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Finding joy in new treasure: NZCYA Best First Book finalists

July 27th, 2020 By Bridget Schaumann

Isn’t it thrilling to have a crop of new children’s book authors and illustrators? These books engage our young people with a feast of words and visuals. It makes this section of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults (NZCYA) a real delight.

I loved getting to know the Best First Book Award illustrators and authors through these books. The judges have chosen a crop that will bring joy to their readers and will hopefully kick-start volumes of wonderful books from the nominees.

These books are a wonderfully diverse bunch, taking you into local Kiwi life and out to tropical Singapore. Every one of them makes you feel, care, and often laugh out loud. All things that make kids' books inherently good for you!

This blog post is the sixth in a series reviewing books on the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults (NZCYA) shortlist in the run-up to the announcement of the award winners on 12 August.

Best First Book Award promotional image with New Zealand Book Awards logo and thumbnail images of book covers
Best First Book Award 2020 finalists. Image via New Zealand Book Awards Trust.

The shortlist

The Day the Plants Fought Back!

The Day the Plants Fought Back! by Belinda O’Keefe tells the story of what happens when two very naughty brothers take their quest to cause trouble one step too far. They find that the plants they have been using to pelt things with have had enough. Now the plants are out for revenge. The plants fight back in quite a terrifying way, teaching a life lesson to the brothers.

This hilariously funny, rhyming book has great pace and so much to look at in the clever illustrations that you’ll be able to keep a child entertained for hours. The expressions on the vegetable faces are priceless. Richard Hoit's colourful illustrations completely capture the arched eyebrows on the various vegetables and have a definite element of snark. You’ll be checking the ears of your corn for beady eyes from now on!

This is such fun to read aloud — I imagine it becoming an instant favourite for children of all ages, and because it scans so well, the grown-ups will be delighted to read it over and over again.

Santa’s Worst Christmas

What? No Christmas? This is the shocking scenario that seems certain in Santa’s Worst Christmas by Pania Tahau-Hodges and Bryony Walker of Huia Publishing. Grab a small person and pour over the delightful illustrations and visual treasure in these pages. Illustrator Isobel Joy Te Aho-White is a worthy nominee for the Best First Book category.

You'll gasp over the fact that Christmas is threatened. Surely that can’t be right. This is a disaster! But it seems Santa has had enough and has pulled the pin on the big day. He’s had too many disasters and now, to top it all off, his computer is on the blink. How will he get the lists of who's been good and who's been bad? On hearing the dreadful news of the Christmas cancellation, an enterprising whānau decide to save Christmas. They work together, make a plan, assemble the tools, and make something for Santa that will save not just Santa’s mental health, but Christmas for the whole world.

This is such a lovely book. Watching the rescue mission unfold through the images is such fun. The cast of adorable characters will win your heart and keep the careful picture-lookers happy for hours, pointing and searching for little sparks of joy on every page. There's so much to see and so many recognisable characters for small New Zealanders that this is a book for any time of year. A sure-fire hit for families to share.

And the book is also a finalist for the Picture Book Award, the Russell Clark Award for Illustration, and the Te Kura Pounamu Award.

The Smelly Giant

Written by Kurahau, The Smelly Giant is a glorious, bright, large-format book, just like the hero in this story, who towers above all the other people in his village. The book has a gorgeous, colourful cover, which will make it stand out from other books. The insides of the book are equally bright and follow the mood of the story — you can feel the action through the pictures.

Laya Mutton Rogers has done a wonderful job in drawing your eye to the large as well as the small in the beautifully detailed illustrations. Everything about Toe Jam is huge, but especially the stench from his feet — so smelly are they that the villagers cast him out. Despite their meanness, he saves them from flood, vicious winds, and drought, but still, they send him away. His only companion is one little bird whose tale is told in illustrations alongside Toe Jam’s.

This tale, about the loneliness of the bullied and the sadness of those who are constantly criticized, teaches that even the giants amongst us need kindness and care. With editions in Māori and English, teachers will embrace this book when exploring manaakitanga, bullying, forgiveness, and respect.

Lizard's Tale

Weng Wai Chan has written an action-filled adventure story, full of plot twists, dollops of mystery, brave and tenacious kids, and some suitably dastardly villains. Lizard's Tale was the winner of a Storylines Notable Book award this year. From the very first page, this novel for primary and middle-grade children will have you hooked and would make a fantastic class read-aloud.

Set in Singapore in 1940, the threat of invasion is very real. Spies are everywhere and it's hard to know who to trust. A young boy nicknamed Lizard is suddenly drawn into the action when he accepts a job stealing a box from a hotel room. What he doesn’t expect is a girl who is as feisty as he is and to suddenly find himself in the middle of a web of danger. The characters you’ll meet in this book are richly drawn, incredibly engaging, and have mad spycraft skills.

The book is beautifully designed with tropical fronds on the chapter pages, and the cover is so inviting you just want to dive in. What a treat to read! It flows beautifully, and if you're a fan of Katherine Rundell’s novels, this will sit with those very comfortably.

Download the teaching notes and read a sample chapter on the Text Publishing website.

'Lizard's Tale' is also a finalist for the Junior Fiction Award.


#Tumeke! starts with Tapegirl (aka Dreadflock), the new kid in town, putting a notice on the community noticeboard outside the library. This simple act will lead to something BIG — a celebration on Waitangi Day where the whole community will come together in a day of fun and frolicking. Making that happen will take a bunch of very diverse members of the community. There'll be a big idea, meetings will be held, minutes will be taken, and favours called in.

And you'll see all this unfold with fantastic graphics. The noticeboard is pivotal to the story — notices change and connections happen. What is with the mysterious man in the green tracksuit? The missing goats are a worry!

'#Tumeke!' is just a great big, rollicking festival of fun. You'll read minutes, txts, posters, diaries, and emails. There are drawings and a bunch of other treats for the eyes. '#Tumeke!' shouts its presence with a glorious yellow cover. Author Michael Petherick has nailed the feel of New Zealand with this treasure.

For teachers, '#Tumeke!' is a gift. You could use it in so many ways in the classroom — as inspiration for writing starters, when talking about communication, for a chat about images, and the different ways people connect. It is a big-hearted, thoroughly New Zealand gem. A must in every school library.

'#Tumeke!' is also a finalist for the Junior Fiction Award.

A lovely week with these books

I have loved getting to know these books and poring over the illustrations. I’ve read and reread them.

Sometimes, it's the story peppered with great characters that has totally captured me — I’m looking at you 'Lizard’s Tale'. With several of them, it's the illustrations, humour and feel-good factor — '#Tumeke!', 'Santa’s Worst Christmas', 'The Day the Plants Fought Back!'. Others got me with their deep connection to our place — 'The Smelly Giant', '#Tumeke!', 'Santa’s Worst Christmas'.

It’s been a lovely reading week for me with these books for company. It's great to know the kids of New Zealand are in good hands with these new authors and illustrators.

I can’t wait to see what they bring us next!

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