Ahoy! Cuba Press, 2023
Runner-up, NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize 2022
Winner, Young Adult Fiction Award, NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults 2023
Longlisted for the ARA Historical Novel Prize 2023
Storylines list of notable books for 2023
The story behind the story
Two different strands converged to create this book.
One goes back to a schools tour of the South Island in 2019 when Gillian Ross, librarian at Bluestone School in Timaru, told me how much her students enjoyed verse novels. A verse novel tells a story like a novel but uses poetic techniques to do so. Even if you think you don’t like reading poetry, verse novels are accessible and gripping; they often deal with big emotions and life-changing events. I came home and read all the ones I could find. Then I decided to try and write one. The verse novels I enjoyed the most were historical ones, so after a few false starts, I settled on the story of Robin Hyde (or Iris Wilkinson, her real name).
Why her? This was the other strand. I felt very drawn to Robin Hyde’s life story and to her as a writer. Like her, I grew up in Wellington, and since then I’ve returned and lived in or often visited the same suburbs she did, like Newtown and Island Bay. Once, taking one of my daughters to the mobile dental clinic at Berhampore School, I found the school office and saw her name as dux on the honours board in the lobby. Robin Hyde was one of the few New Zealand writers we studied when I was at university. Other parts of her life were very different to mine, but I was fascinated by her travels in China because I backpacked around China in the mid-1980s when it had only just opened up to foreign visitors. That was nearly 50 years since Iris’s visit, but some things had not changed much (or as much as they would in the following decades). We took the same journey by ship from Shanghai to Hong Kong and, like her, travelled from there to Canton, now Guangzhou. The small villages, the long train journeys, the food – all these things that she wrote about felt familiar.
The NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize was established in memory of Laura Solomon, an imaginative and dedicated writer. Laura died in 2019 aged 44 after a 10-year struggle with a brain tumour, and her family worked with the New Zealand Society of Authors Te Puni Kaituhi o Aotearoa and Cuba Press to set up this award in memory of a beloved daughter, sister and aunt. The Prize is for “manuscripts written across genres ie fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, drama or children’s writing, to be judged within the criteria set by Laura Solomon, for new writing with a ‘unique and original vision’”. You can read more about Laura Solomon here and here.
The beautiful cover is by Kapiti artist Sarah Pou. We set her a tricky brief but
I think she nailed it. I love how Iris is dwarfed by the tall ship towering above her,
but appears undaunted. She seems as if she’s stopped for a moment to look up
and wonder about what adventures the ship might be taking her on. Sarah has
successfully captured Iris’s indomitable spirit.
You can read more about the illustration and design work behind the cover
on the Kete Books Cover story feature.
“The spirit of Iris”: here’s a lovely account of the book launch (shared with Juanita Deely, launching The Uppish Hen and other poems) by Stephen Olsen on Scoop.
And in Robin Hyde: User of words, you can read a Q & A of questions that Juanita and I posed each other for the Sapling website.
“Philippa Werry tells the story of Robin Hyde, NZ’s first female war correspondent” as told to Sarah Catherall, The Dominion Post, 25 March 2023.
“Iris and Me: Philippa Werry in conversation”: here’s an interview with Neil Johnstone on the Wellington City Libraries blog.
“NZ Book Awards Q&A: Philippa Werry” on Read NZ Te Pou Muramura, 2 June 2023.
“Iris and Me is a book to hold to your heart, to help you find your own courage and strength through adversity and epiphany, to fight for what is just and fair, to find ways to do what satisfies you… Verse novel brilliance” … read more
Paula Green in Poetry Box
“A rich, tender, powerful exploration of the life of Robin Hyde, to be treasured by readers of all ages” … read more
Loveday Why in Landfall Review Online
“A terrific story about a tenacious woman”… read more
Cristina Sanders’ blog
“What a gorgeous read it was, this elegantly imaginative verse novel” … read more
S J Mannion in takahē
“Wellingtonian Philippa Werry is one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most lucid and productive writers for young readers, especially in non-fiction. Now comes her intriguing, adventurous verse biography, Iris and Me, with a target audience that I reckon could range from pre-teen to post-retirement” … read more
David Hill in Kete: hou pukapuka mai Aotearoa
“The novel is written completely in verse as a tribute to Robin Hyde the poet and the impact is powerful. Novels of this kind are special… I couldn’t put the book down” … read more
Bobs Books Blog by Bob Docherty
“A strikingly original story in epic poem form.”
NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize judges report.
“Iris dared to do the things that women weren’t supposed to do; Philippa Werry has dared to step outside the square and tell Robin Hyde’s life in poetic snapshots: fresh, original and poignant. I reckon Iris would’ve approved.”
“Werry has produced an astonishingly full version of the writer’s life. An impressive achievement.”
Ann Packer in New Zealand Listener, May 6-12 2023, pg 54-55.
“Iris and Me conveys just how driven she was as a writer, how necessary writing was to her life and sense of herself, far beyond making a living” … read more
Paula Morris in Aotearoa New Zealand Review of Books
“What an astonishing achievement … And what a way to tell a story!” … read more
Sarah Forster in The Sapling
“This story in verse is not only beautifully written, but is exciting, dangerous, heart breaking and intriguing” … read more
What Book Next by Adele Broadbent
“Iris was an adventurer, and she was also someone who never gave up” … read more
Sherryl Clark in KidsBooksNZ
“‘Iris and Me’ is one of those books you find yourself thinking about long after you put it down… This would be a great book to read and discuss as a class as it would prompt rich discussions on feminism, disability, poverty, and cultural expectations of gender.”… read more
Kimberley Nielsen in Read NZ: School Library
Teacher notes for Iris and Me will soon be available.