Barbara Murison: Somewhere to begin

Flash Ashley and Woody and Friend
John Parker
HarperCollins,  each $9.95

Fuss the Farm Dog and David and the Monster
Gaelyn Gordon
HarperCollins, each $9.95

Series of books for beginning and reluctant readers have been around for the past 40 years and as the decades have past the regimented rows of Antelopes and Reindeers, the I Can Reads, the Beginner Books all in their now slightly old-fashioned looking covers and with their preoccupation with middle class family life (Britain) and dressed‑up, talking animals (United States), have been replaced by Bananas and Cartwheels, Comets and Crackers, Fireflys, Flippers, Ganders, Jets and Jumbo Jets, Superchamps and Tigers. The animals and family life are still there but the milder storylines of the sixties, seventies and early eighties have expanded to more down to earth, realistic adventures and enlarged to cover social issues like divorce, bullying, recycling, jealousy, equity, sexism and childhood ills other than the old standbys of appendicitis and tonsillectomies.

Perhaps one of the most noticeable things about this earlier group of books was that while the country of origin could be easily identified by the publisher’s name and the $ or £ sign there was seldom anything in the text to show this was a book set on the Mississippi River or the Australian outback or the back streets of Liverpool. Although we have the wonderfully successful Storybox titles for new readers there has been nothing in a series for this age group (as far as I am aware) that cries out “This is New Zealand as I know it”.

This was why I was hopeful when I first saw the Tui Turbos appearing on the bookshop shelves last year. Tui Turbos, a newish (1992) series of books aimed by their Auckland publisher, HarperCollins at 6‑10-year-olds and reluctant readers are, I am told, highly popular with many children, their teachers and parents. Among the proven writers and illustrators on the list to date are Gaelyn Gordon and Clare Bowes, Diana Noonan, Keith Olsen and Pauline Cartwright, whose contribution, The Reluctant Pirate, was a finalist in the 1994 Aim Children’s Book Awards. So far eight titles have appeared with four to come in September and more are planned for early next year.

The publisher’s basic philosophy behind the series, that they should be fun to read, is certainly in exuberant evidence in the four titles at which I have looked in depth. These are David and the Monster from Outer Space and Fuss Finds Out by Gaelyn Gordon and Clare Bowes; Woody and Her Friend by John Parker and John Tarlton; and Flash Ashley by John Parker and Jeffrey Parker (father and son?). The humour is earthy in the first three. Woody and her Friends has the addition of groaning, creaking puns. Children relate to primary humour and plays on words so an overturned boat declaring “I’m having a hullover time” and “Oar, heck” and “Things look stern” is real giggle‑making stuff.

The books look attractive with amusing, full colour glossy covers, pages liberally scattered with speech bubbles and integrated text and pictures. For a reasonably confident emerging reader making the transition from picture books to stories, this series could well prove a useful bridge. The format of the books is appropriate, they are easy to handle, action is on the right hand page to encourage anticipation for what follows, there is clear print; and with 64 pages in every title I have looked at so far they are long enough to be counted a “real” book. Some of the pages may be over‑busy but when you look at the success of books like Mike Wilks’ Ultimate Noah’s Ark with 707 animals crowding its conservation pages, Graeme Base’s Animalia and even the early Richard Scarry titles this may not be an issue. The publishers have avoided the mass produced, crude appearance of their Australian correlative, Jets and Jumbo Jets, which do not look as though the concept of quality control has been applied at all apart from the first couple of titles.

Tui Turbos seem set for success. But there are two flaws in the programme. Nowhere on the books is there any guidance to the suggested reading or interest level, and although the publisher’s guidelines to authors ask for a New Zealand flavour I feel this does not altogether come through; and so far, if there is any underlying essence of New Zealand one would have the impression that we live in a totally pakeha society.

Judging the series on the yardsticks set by Margaret Mooney in Developing Life‑Long Readers (School Publications,

1988) not all of the titles measure up completely. Mooney says that books in a good reading programme should contain (among other items) these elements: they should be child centred; reading for meaning must be paramount, reading must always be rewarding. This last statement is the one with which I have problems. I feel that for some slower readers the rewards are not going to be there: readers are going to be defeated before they start because of the unfamiliarity of the some of the words. Beatrix Potter can get away with stating that eating lettuce can have a soporific effect when that is the only unfamiliar word in the text but teachers of reading whom I have asked say that words and concepts such as “mint condition”, “rumbling”, “reference”, “umbrella” and “stopwatch” which are met in the first 100 words of Flash Ashley may be too much for someone with high interest levels but not the word skills.

A danger with any series – whether it is for beginning readers, a science programme or books about other countries – is that some busy teachers and librarians who are responsible for book selection will see a success with one title and will then buy the whole set.

In Flash Ashley the humour of the story lies in fact that young Ashley Wilkins, one time collector of penny blacks, coins and toe and finger nails has given away his habit for his new hobby ‑ studying thunderstorms. One night he observes at too close a range, is struck by lightning and as a result, begins at once to speak in the idiom of someone from the sixteenth century. Before the Flash, Ashley would say “My nut feels sore” but after the Flash, Ashley says “How strangely, methinks, Do I wake, And how amazingly My head doth ache!” Because of this he is immediately signed up by the local Shakespeare Society to play the lead role in “Romeo and Juliet”.

This is quite funny but a reader is going to have to have some knowledge of Shakespearian type phraseology. Primary children are unlikely to be attracted by a page which declares: “Ah! Juliet if the measure of my joy be heaped like mine, and that thy skill be ever more to blazon it, then sweeten with thy breath this neighbour air” etc, etc. Slow readers are eliminated, leaving intermediate and secondary students to pick it from their library browsing box for an expensive five‑minute diversion before the bell goes.

The punning row boat in Woody and her Friend also presents problems for students with reading difficulties although they will probably work out “rattle yer dags” barked by a belligerent sheepdog at a mob of harassed looking sheep.

The books that work best are those of Gaelyn Gordon and Clare Bowes who combine imagination, good humour, sympathy for the underdog and that element in writing for children which was missing for so many years, equality of the sexes, all packaged in a highly digestible, heartwarming mixture. Fuss the urban, high‑rise apartment-dwelling dog now turned rural free ranger, is the Everyman of the canine world and builds (for older readers at least) memory bridges back to established similar characters in children’s literature like Eeyore and the Cowardly Lion. In the first book, Fuss Finds Out, Fuss comments on the unfeeling nature of humans who have transported her from the comforts of city living to a place with no street lights, no traffic, no shops to walk to, just grass and trees all standing together. “I have never seen anything so unnatural” says Fuss.

Also there is no concrete or that necessary part of any city dog’s facilities, a lamp post. “Don’t they realise?” she asks, “I’ve go to heh, heh, heh, you know, wash my hands, go to the bathroom What’s a dog supposed to do? There are no gutters round here. Where’s a dog supposed to go?” However, after solving this basic problem, Fuss discovers one of the major attractions of country living ‑ smells “Superb Scent, Awesome Aroma, Flawless Fragrance, Beautiful Bouquet, Sublime Stench, Perfect Pong” and even if her indulgence does mean A Bath, life had definitely perked up.

In the latest title, Fuss the Farm Dog, Fuss has become truly at one with her surroundings: “I just don’t know how those townies put up with all that concrete and traffic and other dogs doing things in their gutters. Used to be a town dog myself, but you’d never know it to look at me now, eh?” Her confidence however, is put to the test when she unwittingly becomes Fuss, the sheep dog and slightly confused cattle herder. A new title, Fuss the Collector is due for release in September – I am looking forward to it. One has a cheering picture of author and illustrator laughing as they create the character of Fuss as much as the audience for whom she is intended will.

The other title in the series by the same combination of Clare Bowes as illustrator and Gaelyn Gordon as writer is David and the Monster from Outer Space, a salutary tale of what happens to a boy when he makes the false assumption that all girls are scared of worms.

When Paul Jennings was here last year he said that no reluctant reader is going to pick up a book that isn’t enjoyed by older, more competent readers and, apart from the few stated concerns, I feel that this series of Tui Turbos has achieved this and that they will appeal to a broad audience. I hope they stick to the non-mass-produced aspect of the list to date, that they work in with advice from reading advisers from the colleges of education and reading specialists from schools throughout the country, so that the standard of the series will match that of the material for emerging readers we are already producing and that is so highly thought of that it is purchased by educationalists in North America, Britain and Asia who see the quality and attraction of the New Zealand reading programme.

Barbara Murison is a Wellington children’s book specialist.

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