New lyricism and an old favourite, Stephanie Edmond

Chen Li and the River Spirit
Anthony Holcroft
Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland, 1990, $19.95

Slinky Malinki
Lynley Dodd
Mallinson Rendel, Wellington, 1990, $17.95

Caterwaul Caper
Lynley Dodd
Mallinson Rendel, Wellington, 1990, $8.75

Chen Li and the River Spirit is a delightful picture book for seven to ten years old. The charming fairytale is a rich and satisfying story in itself, beautifully and lyrically written, but the book has a lot to offer on several different levels as well. Chen Li is a wealthy merchant who enjoys the simple pleasures of life: walking in the hills, lying by the spring listening to the voice of the stream. He lives in the Valley of the Leaping Water where the river flows down through brown, barren hills where nothing grows. Each spring when the snows melt the Valley of Leaping Water is flooded, destroying crops and houses. The River Spirit is angry with us, the villagers say. One day as Chen Li lies by the river listening to its sounds, he is visited by the River Spirit and shown how the valley once looked:

‘I had shade then, from the hot sun. My river flowed secretly under the trees, fish hid beneath its banks, and the forest was full of birds. A place fit for gods, Chen Li! But men came to the valley and cut down the trees, revealing the secret ways of my river for all to see. The wind and rain plundered its banks and clouded its lovely mirror’.

The spirit gives Chen Li some seeds and he devotes his life to growing the forest again. Eventually the hills are re-covered again. It rains for seven days and seven nights. There are floods everywhere except in Chen Li’s valley. He is reunited with his family, his life’s work vindicated.

On another level, in these environmentally‑conscious days, the book has a serious message about looking after our rivers and their surroundings. In this way the book could be used at school to discuss firstly the powerful influence myths about spirits and gods have over people’s will to protect natural resources, and secondly what practical measures can be taken to preserve the environment. The book has gloriously colourful illustrations by Lyn Kriegler, enough to enchant children who may believe they have outgrown picture books.

Slinky Malinki is the latest addition to the ever popular Hairy Maclary series. While it has sometimes seemed that the author is stretching the formula too far, this time it’s just as good as the first. Slinky Malinki, the cat with the most memorable name from Hairy Maclary Scattercat, now has a book to himself. An adventurous and mischievous personality shows in Slinky Malinki’s secret night life, building up to a barely, but just believable climax.

Slinky Malinki was blacker than black,

A stalking and lurking adventurous cat.

He had bright yellow eyes, a warbling wail,

and a kink at the end of his very long tail.

 

Once again Lynley Dodd has found words which one savours like a favourite food – just unusual enough to keep your interest time after time, and put together at a rattling pace:

All over town, from basket and bowl,

he pilfered and pillaged, he snitched and he stole.

Slippers and sausages, biscuits, balloons,

brushes and bandages, pencils and spoons.

At $17.95 the hardback is not cheap, but it will last for many years through many children’s hands.

 

Caterwaul Caper is one of Lynley Dodd’s earlier picture books for children, and is now out in a miniature hardback edition. Kids love small books and this will be no exception. It features Scarface Claw who ‘with a twitch of his tail and a purposeful paw’ is off on an adventure of his own. All the dogs from the original Hairy Maclary book – whose names children never tire of – are in this book too. Scarface Claw gets stuck in a tree on his adventure and his yowling draws all the dogs in the neighbourhood to the base of the tree before the poor cat is rescued by Miss Plum. The miniature hardback is a welcome addition to a well-loved series and deserves a place in all children’s bookshelves.

 

Stephanie Edmond is a Wellington journalist  KSW.

 

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