3 Recent YA Novels With Mythology At Their Heart

Kate De Goldi discusses children’s literature with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand Saturday Morning

Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield

Vikki Wakefield is an Australian YA author.

Kate De Goldi is not a fan of melodramatic, amped-up lines, and so began the first few pages of this book overcoming that: A one sentence line which stands alone and does all the work for you – a terrible trick, especially because the subject matter is often white-hot and aimed at an age-group which is particularly high octane. De Goldi prefers a tamped down kind of writing in which the character does the emoting for you. This book feels like it’s been written in sepulchral tones.

However, this feeling quickly dissipated: This author is a taut stylist and has great storytelling — this is a page turner. It’s about homeless kids, nearly destroyed kids, with a sociopathic, charismatic woman at the heart of it.

This story is about storytelling more than anything else. One of her mother’s stories is that all the women in the family have died by water. It has a lot of drama, is very elemental, and set in an unspecified Australian city. They do go out into country Australia, reminiscent of the writing of Wayne Macaulay in its depiction of the unforgiving landscape. The bush in Australian lit equals the forest.

Recommended for any child 12 up, boy or girl. There is sex in this book, but where isn’t there?

Calling the Gods by Jack Lasenby

This book could only be written by a person who has lived a full physical, intellectual and emotional life. It’s an extraordinary tale. The gods are the whales under the water. Lasenby’s narrative techniques in this book are daring but come off, absolutely. It begins with an earlier society and they’re banishing the person who prays to the gods, Celine. It’s fictional historical or post-apocalyptic (it is and it isn’t). The culture is allied to NZ society in some way — they either come from it or precede it. They live somewhere called ‘Hornish’. Lasenby takes geography we know and transforms it, giving it different names. It’s a bit of a puzzle working out where he might mean. Eventually the characters come to NZ – though we don’t work that out for a while – and it’s probably the Kapiti Coast.

Meanwhile, halfway through the book we get the old man’s story, which is what makes this narratively daring. Jim Rotherham is a kind of Lasenby authorial narrative voice. There’s a density of allusion.

Apart from anything else, the business of surviving, of making crops, of building things, is reminiscent of Swiss Family Robinson. [I get that same satisfaction from the Little House On The Prairie series.] This is about how communities make themselves. All through the book they’re coming across remnants of communities. It’s multi-layered. It’s completely riveting.

There’s plenty of literature and NZ culture, and carefully crafted comments about what we’re doing to ourselves. This book is for everyone. Although this is cliche, this is a man working at the height of his powers. Lasenby is in his 80s now, and quite unbelievably, has never managed an international audience. Perhaps he doesn’t give a damn about that, but this book could easily be read by anyone overseas. It’s incredible that when we talk about icons such as Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson, Jack Lasenby isn’t included. Buy it for everyone for Christmas.

Red Rocks by Rachael King

This is the first children’s book from New Zealand author Rachael King. This is a modern dimension to the selkie story. Margo Lanagan has also written very well about selkies, but this one is for a younger audience (10 year olds to 13 max.) This one evokes the south coast of Wellington. There’s a fear of water there, really powerfully done. There are a lot of selkie stories out there, but this one has its own take. The boy and his relationship with his father is well done, as is the sense of the elemental and mucking around in boats.

Bullying is not handled particularly well, moving the story forward rather clunkily [I would argue bullying is rarely handled well in kidlit] but this is King’s first book. It’s not an easy transition from writing for grownups to writing for children. Some writers come to it thinking they have to dumb down the way conversation works and the interior thoughts of kids, but De Goldi doesn’t believe that needs to be done at all. De Goldi wanted a bit more sophistication in the child’s responses and thinking — he was well able to wear that.

Still, this is a good adventure for kids around 10-11.


The Glorification Of Childhood

The concept of universal childhood is a Romantic abstraction which ignores the real conditions of children’s communication across borders. There is no ‘world republic of childhood’ in which the conditions are in any way on a par with one another…The vision of the universal child, the same the world over, refuses to acknowledge difficulties and contradictions in relation to childhood, offering in their place a glorification of the child, cast in the role of innocent saviour of mankind in a tradition which reaches back to Rousseau’s Emile with its creed that with every child humankind receives another chance for positive renewal.

– Comparative Children’s Literature by Emer O’Sullivan

Three Questions

1. What can I expect of children whose understanding of language is not yet nearly as well developed as my own adult linguistic skills, without asking too much of them?

2. What ought I to expect of children without contravening educational, psychological, moral and aesthetic requirements, particularly since it is not always easy to bring those four into line with each other?

3. And the third question, unfortunately, is: what does the market allow me, want me or forbid me to do in a rapidly developing media society?

from Comparative Children’s Literature by Emer O’Sullivan (trans. from Boie 1995)

What Is Your Concept Of Childhood?

If we compare Americans and French, it seems as though the relation between childhood and adulthood is almost completely opposite in the two cultures. In America we regard childhood as a very nearly ideal time, a time for enjoyment, an end in itself. The American image of the child…is of a young person with great resources for enjoyment, whose present life is an end in itself. With the French…it seems to be the other way around. Childhood is a period of probation, when everything is a means to an end, it is unenviable from the vantage point of adulthood.

– Childhood In Contemporary Culture, Wolfenstein (1955)

I am neither American nor French, so as an adult who grew up in New Zealand, I’m wondering about my own view of childhood. Is it possible to fit neatly in the middle, viewing childhood as neither particularly good nor particularly bad? I certainly had worries as a child. I distinctly remember that one of my greatest fears at the age of five was to arrive home from school to find the gate shut. Dad had built that tall gate several years previous, to keep me in, after I ran off  ‘to see the lions’ at the age of two and a half, wearing nothing but a nappy and a bib (I’ve heard that story many times), but I feared that if I ever came home from school and it was shut, I’d never ever get into the house again. I don’t know quite what I thought. Perhaps I was expecting permanent banishment. In fact, I never thought that far. My fear was irrational. So every morning before I left for school I told mum to leave the gate open for me.

Mum remembered the gate almost all of the time. Except for once. When I got home it was shut tight and I couldn’t reach it. I screamed and hollered so loudly that the mother from across the road came and rescued me… and changed my pants. How humiliating. I suppose my own mother had got caught up at the shops or something. I wasn’t permanently banished. I don’t remember worrying so much about the gate after that, though.

These days I worry about bigger things, but I’m better able to cope with those things, so the worries seem neither more nor less significant than that simple childhood fear of abandonment. Childhood would be blissful, perhaps, if we could approach it with the carefree spirit of adulthood, knowing all that we know as grown-ups.

I do find it interesting that different cultures have different general concepts of childhood, because the American view of childhood as bliss, and its depictions in certain stories, has never sat right with me. It’s nice to know that this is due in part to my culture, and not to some terrible repressed memories I must’ve had, colouring my relatively pessimistic view forever after!