgiveable. Maxine is Australian, her parents, as far as she was aware, were from England. Her first experience of racism was at preschool, at the hands of a pretty blond girl who stated, “You are brown”. While she had realised she wasn’t white, she hadn’t realised that this was perceived as a bad thing until that point. And from that point forward, many wouldn’t let her forget it. At primary school, she was star of the week, and when telling her teacher her parents were a Mathematician and an Actress she was assumed, by the teacher, to be lying.

She prays to a God she doesn’t believe in to become white, like everybody else, and one day it happens. Her skin starts turning white. Her mum takes her to the dermatologist, who diagnoses vitiligo. It doesn’t last, she turns dark again once the summer returns. Later she notes, “By grade eight, the wake-up-white prayers of my childhood had been well and truly reality-checked. I knew it would take an awful lot for broad-nosed, coffee-toned, B-cup, study-freak me to make the grass-greener leap.”

Maxine is a skilful storyteller, and grounds each segment of the book in its place politically, and socially. Her love for her family and friends shines, while she tells her stories of torment without the grainy taste of revenge. And it was torment – every time she moved schools, changed after-school activities, there would be a group of people who had been allowed, even trained by their culture to ridicule her. There is no doubt in the book, that this treatment of race was/is insidious and endemic in the White Australian culture. She spoke to a guidance counsellor who said it was a ‘little bit of teasing,’ when she had nasty notes being placed in her bag, her books, telling her to “go home”. She took another bullying incident to the principal, bawling, who said ‘It’s just a little bit of nonsense.’

But though there is misery, and this is a memoir, it is not – somehow – an overwhelmingly downbeat read. “The margins between events have blended and shifted in the tell of it. There’s that folklore way West Indians have of weaving a tale: facts just so, gasps and guffaws in all the right places, because after all, what else is a story for?” Maxine’s storytelling lifts us when we need it, and the depths we plumb are of the behaviour of others, and how Maxine changed as a result. The boys at her high school played a game at the entrance to the girl’s toilets: ‘What are you?’ She had to give the right answer – “A blackie.” – to get past. It is in that chapter that we get the full sense of how this was creating her as a person:
“…I was Sooty, Boong, Thick Lips.
Somewhere along the line we give up counting.
Somewhere along the line, we just give in.
Somewhere along the line, we stop reporting.
Somewhere along the line, we die a little.”

I had the privilege to see Maxine at Auckland Writer’s Festival, speaking live to a multicultural group of high school students. She was one of the most powerful performers I’ve ever seen on stage.

I think every white person should read this, everywhere. Not just in Australia, nor just in New Zealand: everywhere. “Everyday racism” shouldn’t be a thing. “Black Lives Matter” shouldn’t be necessary to state. All high schools, too, should have this book on their shelves. This is about racism: this is about bullying based on something a person can’t change. It is important for teenagers to understand the impact words can have.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Hate Race
by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9780733632280

WORD: No Sex Please, We’re teenagers. Mandy Hager with Ted Dawe, Karen Healey and Frances Young

This session took a good look at what is okay to represent, sex-wise, in literature for teenagers. On stage were YA authors Mandy Hager, Ted Dawe and Karen Healey, and psychologist and sex therapist Frances Young. It was a discussion worth having, and it was interesting to have the point of view from Frances as somebody who deals with the results of dangerous cultural norms being created.

The first question was about whether it is in fact okay to have sex in YA fiction: and is there a personal line you wouldn’t cross? Each of the panel says yes absolutely, and Karen made the essential point early on that positive promiscuity is a good thing in YA fiction. As a teacher, she wouldn’t write explicit erotica under her own name. She’s not worried about other students, but about their parents. And while she wouldn’t write a rape scene, she would write about the aftermath.

Ted Dawe felt compelled by his publisher to hold back with his language in Thunder Road, to allow the book to go into school libraries. However, when he wrote Into the River, he answered to the call of his narrative. “Sex is realistic when talking about teenage males.” His depiction of Devon’s “unglamorous beginning sex” wasn’t to meet a theme he wanted to tackle – he was just writing what Devon would do. He didn’t see the outrage coming: it took the gloss off the book winning the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award.

Frances is very keen on any way to get more moral, ethical information out there about real sex, to support people to be more emotionally available to themselves – so they can actually have the tools to decide whether they are “on” or “off.” She is also keen to have more sex in comics to make it more accessible – not everybody is going to delve into a novel.

The next question Mandy asked her panellists to discuss was their pet hates about the way books talk about sex. Karen Healey is very passionate about removing the shame attached to sex in people’s lives, and removing the shame and disgust for the human body. She notes this is especially important when talking to teenagers. Frances added to this later on by noting that most teens have an awareness of their sexual self by their mid-teens: making it even more important that this positivity is there.

Ted talked a little about the “Harry Potter effect”: the pushing away of realism, in favour of fantasy. He sees his book was tricky because it was a “warts and all depiction of young men.” I don’t think he’s read Karen Healey’s books, so I was very happy an audience member highlighted this later in question time. For Karen, the advantage of fantasy is that it allows her to literalise sex through metaphor. To her, a fraught relationship is even more interesting if one can set fires with their mind. She always strives for emotional realism.

This is where we got into the theme of porn: Frances’ pet hate is porn. “88% of pornography scenes are verbally or physically violent towards women. This is distorting young people’s view of what a sexual relationship should look like.” Frances says parents need to be able to support kids navigate the highways they are seeking out. This part of the talk, her descriptions of porn and the way it is affecting sexual relationships, made me want to remove all the screens in the house as soon as my boys got to age 12.

It got very interesting when we began talking a bit more about consent – the ‘dubious consent’ Ted alluded to. When you put this type of thing in a novel, are you compelled to put a counter-argument? Ted thinks if you do this, you are no longer being an author. Karen disagrees, she will introduce counter-arguments. They agreed that if writers weren’t all different, there would be nothing to talk about!

The role of schools
Educating teens about sex is a full community project, says Frances. You need buy-in, from the principal right down to the teens themselves, and of course their parents. At the moment we are in a public health crisis: she makes the note if you want to know how to talk to your teens about sex, go to Into the Picture. This is being brought into schools in New Zealand through the Public Health service.

As an English teacher, Karen Healey sees the important thing to be teaching research skills, and how to discern bias. It’s important for them to be able to read to learn, if they don’t think they can talk to parents. Karen stresses when talking about film that it is manipulative, she teaches close viewing skills – though she notes that she can’t dissect a sex scene without being fired. Ted similarly tried to impose cultural change through the curriculum, with an attempt to teach Deliverance (the book). His HOD blocked it, and incinerated all 40 copies he’d bought of the book.

Karen and Ted have both been published in NZ and in the USA – Karen has had to dial back sex in YA for the US market (so she can get into book fairs), while allowing the violence in Guardian of the Dead to stay. Ted has had no reaction other than positive reviews with the publication of Into the River in the USA – to his surprise. Frances agreed that there are differences in the way NZ and Australia approach sex in books to how the USA does. She also noted that the correlation of sex and violence together is perpetuating a culture of sexual aggression – the Roastbusters case being a good example of this.

Roastbusters was described recently by the Chief Censor as an ‘example of societal moral decay.’ However, Ted doesn’t think this culture is new at all, but social media has put it on steroids. We explored the concept of ‘differing degrees of rape.’ Karen pointed out that we have so many people walking around not knowing that they’re rapists, thinking because they were drunk, or the girl was, it didn’t count.

David Hill asked a question about teen reviewers: do the writers on the panel find them as judgemental as parents? Karen and Ted saw this differently – Karen says yes, but Ted has never had any complaints. I wonder if this is a gender thing, young women may be more confident in complaining about this type of thing – guys don’t think it is ‘masculine’ enough to be worried about bad language.

As with all sessions in this festival, this has once again left me with food for thought. And that is what a literary festival is for.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

No sex please: We’re teenagers
WORD CHristchurch, 26 August

Karen Healey also appears in:
The Nerd Degree,Sun 28 Aug, 5pm


Book Review: Bad Apple, by Matt Whyman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_bad_appleBad Apple is a fun book. That is the whole of it in a sentence. It is a fun book with a jail-break and a road trip and a showdown, all delightfully interspersed with a little bit of humor for everyone. Matt Whyman has written a book that is fast-paced without feeling rushed and fun without losing track of his plot and characters that while bad, are bad in such a good way. This is a book full of unacceptable behavior that will have you laughing like an idiot in the middle of class. Just as a side note, I would not recommend reading this in a Maths class under a desk. You will get in trouble for it and may end up shipped off to a Troll settlement with all the other bad apples.

That’s the idea behind the book, Trolls are real, 99% genetically identical to humans and living underground, swapping out human kids for trolls at birth. Unfortunately, this is only revealed in those teenage years, when bad behavior comes out in full force. One DNA test later and if the Troll DNA has revealed itself, those kids are disowned and sent to a Troll settlement. I know, a pretty rough and disheartening start to a comedy, but the way Matt Whyman manages to diffuse the tension of it and introduce humor and layers to the story is what makes it such an entertaining read. Following the delightful mishaps and gloriously awful behavior from Maurice and Wretch is awesome, and with a plot so full of action and humor, it’s hard to not read all in one go.

Not only this but Bad Apple is in my mind the sort of book that anyone could read and take something away from, weather that is an entertaining story and plenty of laughs or a deeper look at the judgement found in our society. There are huge amounts of layers to this book, hiding in plain sight everywhere you turn and all of it is intellectually stimulating and deserves to be ticking over in the minds of everyone who can see it. I love this book because its one that rewards you for thinking a little harder with a serious message and a societal commentary. The great thing is though is that if you don’t take that message away it doesn’t matter! You’ve still enjoyed a shockingly good and thrilling adventure story so who cares! This book appeals to everyone in this way and that in itself is brilliant.

This is a book I think everyone could, should and would read and enjoy and if it sparks the bookish Maurice or the Bad-apple Wretch inside of you to burst forward, that’s definitely a win.

Reviewed by Michaela-Rose Tripp
As part of the Allen & Unwin YA Ambassador review team 

Bad Apple
by Matt Whyman
Published by Hot Key Books
ISBN 9781471404207

Book Review: He’ll Be OK, by Celia Lashlie

cv_hell_be_okay_lashlieAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

As a mother of two boys, one of whom has only just gone to school, I have some time before their teenage years arrive and carry them away from childhood and onto the path into adulthood. This book, nonetheless, feels essential to me already.

The edition of this book I am reading is the 10th anniversary edition of this international bestseller, published very soon after Lashlie’s death of cancer last year. Celia Lashlie traveled throughout the world as a speaker about social justice issues, and the psychology of teenage boys. The core of her work with teenage boys was the NZ Good Man Project, a project involving 25 schools from all over New Zealand, of various socio-economic backgrounds. This served to give her a solid understanding of what makes teenage boys tick, and how parents can work together to keep them on the right track.

The book itself is direct, succinct and like I guess Celia herself, not afraid to tell things straight. Each chapter tells the background of how Celia has come to the conclusions she presents, then the key messages are summarised in bullet-points. This is a very easy manner of presentation, assuming its future use as a reference text.

When I realised somebody I knew was about to start work as an English teacher at a boys’ high school I immediately said ‘Have you read He’ll be OK?’ She hadn’t, so I am going to ensure there is an opportunity to give a copy of the book to her. Every teacher working with boys – especially female teachers – should have this book.

The simplistic view I was given of boys versus girls, when I had sons, is that girls are much more complicated – with boys, they are easier to read, and so to understand. What I learned from Celia is that your son may become a monosyllabic grunter, but this is simply because they are processing everything internally, unlike girls, who are more likely to talk things out. Boys will discuss acceptable ‘male’ things like anger with one another, but not the ‘feminine’ emotions.

The essential message Celia gives to mother is, ‘Step off the bridge’. At a certain stage, your boys need to grow up, and they need you not to be forcing them to hold your hand as they do so. Common sense, sure, but something most mums are guilty of forgetting once in awhile. It is over to the fathers, or a father-figure to help them figure out their way over the bridge.

I can’t overstate the importance of this book for any mother or teacher of boys. Get this book – no matter what stage your boy is at, it will be useful.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

He’ll Be OK
by Celia Lashlie
Published by Harper Collins
ISBN 9781775540809

There is a day of lectures coming up in Wellington celebrating Celia Lashlie’s legacy, on Thursday 25 February. More information here.

Book Review: Daughter, by Jane Shemilt

Available in bookstores nationwide.

While working as a GP, Jane Shemilt completed a postgrcv_daughteraduate diploma in creative writing at Bristol University. She then went on to study for a MA in creative writing. She was shortlisted for the Janklow & Nesbit Bath Spa prize and the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize for Daughter, which is her first novel. She lives in Bristol with her husband and five children.

Jenny is a GP, her Ted husband a Neurologist at Bristol Hospital – both working long hours. They have three teenage children, twin sons Ed and Theo and a daughter Naomi. They are a busy family with everybody going in different directions each day. Jenny and Ted, like most parents of teenagers feel that they “know their children,” despite the fact they are moody and secretive. What secrets are they hiding?

Daughter, Naomi, has a role in the school play with rehearsals after school each day. As opening night gets closer the moodiness and slyness seems to intensify. When Naomi doesn’t come home one night, her movements and her life are in question. Nobody seems to know where she might be, and those that do, aren’t telling. Jenny can’t understand where as parents, she and Ted have gone wrong. “She used to tell me everything.” The police are informed. Everyone is questioned, their movements verified. Jenny and Ted’s marriage unravels. Jenny shifts to the family holiday cottage in Dorset with Ted staying in the family home. Trying to trace Naomi’s movements after her disappearance, the secrets start to unravel.

What the reader learns is any parent’s worst nightmare.

This is a good easy read – I thoroughly enjoyed it. This would make a great present for that “difficult” person to buy for or as a treat for yourself. As a lover of thrillers my taste buds were well satisfied.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

by Jane Shemilt
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9781405916516

Review: The Jellybean Crisis by Jolene Stockman

cv_the_jelly_bean_crisisThis book is in bookstores now.

Poppy Johnson lives her life the way she eats her jellybeans – getting the boring difficult stuff (the green jellybeans) out of the way first so she can savour the great stuff (the red jellybeans) once she gets there. The problem is, Poppy’s life has so far been a lot of green and not much red, and when a schoolmate suddenly achieves her life’s dream without ever ‘eating any green jellybeans’, Poppy’s jellybean theory, and her life, is thrown into crisis. She’s won the coveted Denton Scholarship to Colombia, her life’s ambition, but now she’s not sure she actually wants it.

With some help from her school guidance counsellor, Poppy persuades her parents to let her take a ‘gap month’ – thirty days off school to try different things and see what she wants to do with her life.

The Jellybean Crisis is a fiction spin off to author Jolene Stockman’s non-fiction life planning guide for teens – Total Blueprint for World Domination. While The Jellybean Crisis is a fun read, the formula that the author is trying to promote in her non-fiction work comes across quite obviously in this book too. Because of this, much of Poppy’s story is predictable and a lot of the secondary characters feel underdeveloped and clichéd. All the workers on the organic farm, for example, were portrayed as hairy-legged, peace-love-and-brown-rice vegetarians, who rush off to protest about trees being chopped down in their hand-painted old van at every chance they get.

Poppy’s dad also doesn’t quite ring true. Supposedly determined not to emulate his own father and steer his children in a direction they don’t want to go, he is clearly doing just that, and (without wanting to give too much away), his character transformation at the end feels unlikely and forced.

There are some well-developed and enjoyable characters in the book, including Poppy’s Nana, who is about to go back to train as a nurse; Poppy’s sport-mad brother, Tyler; and her new friend and love interest Stratford, who is working hard to get himself to film school.

Despite its predictability and some underdeveloped characters, The Jellybean Crisis was an easy and enjoyable read, and would be a particularly good choice for teens needing some help figuring out their direction. It didn’t change my world, but in the right hands, (and perhaps accompanied by the non-fiction Total Blueprint for World Domination), it could well be a catalyst for change in someone else’s life.

Reviewed by Renée Boyer-Willisson

The Jellybean Crisis
by Jolene Stockman
Published by Jolene Stockman
ISBN 9781477448953

COMPETITION: We ran a competition to win a copy of this book – congratulations to our winner, blacknaf.