Preceded by controversy, Into the River, a YA novel by New Zealand author Ted Dawe, will be released to North American audiences simultaneously in hardcover and e-book on June 14 by Polis Books. The Margaret Mahy Award-winning novel follows the story of Te Arepa Santos, who struggles between two cultures, that of his Maori tribe and a posh Auckland boarding school where bullying is rampant.
The novel, self-published by Dawe in 2012, was originally deemed M (unrestricted) for audiences 16 and older by New Zealand’s Office of Film and Literature Classification which noted that the novel contained “sex scenes, offensive language and drug use.” Following an appeal from Family First New Zealand, a conservative organization, Into the River was then rated R14 by the Film and Literature Board of Review in December 2013, which made it illegal to “sell or display the book” to those aged 14 and below.
According to librarians who spoke with Dawe, prior to the restriction, the novel had been “the most borrowed New Zealand book in the New Zealand library system.” After a conversation with librarians on the fate of his novel, the Auckland Libraries filed a request in 2015 to re-examine the restrictions, which led to the removal the M classification and an interim restriction filed by Don Mathieson, president of the Film and Literature Board of Review, making the novel illegal to sell, as well as prohibiting the display of the book in public place. With the interim restriction in place, the situation worsened and the novel became impossible to procure within New Zealand.
The restriction “came like a bolt from the blue,” Dawe says, not only to himself, but to the “entire New Zealand literary establishment,” eventually inspiring protests by bookstores and outcries from the New Zealand Book Council and the Publishers Association of New Zealand. Despite the negative effects of the restriction on sales and readership, the ban, New Zealand’s first in 22 years, bolstered interest in the novel, resulting in media coverage from the Guardian and the New York Observer, among other sources. Random House New Zealand acquired the book from Dawe in September 2015, and sold North American rights to Jason Pinter of Polis Books, who notes, “It shocked me to my core that a book would be banned in 2015. [Family First] didn’t silence the book; they amplified it.”
Last October, New Zealand’s Board of Review voted to remove the interim restriction, despite a dissenting opinion by Mathieson, on the grounds that scenes from Into the River, while they may be offensive to some, act more as a cautionary tale. In terms of objectionable scenes, the Board argued, “we consider they are there as a genuine depiction of some of the dangers that young teenagers may have to face, and to warn of the dangers and wrongfulness of such behaviours.”
Of the restriction’s removal, Dawe says, “The book is now regarded as something of a milestone in New Zealand literary history and has prompted much debate on the nature of YA fiction.” While the ban’s removal is good news for New Zealand readers, its lingering controversy will factor into the marketing of the novel’s U.S. release. According to Pinter, who discovered the novel while on vacation in Amsterdam and believed the book’s coming-of-age themes would resonate with American readers, the ban does provide a way that we can spread the word about the book... and make people aware.” Dawe, who is marking his U.S. publishing debut with Into the River, reports, “Our country tends to be seen in quite a narrow way internationally”.”I hope readers gain an insight into what it is to grow up in a country like ours, both the good and the bad.” For Polis Books, Pinter names Into the River “a leading summer title” and a “very important book for us,” citing its dual audience appeal and noting, “We think that this is a character we see as having longterm interest for readers.”
Into the River serves as a prequel to the novel Thunder Road, which was originally published in 2003, and will be released by Polis Books in June 2017. A third novel in the cycle, Into the World, has been self-published by Dawe in New Zealand and will be released by Polis Books in 2018.
Into the River by Ted Dawe. Polis Books, $17.99 June 978-1-943818-19-8