Reeling in the years, Diana Noonan

After the War 
Bob Kerr
Mallinson Rendel, $22.95,
ISBN 0908783515

Hedgehog Howdedo
Lynley Dodd
Mallinson Rendel, $22.95,
ISBN 0908783558

Mouse Hotel
Pamela and Richard Wolf
Random House, $26.95,
ISBN 1869414497

I Heard a Blackbird Singing 
Mayne Thompson (illustrations by Barbara Hefford)
Steele Roberts, $12.95,
ISBN 1877228230

 

If there’s one word to sum up Bob Kerr’s most recent picture books, that word is “fresh”. Mechanical Harry took us all by surprise. A truly interactive book, it had children returning to it again and again and even embarking on their own mechanical “inventions” for anything from dog grooming to Weetbix dispensing. Now Kerr has done it again. Finely researched, After the War is a book that leads its audience, pictorially, through a period of social change that spans three generations and six decades. Alternating between internal domestic scenes (a family home and its occupants) and a wider view of the outside environment (small town and rural New Zealand), the book examines the passage of time between 1945 and 2000. The wider story of change is anchored by a minimal text which follows the life of a tree planted by a returned serviceman and his daughter in 1945.

After the War will appeal initially to adults but they will almost certainly want to share their appreciation with children, especially those of around the ages of nine and ten onwards. The book answers the more sophisticated pre-teen questions that parents and grandparents are often asked (and which are encouraged by the time, continuity, and change strand of the New Zealand social studies curriculum), the “What was life like when you were a kid?” type of question.

The attention to detail in each illustration is remarkable. Long after the adult reader has finished observing the change in vehicle design, farming practice, land use, and the technology of home appliances, children will still be pointing out that the taps over the sink have changed from functional chunky brass fittings (1945) to a slimline stainless steel faucet in 2000. The varying detail becomes, in effect, a “spot the difference” puzzle as the reader moves through the pages. And if there is ever any confusion over years, a helpful calendar on the kitchen wall, which changes with the decades from Youngs General Store to Youngs Superette and finally to Youngs Megafresh, can always be consulted.

The pleasure derived from reading After the War can be likened to that gained from flipping through a family photograph album. I found myself (on the 1960 spread) exclaiming out loud, “My mother had a Kenwood mixer just like that!” A more sentimental audience will find plenty to become watery-eyed over: “Why was all that marvellous farmland planted out in pines?”

We’re forced to acknowledge, too, that we have become a more wealthy and sophisticated society. By 1999 wine glasses have sneaked onto the kitchen shelves and the teapot has been usurped by the coffee plunger. Thank goodness that Mallinson Rendel have given After the War the full treatment that it deserves. Its glossy hardcover and fully illustrated endpapers, depicting a pre-European scene in a softer watercolour style than the other illustrations, indicate, quite rightly, that this is a book to read and read again.

2

Also from Mallinson Rendel, in hardback, comes Hedgehog Howdedo by Lynley Dodd. Fundamentally a counting book for younger readers, the story focuses on a small child’s discovery of hibernating hedgehogs: “Four are on the compost heap, five beside the shed, and six are sweetly snoozing in the Cockleberry bed.” Dodd shows her usual flair for language. Verse scans perfectly (not something we can necessarily take for granted in today’s rhyming books), and there are a number of endearing child-terms for flowers and foliage: a hedgehog hides beneath a “pizza plant” (it looks very like a desiccated sunflower still standing from summer), while seven prickly mounds are to be found in the “Windywhistle grass”.

All in all, Hedgehog Howdedo should be another great Lynley Dodd title; and yet, there’s something lacking in both the text and illustrations. It’s true that hedgehogs, especially sleeping ones, don’t give much scope for movement, but amongst them all there is not even a skerrick of the cheeky characterisation that we find in Maclary, Scarface Claw, and associates.

Perhaps it is the winter setting that limits the palate of the illustrations, but the sombre tones mean that the visuals lack a good deal of the charm that we have come to expect from Dodd. I wonder, too, if there simply isn’t enough story to satisfy even the younger child. A couple of lines – in some cases only a couple of words – appear stark and uninviting on an expanse of white, as is the case on each text page. As a short poem, yes, but as a full-length picture book, Hedgehog Howdedo isn’t as successful as some of Dodd’s previous titles.

3

Random House have pulled out all the stops for the hardcover, glossy, highly colourful Mouse Hotel by Pamela and Richard Wolf. The bright pink endpapers, the pink mouse-tail font for the title, and the pink Chevrolet mouse mobile driven by the leading characters absolutely leap out at you. The gouache and mixed media illustrations are stunning. Much looser and zanyier that those in the Wolfs’ first book, Midnight in the Museum, the chaotic scenes at the elegant, late 1950s mouse hotel are a feast for the eyes. Although American, the hotel contains some surprisingly New Zealand memorabilia: the chambermaid’s cleaning cupboard is a veritable lineup of 50s Kiwiana. Detail and humour also feature in the menu on display outside the mouse dining-room, which shows a remarkable number of cheese-based dishes! Innovative composition, including partial clear cutting, allows text to be integrated quite naturally with illustration.

All of which makes it extremely disappointing to find that the story of Mouse Hotel simply doesn’t live up to its illustrations and design. The weakness is not apparent in a technical sense (the story is told in rhyming verse) but in the storyline itself. New Zealand children can probably enjoy a story about moneyed mice who take their annual holiday in a ritzy hotel. But the nub of the narrative centres on the problems caused by the rodents’ missing suitcase, and the inability of the upper-crust heroes to dress appropriately for dinner. This simply isn’t a crisis with which the average Kiwi child is likely to have much sympathy.

4

In a different category altogether from the Mallinson Rendel and Random House titles, comes a much less ambitious but, in many ways, rather appealing production. I Heard a Blackbird Singing is a 32-page, staple-bound, collection of poems by Maynie Thompson. Full colour illustrations are by Barbara Hefford. Despite the whole shebang being reminiscent of some bygone era – it makes me think of a 1960s School Journal – it would be a great pity if readers were discouraged by appearances. Go beyond the blackbird on the front cover (wearing a red bowler hat, he looks quite like a character from the Blackberry Farm books of my youth) and ignore the girls in petticoats, and you will find some very good, very child-centred poems written from an acute observation of small people playing. “To Bury a Bee” is one of my favourites:

Come along Tamati, hurry up Maree
we’re off to the garden to bury a bee
to bury a bee, to bury a bee
we’re off to the garden to bury a bee

So come with us now, and this afternoon
we’ll dig his grave with a silver spoon
a silver spoon, a silver spoon
we’ll dig his grave with a silver spoon

 

Not all the poems in this collection deserve publication, but with their sea and native bird subject matter, and with illustrations that attempt to portray a range of ethnic diversity, we know that we’re firmly in New Zealand. And as added value there’s even a finger poem with photographs to illustrate instructions.

I Heard a Blackbird Singing may not be glossy or professionally designed, but I’d be quite happy to see it on a child’s bookshelf.

 

Diana Noonan’s Young Adult novel A Whistle from the Blunder is reviewed on p21.

After the War has been shortlisted in the picture books section of this year’s NZ Post Children’s Book Awards.

 

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature and Review
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