Rabbits are no-go, Diana Noonan

Stanley’s Teddy Bear 
Dave Gunson
Scholastic, $14.95,
ISBN 1 86943 419 6

ABC. A Rhyming Alphabet 
Nick Gormack, drawings by Jenny Rendall
Nag’s Head Press, $45.00,
ISBN 0 908784 79 1

Maui and the Goddess of Fire 
A Maori Tale retold and illustrated by Gavin Bishop
Scholastic, $16.95,
ISBN 1 86943 381 5

The Day Pearl Ran Through Town 
John Tarlton, illustrated by Brent Putze
Scholastic, $14.95,
ISBN 1 86943 424 5

Grandma McGarvey Takes a Dive
Jenny Hessell, illustrated by Trevor Pye
Scholastic, $21.95,
ISBN 1 86943 398 X

Odd, isn’t it, that when it comes to little animals in home-grown picture books, New Zealand publishers – though perhaps not their young readers – are peculiarly fussy. There’s long been the ban on the English hedgerow-dwellers, and fair enough. Adore as we might Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge series, cottage-dwelling mice, bedecked in English spring flowers and brewing acorn cider, just aren’t acceptable from down-under authors. Rabbits are no-go, especially since RCD, and every good Kiwi child knows that the only possum worth having is a dead one. All of which leaves New Zealand writers in rather a difficult position.

Dave Gunson, however, seems to have found a solution in Stanley’s Teddy Bear. When it comes to that perfect compromise between sentimentality, cuteness, and what is acceptable in New Zealand, a mouse under the floorboards is the answer, especially one that so desperately desires its very own teddy bear.

Children will welcome the return of Stanley and share in this sweet rodent’s dream of constructing his own soft, cuddly, friend. There’s gentle tension as Stanley completes the first draft of his creation, only to discover, with disappointment (the illustrations tug at the heart-strings), that an un-stuffed bear is as saggy as an old sock. After considerable thought and courage, Stanley does find the stuffing he needs. The woollen lining of his cat-owning neighbour’s gardening gloves is the answer. It’s a worthwhile quest, because absolutely nothing is more satisfying, or cute, than a mouse (or, for that matter, a ladybird – look closely at the illustrations for the sub-plot) tucked up in bed with its own teddy.

In an era of fast-paced children’s picture books, where it seems that text must rhyme and bounce off the page, and where illustrations have to move with the swiftness of a television cartoon, it’s a pleasure to sit back and enjoy Dave Gunson’s measured work. His background in natural history illustration pays off, too, with a crispness and clarity in the acrylic illustrations, particularly apparent in the delightfully depicted house-sparrow that observes Stanley’s adventure.

The story isn’t notably fresh – but, then, most good children’s tales aren’t. Instead, it’s warm and comfortable, with a well-paced plot and just the right degree of pathos to keep young readers anxiously riveted and, finally, satisfied.

There can be no doubt, either, that Stanley bears witness to Scholastic’s recent commitment to cut back on the number of picture books it will publish and to “do more with less”. With its hard cover, attractive endpapers, and spacious, breathable design, this is a first-class production that spells quality.

Also notable for turning away from populist publishing trends is an extraordinary small format, hard cover, hand-set and printed, limited edition, rhyming alphabet from Nag’s Head Press. I am a careful shopper when it comes to children’s books, but not even the $45-price tag could keep me away from this collectable treasure. Though its text is seemingly for the very young, its illustrations (cross-etched drawings by Jenny Rendall) also invite the inspection of a more sophisticated audience. I like the many surprises in the book: colour just when it seems that every page is to be black and white, a word where an illustration is anticipated, a cabbage tree and a nikau just when you thought that the whole shebang might be an English production.

My only criticism of the book is its occasional lapse into confusion when insufficient guidance is given on how to read the text (see pages Jj and Kk). That aside, A Rhyming Alphabet is a very beautiful and clever book. Redolent, in mystery and quality, of some Brian Wildsmith titles, it’s anything but a “quick-fix, read-it-only-once” book. Discerning younger children (and let us encourage more of them), as well as older readers, will derive pleasure as much from the book’s design and production quality as from its text and illustration.

Maori myth makes a welcome reappearance with Gavin Bishop’s Maui and the Goddess of Fire. This entertaining, cumulative-narrative is very readable, and I was impressed with a text that backgrounds complex family relationships while avoiding the confusing and protracted explanations so often encountered in myth: “Maui’s mother ordered her servants to go and get some more fire from Mahuika, the fire goddess. In those days, Maui’s grandmother Mahuika was the source of all fire.” For those looking for greater detail there is an informative note from the author at the conclusion of the book.

Perhaps less impressive than the text are the illustrations in this title. This may seem an unusual observation about Gavin Bishop, whose major reputation is founded on the quality of his illustration. However, there are several instances in Maui where the design and composition combine several incidents into the one spread – not always successfully. The result can be confusing if the reader, as many young people tend to do, goes to the illustration before consulting the text.

Also disappointing is the visual presentation of Maui himself. A tricky hero, Maui’s personality doesn’t always come through sufficiently strongly, perhaps because events feature at the expense of character.

Of similar colour-tone throughout the book, a number of illustrations lack force and individuality. The strongest and best spreads are those where there is greatest use of light and shade – generating drama and movement when Mahuika assumes her fiery persona, and when Maui changes into a fish. Unfortunately, this richness of tone doesn’t occur often enough.

I would question some of Scholastic’s production decisions with this title. Cover card needs to be heavier for a long landscape format – especially for a book that will undoubtedly be read aloud to groups of children. As it is, the book is difficult to hold up. Also, with a title using so many spreads, greater care needs to be taken with binding. Several of the gutters in my copy displayed two or three millimetres of colour from other illustrations.

Of a light-hearted nature, bright and bold, come two more Scholastic titles: Grandma McGarvey Takes a Dive and The Day Pearl Ran Through Town. Grandma McGarvey previously appeared with a paintbrush in Grandma McGarvey Paints the Shed, and young readers will enjoy rediscovering the psychedelic results, still there in her backyard. Trevor Pye’s bold black-pen outline and colour-dye illustrations are unpretentious and engaging, giving an enjoyable treatment to this fun-filled story.

Regrettably, some technical aspects of the text aren’t always as satisfactory as the story or its illustrations. There are too many instances where verse simply doesn’t scan – a great pity when young readers will want to read the story aloud. And while searching for a rhyming word or for a “filler” to assist with metre, incidental snippets occasionally appear to hold up action and pace: “Then a gaggle of gulls flew over to stare (and one of them laid an egg in her hair!)”.

The story is also a little slow to start. It’s not until Grandma dismisses her first search for a challenge (a dive from the high board at the local pool) that she happens upon a bungie jumping opportunity and, suddenly, the pace is away.

That aside, amusing antics, Grandma’s eccentric behaviour, and a well-defined and understandably nervous co-star – the bungie operator – make for enjoyable reading.

Illustrator Brent Putze uses vivid colour in his interpretation of John Tarlton’s rhyming story The Day Pearl Ran Through Town. A dog entrusted with a serious message, Pearl is intent on delivery, no matter what gets in her way. Reminiscent, in metre and period setting, of an early New Zealand ballad, the text takes off from the opening page and momentum is carried through to a surprising and satisfying end.

Putze’s curved perspective (à la Philip Webb) increases the feeling of movement on the page as action is carried from spread to spread, while new illustrations refer to happenings on previous pages. Unfortunately, there’s a tendency to use too many colours of the same intensity so that, on occasions, the central focus is obscured. There are also times when faces full of expression become unnecessarily ugly.

It’s a particularly contrasting selection of titles that I have reviewed here, but then, I often think that children, unfettered in the main by adult inhibitions, are an extraordinarily diverse lot. Thank goodness for the variety of work produced by our children’s writers and illustrators.

Diana Noonan is an award-winning writer for young people of all ages and lives in Otago.

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