A New Zealand author who has lived in Australia for two decades looks to have made history by winning two categories — with two different books — in the same year at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Bren MacDibble has tonight been named the winner of the junior and young adult fiction categories. It is thought to be a first for the annual awards, which have existed in various forms since the 1940s. Looking back through recent records, organisers say it certainly hasn't happened in the last decade.

MacDibble's How to Bee, which won the Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction, describes a dystopian future without bees where children perform the essential task of pollination. Judges said it was a tale to fire young readers with awareness and courage for the future.

They also heaped praise on In the Dark Spaces, written under the pseudonym Cally Black, which saw MacDibble claim the Copyright Licensing Award for Young Adult Fiction. Judges said it was a high-concept science fiction novel and an impressive tale of world class calibre.

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In the Dark Spaces received the 2015 Ampersand Prize, given to debut YA and middle-grade fiction novelists in Australia and New Zealand. If an author's unpublished manuscript wins, they receive an advance against royalties, publishing contract and full editorial support to get their work on bookstore and library shelves.

Australian-based New Zealand artist Bren MacDibble won double honours at our book awards for children and young people.
Australian-based New Zealand artist Bren MacDibble won double honours at our book awards for children and young people.

Both In the Dark Spaces and How to Bee were published last year but received little attention in New Zealand, possibly because MacDibble, who likes to say she was born and raised in a muddle of backwater villages, farms and towns in heartland New Zealand, has spent most of her adult life in Melbourne.

However, when the family home burned down a couple of years ago and her husband lost his job, they decided to take a year out and travel around Australia in an RV. MacDibble was on the road when she learned she was a finalist in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Preparing to come home to New Zealand, where most of her family still live, tragedy struck again when her husband was injured in a motorcycle accident in the Northern Territory. While he was airlifted to hospital, MacDibble spent an anxious two days driving to Darwin to be with him.

She says he will recover and they intend to resume their Australian road trip: "I'm pretty okay with short-term plans. After all, one day we were living in a nice house with a nice view and nice things around us and then we had everything burn down."

MacDibble's initial move to Australia followed several years of backpacking in Asia, Europe and Africa. She has also twice ridden motorbikes across the USA and around parts of Australia. The former legal secretary says she was always an avid reader with a fondness for science fiction.

"There was a lot of science fiction in books and on television when I was a child," MacDibble says. "Growing up during the Cold War, when we all thought we were going to die in a nuclear war, probably played into that because science fiction is always popular when people are worried about the future.

"Things like alien invasions are a metaphor for things going wrong and writing about these futures is one way to imagine them and look at ways we might re-build."

She became more interested in writing through reading books to her own, now grown-up, sons and started looking carefully at and analysing what made a compelling story. MacDibble completed several writing courses and began writing educational fiction as well as tutoring.

"You can become a competent writer but not an outstanding one and the world is full of competent writers," she says. "We talk a lot about writers having a distinct voice and something to say, so I was interested to read and pull apart stories and author interviews, then pair them up to see what the internal processes of the authors were and how they worked. I wanted to produce something that would make a publisher sit up and go, 'this is good'."

MacDibble says although they're set in dystopian future societies, she wants her books to fire the imaginations of young readers and offer them the chance to think about big issues facing humanity but to have hope challenges can be dealt with.

"If you think about How to Bee, kids know about the environmental stuff that's going on so here they can read about it and see that the world has been re-structured. It's different but it's still there."

Christchurch-based author and illustrator Gavin Bishop was also a big winner at tonight's ceremony. Bishop's Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story was named Margaret Mahy Book of the Year prize and won the Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction.

Convener of judges Jeannie Skinner said there's been nothing like Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story in local children's publishing before.

"It's masterful in its execution — a work of art that bears repeated and thoughtful reading and viewing of its vibrant and informative illustrations, a book of enduring significance in the canon of New Zealand children's literature."

The full list of winners for the 2018 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults is:
Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award
Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story, Written and illustrated by Gavin Bishop (Penguin Random House)

Picture Book Award
I Am Jellyfish, Written and illustrated by Ruth Paul (Penguin Random House)

Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction
How to Bee, by Bren MacDibble (Allen & Unwin)

Copyright Licensing Award for Young Adult Fiction
In the Dark Spaces, by Cally Black (Hardie Grant Egmont)

Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction
Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story, Written and illustrated by Gavin Bishop (Penguin Random House)

Russell Clark Award for Illustration
Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts Written and illustrated by Craig Phillips (Allen & Unwin)

Best First Book Award
My New Zealand Story: Dawn Raid, by Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith (Scholastic New Zealand)

Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award for the best book in te reo Māori
Tu Meke Tūī!, by Malcolm Clarke, translated Evelyn Tobin, illustrated by FLOX (aka Hayley King) (Mary Egan Publishing)