Into The River

Recently I’ve received a few emails from people upset by the book we chose as NZ Post Children’s Book Awards book of the year, the wonderful Into the River by Ted Dawes. Below is the response I’ve sent. If you want to get involved in the debate, here’s one place to express yourself. Although maybe think about reading the book before you form an opinion – just a thought.

Thanks for taking the time to write. This is an important issue, and it’s crucial that people care about the types of things our young people are reading. I sincerely commend you for taking a stand.

I’m also glad to have an opportunity to further explain my part in the decision to name Into the River our book of the year. It’s a truly marvellous and indeed moral book, and I do encourage you to read it and contemplate the messages it contains. I should also like to discuss briefly the broader issues of censorship and how, in a pluralistic society, we might go about establishing mores that truly respect all of those who have a stake in this process.

First, to the book itself. This is a story that captures, better than any I’ve read, the plight of the young Maori boy, looking for a place to stand. Our protagonist is smart, ambitious, and eager to please, and when he wins a scholarship to an elite Auckland school, we are encouraged to believe that this is his chance to make his mark. But life is not that simple.

What this book shows, with tremendous skill and courage, is the complexity of the problem these young men face. If you want to better understand the price we pay for depriving young Maori a place to stand, then this is the book to read. It is not didactic, nor is it sentimental. Rather, it forces us to consider the subtle but powerful forces that make a nonsense of the popular myth that all the dispossessed need to do is pull their socks up and make an effort.

If we measure a society’s moral strength by the way it treats its most vulnerable, then this is a book that speaks to the heart of our obligation to be better members of this community. To be more understanding, more open to difference, more willing to accept the part we play in perpetuating the pain.

I want young people to consider this message, and so I want them to read this book. That groups purporting to care about family values should seek to oppose it is perplexing. Yes, there are harsh aspects to this story. There have to be. Without the harshness, we could not properly understand the price that is being paid. This is a book about what happens when a young man is forced to the periphery, that place where the normal social constraints do not reach. And out there risks are taken, and damage is done. This book stands as a call to arms to those who wish to see an end to such needless, racially primed vandalism.

The language, the sexual references and the drugs are as integral to this story as domestic violence is integral to Othello. That is my considered opinion as an author of ten novels, as a teacher for over twenty years, and as a judge who has read this book slowly and carefully.

Now, it may be that you accept this is an important, and indeed moral novel, and you accept that the graphic content is a necessary part of this book’s story, but still oppose it on the grounds that the price we pay for this message is too high. Specifically, it might be that you believe that young adults reading this book will be encouraged to use the less palatable language themselves, or indeed take this book as licence to indulge in the high risk activities that are portrayed. To this, I would only say, trust your children more, and trust yourselves as parents more. It is simply not true that the young refrain from swearing because they have never heard it. There are no words in this book that a teenager will not have heard in the school ground, at the shopping mall, the bus stop or read online. That they will suddenly, at the twenty third exposure, switch lexicons on us, is an absurd suggestion. All teenagers are exposed to offensive language (‘bugger’ was turned into a national advertising campaign) and most of them, most of the time, manage to express themselves beautifully without it. It is the way we raise them, the way we win their respect, and earn our place as role models, that matters.

With regard to the bullying, the drug taking or the casual sex, there is nothing glamorous about the lifestyle into which our protagonist falls. To argue that because the content is there, young readers will imitate it, is fanciful. Nobody opposes books about World War One, on the grounds that we don’t want our children heading off to shoot Germans. Nor are we afraid of our children seeing the bible, least they develop a taste for crucifixion. The way we process content is entirely dependent upon the context within which we encounter it. Read the whole book. Think about it. Then pass it on to a young adult you care about. They’ll thank you for it.

Finally, although you may not agree with my judgement, ours must not be portrayed as a disagreement between the moral and the apathetic. Those of us who believe in literature like this are as driven to make a better world for our children as those who oppose it. Nor is this even a disagreement about what stands as moral, for I too seek a place where the young may move with safety and joy, live in respect and tolerance, and form healthy, nourishing relationships. To the extent we do disagree, it is about the way this book will be read, and more broadly, the way that reading will influence world view and behaviour. These are difficult questions, to be approached with a cautious and open mind, and crucially, with careful study and evidence to support one’s case. Do that, and there is a chance we can move together towards the sort of world we all desire. Turn this into a tribal war, between the putatively decent and depraved, and everybody suffers.

Again, thank you for engaging.

Kind regards

Bernard Beckett

69 thoughts on “Into The River

  1. ejneale says:

    Thanks, Bernard, for being so clear and open.

  2. Denise says:

    As a parent and CYFS caregiver I have only seen the explicit sexual content and will not read the whole book, a story can still be told without what I have read, this is the sort of book that I have tried hard to save my children from reading, moral innocence is so lacking in this country and worldwide, horrible book!

    • louise says:

      So you read it out of context. Context is vital. To say a book is horrible without actually reading it is pretty backwards.

  3. Lucia Maria says:

    My Dad was a WWII Gulag survivor (he was a child prisoner) and felt that what happened to him was not appropriate material for his children to be aware of in detail. There are some things, that while they happen to young people and children, do not need to graphically described to that audience.

    The danger is always, that with sexual matters, that it circumvents the intellect and creates a need or a desire for a particular thing, even if the mind is disgusted by what is wanted. I think you, as a grown man, underestimate how strong sexual suggestion is for young people. There are cases now of children who rape other children after viewing pornography, because the porn has created a desire that they need to explore. Your Catholic upbringing surely ought to have given you an idea of temptation and how it works.

    I notice that on a previous blog post you draw a correlation with the torture of children and subjective morality, where you consider that it is only an opinion that torturing children is not a good thing to do. Imagine if we lived in a society where adults thought that because some children are tortured, it would be great if the experience of those children was transmitted via literature. I wonder if you would have a problem with this.

    As a mother of two boys who are aged 12 and 16, and a Gen-Xer born in 1968, my protectiveness of them is just as strong as it was when they were the age of your children, except I seem to be having to protect them from the sexual promiscuity that is so rampant today. Even the TV programmers will insert a whole lot of sexual crap into tv shows that are screened early. Just watch an episode of Seinfeld and compare it to the other comedies on offer to see what I mean. It’s a whole new world now, and it’s disgusting.

    All I can say is, thank God for Amazon so that we can bypass NZ bookshops and buy internationally.

    • Hi Lucia

      Yes, what is being contested here is the way this novel will affect the teenage reader. What we certainly want is for our young people to grow up with a healthy attitude towards their sexuality, such that can explore and enjoy it fully. Using sexual content to attract attention to products, or exposing our young to a diet of pornography, where the actions of the protagonists are divorced from their emotional circumstances, presents real dangers. You and I would be on the same side of this debate here.

      But, I think there’s a subtle trick being pulled when you simply equate Ted’s superb book, where the sexual encounters absolutely occur within the context of the fully developed and indeed nuanced lives of those involved, with pornography. This is casual sex portrayed in a tremendously honest way, and sits fully within the context of the young man’s journey, and the struggle he is having finding a place where he can be accepted. The model you seem to carry of our young, that any exposure to sexual material will damage them, is a highly contentious one, and I think does young adults a great disservice. Do I take it you oppose sex education for the same reason? Do the themes of violence, abuse and retribution prevalent in Shakespearean tragedies mean that for you they should be out of bounds for teenagers? How about the bible? I’m interested in where you draw the line and why?

      With regard to torture, in fact in a great many history classes, teenagers are exposed to the horrific images of the Allies’ first contact with the concentration camps, precisely because of the power of these images, to remind us of the pain we can cause one another, and how precious our capacity for empathy is. Are you arguing this type of educational endeavour is also a perverted act?

      It’s not at all clear to me what exactly it is you object to? If the sexual content were explicit, but occurring within the context of a loving relationship, would that be okay for you? Or do you rather think than any mention of sex will make us depraved? There is some very interesting international evidence suggesting some of the markers of sexual/social dysfunction (say abuse) are at their lowest in places with very liberal attitudes towards sexual content, the Dutch being a prime example. I’m not sure how your model accounts for this.

      It also strikes me as very interesting that so few critics are addressing the race issue here. Do you see this as a worthwhile book in that regard? In other words, do you at the very least understand there’s a trade-off involved? Does the book work for you, overall, as a study of isolation?

      Thanks for engaging


      • A counsellor says:

        Perhaps you could actually talk to this contributor’s posting. Your bias is showing so clearly that you have neglected to talk to the points she raises. For instance, her comment, “promiscuity”, your reply “any exposure to sexual material”. In order to have a reasonable discussion you may need to be open minded. Ironic, huh?

      • Hi ya

        I’m not sure what the point you’d like me to respond to is. The contributor states they are having to protect their children from representations of promiscuity on television. I imagine, if they do not wish their children to see such things, that they do indeed have to monitor this.

        To make the next leap, that representations of promiscuity (and I’m not sure what is intended by the term, does it include people who aren’t married but nevertheless are thoroughly enjoying their sexual relationship) should be kept from young adults, entails a number of interesting premises:

        One, that there’s something inherently bad about sex outside of long term relationships.

        Two, that because some people believe this, all of society should be held to their particular standards.

        Three, that knowing promiscuity exists will of itself prompt the readers to desire the lifestyle.

        I’d contest all three of these premises, but am open to being convinced otherwise. Have a go.


  4. Alan says:

    Beautifully written Bernard, makes me want to read it myself. I totally agree with your comments regarding content in context, and the ability of teenagers to process information in context, and not be somehow immediately brainwashed by “temptation”. Kids are intelligent!

  5. Like you, Bernard, author/teacher/parent, I can’t fathom why the knee-jerk reaction to a book judged the best of the year from such a qualified trio of judges. In his book ‘1984’, George Orwell showed what happens when you take away the words people are able to use to express their plight – it is oppression. To censure this book is to censure the words and story of a group of the most vulnerable amongst us.

    This idea of ‘protecting’ our children is a complex one. I thought I was protecting my youngest by sending her to a well-regarded integrated church school only to have the principal and board expel her at the age of 13 because she and a group of other girls were self-harming. It was claimed she was making the other girls behave this way. She was the scape goat. The senior management and some of the parents’ response to this sad behaviour was mad hysteria and produced heartbreaking consequences for both my daughter, our family and other students. I am reading the same types of comments now about Ted’s book that were made by a few powerful parents about my daughter (and even my husband and I). These are, as you point out, illogical and do not really, at the heart, have the best interests of the children – rather they smack of personal issues and insecurities of the parents.

    • Hi Tania

      Thanks for that. I agree, this business of how best to protect and nurture our young is devilishly difficult. As teachers, we’re all too aware of the forces that work against young people, and make it too difficult for some of young adults to find their place amongst us. And I’m sure, if I were to ask my colleagues to make a wishlist of things they could change that would make a serious difference to the prospects of our charges, protection from swearing in novels, or indeed sexual references, wouldn’t make the top one hundred.

      The irony here is that many of those things that would make the cut are covered, I think with real insight, by Ted’s book. How is this not a controversy about race, dislocation, competitive schools, and bullying?


  6. I’ve been watching this debate rage in the media, and around lunchroom tables with interest. As a previous children’s librarian, and an author myself, I value our obligation to help young people navigate the world of literature. Books should never be banned. We have the choice not to read them, and we have the right to discuss their merits, but they should always be an option – a choice. And I applaud your sensible blog and replies, Bernard.

  7. Angela S says:

    I feel your logical and so well expressed argument Bernard will make no difference to those who are prepared to believe a journalist who misinterpreted practically everything about the book and what she was told by a highly skilled , widely read and experienced school librarian..
    I am pondering further though about what we protect our children and young people from , why we do it and what it achieves – if anything. Those of us who may ‘protect’ or ‘prevent’ potential damage are already caring parents and are probably providing a stable , loving environment, if a narrow minded one, consciously or unconsciously. It’s the others who need some help and maybe this one book and the small amount of controversy will add to public awareness of a solution for a more complicated and significant problem.

    • Hi Angela

      I suppose the fatal optimist in me hopes that while those whose attitudes are entrenched are unlikely to be moved by discussion, those in the middle might modify their views. I think one thing we’re lucky about in New Zealand is that most issues tend to be moderated by the centre, rather than being battled out between two diametrically opposed tribes, as sometimes seems to be the case in the US, for example.

      I think the point you make about those kids who most need help, and the way a book like this might in some small way assist them, is spot on.


  8. Sharon Holt says:

    I have read the book and have enjoyed your responses here and in the media. I have especially liked reading your comments because it has helped me to understand the meaning behind the book. I didn’t get that meaning from reading it, but I can now see that’s what was intended. For me, the message you portray in your comments didn’t seep through during the reading process for me. It felt like a disjointed book of two halves that didn’t mesh well together. After hearing Ted tell his story to Kim Hill, I thought perhaps this was due to the fact that it had been a much longer book that had undergone a significant amount of cutting. I wondered if this is why I felt that the second half of the book didn’t seem to be part of the first half. I also thought that Ted’s writing has been significantly better in other books. However, I recognise that you, Bernard, are an established writer and I respect your judgement.

    I was also trying to figure out what era it was depicting, because the boarding school behaviour seemed so old fashioned. Perhaps that really does happen in boarding schools these days, but it surprises me. The language, violence and drugs didn’t concern me. However, I felt that the sexual details were over the top and that the desired effect could have been achieved in a way that was less explicit. I still feel that way, having read all your comments. But I feel relaxed about us all having different opinions. It’s healthy.

    I live in the Waikato and feel as though the racial divide you describe is not something that is obvious among my teenagers and their friends. My biggest hope is that we might hear the opinions of a variety of teenagers from lots of backgrounds once they have read this book. It would be interesting to hear how it affects them. One of my teens decided not to read it after a discussion about the book. The other was happy to read it, but was bothered by the age of the protagonist and the probable age of the reader, particularly in terms of the sexual content.

    My initial main concern, and I still feel this way, is that the book was publicised in the awards material as having a 13+ target audience. This seems to have been more recently changed to 15+. I agree with the 15+, but not the 13+ target. The reason I was concerned about this is that the YA books in the finals commonly go into intermediate school libraries and we all know that books with protagonists aged 13 and 14 are usually read by younger readers rather than older readers. So it seemed to me that this book – particularly with nothing on the blurb to tell us otherwise – could have easily been picked up by 11 and 12 year olds. That concerns me most.
    Thanks again for being clear in your comments and helping us to see the book from another angle.

    • Thanks Sharon

      This is helpful feedback. The issue of how we signal to readers/parents the sort of age range a book is targeting is interesting. For my part, I’d agree more with the 15+ categorisation.I’d teach this book at Year 11, but not Year 9. My reasoning is that the harsher elements work well because of the context in which they placed, but this is dependent upon the reader being sophisticated enough to decode that context. Some 13 year olds certainly would be, but not all.

      With regard to the themes, the interesting thing about any book is the extent to which we each bring our own world to the reading. I responded to this book precisely because of my role as a school teacher, and other readers, including other teachers I suspect, will have a different take on it. This certainly isn’t a book that will work for everyone (is there such a book?) which makes the whole notion of book awards slightly suspect, of course. Nevertheless, it provides a chance to promote interesting work to a wider audience, and that’s no bad thing.


      • Sharon Holt says:

        Kia ora ano Bernard!
        Thanks for that reply. I understand completely. We do read from our own world view and that’s the beauty of story. Our words as authors are given wings by readers. May I also add that, as a self-published author, I was very encouraged to see that a self-published book could be a finalist, a category winner and a supreme winner. Hope springs!

  9. Matthew says:

    Hi Bernard

    “One, that there’s something inherently bad about sex outside of long term relationships.

    Two, that because some people believe this, all of society should be held to their particular standards.

    Three, that knowing promiscuity exists will of itself prompt the readers to desire the lifestyle.

    I’d contest all three of these premises, but am open to being convinced otherwise. Have a go.”

    When I read your reply to LM it imemdiately made me think of worldviews, and why it will not be possible to convince you. I believe that our behaviour is characterised by what one thinks is right and wrong. Sure I understand gray areas, but even that is either accepted (i.e. ‘right’) or not accepted (i.e. ‘wrong’). But underneath right and wrong is what I characterise as worldview which is our answer to the question ‘what is real?’

    In other words, your replies introduce bigger topics based on your version of what is real. And there I’m pretty certain that our two definitions are hugely divergent. Therefore, it will not be possible to convince you otherwise because these claims are unverifiable, even though they are real to the person.

    kind regards,

    • Hi Matthew

      I agree with you, to an extent. There are some matters upon which it’s very hard to convince even the most open mind, because there are bed rock assumptions in play. But clearly, this is not a generally applicable rule, for over the course of my life I have been convinced of a great many things; such is the process of education.

      The interesting point then, perhaps, is which of the premises you highlight might fall into the unresolvable category. Briefly, here’s my hunch:

      That there’s something inherently bad about sex outside of long term relationships will, for some but not all its proponents, hinge about religious conviction. If this is the basis of the objection, then those with different beliefs (or a lack thereof) are unlikely to be convincable via this path. However, there are at least two fronts upon which the issue might still advance, first in the broader philosophical debate of what objective moral truth might even mean, and second on the pragmatic front of how we are affected by various sexual attitudes and lifestyles. Although both these questions are complex, evidence and reason have a part to play in unpicking them, and so you’d have a fighting chance of convincing me, if your arguments were sound.

      On the second premise, here we’re clearly talking of a social construction. How do we, in a society made up of folk with varying world views, forge a workable compromise? This is a pragmatic question, in many ways, and awfully difficult. Informed discussion about how various societies manage it, and the apparent costs and trade-offs involved, could certainly sway me.

      On the third, we’re probably closest to the classical empirical enquiry. It’s a social question, so sorting confounding factors is devilishly difficult, but there’s a great deal of research, in media theory for example, that could get us on our way.

      My broader point is this. If we are too quick to attribute difference to world view, we can bypass the potential there is to make very real progress through research, discussion and experiment. It won’t get us the whole way, on this point you are absolutely right, but anything we can do to stop these sorts of debates from descending into trench warfare, we surely ought to try. So please, feel free to engage.



      • Matthew says:

        Hi Bernard,

        I agree that this is not a generally applicable rule, but in life’s most important values, it is. Where the line lies between what is really important and not important does vary, but I think I’m on safe ground when it comes to “what is real”. To clarify this, what I mean is the statement “that there’s something inherently bad about sex outside of long term relatyionships” is not a statement of worldview; it is a statement of value, i.e. what is right or wrong. That statement rests on what its speaker believes is real, which is something different, but enables one to make such a [value] statement.

        Now, I’m a bit reticient to use the phrase ‘religious conviction’ because it can imply (and maybe/probably you are not) that some have religious convictions and others do not. So, to be on the safe side, I use the terms ‘beliefs’ and ‘worldview’, because that includes everyone.

        Anyway, to comment on your two fronts to advance the discussion, I think that objective moral truth is a belief, not a worldview, but it requires a wordview to either support it or not. It is required, on a given topic, to either place yourself, or someone else, as the supreme, final defining authority on it. I suspect you may diagree with that because you may have a unfolding definition of truth, but because you don’t know the future, and only the present, then for the moment you are that supreme final defining authority. For my part, I place someone else in that position: God. In other words, we are left saying ‘God is independently real’, or, ‘I am independently real’. They are mutually exclusive statements.

        The evidence I use is nothing new, but the well-known arguments I am sure you are already aware of: God has revealed himself through his Word, who became flesh, and lived among the human race, in the person of Jesus Christ. Or, logic defines that something cannot come from nothing and therefore God created time and space. This obviates the question who created God. Now these sentences are not statements of belief, they are more real to me than anything else, including myself. That might not make sense until you consider the death of Jesus and the cellular structure of our bodes (look at!)

        Now I don’t want to stray off topic so to try and bring it back around to the topic at hand I do believe that sexual relationships outside of marriage are harmful, but that is because to me God is real. It is important to show how behaviour, including sexual behaviour, can be harmful. However, the Bible does that in ways that keep the detail out of print, even while the point remains clear. Similarly, the crucification of Jesus is an excrutiating form of torture, but again the Bible doesn’t describe ther detail. The point is made, without the extra information. So, from a pragmatic point of view, I am affected by the event, even though the detail wasn’t put in.

        Already this is long enough, so I’ll skip for the moment on the other two statements, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think they should not be replied to. My apologies for the delay in replying.

      • Anna Pickett says:

        Matthew you brought out that you believe there is a higher authority who sets the stage for what is right or wrong. I do believe this to be true. However I do also absolutely believe that right and wrong are based on realities. We all experience the positive fruits of realistic choices and the heartbreak when choices have been made that were wrong. We live in a society in which I believe the realities of what is right and wrong have been blurred. And it is certainly not easy for our young people to make responsible and realistic choices. I believe it’s up to us the older generation, who have a lots more life experience, to teach our younger generation how to make responsible choices based on realities.
        The question is: Does ” into the River” help our younger generation in this manner?

      • Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Matthew.

        I find respectful discussions between people who disagree, profoundly uplifting.

        I’m agnostic on matters of God’s existence, and would dispute the notion of having to undergird one’s views with a sense of final authority. Rather, the brand of agnosticism I embrace builds upon what in these terms might be thought of as inevitable authority, which I suspect one would technically describe as a type of foundationalism. I’m happy to go into this with you, if it interests you. (You’ll find a series of ten posts on it on this site if this whets your philosophical appetite).

        But, I think your main point is valid. We have some people who, given their foundations, will see sex outside of marriage as harmful, for example, precisely because of those foundations. And we do need to find a way of respecting that viewpoint. The question then becomes, how do we proceed? What is the right balance when it comes to weighing the needs and desires of various people and groups?

        One way might be to attempt to move the debate off the bedrock principles slightly. So, for example, if one could establish that sex outside marriage in many cases enhances life (I’m not saying this need be true, just as a hypothetical) then would you still object to it being portrayed? If your objection would be rather less, in other words, if part of your objection is to the perceived cost, then this is a point those of differing world views could engage with via empirical evidence.

        I agree that we can create effective literature without detail, and subtlety is an incredibly important artistic tool. But as with all things there is a trade-off. To state the obvious, if this book were more oblique in its references, it would be an entirely different book. We were asked to judge the work in front of us, and I consider it rather fine.



  10. Hi Bernard, a great post well said. It’s a fantastic privilege, not to mention a rare one, to be able to engage with a judge in the frank manner that you’ve invited here. I thank you for that. You’ve defended the decision to award “Into The River” our top spot, a YA novel no less, with passion and clarity. I look forward to receiving my copy (to be delivered by hand to the UAE next week!) so that I can participate in the wider debate about the appropriateness of the content for /teen audiences.

    Can I just say though… Isn’t anyone else driven CRAZY by people who have no qualms about expressing such vehement oppositional views about a book they HAVEN’T EVEN READ???? Bernard, you are very patient 😉

  11. Sharon Holt says:

    I agree completely with the comments of Nadine above. Yes, it’s an awesome and rare privilege that Bernard is allowing us to converse with him as a judge. And yes, I have been frustrated by the way that people who haven’t read the book feel they can comment with such vehemence and alacrity!

  12. JP says:

    Hi Bernard,

    Living on the other side of the world, I am not familiar with the situation you describe. However, it made me think about the crucial difference between preparing children to cope with something and shielding them from it.

    What I learned to appreciate, when my son was still a child, was how important school is in preparing children to face various ideas and situations. But it was hard – you know your kid will encounter some children you’d rather not see close to him, that he will face some violence, that he will be exposed to tricky ideas you may disapprove of. And so on. The temptation is strong to wish he was shielded from all this – but this just won’t do. Better that all this happens in the controlled environment of a school than “in the wild”.

    It is as you say: we must trust our children more. And, something else you would not say perhaps because you are a teacher yourself, we must trust teachers (and other educators) more.

  13. Moira Metekingi says:

    Interesting remarks for a misguided and disconnected person to make. Granted there are enough qualifications after the name to have one believe something important was written by him and perused by the reader. And of course the story was slipped in under the guise of appealing to young people and being “pc” because it was written “about a Maori”, oh and an intelligent Maori as well! How thoughtful of Mr Dawes to consider I need to be informed of my own struggles. No Mr Dawes I do not need you to inform me of my people’s struggles. I sit amongst it 24-7, trying to help in my small way. Please do not think that by describing in the corruptest of terms you are capable of, that somehow you are giving back to Maori their own Mana in a pristine condition. You have taken our personal struggles, highlighted them in the filthiest manner possible and have expected a pat on the back for such “worthy” efforts. And embarrassingly enough for all who must deal with this little exercise in stupidity, this has even sucked a Judge in. So Mr Dawes and your partner-in-thoughtlessness, guess what….I have managed to convey my opinion without using explicitly perverted language, and I’m Maori as well. No thank you for believing you need to show me who I am. And you’re welcome, because I’ve shown you who you are.

    • Hi Moira

      Thanks for that. Clearly it’s not for me to say what Ted’s motivations were in writing this book, but I can answer some of the points made from my point of view as a reader.

      I certainly don’t take this to be a book aimed at telling Maori about their experiences. I don’t think stories do that. Certainly good stories don’t. Rather that attempting to represent a wider group or experience, they drill down into the personal story, and make that as authentic as possible. One of the things I responded very strongly to in this book was that it wasn’t at all didactic.

      Nevertheless, the protagonist’s struggle is, from my perspective as a school teacher, a really strong representation of the way the school system struggles to accommodate difference, and the price we pay for failing to include the outsider. I see this on a daily basis. It’s not about being Maori, or being male, or being rural, or having a reading difficulty or anything so specific. There are a thousand different ways of feeling that school isn’t the place for us, and yet the price we pay for not engaging with that system is to so often be spat out to the periphery where the controls the young need, as so many of the critics here have highlighted, are largely absent.

      Fiction of this type works, I believe, because of its authenticity. And a great many teenagers who read this book will respond to that.

      So my guess is that the motivations you attribute to the writer, a desire to be pc, and to make some sort of offering to the Maori community, may be a little wide of the mark. (Ted certainly doesn’t strike me as particularly pc).

      Your other point, that arguments can be made very well without crudity, is one I readily accept. Indeed, such is the way arguments work, I suspect potentially offensive material undermines the case. But I don’t think literature works in exactly the same way. It makes its case, as it were, not by explaining, but by making us feel, and I remain convinced that the feeling we develop for the protagonist and their circumstances in this book requires exactly the material that offends you. You could certainly tell a similar story without such content, but it wouldn’t be this story, and it wouldn’t have this story’s impact.



  14. Edwin says:

    To the people opposed to this book. Do you feel that children are mindless sheep, incapable of rational thought and will rather blindly follow what books portray? That it is possible to completely isolate them from certain realities, and this is beneficial? Evidently you have no recollection of what it was like to be a child.

    Children are human beings and capable of making their own decisions. Yes, at times they will make mistakes, but so too do adults, and it is through this process that we learn. If you as a parent are attempting to restrict content to your children because you deem it contains immoral acts, this is immoral itself in that it restricts thinking and ideas.

    In the words of John Steinbeck: “And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.”

    Thus, I feel greatly for the children of people like Lucia Maria, and hope that they are, as most children their age are, exploring the objectionable parts of literature unbeknownst to their mother. Sadly, I fear that this oppression of free thought, which to me is dangerously close to child abuse in that it is forcing your children to think the way you do and not freely, will continue. And that is the real tragedy in this.

    • Jo says:

      Edwin, It has been said that we are all like sheep who have gone astray. We are all in need of a shepherd, preferably a good one – one who will lead us into things and thoughts that are good, uplifting, life-enhancing.

      Yes, the mind can “take any direction it wishes, undirected” but sad can be the results some times. If, however, we “fill our minds and meditate on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse” then excellent will be the results. These are the things our minds need to think on. (The Message)

      Jesus said He is the way, He is the truth and He is the life. (John 14.6) He is for us, not against us.

      You might consider the Bible to be “brainwashing” – perhaps so, but I wouldn’t want my brain washed by anything other than the love of God as declared to us throughout the Bible.

      “My” thoughts in life at age 17 were that we live to die so let’s get on with it (dying). Then when I heard that God didn’t create this amazing world for nothing, but for us to know Him & His love and to come to discover who He made us to be, my life was turned around for the better! I’m more than triple that age now and so glad to have direction in my life.

      My “religion” (Christianity) is not limiting but liberating! The best is yet to come. And so is Jesus – when the thoughts and actions of all will be weighed.

      • Edwin says:

        So we are mindless sheep who need a supreme leader to follow? Incapable of rational thought? Without a master ordering us around, we will all degenerate into immoral savages? Is that really your belief?

        I live in a society with no God, no emperor, no king, no dictator. We are free and independent human beings who elect our own leaders on a temporary basis, and they answer to us, not the other way round. No one tells us what to think. They might make suggestions, but other people’s opinions are perfectly accepted. We do not commit suicide because of hopelessness, we do not murder or rape or steal. Why therefore the need for a God?

        Furthermore, the Bible is no moral text. Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Other quotes from the Bible include “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she must be silent.” (Timothy 2:12), and “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:13).

        Do you still believe it is acceptable to brainwash people with the Bible?

      • Jo says:


        In reply to your message below (9 July 5.55pm), the effects of sexually explicit literature aside, Bernard & others speak of the limitations of reading passages out of context – be it in Into the River, the Bible or whatever. The Bible verses quoted by you are being considered out of context – and this is not the forum in which to expand on them. By taking passages out of contect you only get a fraction of the whole picture, and get it miscoloured too.

        Coming back to Into the River, in some ways my curiousity is aroused regarding the book and in other ways I would rather interact with people directly to learn about them, and save my reading for material that is uplifting and encouraging.

  15. Anna Pickett says:

    Earlier on in this discussion Lucia Maria wrote: The danger is always, that with sexual matters, that it circumvents the intellect and creates a need or a desire for a particular thing, even if the mind is disgusted by what is wanted. I think you, as a grown man, underestimate how strong sexual suggestion is for young people.
    I too, think that we need to realize how true it is, that reading about sexual encounters stimulates sexually and our teenagers are simply not emotionally, mentally, responsibly and financially equipped for sexual encounters. Ask counselors, doctors, parents who so often have to pick up the pieces of the traumatic results of sexual encounters gone wrong.
    I speak out of experience

    • Edwin says:

      “Our teenagers are simply not emotionally, mentally, responsibly and financially equipped for sexual encounters” This statement amounts to discrimination. It is saying that adults are superior human beings, an elitist class that should be treated with special privileges above and beyond that of teenagers. Not only does it violate fundamental human rights that all humans should be treated equally, it is the belief that adults have an innate right to dictate how teenagers should act, while not holding themselves to the same standards. I treat such comments as I would an equivalent one about women or people of a certain race – with disdain.

      • Sonya says:

        You have clearly taken what Anna said out of context. And for anyone to think that a teenager can cope with the pressures and experiences of an adult is crazy! And that is not a violation of any human rights, its called parenting.

  16. Kayla says:

    As someone who is quite young myself (age 20), I don’t think some of the content is appropriate to be teaching in schools. If I were a parent, I would not want my child to be studying the book unless I were teaching it myself and knew exactly what they were getting out of it. I think as a society we are far too open with what we expose children and young adults to. I know that some things that were “acceptable” to read/watch/listen to when I was a little younger left negative lasting impressions. You may say we should trust our children and parenting skills enough, but I think that is a little ignorant. If it is there and the child knows about it, many will just go and read it out of curiosity. It doesn’t matter how well they were raised. Adults are supposed to protect children, and I don’t see how giving this book this award is going to achieve that.

    • Hi Anna And Kayla

      Yes, I think these comments get to the heart of the issue. We all wish to protect our children from harm, and the question then must be, are these particular passages, read within the context of the book, harmful in the way you suggest?

      Essentially people carry in their heads two dramatically different models of human development. Does exposure in this specific case merely give young adults more of a sense of how the world is, and some of the wide range of sexual experiences and consequences they might encounter, or is it that any sexual material at this age will in some way ignite their thirst for experience in a way that will ultimately harm them?

      How then should we answer such a question? Is there any way of telling whether our own take is simply a convenient justification of cultural bias, rather than an accurate portrayal of adolescent psychology and development?

      One way, I would suggest, is to realise that between and indeed within societies, we can find very different patterns of access to sexual material. If we compare these to things like reported age of first sexual experience, or abuse rates, or any of the things we instinctively fear, what do we find?

      If we think in terms of sexual safety, and indeed confidence, I think there is some good evidence that books like this are far less dangerous than you assert. Certainly we find countries where there is both a high level of access and a comparatively late age of first sexual experience (Holland is everybody’s favourite example). Interestingly it also has the lowest rate of reported sexual abuse in the world (these figures about four years old, but it’s been a consistent top performer).

      So, the case is, at the very least, a complex one. If people have statistical counter examples, they’re important and we should share them.

      The other question becomes, given the wide range of opinions on this matter, with serious and thoughtful people on both sides of the divide, what is the best way to shape a compromise? Is it a case that as so long as some object, all should have access restricted? I’m uncomfortable with this approach, simply because as I cast my eye across the types of minority opinions that are occasionally given voice, I see all sorts of fish hooks there.


  17. Susan says:

    The difference between Into the River & any of the other adult books many sourced and read as kids, is other adult books are not aimed those below the age of consent.

    I’m no wowser, and I do have sons aged 18 & 22 so have a pretty good idea what they’re about. Their friends describe me as ‘like a Mum, only better’.

    I do believe our society has set an age of consent to protect children from exploitation. I can’t understand how a book with this kind of content can be aimed at children below the age of consent. Seems to me it is exploitation – the author is making $$$ writing pornopgraphic content for kids (under whatever title chosen for them) and the NZ Literary awards are rewarding him

    • Hi Susan

      The question remains, is this pornography? I think as soon as we conflate sexual content with pornography, we get ourselves in trouble, one because it precludes healthy discussion about sex, and two because it sets up the idea that there’s something inherently bad about sex, when nothing could be further from the truth.

      Given the context of the book (and we do need to read it to make an adequate judgement) I certainly don’t think it’s in any way pornographic.

      With regards to age of consent, does that argument really follow? The legal age for voting is 18, but I’m not worried about younger folk reading about elections. What we’re really arguing at this point is that those under 16 will be harmed by exposure to any sexual material. Because it’s entirely possible the exact opposite is the case (that lack of exposure creates massively unhealthy attitudes) we need to be able to think this through at the level of the available evidence.


      • Susan says:

        Thanks for your reply Bernard,

        My point is that our society has deemed, and passed laws, that those below the age of consent can be harmed by such material. There’s a researched causal link from early exposure and sexualisation of kids to increased and ever younger sexual offending. I have no problem with the content, I have issue that this is promoted to those below the age of consent.

        I will use extremes as an example:
        In no way do we as a society want hardline censorship, child pornography is censored as the children who are involved cannot consent and are exploited, this censorship is completely correct.
        We also do not (I hope) want primary school teachers reading this aloud to their classes, or worse picture books for toddlers. If this occurs will it be deemed to be promoting healthy attitudes?

        A line has been drawn by our democratic representative parliamentary system. I am not arguing that those under 16 will be harmed by this content, I am arguing this is exploitation of people below the legal age of consent and should an author wish to promote pornographic descriptions to people below the legal age of consent they need to petition parliament to change those laws.

        This book contains sexually explicit descriptions. In most other forms this kind of description would be called pornographic and labelled R18. There is nothing wrong or bad about sex, however it is very wrong to exploit those below the age of consent. By their age those under the age of consent cannot consent, our society has made that decision. We as adults are required to uphold (or democratically change) the laws our society has imposed.

  18. HI Susan


    I absolutely agree with you that, for any number of reasons, we want nothing to do with child pornography. Of course.

    There is a real debate to be had here though, regarding what counts as pornography. I think, if you read the book, it would be very hard to classify this as a pornographic work. Content without context is meaningless, and the context here, particularly the way the sexual encounters leave him feeling, and the way they affect the way he moves forward, mean that it’s extremely unlikely that this would get the rating you suggest, any more than sexually explicit material within the context of an education package would.

    As it stands, these books are not subject to the same style of censorship regime as films, for example, quite possibly because the encounters described occur within the context of fully rounded characters, which I suspect is the healthiest way for young people to encounter sexual material. I think it is when sex is presented as somehow floating free of context that the risks occur.

    Certainly, one of the key criteria for film censorship is context. Is the sex, violence etc gratuitous? Does it glamourise attitudes and behaviours we might consider harmful? Are the consequences for the actions portrayed in a realistic manner? I think our censorship laws are exactly right in this regard, and these are the questions that must be addressed before we apply labels like pornographic to a work.

    My argument continues to be that Into The River passes all of these tests. There is a real emotional context to the encounters, the consequences are authentic, and indeed heartbreaking, the sex in this case is hardly glamourised, in fact the exact opposite is true. And there is certainly no sense in which the writing aims to titillate. Like all the book, the descriptions are raw and unsentimental.

    This is a great book and I want teenagers to read it.


    • Kayla says:

      Though it may not be a “pornographic work”, the fact remains that there is pornographic content within the book. Merely because something is not glamourised does not mean that it is not too explicit for a young audience. I would not say that the movie “Precious”, for example, was appropriate for this audience – hence why it is rated R16. There are some topics which need to be approached with much caution, and sexual relationships are included in that, due to the huge potential for harm in many ways (emotional, physical, etc.) if not respected and safely approached.

      As you mentioned education packages, many people do not agree with the way that the education system “educates” youth on sexual relationships as it is. It does not seem to be hugely effective in keeping youth from unwanted pregnancies and safe sex. My own sister was one of only two in her group of friends at the age of 13 who were still virgins, and I know many, many similar situations. I also know many people who have had abortions or accidentally became young parents. Effective sexual education? Maybe effective in encouraging sex itself, but not effective in keeping teens safe.

      Is it really so difficult to apply a restricted rating to a book which is so controversial? Are these awards about the panel’s personal tastes, or about what is beneficial for society and youth?

      Thank you for taking the time to reply to these comments.

      • Hi Kayla

        I think surveys in NZ currently suggest that around about a half of eighteen year olds are sexually active, so your sister’s group probably wasn’t typical. With regard to our effectiveness in preparing our young people for the sexualised world of adulthood, I absolutely agree we’re not doing a wonderful job as a society, not by a long shot. The question of how to do a better one is difficult, but I do believe that looking around the world for the most successful examples does at the very least provide a sensible way forward.

        And yes, inevitably awards are about the personal tastes of the judges. Which is why writers al know not to take the too seriously.


      • Anna Pickett says:

        Hi Kayla and Bernard, yes as long as responsible sexual relationships are not first and
        foremost upheld by society, teachers and parents, our children are left without realistic understanding of wholesome sex. As a result many of our teenagers and young adults are having sexual relationships that puts them in danger of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted deceases and some this is irreversible.

  19. I disagree with your opinion on many levels.

    Furthermore, I believe the award should be revoked.

    If this book were to be made into a film, it would be awarded with an R18 rating. With that point made, why should a book containing such explicit themes, language and imagery be awarded with the countries’ top prize for literature suitable and recommended for 12-18 year olds? (Year 9-13)

    This book is not children’s literature – so why has it won a children’s literature award?
    If this were considered adults literature, perhaps I wouldn’t even comment (no surprise given the current ‘Shades of Grey ‘obsession). University curriculum? Maybe. But highschool? No.

    You are perplexed that those with family values are opposed to this book? Let me spell it out for you. This “indeed moral book” that you describe doesn’t just contain what you label “harsh aspects” and mere “sexual references”. Be honest. The “integral” themes and graphic descriptions contained in this book are much worse than you have inferred, including multiple instances of paedophilia (sexual abuse of 14 year olds by a teacher!!), highly descriptive depictions of erotic behaviour (the EXACT definition of pornography) leaving little to the imagination, and glorified drug-taking. That kind of content has no place in a book being promoted for children.

    Furthermore, the skill behind this piece of literacy is irrelevant here. Written pornography, no matter how well-written, is still pornography, and should not be presented with a national children’s award. I believe a truly talented author would be able to tell a brilliant story without the explicit content that appears in this novel. There have been generations of classic novels that have communicated truly wonderful storylines without the use of explicit content that Ted Dawes has resorted to.

    You justify the themes of this book by saying that you too “seek a place where the young may move with safety and joy, live in respect and tolerance, and form healthy, nourishing relationships” And yet you promote a book which is the opposite of all this, and at best a book of hopelessness.

    Your stance on being a responsible parent is to simply “trust your children more”. And this means to hand a 12 year old a book filled with questionable content?? It is rather an ignorant point of view that highschool children are mature enough to process the themes in this book in a healthy way. Kids under 18 are particularly vulnerable and impressionable (remember these kids are still underage for most things!). You are selling our youth short if you think they need to be exposed to that drivel to be able to think through issues they are facing.

    Whilst I agree that children shouldn’t necessarily be sheltered from reality, there must be boundaries and allowances for young minds. Personally, I will take every step to teach my kids to stay away from these kinds of themes and content. This is becoming increasingly more difficult in our highly sexualised society. But just because this type of thing is so accessible does not mean we should make it even more so.

    I have yet to hear a compelling argument that expounds anything beneficial, noble and edifying about this book. With the abysmal record NZ has for family violence, teen suicide and countless other problems, it seems a little ignorant that a Children’s Literature Award would promote a book with these themes. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have awarded a book that could make a positive difference, rather than a book full of hopelessness. Was this the best book out of a bad bunch? If so, I am highly ashamed to be a New Zealander right now.

    My main complaint here is that this book should NOT have been granted the children’s award. The award says that this book is setting an example for both children to read and for other writers of children’s material to aim at. It’s time to change the stuff we feed our kids. How about giving them some uplifting, victorious and encouraging subjects instead? Stories that give them confidence that they can overcome adversity and that life is an adventure worth living. Stories WITHOUT the unnecessary explicit content.

    • Thanks Rebekah

      Just briefly, as time is against me. As judges, we’re not asked to find the most uplifting book, just the most effective piece of literature, and I think this is it. It won the Young Adult section, and is aimed at 15+. If the awards title creates a problem (and every time YA wins, it seems, this comes up, The Fat Man, Truth Dare Promise) then I think we perhaps ought to look at that issue, and I’m sure people are thinking about it.

      Whether this book, as a film, were given a PG rating, or R18, would depend entirely upon which material as carried over, and how it was depicted, and that’s exactly the point. How are we, as readers, being encouraged to see the material you deem offensive? What’s its context, what are the consequences etc? I’m not convinced that many of the critics have read this book, certainly the issues a censor would consider are not being addressed.

      The easy way to attack this is to label it pornography, but the tricky thing is to show how, because then one doesn’t have to analyse what’s going on in the book. But it’s unlikely to progress the argument, given the other side’s judgement is that it isn’t pornographic.


      • I can certainly use excerpts from the book itself to demonstrate that it is definitely written pornography. The question is, would you permit me to quote directly from the book here? (Usually I wouldn’t willingly pollute someone’s blog page with smut, but in this case it may be necessary.)

        Nevertheless, whatever term you would like to use, the themes and content is unacceptable for high school students.

        I am confused because I read somewhere that the book won the Youth Award which was aimed at Years 9-13. Maybe the source was incorrect, however I still believe the content is unsuitable for children under 18 and unacceptable for an award which is under the banner of NZ Post Children’s Awards.

        Just as a side note, I have put forward formal written complaints to NZ Post and Booksellers about this decision.

      • Hi Rebekah

        Yes, the YA award is for the category often referred to as teen fiction, and broadly speaking is aimed at the 13-8 target. Historically, most of it’s been aimed at 13 and 14 year olds and has been read by 12 ups, but there’s been an international trend of late for books like Into the River, written specifically for older teens, a group who often were left without anything but adult fare, despite still wishing to read about themselves.

        Recently I wrote a book August aimed at this target (not because of the sexual content, but because the philosophical treatment of free will was difficult) and it ended up being marketed at adults, which was deeply frustrating. My point is, it’s hard to get categories right, and saying that I absolutely take your point that confusion about categories can affect the ability of parents, teachers etc to make informed choices. I suspect this does need to be tided up.

        With regard to pornography, I don’t think an excerpt does the job. Reading selected passages can certainly give that impression, which is why I wouldn’t want an excerpt on this site, but rather the full book. I know that sounds like a cop out, but I do sincerely believe that the thing the novel brings is the ability to consider actions within the context of motivation, consequence and the like, and is why the definition of pornography can not reduce to particular words or phrases (one can quote pornographically from the dictionary, but it’s not a particularly smutty book).

        Thanks for engaging.


      • Jess Jones says:

        I totally agree with Rebecca. No amount of justification by Bernard or anyone else warrants this book being granted a Children’s Book Award. That sends a very misleading signal to anyone interested in buying junior fiction for classrooms, libraries or for their own family or friends.
        I am a former English teacher and a parent, and I find it a very difficult balancing act in today’s highly sexualised world to draw the line between exposing children to life’s realities in a way that they can handle, while at the same time nurturing and providing a safe place for them to develop and grow. (I note that Bernard does not have teenagers himself; he may feel differently about the book when his family is older.) I am fully aware of the power of good literature, and though Ted Dawe is a skilled writer, this does not mean that detailed graphic content, no matter how pertinent the themes, is suitable material for young teenagers to read.
        Yes, Shakespeare dealt with the dark side of human existence, but the context of his plays is far removed from the everyday world of a young teenager, whereas a young Maori boy going to a new boarding school is not. Encountering sexual abuse by a teacher, and sexual encounters spelled out in graphic detail, are far more likely to have a profound effect on a young teenager, than learning about Othello. You say that context is everything – and in this case, the context (a school – and teachers) only adds to the impact of the graphic realities being described.
        I also think that many adults would be disturbed by reading this book, especially mothers concerned for the well-being of their sons.
        I’m aware too that over time, and after considerable exposure to salacious, graphic material (whether it is called pornographic or not is irrelevant), people do become desensitised. Maybe that has happened to you, Bernard, that you fail to appreciate the impact of the offensiveness of the material in Ted Dawe’s book.

  20. Mark says:

    Hi Bernard

    Thank you for your candidness and approachability here. In your response to Susan you end with the sentence “This is a great book and I want teenagers to read it.”.

    To me, this is the crux of the problem. As a parent, I interpret this as saying “In my opinion I believe this is a great book. I will ensure that teenagers are going to read it regardless of any concerns their parents might have, which I believe they might hold only as a direct result of their ignorance of the book’s merits which I am now pleased to discuss with them”.

    I have a problem with an attitude held by many in academia that ‘we know better’. The qualities and suitability of the horse will be explained, discussed and debated only after it has bolted.

    I have read a review by someone who has read the book – someone that I trust. She says that the book is far worse than she imagined.

    I issue I have with you is one of respect.
    When you and your fellow judges awarded your prize to this book you must have had an idea that there would be controversy. You did it anyway. I take this as an expression of your contempt for me and my concerns as a parent. I am offended. You must know that this now will sit in most school libraries where parents have no voice. You have made our concerns moot. Whether we as parents object to your choice of winner or not no longer matters. The decision has been made, it will not be unmade. We have once again been rendered impotent.

    Was this your intent?

    PS: You said that it would be difficult to classify the book as a pornographic work. As It contains instances of paedophilia & pederasty could it be considered a paedophilic work? In what ways might context void this label?

    • Hi Mark

      To be absolutely honest, I had no sense that this prize would draw controversy. And on this I was wrong. But there was no intent to do other than find the best book.

      With regard to why a book containing a sexual predator should not be considered a paedophilic work, it’s in exactly the same way that a book containing murders need not be considered morally repugnant (Macbeth, Bird Song, The Bible…)

      Again, context is everything. There is nothing in this book to position the reader as accepter or admirer of this behaviour.


      • Jess Jones says:

        Thank you for your honesty, Bernard, in your reply to Mark. I do wonder though how you could not have foreseen the fact that the award would bring such controversy. And I do find your analogy with murders mentioned in literature to be trivialising: the Bible does not spell out in graphic detail the horror of the crucifixion, for example. It simply says, “And Jesus was crucified…”; similarly, Shakespeare does not go into every morbid detail about Macbeth’s murder. I guess it is a long time since you read graphic detail that made you feel nauseated and profoundly disturbed. I suspect though that teenagers encountering ‘Into the River’ without any preparation could have such a response – and they could well be unprepared because they could simply just pick the book off the shelf in a school library, because of your recommendation that they read the book.

  21. Neil Brown says:

    Hi Bernard,
    Thanks for your open and reasoned comments here. I’m not sure if you’re aware of the rather heated discussion going on over on the NZ Post Childrens Book Awards Facebook page, which has come under attack from the less open and reasoned Family First. The comments thread runs to around 170 now. It makes for depressing reading..

  22. AngelaS says:

    Every year people who follow this particular award question the judges’ decisions and it is often to do with the suitability of a particular book to a category and whether the categories are useful, whether they should be narrowed down further. Tessa Duder pointed out that maybe this book should not have been accepted as an entrant in the YA category and should have instead been entered in the NZ Post Adult Book Awards. Sophisticated picture books are often given awards in the Picture book category but no one would give them to a child under 7 years [the generally accepted group most people would consider are the readers of picture books.] And at least with this category most people can read a picture book quickly and decide which age level it is suitable for.
    Likewise those classified junior fiction in this award are often only suitable for those at the top end of the intended age range , 12 year olds and above. Notably ‘My brother’s war’ would be hard for under 12s to follow because of the detailed coverage of conscientious objection and the ideas it engenders about whether we should ever fight a war. The Storylines Notable Books panel placed this in the teen category. Primary school librarians in year 1-6 schools are extremely frustrated every year at the lack of junior fiction awarded books that are truly suitable for use at the level of those students. And yes it is important to get it right judging by the comments here,on the facebook page and in the media because anyone who had read Ted Dawe’s Thunder Road would have known that it was highly probable that a prequel to it was suitable for an older teen audience.

  23. Hi All

    I think one of the inescapable aspects of these sorts of discussions is the subjectivity of our judgements. So, if I think of Macbeth, for example, I think of the the murderers returning to stage, their hands dripping with blood, of Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, of the detailed portrayal of the descent into madness (and for Lady Macbeth suicide) of the protagonists and so forth, and it does seem graphic. Similarly the crown of thorns, the whipping, stumbling in the street, nailing of hands and feet, breaking of legs that another breath could not be drawn, piercing of the side, and that’s all fairly brutal stuff, to me. For others, it’s maybe fine for children to read it, and so these debates go.

    I suspect I shall be forever puzzled by our general comfort with violence, and queasiness about sex. I have to say, I just don’t get this. Violence is the explicit attempt to do harm, sex is a highly pleasurable activity. There’s some brutal violence in Ted’s book and I’ve heard not one peep about it… I can’t pretend to understand this.

    I absolutely understand the concern some have that exposure to sexual material might in some way lead to behaviours that in turn will harm the young adult. But against this must be balanced the concern that propagating this strange fear of our sexuality will also do great harm. And given these two opposing viewpoints, is the responsible thing not to attempt to discover what sorts of approaches around the world are having the most success in creating healthy and safe environments? If people know of contemporary examples where strict control of sexual content in literature does indeed lead to markedly better outcomes than ours in terms of flourishing and respectful sexual relationships, then let’s hear about them, and then the discussion can truly kick off.

    The other aspect of all of this, and some here have been upfront about this, is that some people, for religious reasons, think of sex outside of marriage as wrong no matter what. This objection is, I think, more consistent, and at this point the debate properly turns to how to best manage censorship in a society where people of different core beliefs strive to live in harmony. That too is fertile ground for genuine discussion and advancement.

    What I hoped,and indeed still do hope, is that some of those who object would want to have a crack at advancing the issue along these lines. Otherwise it really is as simple as a bunch of judges quite liking something you don’t like. And judging is, you know, like that.

    I’m away from the internet for a few days. But, should anyone want to explore the issues of international evidence, or indeed models for censorship, further, I promise to get back to you.



  24. […] serious, intelligent, philosophical and moral discussion about these issues I recommend you read Bernard Beckett’s blog and comments section. As a judge of the awards, Bernard has generously invited anyone with an opinion and an internet […]

  25. Sonya says:

    I was disappointed to learn about the poor selection of the NZ Post panel including “Into The River” in their award winning books for young adults. The explicit sexual content and language of this book should automatically rule it out of contention for an award in the young adult fiction category. This is not the first time I have been disappointed by your panels selection. However, I haven’t written to portray this disappointment before, because to be honest I thought it would be in vain. I am surprised by some comments on this page and the support they give to your selection.

    It is becoming increasingly difficult to find an appropriate book that children can enjoy without being bombarded with content that for the most are outside of their ability to properly process. As we all know children, indeed people learn at different rates. How one person perceives an experience will be very different to another persons perception. And regardless of what some of your supporters may think, adults for the most part do process information very differently than teenagers, that’s not discrimination, that’s fact. Although I understand when we can look at a situation from another perspective this teaches tolerance which ultimately builds a stronger community. However, it makes me curious as to think whether the panel really takes into consideration the perception of a young teenager reading this book. Has the panel properly considered what the “general young adult reading community” would take from such an explicit book. Or rather just their own perception; a teacher of 20 years and author of 10 novels, and what ever other experiences is available for an adult panel to draw on while deciding that this is a great book for young teenagers to read.Let me remind you that we teach our children to run before they can walk. Its not necessarily the content of Dawes book that bothers me, its not about how well written it is or isn’t, rather this is about the poor selection of the panel awarding it in a category it simply doesn’t belong in.

    I am a mother of 5 children (aged 23, 22, 19, 18 and 11) whom I trust very much, and they trust me. They are all well rounded children that are very tolerant of others and circumstances. They understand the terrible things that can happen to others and in fact can happen to them as well. We are a family that are not without our own trials and challenges. I am also a school teacher of 11 – 14 year old students, who daily bring a myriad of perceptions and opinions to our classroom discussions. I absolutely encourage and in deed try to inspire children to read and enjoy books with a variety of topics and issues. Issues that they can relate to, issues they are ready to discuss, and here we build their foundation, preparing them to deal with more “pressing issues”. Why is it that in today’s society everyone is in such a hurry for our children to deal with adult themed issues.

    I no longer am taking guidance from your panel as far as directing parents or children in selecting good literature. I now go outside of New Zealand for this guidance looking to the American Newberry Awards suggestions. Unfortunately I recognise that they do not include New Zealand authors in their recommendations. Therefore I am relying on word of mouth to promote New Zealand authored books.

    While the Newberry Awards focus on issues of the day, their books do not allow questionable content. This is way more appropriate for young inquiring minds, who already have to face an overload of images, topics, information that is way outside their ability to appropriately process. Sorry I just don’t believe that children who are going through these adolescent experiences (such as sex) needs to have graphic explanations given in a book to confirmed what it looks like to enrich the story line. Or children that aren’t going through these experiences need to read graphically about it so that they learn tolerance and understanding of another’s situation.

    • Edwin says:

      RE this comment: “Adults for the most part do process information very differently than teenagers, that’s not discrimination, that’s fact”, I agree with you. Stating a fact is not discrimination. However, using this fact as justification to prohibit teenagers from reading certain books is discrimination. Freedom to read what one wants is a fundamental human right. Taking this away is discrimination, regardless of your reasons.

  26. Thanks Sonya

    A theme that has run through this discussion thread has been broad agreement about what we aim to do (provide quality reading experiences that give teenagers an opportunity to engage with literature and so the world around them) along with a strongly divided opinion on whether this particular book does that job.

    I agree with you entirely that the teenage mind does not yet have the context, biological or cultural, to process information in the way an adult might. The question then becomes, how best to assist our teenagers to develop that context over time. This is as important whether the questions are those of sex, violence, social inequality, faith, whatever. The world our young adults are moving into will challenge them in a great many ways, and our job as adults is surely to assist them across this divide.

    The disagreement appears to centre upon whether your average fifteen year old is capable of processing the events portrayed in this book. If they are (and that’s obviously my guess) then this represents a wonderful opportunity for our young to engage with one of our most pressing social issues, that of cultural inclusion. If, however, our young are much more fragile than my experience suggests, and this book will damage them in some significant way (I’m unclear what people imagine the specific damage might be) then you are quite right and a book like this shouldn’t be winning a YA award.

    What therefore interests me is, how should we find out? I come back to both my own experience as a teacher (in particular a ten year old stint in a school typified by a liberal environment, where parents who engaged rather than sheltered appeared to produce the most wonderful young people, many of whom I now know as adults) and the international experience where there is no clear link between liberal social policy and damaging sexual behaviour. Or rather, that link I can see runs in exactly the opposite direction, with liberal attitudes towards sexual content going hand in hand with low levels of sexual abuse, for example. That’s not necessarily a causal link, of course, but if the causation really does run in the opposite direction, then it provides a strong case to answer.

    So, what I’m assuming is that opponents of this book have found a body of evidence that I’ve missed. And what I’m waiting for, clearly, is for somebody to take the time to share that. If we try to have a conversation like this one removed from such evidence, then the danger is we’re left with little else to do but expand upon our various prejudices. Given the depth of feeling that’s out there, there’s clearly some energy available for things like summarising the available research. And I suspect we’d all be interested to hear it.



  27. As we approach our annual ‘Banned Books’ celebration, I think this is the finest response to calls for censorship I have read in some time. Well put.

  28. Esther says:

    “Nobody opposes books about World War One, on the grounds that we don’t want our children heading off to shoot Germans. Nor are we afraid of our children seeing the bible, least they develop a taste for crucifixion. ”

    Because the above choices are not pleasurable. Simple facts.
    But drugs and sex are, more so for the young generation today.

  29. Hi Esther

    I think you’re right to explicitly target the desirability/pleasurability of acts portrayed. Clearly, a work that portrays as glamorous and pleasurable acts that, if mimicked by its readers, are more likely to cause harm, has a case to answer. I don’t immediately buy the categorisation you’re offering here, however.

    History appears to suggest both public executions and the jingoistic patriotic fervour that sends young men rushing off to war can both be highly seductive. And, should portrayals of either war or lynchings be portrayed in this manner, as exciting and rewarding activities, then we’d quickly cry foul.

    My point is, very often, despite dealing with such topics, the books in question are not questioned, because the treatment does not glorify war, or indeed crucifixion. In exactly the same way, I’m still a little gobsmacked by those who read Into the River as representing the characters’ sexual and narcotic experimentation in a positive light. This is a lost young man, desperate to find his place in the world, bullied and excluded, who looks for salvation in places where it’s never going to be found. And so he’s profoundly hurt.

    Drugs and sex can indeed both be pleasurable, as you point out. But not always. And that’s what this book gets so right.


  30. […] From Bernard Beckett Beckett was a judge in the 2013 NZ Post Children’s Book Awards. Reading his responses to the comments published below his post makes me want to rush out and read all his books…. […]

  31. K. says:

    After hearing that Into The River has been banned in New Zealand I would like to hear your thoughts on why that is. I’ve read the book and found nothing that would justify such an action, especially considering such books as A Clockwork Orange and Story of O still pass muster. Would we really deny our children the knowledge of such a reality in order to soothe our own conscience? I am feeling very troubled by what I see as undeniable overreaching by a select minority of people. Is democracy truly dead after all?

    • The process in here is certainly interesting, and I don’t pretend to understand the details of the politics behind it. I believe this is a first in terms of the classification board and censor’s office clashing in this way and it would be fascinating to be privy to some of their private conversations. It is always a delicate balance, I think, between having adequate checks and balances in a system, and not creating an environment where the sufficiently resourced and tenacious can use legal means to stall any progress. I think the balance is slightly out in this case. Ultimately the system relies upon high levels of care and integrity from the professionals charged with making these calls, and one can only hope this will be case here. The ban is temporary, pending a final rating decision, to rest assured the book will be back. And when it is, I rather hope that the end result of all of this will be a great many more people reading this important book. The worrying development would be an imposition of a ratings system on books in general, if this precedent is then used as leverage. At that point, the barbarians really are at the gates.


  32. Ed Waddington says:

    I finished the book yesterday afternoon. I felt I had missed something as I could not find the passages that gave such offence. Everything seemed to be in context except for one thing: when given the opportunity to reclaim his identity by choosing his own nickname, the main character opted for “Devon”.

    Why choose such an innocuous name? It was as if the lead character (who has all the promise of the lead Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children) suddenly decided to castrate himself. That shocked me and signaled the end of the great promise foreshadowed in the beginning of the novel.

    It shouldn’t be banned or censored or excoriorated in other ways. Stonedogs was far more violently sexual and showed up in school libraries without comment. I agree that the barbarians are at the gates; although I’m not convinced that this is an important book. It’s an alright novel that I do hope gets some more boys reading.


  33. Bert says:

    Is there not a ‘self censoring’ mechanism? I mean; the use of lanquage, style of writing, topics/content, page layout, style of letter fonts, size ….etc. what will put of a certain age group of children who after reading one pager will put the book aside.

  34. […] Bernard Beckett’s site has a wide range of comments on the 2015 controversy over Into the River […]

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