A whale of a tale - Regional News | Connecting Wellington
 Issue 199

A whale of a tale by Madelaine Empson

16-year-old Kapiti Coast local Arlo Kelly has been announced as one of the youngest-ever finalists in the 2023 New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults. Centring on themes of friendship, finding independence, and discovery, Echo is Arlo’s debut novel and is in the running for the NZSA Best First Book Award, with the results announced in a Wellington ceremony on the 10th of August.

I caught up with Arlo and his mum Vida to chat about the self-published book, which was printed locally by Your Books in Grenada North. Arlo and Archie, the family dog who features in Echo, are pictured here.

Congratulations on being shortlisted! Where were you when you found out and how did it feel?

I was in my room on my computer and my mum came down. She said she had some really exciting news, and she told me, ‘You’ve been chosen for these awards’. At first I didn’t really remember, because it was quite a while ago that she entered me, and it was such a low chance that I kind of wasn’t thinking about it. I was like… ‘Oh wait, yes, that one!’ I never expected it to actually get anywhere near shortlisted. It was a really nice surprise.

What is Echo about?

It’s about a 12-year-old boy who is partially blind. He lives by the ocean and there’s a big reef where he lives. He loves to go out on the reef and go rock pooling, but his parents are worried about him, thinking he could get hurt due to his visual impairment. One day, when he goes out fishing with his dad, a whale comes up to the boat and he instantly feels a connection, because he realises the whale is the only real thing he can see in detail. From then on, without the knowledge of his parents, he visits the whale at the edge of the reef whenever he can. Their friendship and bond slowly grows.

What inspired you to write it?

Well, it all started when I was walking on the beach with my sister after we’d come back from rock pooling. Echo is set at the exact same place where I got the idea, which is actually where we go on holiday most years. My grandfather still owns a house on that same beach where my dad grew up. We were walking back alongside some cliffs towards the holiday house, and I realised my voice was echoing against the cliffs. I made the connection in my head between echoing and whales, and said to my sister, ‘Look, I’ve got this really cool idea for a story, I’ll meet you back at the house’. I ran ahead of her, went back to the house, and started writing.

I think it was the first chapter I wrote before showing it to my mum. We’d been wanting to publish a book for a while, because I’ve been writing since I was about six or seven years old, and my mum said, ‘I think this one has real potential’. I wasn’t really too sure at the beginning, I was thinking it was probably just another fun idea I had. But when the story shaped, I realised that it could work as a published book.

How do you think your writing has changed since you first started at six or seven until now, with Echo in mind?

I wrote my first book when I just turned seven in 2013. It was a little informational booklet about the weather that we handmade at home, and one of the first things I typed out on the computer. Since then I’ve mainly moved away from nonfiction towards fiction, and much simpler fiction stories that slowly got longer and longer.

When I was about 10 years old, I started my first proper long thing. It was around 200 pages and similar to Echo. I finished it when I was 11. We were thinking about publishing it, but we never really got around to it, and looking back, obviously, it could have never been a book. It was terrible! It didn’t follow a natural storyline, it was just a bunch of random events stuck together. I was 10, I didn’t really understand how that all worked. But it gave me the realisation that I could actually write a long-form book – that I could do that again, but in more detail.

Great. And Echo is your first published novel?

It is my first published book, but I’ve sold other books in the past. I also have a book called The Beach Treasure, which was about a boy trying to uncover a mystery of a sunken ship. It was set at the beach as well, and I think I wrote that one in 2020. We sold a few dozen of those on the Kapiti Arts Trail. The next year, I wrote another one called Man’s Best Friend about a boy who gets stranded on an island and finds a dog there. It’s about the friendship between the boy and the dog. Actually, maybe that’s where I got the idea for Echo from. That was back in 2021, and I sold a few dozen of those on the Kapiti Arts Trail the next time around. I did the cover artwork for both Man’s Best Friend and The Beach Treasure. Mum did the cover art for Echo.

I understand you also do colour-pencil native bird drawings, which you sold on the Kapiti Arts Trail too?

That’s what funded the print run for Echo, and pretty much everything else. I managed to scrape enough money together from the cards, prints, and previous books I’d sold to fund, I think 100 copies for the first print run, and from then we did a few more [runs of] 150. It got easier over time because we made profit from the original ones.

Which books most inspire you?

There’s been a lot of books and authors I’ve really loved over the years. I’d say my favourite author recently, other than JK Rowling and Harry Potter, would probably be James Russell. I love the storyline of his series The Dragon Defenders, and I’ve actually had the privilege of meeting him twice before.

A question for Mum: how did it feel to watch your son write and publish Echo, and to know he’s one of the youngest-ever finalists in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults?

Vida: Just completely amazing. Arlo’s grown up around lots of books, because I’m a book designer and his dad has designed lots of books as well over the years. It was really nice to be able to use what I knew to help Arlo actually make a book. We used to have these lovely moments where we’d go for walks, walking the dog, and Arlo would tell me what his next plans were for the story. It was lovely to talk about it and then he would get all excited and go and write down the next part and I’d see it develop. I was so impressed with how well he took the editing and feedback; how he was prepared to go back to it and work on it and develop it.

For the awards, I almost didn’t enter him because of his age really. And then a few people suggested it, including a bookshop owner and somebody else who had read the book and done a review. I think also because last year it got a Storylines Notable Book Award, so that gave me a little bit more reason to enter it. We entered it not really thinking anything would come of it. I know how hard Arlo’s worked and worked over the years – to have that recognition at his age is fantastic.

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