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Relating and wondering: 2020 NZCYA Young Adult Fiction finalists

June 25th, 2020 By Anne Dickson

The very best books for me do two things.

They talk about a life I can relate to. A place I have been, a feeling, something I have heard or that is part of my family’s history.

They make me wonder. What was it like? What would I have done? What happened next? What was the real story that inspired the book? Did it actually happen? Sometimes the answers come easily, but more often they lead me down the rabbit hole of more reading and even more questions.

Essentially, these books reflect my life and open windows to others'.

Both these things happened for me reading this year’s Young Adult Fiction Award finalists in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. These books raise important issues, making a great place to start to keep our teenagers reading as discussed in one of our Create reader’s blog posts earlier this year.

This blog post is the second 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.

Poster: New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults — Young Adult Fiction Award 2020 Finalists
Young Adult Fiction Award 2020 finalists. Image via New Zealand Book Awards Trust.

Shortlisted titles

Wynter's Thief

Not only does Wynter’s Thief by Sherryl Jordan romp along with details of medieval life, but it's also a page-turning adventure. The two protagonists struggle, not just to survive but to flourish. Wynter and Fox are likeable well-drawn characters. They are both challenged by the labels society has given them, although Fox, especially, is also prone to stereotyping people, which gives the story a real depth for discussion.

I enjoyed the ‘old’ language peppered through the story, which is one of the subjects explored in the teacher notes (pdf, 561 KB). Some of these words, such as ‘overmoor’, have helped me answer trivia questions recently (it means the day after tomorrow) and phrases such as ‘unwilling as a pig into a pork pie’ had me laughing out loud.


Dystopian fiction is a popular genre with young adults, which has taken on a new relevance as we live through the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘Them versus us’ debates in society from the past and today make stories like Ursa by Tina Shaw and the possibilities in them more real than ever before. In the city of Ursa, the people are increasingly divided into the ruling class (Travesters) and the subjugated (the Cerels).

This is wondering of a different kind. The limitations of a class society for Leho and his family, the politics and power of the ruling class, and the rumblings of the protest movement amongst the Cerels replicate issues often seen in our world today.

Afakasi Women

Afakasi Women by Lani Wendt Young is another book that challenges the stereotypes that put groups of people into boxes rather than considering them as individuals. Each of the short stories on their own packs a punch, but collectively they are a knockout. The stories are short, easily readable, and the authentic voices of the Pasifika girls and women are all the more powerful for it. I am not ashamed to say some tears were shed while reading, as the book addresses themes of racism, sexism, and violence.

I have heard Lani Wendt Young speak passionately about the voice of Pasifika and how it was missing from so much of our literature. This book shows how important that voice is. You can find other fiction (for all ages) with a Sāmoan focus from the National Library Schools Lending Collection and digital resources about Samoa in our recent Sāmoan Language Week blog post. Secondary and composite schools are also able to borrow from our Wellington, New Zealand and Pacific Collection (look for books with this collection name in the 'Available at' field).

The History Speech

Being of an age where I was just a little younger than Callum in the late 1960s, and growing up in rural New Zealand, I can definitely verify that the voice of the characters in The History Speech by Mark Sweet is 'spot on' (I can almost hear some of the phrases coming out of my mother’s mouth).

This slice of life from a small town was definitely something I could relate to and is an example of a novel that could be read by teens and adults to start a discussion about the differences in society between 1960 and today. To give some context, you could visit DigitalNZ and explore entertainment in the sixties or Mataura, a small Southland town with the freezing works at its centre.


Small-town New Zealand is incredibly easy to outgrow, and even more so for 6ft 7in (2m) Ricky, the main character in Aspiring by Damien Wilkins. This multilayered book plays with the concepts of standing up and standing out, goal setting, and learning and growing through Ricky’s own experience and that of others. Throw a vivid imagination but a lack of confidence into the mix, and you have something that many readers will relate to.

The sometimes scattered ups and downs of everyday life vividly come alive in the hands of this accomplished author. Like many books, the author and publisher offer teacher notes (pdf, 1MB), which explore everything from the narrative style and characterisation, to the impact of tourism on small towns, and human libraries.

Read, display, talk

Read, display and talk about these books with your students and colleagues.

What books engage them? You may be surprised.

Read more about keeping teens reading

New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults

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