10 top junior, middle grade and YA books by NZ authors

Linda Jane Keegan shares her favourite junior fiction, middle grade fiction books by New Zealand authors from the past 10 years.

10 top J fiction and middle fiction Linda Jane Keegan

I have two confessions to make. One, I haven’t actually read every single junior, middle grade and YA book that came out in the past ten years. Two, I am terrified of commitment, so this is a list of some of the top books for young readers from the last decade (you’ll notice I’ve called this article ‘ten top books’ and not ‘top ten books’). I fully admit that the selection certainly misses out on many, many, many excellent titles and that my interests and biases have influenced my choices, whether consciously or not.

However, when making this list, I tried to look at aspects of books that were new or different, captured points of view not often seen in children’s books, and entertained and respected the reader. To help inform my decisions, I looked at the past ten years of NZCYA winners, Storylines Notable Books, The Sapling’s reviews and end-of-year recommended shopping lists, and reviews from a variety of other websites.

So, and I stress, in no particular order, here are some awesome pukapuka that have stood out for a wide range of reasons and that have—or I hope will—stand the test of time.

Junior & Middle Grade

The Last Fallen Star, by Graci Kim (Rick Riordan Presents, 2021)

Fantasy is a popular genre for all ages, and I loved seeing this one, which is steeped in Korean mythology. It is filled with magic, rich characters and themes, and paced to devour (and not just because of all the food references!). Plus, it’s always great seeing a female protagonist.

#Tumeke!, by Michael Petherick (Massey University Press, 2019)

A scrapbook-style book that interweaves various stories via images of noticeboard messages, diary entries, notes, text messages and emails. It’s a clever and unexpected way to deliver a series of narratives that are undeniably from Aotearoa and appeals to a wide age range —including adults— without detracting from the appreciation for any particular reader.

Red Rocks, by Rachael King (Random House NZ, 2012)

I concede that I am cheating a little by choosing a title from slightly more than ten years ago, but since it’s now in production for a TV series, I reckon it’s fair game. This is a coming-of-age story of magic and mystery set in a New Zealand landscape with Celtic selkie mythology at its core. It is captivating and suspenseful.

Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea, by Tania Roxborogh (Huia, 2020)

The main character has a physical disability and an absent father, but that’s not what the book is about. Mystery, disaster, and gods are among all the actions and emotions. The contemporary rural New Zealand setting is vivid, and it is told through a te ao Māori perspective.

From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle, by Kate de Goldi (Random House NZ, 2015)

A budding filmmaker and his brother’s story are told through a third, unnamed character. Richly told and nostalgic about pre-earthquake Christchurch, this story is aimed at middle-grade readers and is enjoyable for all ages.

Helper and Helper, by Joy Cowley and illustrated by Gavin Bishop (Gecko Press, 2017)

It will be no surprise to find Joy Cowley on this list. Helper and Helper uses a wry type of humour, with stories about friendship, curious realities, and food for thought. Enjoyable at one level for younger tamariki and at another level again for more sophisticated readers.

Young Adult

These Violent Delights, by Chloe Gong (Hodder & Stoughton, 2021)

An unexpected retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Gong’s version is set in 1920s Shanghai, with a mix of fantasy, action, and romance. Despite the play being retold countless times, this is such a different and welcome take on it.

Afakasi Woman, by Lani Wendt Young (OneTree House, 2019)

A collection of short stories that is an insightful and engaging view into the human experience, when that experience is centred on a Samoan way of life. An evocative read.

I am Rebecca, by Fleur Beale (Random House NZ, 2014)

It is tempting to shy away from sequels in a list like this, but Fleur Beale captures cult life from an inside perspective, following on from its predecessor, I am not Esther, published in 1998. It would be nice to think these themes are still not relevant in 2024, but reading through the eyes of a strong female character will always be an empowering read.

Iris and Me, by Philippa Werry (The Cuba Press, 2023)

Verse novels are still a novel (!) genre in Aotearoa but increasing in their recognition. Werry expertly turns meticulous research into an engaging poetic narrative told from an unusual point of view. The verse format lends itself to taking in a story in a totally different way and this is, although classed as fiction, a compelling example of creative non fiction.

Linda Jane Keegan

Linda Jane Keegan is the lead editor at The Sapling, a children’s book author, and a parent. Her three picture books have all been shortlisted for awards, and Things in the Sea Are Touching Me! was a Storylines Notable Book in 2020. She has worked with young people for 20 years, with an environmental and experiential education background.

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  • 10 top junior, middle grade and YA books by NZ authors