Best of the year: Aotearoa’s YA class of 2023

In 2023 a cohort of excellent, world-class authors from Aotearoa penned novels for young adults. Here is Kete’s pick of the year based on our reviewers’ insights.

NZ YA books of 2023

In 2023 a cohort of excellent, world-class authors from Aotearoa penned novels for young adults. Here is Kete’s pick of the year based on reviewers’ insights.

Before George by Deborah Robertson. Over on the Aotearoa New Zealand Review of Books, Erica Stretton has just reviewed this new release. It’s set in 1953 and follows Marnya as she leaves South Africa, disguised as a boy, escaping her volatile father and arriving in New Zealand. But tragedy strikes. Marnya and her mother are involved in the Tangiwai disaster, the train they are travelling on plunges into a gorge and Marnya’s mother is among the dead. Stretton writes that ‘Robertson’s writing is deft and thoughtful, and the character she’s created in George has real heart, of the kind that keeps readers enthralled until the very last page. 

Catch a Falling Star by Eileen Merriman. Catch a Falling Star is a prequel to Merriman’s 2018 Catch Me When You Fall. It follows 15 year-old Jamie Orange who can’t sleep and can’t stop his thoughts – and has also fallen for his best mate’s girlfriend. Reviewer Crissi Blair notes there are ‘a few trigger warnings to be aware of with suicide, self-harm and sexual assault all present and hopefully presenting opportunities for conversations and openness. But there is also friendship, young love, parental concern and lots of passion for music ... another thought-provoking, real world read for young adults by this very able writer.’

The Edge of Light: New Dawning by A.M. Dixon. Set in a strictly organised, post-climate crisis New Zealand (described as an island in the middle of the sea) this is the first in a new trilogy by Christchurch writer A.M. Dixon. It was named a Storyline Notable Book 2023 and follows teenager Merel as she begins to question and challenge the structures and systems that order and govern her community.

Here Upon the Tide by Blair McMillan. Amir escapes war-torn Syria, leaving his settled loving family and the promise of what was to be a bright future. Milly has lost her mother and her home in the Canterbury earthquakes. Bringing these two young people together ‘is a tour de force of the author’s imagination,’ writes reviewer Anne Ingram. There are ‘difficult themes in the story – refugees and their need for a safe home, the loss of a parent, depression and mental health.’ Blair McMillan explores these with ‘understanding and compassion’ and once the story takes off, the action is ‘fast-paced, suspenseful and thrilling’.

 The Impossible Story of Hannah Kemp by Leonie Agnew. Hannah Kemp is having a hard time. She has done something ‘unforgiveable and unforgiven’ writes reviewer Sarah Forster, and is feeling guilty and angry at herself, her mum and the person her actions have harmed. When a mobile library turns up in town, the books it houses turn out to be quite different from the ordinary library fare. A kind bookseller character and Hannah’s trauma give this ‘a Mahyesque quality,’ writes Forster. ‘A compelling, intriguing read,’ featuring the ‘hint of fantasy that Agnew has made her trademark. Recommended, with a content warning for fatphobia, and perhaps a discussion with your teen about this aspect’.

Iris and Me by Philippa Werry is an ‘intriguing adventurous verse biography’ writes David Hill. It tells the life story of New Zealand writer’ Robin Hyde (real name Iris Wilkinson) who endured poverty, depression and war, travelling China and Japan and to London, and who eventually ended her own life in 1939. Hill writes ‘this is emphatically the story of Wilkinson the woman and fighter as much as Hyde the author. It's told in the first person plural - “we”. So, who is Iris's companion? Not saying, but it's ingenious and successful.’

Jack & Sandy by Bob Kerr. Jack and Eddie finish high school and embark on a kayaking adventure but Jack has another motive: to meet his long-estranged grandfather. Dionne Christian writes that author Bob Kerr has taken a personal story inspired by his father’s World War II experiences and crafted ‘an adventure story which rings true and spans three generations.’ Short, boldly illustrated chapters – some in graphic novel format – also feature photos, documents and newspaper clippings from the author’s father. ‘Deeply moving and expansive touching on everything from male friendship, parental expectations, lost love, the impact of war across generations and grief and forgiveness.’ Christian notes that Kerr’s primary audience is 10–15 year old boys who find chapter books with solid blocks of text daunting.

Project Nought by Chelsey Furedi is a time-travel graphic novel set in Auckland. It’s a love story, writes Jack Remiel Cottrell, ‘multiple love stories in fact’ whose gay, bisexual and non-binary characters make ‘a wonderful contrast to hypermasculine superhero comics.’ Cottrell notes that this is a mid-grade and younger YA book and he was ‘not the right reader’ so he ‘borrowed a friend’s tween as a test reader’ and they loved it for the ‘fast-paced and exciting’ plot and because they enjoyed ‘seeing themself, and Aotearoa, in well-produced graphic novel’.

The Sparrow by Tessa Duder. 1840: Harry escapes Cascades, a female convict facility in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), and arrives in New Zealand, presenting as a boy. Louise Ward writes that ‘the colonial attitudes of the day are clearly represented with a nod to more enlightened times, illuminating injustice through the eyes of a child who comes to learn how power is used as a weapon and how the weakest suffer’. The book, she says will appeal to ‘admirers of a deftly written historical novel, irrespective of age’. ‘Tessa Duder describes, with equal parts affection and exasperation, a pivotal moment in time that continues to shape us all.’

Other great sources of information on books for young adults in Aotearoa:This year’s Storylines Notable Books – includes YA, picture book, books in te reo Māori and junior fiction recommendations The Sapling – Aotearoa’s own website dedicated to children’s books features interviews, reviews and more.

Check out the reading list...


  • Best of the year: Aotearoa’s YA class of 2023