Traditional patterning, Diane Hebley

Children’s books

The long history of story has inevitably established the effectiveness of traditional patterns. Among the 1997 crop of picture books, though illustrators often choose modern styles, most texts are structured traditionally, giving circularity in a promised repeat performance or support in a refrain.

In Vivienne Joseph’s The Penguins’ Day Out, two penguins from the zoo don yellow raincoats and red gumboots to join children in a city walk, enjoy a fair, take a ferry ride and rescue a toy bear from the “green, greedy waves”. The penguins’ comments form a refrain and circularity is established when, back home, the penguins leave their clothes for someone else’s day out. That someone in Ruth Paul’s illustration has a hairy arm. Paul’s smooth, stylised, bright illustrations suggest Wellington — rain, wind, hills, harbour.

Lynley Dodd shows yet again her exceptional skill in using traditional patterning to combine text and illustration. In Hairy Maclary, SIT, HM’s seventh adventure, his “mischievous” energy disrupts the obedience class down at the park. “Galloping here, / galloping there, / rollicking, / frolicking, / EVERYWHERE” becomes the refrain as he leads his familiar companions (Bottomley Potts et al) in a wild chase, finishing up “SPLAT / in the / pond”.

As well as an effective twist to the conventional idea of a dragon, novelist Joanna Orwin uses “I was careful not to get too close” as her refrain in her evocative first picture book, The Tar Dragon. The mouth of the tar truck/dragon “seethed and simmered inside” with a “hot dragon breath” and “rainbows shone” in the puddle of tar — irresistibly alluring to the small protagonist of presumably female gender. A bathtub clean-up is the price she pays for her real-life fun. Wendy Hodder’s bold, well-designed illustrations successfully portray the dragon and its tar flow but people often have clumsy facial features and hands and bodies are sometimes off balance.

Despite traditional patterning in a series of questions, Carol Geisser’s Why, Nana? suffers from more than the lack of a traditional title page and publishing details. Chrissy asks Nana why she needs items like a walking stick and reading glasses. Nana always replies that she’s old and tired. Then comes her put-down: “Why do you ask so many questions?” The negative text is not redeemed by Linda McClelland’s large-scale illustrations featuring a cute questioner with golden curls, intense flesh colours and ghoulish faces in teeth and ears.

However, energy in the text and well-designed illustrations enlivens Flora and the Strawberry Red Birthday Party by Ronda and David Armitage. Flora, who loves strawberries and all things red, wants a strawberry-red birthday party because red is her “best colour”. (Doesn’t she mean “favourite colour”?). Her guests must wear red and her father arrives dressed as a strawberry. But the story flags in its resolution when Flora’s friend Rosie produces red spots, the result of eating too many strawberries.

Just as traditional formats strengthen texts and illustrations, so changes lead to innovation. In Alphabet Apartment, Lesley Moyes breaks from customary alphabet simplicity to focus on exciting, eccentric, elaborately detailed and wildly imaginative buildings viewed from aerial angles. Two letters feature on each double spread and descriptions are amusingly phonic, such as “Horribly hazardous, hugely hideous, happily haunted Hotel”. This book invites leisurely interpretation of its illustrations.

Jane Cornish’s Emily’s Wonderful Pie, however, may well invite controversy despite excellent patterning. Each character approaches Emily and asks, using an alliterative, assonant refrain: “Can I have a bite of your pie for my lunch, / all squishy and squashy and mincey to munch / all flakey and bakey and crispy to crunch?” Emily, generous soul, says: “Okay. Just a bite.” Not surprisingly, she ends up with nothing. Whereupon, she looks at Harriet’s cream doughnut… Misfortune is passed on. And meningitis too? Sue Hitchcock-Pratt’s illustrations are remarkably expressive, superlatively constructed and individually surreal with exaggerated features: small eyes, broad noses, large teeth. You hate them or you love them — eventually. (The teacher is a triumph.)

In contrast, Gwenda Turner in The Ballet Class and Pat-a-Cake continues to produce her delicate, photographically realistic, skilful studies of children’s enjoyment. Her text depends, not on traditional story, but on specific occasions in children’s lives. A dancing lesson involves stretching, pointing, doing an arabesque and exercises at the barre. A cake-baking session involves mixing, baking, and eating to the refrain of the traditional “Pat-a-Cake” rhyme.

The quatrains and couplets in Joy Cowley’s humorous Elephant Rhymes are traditional in form, though with some rhythmic variations. Someone wants an elephant at home, a tale of “gruesome greed” unfolds in a hotel, another elephant lives in a bookshop, another performs the Broadway Elephant Rap in rhymes — elephyme/elephong/elephand — echoing Laura Richard’s much anthologised Eletelephony (in A Book of Elephants, ed Katie Wales, ill David McKee, Kaye & Ward, 1977). The red-cloaked, flying SuperJumble in the jungle, however, cleverly parodies Superman. Brent Putze’s richly coloured, energetic, slightly Indianised illustrations frame the text.

Following the “how-to-draw” tradition, Mark O’Brien in his black-and-white How to Draw Sea Monstas passes on technical hints for drawing cute, non-monstrous “monstas”. Though his hints may give kids valuable confidence to try drawing, the prospect of countless creatures with the same formulaic eyes is truly monstrous.

2

As for the junior novels of 1997, tradition exerts its usual influence on gripping tales of adventure by challenging the protagonists to survive isolation and the harshness of the elements and the landscape. Moreover, as in young adult novels (New Zealand Books, October 1997), these junior novels show a notable trend to widen perspectives through associating older characters with a sense of history and the community’s current interest in genealogy. Three of these novels display effectively modern covers with dark backgrounds, pale slivers of photographs or scenes and metallic embossed lettering.

In Judy Knox’s Trapped and Marie Gibson’s The Gap the unrelenting Central Otago landscape dominates events, making each title function on physical and psychological levels. Knox’s 12-year-old Paula, exploring beyond family-set limits, falls down an old mine-shaft with her dog, Zak. The plot depends on Zak’s initial inability to find a way out. Searchers also overlook signs. Paula battles days of darkness, hunger, thirst and hallucinations centring on difficult family relationships and her dying, disabled grandfather. Gibson’s Matthew, just 13, a victim of his older sister’s jealousy, is lost with his 3-year-old sister Rosie overnight in the Otago hills. Through finding old Rose’s hermit cave and helping her in her last days, Matthew becomes aware of the living history she represents, reconsiders his reconstituted family situation and resolves to practise photography, not law, as his father wishes.

In the third of these novels, The Shearwater Bell, Margaret Beames skilfully combines two adventure-mystery stories to link past and present in a small coastal settlement up north. After deciphering an English mariner’s 1829 account of mutiny, shipwreck, marriage to a chief’s daughter, a ship’s bell and treasure rich enough to corrupt the possessor, Rona and Wiri search for that treasure and the ghostly bell reputed to chime when death is imminent. Rona, staying with her unfamiliar grandmother, thinks the bell tolls for her seriously injured father in London. Wiri thinks it tolls for him when his ankle becomes wedged in rocks in a tidal sea-cave. The treasure they do discover is their families’ shared genealogy, not material wealth.

A more traditional cover showing two boys running on golden sand introduces David Hill’s Treasure Deep which explores friendship between Maori Api and pakeha Glyn within family and community relationships. In contrast to many traditional adventure stories, here racial stereotypes and prejudices are deftly rearranged to create interesting characters such as the stolid policeman, Colin. But Nana Kopu remains a feisty kuia who values the past. Her family stories gather importance when the boys discover ancestral treasure, a paua shell cloak-pin and a feather box. Humour deflects tension without destroying it and the chase for the violent thief becomes exciting and fictionally plausible.

Jane Buxton’s Donkey Dust follows the quest/journey tradition. Three protagonists, aged 14, 10 and 6, harness up their donkey and cart to escape their minder organised by their mother to cover her enforced absence. The three, neatly differentiated in their amiable bickering, travel to find their absent father, using ingenuity in gently humorous and dramatic circumstances. Their progress is monitored by adults, but secretly so that the children’s dignity and sense of adventure are maintained. Family relationships involving past parental mistakes undergo revelation and change, making this a satisfying novel on several levels. Penelope Newman’s pen drawings add to the pleasure.

Tradition, however, has little place in the nightmare world of “virtual reality” in Richard Gunther’s Bit Scream with its distinctly modern cover showing a robotic hand reaching out towards a heavily wired glove. Whereas parents were once merely absent in adventure stories, the father in modern virtual reality tales is often callously dysfunctional, jeopardising his son for his own purposes. Here, Michael’s father causes a road accident (presumably real, he escapes from  it) so that Michael in hospital can be wired up to undergo dangerous experiences to test the “world’s most powerful virtual reality machine” (p87) — a truly anti-human, modern stunt. But tradition reasserts itself in Michael’s ability to draw on courage and mind-control and in his need for family love. John McKenzie addresses these issues in “New Wine in Old Bottles”, Talespinner No 4 (Canterbury College of Education, September 1997).

Parents in Renée’s sensitive I Have to Go Home are involuntarily absent — killed in a car crash. Sweet Pea, their injured daughter aged 12, goes to live with Gran but secretly plans to return home, convinced she’ll manage with tenants in the house. Her misery, anger and planning, rather than action, fill the story. Finally, she meets the driver who, drunk, caused the accident. By linking him with Shylock’s plea of common humanity — “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” — and by clarifying her relationship with Gran, Sweet Pea finds some comfort.

Two well-structured novels belong to the comic tradition of their own writer. Janice Marriott’s Kissing Fish is the final in her trilogy featuring Henry Jollifer who constantly tries to set the world to rights. Despite the jokes and confusion with faxes to Lesley, the embarrassing moments involving Perky and Henry’s efforts to grow mushrooms in his mother’s terrible car, this novel makes serious comments on the importance of relationships and Henry, now 13, gets his first real kiss. David Hill’s Fat, Four-Eyed and Useless also explores peer relationships. Ben records activities mainly associated with the writing club he joins at intermediate school. Along with practical hints on writing and the beneficial power of words, this novel follows Ben’s efforts to gain success and self-esteem. The humour is sometimes basic, Ben’s peers are well differentiated and the adults are refreshingly positive.

Finally, two short chapter books offer enjoyment especially to those without reading stamina. In Daniel Ngerengere’s The Goat Hunt, a first-person account of real-life experience, four young Maori go hunting wild goats to sell to a local farmer. Though the text is stylistically uneven, its basic vocabulary conveys the protagonist’s feelings of “near-panic” when he is lost and of disgust when he blunders in a Crump world of stalk and pounce. More impressive than the text, however, are Ngerengere’s illustrations for their successful realistic technique and space management.

The other short book is Joy Cowley’s The Great Bamboozle with Philip Webb’s confident, exaggerated illustrations matching the jocular kid-appeal of the text. The mayor of Crossbones annually organises a piratical bamboozle, a treasure hunt with riddling clues. This year, he excludes the “stinky-smart” Griselda, captain of the Bumbucket. (What’s in a name? A Captain Griselda appeared in Pauline Cartwright’s 1993 The Reluctant Pirate.) When Cowley’s enraged Griselda tries to ruin the bamboozle, the pirates eventually lock her in a brig where the mayor has hidden their treasure. Yes, she escapes… So a traditional treasure hunt is subverted by a female captain and the triumph of skulduggery.

In all, though tradition remains in story structures and in the challenge to the protagonists’ courage during their ordeals, new circumstances and new settings continue to offer that valuable something new.

Diane Hebley has written several books for children, with husband Gary as illustrator, has a doctorate on New Zealand children’s fiction and is a tutor for the Canterbury College of Education and Massey University. 

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