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Hooking the reader: 2020 NZCYA Junior Fiction finalists

July 16th, 2020 By Anne Dickson

I've heard it called the 'home-run', but 'slam-dunk' or 'winning try' would work just as well. It's that one book that turns a non-reader into a reader. It's the goal post for most of the librarians I know, as well as teachers and parents — the challenge of finding the golden ticket that will open up whole new worlds to young people.

Sometimes it's the often quoted 'right book at the right time'. At other times, it's simple trial and error (with lots of perseverance). Chances of success are increased when you have a broad range of titles and formats covering diverse subject matter, and as librarian or teacher you know them well.

This year's finalists in the Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction are great examples of the diversity of Kiwi fiction. One of them might just be the hook to get someone reading for pleasure.

This blog post is the fourth 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.

New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults promotional image for  Junior Fiction Award 2020 finalists with book covers
Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction 2020 finalists. Image via New Zealand Book Awards Trust.

The art of creating independent readers

This year’s finalists open a world of reading for everyone and range across formats and genres for readers — from the newly independent to those who need help, and the more advanced. The titles cover history, fantasy, and settings across the globe, speaking to a passion, an event, or something else that we can relate to. They're all excellent examples of junior fiction.


D-flock and some of the other characters in #Tumeke! by Michael Petherick, with additional illustrations by Paul Beavis, made their first appearance in 2017 in Annual 2, a New Zealand miscellany edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris. Michael Petherick told an interviewer he was encouraged to write a whole book about them, resulting in '#Tumeke!'

The author uses different formats to tell the story — emails, texts, lists, posters, music, and a community noticeboard. This brings the community of Newtoun to life as they plan to celebrate Waitangi Day.

Teacher notes explore the innovative format, quirky characters, language, and underlying themes. This is a one-of-a-kind type of book that you shouldn’t miss.

'#Tumeke!' is also a finalist for the Best First Book Award.

Lizard's Tale

Lizard's Tale is the debut novel by Weng Wai Chan. It's an adventure I could immediately imagine working as a read-aloud. It contains the right mix of action, fun, mystery, and friendship to keep the pages turning. The setting (1940s Singapore during the lead-up to World War II in the Pacific) is well-researched and explored in the teaching notes.

There are also themes of family, identity, and race. Lizard, Georgina, and Lili are all well-drawn characters, often rubbing each other up the wrong way, which readers will be able to relate to.

The inviting cover and internal illustrations are by Sarah Allen.

Lizard's Tale is also a finalist for the Best First Book Award.

Miniwings Book 6 — Moonlight the Unicorn's High Tea Hiccup

Sally Sutton brings mischief and fun for new readers in Book 6 of her Miniwings series Moonlight the Unicorn's High Tea Hiccup. The lively story entertains and matches the bright illustrations by Kirsten Richards.

Moonlight, like many of us, doesn’t know when enough is too much. For me, it's books, but for Moonlight, it's cakes and desserts. The yummy afternoon tea could have readers thinking about their favourite treats. There's no better time than the school holidays for them to host their own party, which is one of the suggestions in the activity book (pdf, 8.7MB) produced to supports these book awards.

Early and easy chapter books are great confidence builders, with simple sentence structure and gently increasing vocabulary. Teacher notes from the publisher for 'Miniwings #6 Moonlight' introduce the author and illustrator, plus gives tips on comprehension and themes.

Prince of Ponies

A good horse story will get me every time. When history and horses are combined as expertly as Stacy Gregg does with Prince of Ponies, I'm hooked.

Using stories as a vehicle to bring a greater understanding of history is something I strongly believe in. In this case, it's Hitler's attempts to collect the best horses in Europe to breed from that forms the historic part of the story.

The friendship in modern Berlin between Syrian refugee Mira and elderly Zofia is the catalyst that reveals a story of survival and acceptance. There's also plenty of horse knowledge passed on as you would expect from someone who has been part of the Kiwi equine community for so long.

I read somewhere recently that some people consider short stories the poor relations of the novel. Just because they are shorter doesn’t make them any less skilful or enjoyable. So it’s great to see Melinda Szymanik’s book, Time Machine and Other Stories on the shortlist for this award.

Short stories are like a mixed bag of lollies when you can’t decide what you want. Because the stories are all short, you can dip in and out of them and, before you know it, the bag is empty.

While some of these stories contain the same characters, many are standalone. They all come with a clear voice, some bring a sense of fun, and some pull at the heartstrings. Teaching notes contain background from the author on the origins of each story.

The stories are supported by quirky illustrations from Theo Macdonald.

Junior fiction is great for developing a love of reading

For students of every ability and background, it's the simple, miraculous act of reading a good book that turns them into readers, because even for the least experienced, most reluctant reader, it's the one good book that changes everything. The job of adults who care about reading is to move heaven and earth to put that book into a child's hands.
— Nancie Atwell, The Reading Zone

Junior fiction arrives at an important time when students are becoming independent readers. It's vital we continue to nurture and role model a love of reading. Having these books in your classroom or library collection will help to create life-long readers.

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