The amazonian element, Diane Hebley

The Apple Tree and other stories
Lynley Dodd
Mallinson Rendel, $29.95,
ISBN 0908783469

Scarface Claw
Lynley Dodd
Mallinson Rendel, $24.95,
ISBN 0908783620

Baby Bumble and the Sock Pirates
Vivienne Joseph, illustrated by Ruth Paul
Mallinson Rendel, $24.95,
ISBN 0908783507

Nanny Mango
John Walsh
Te Papa Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0909010749

One swallow, as they say, doesn’t make a summer, nor do four books summarise the output of New Zealand picture books this year. Nevertheless, they do represent the diversity in local publishing for children. Within that diversity lies a common link with one of today’s worrying concerns: an amazonian element of belligerence and bullying, here not limited by gender and mainly low-key, but extending to dismemberment and cannibalism.

This element appears even in Lynley Dodd’s collection The Apple Tree and other stories. In “The Apple Tree” (1982), a possum destroys the whole apple crop. In “The Smallest Turtle” (1982), the hatchling must dodge marauding gulls to reach the sea. Although a benign influence rules over “A Dragon in a Wagon” (1988), the harsher realities of life surface in “Sniff-Snuff-Snap” (1995), where a bullying warthog fails to protect his waterhole from turning to mud – a disaster for all who drink there. By extension, we are left pondering on how world resources should be managed.

As well as reminding us of a dark streak in her early work, the stories in Dodd’s collection range from achievement and satisfaction to a such-is-life, no-win outcome. Visually, she shows a consistent command of design and colour, creating images that are always clear, satisfying, familiar (if not overtly New Zealand) when subject matter allows, and yet universal in appeal. Linguistically, she also shows a consistent command of a spare text that imbues rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and assonance with humour and verve. These qualities are also manifested in her Hairy Maclary series, phenomenally successful because its central, well-named characters fascinate young readers. Only the unnamed smallest turtle in the collection comes close to evoking the response associated with Hairy M. One is tempted to conclude that naming a character appropriately is important to characterisation and appeal.

The amazonian element returns in Dodd’s 2001 release: Scarface Claw. From his first ear-splitting appearance in Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy (1983) as “the toughest Tom in town”, Scarface Claw remains the natural nemesis of Hairy M and his doggy friends. This time, Scarface is the title character in essentially a cameo role study of less than 200 rhythmic, rollicking, well-honed words. Dodd calls him the roughest, toughest, boldest, bravest, fiercest of cats, wicked and fiendish. Not that he ever does anything to prove his wickedness. He’s all bluster, bravado and screech, afraid of nothing. Dodd astutely selects major childhood fears as examples: thunderstorms; the dark; lolloping, leaping dogs (Hairy M. included); fire-engines; spiders. But even the toughest has an Achilles heel. Scarface sees in a mirror the “wickedest tomcat that ever you saw, the mighty, magnificent SCARFACE CLAW”. Give a bully a taste of his own medicine and watch him run.

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More directly, the amazonian element turns into a piratical fight in Vivienne Joseph’s and Ruth Paul’s Baby Bumble and the Sock Pirates. The Bumble household is stricken with a common household problem: the disappearance of one sock per pair. Here a swarm of pirates raids Baby’s bedroom at night. Naturally, piratical clichés abound, from “Ahoy, me hearties” to “Yo ho ho”. The story carries the listeners to its amicable end with the not-so-scary Captain sharing out his jellybeans. Some strong images make an impact: eyelids lift “like blinds”; Baby is “quiet as a moonbeam”. Paul uses attractively strong but not strident colours, and she gains visual interest by varying page layouts and placement of typography. A buzzy-bee icon hints at a New Zealand setting.

But closer inspection reveals certain problems. Though some listeners may enjoy a swashbuckling tale, others will be disturbed by the invasion of a bedroom’s sanctity. Joseph’s text, at about 950 words, also invites pruning. Baby B. is too young to speak intelligibly to her parents, but she is old enough to sleep in a bed and play out a fantasy of fighting – albeit small – pirates, wielding a cutlass, crying, “Surrender”, and giving a long speech to set the pirates free so long as they return her best stripy sock. Visual problems appear too. Paul’s moderate stylising of images leads to some awkward figures and perspectives while varied angles of perception exist within the same frame. Most disturbingly, Baby’s face regularly shows an abnormal width between her eyes. Moreover, to make the avenging cat’s arrival scary, Paul on three occasions creates a silhouette of it featuring cut-out eyes – an impossibility. The laws of physics shouldn’t be broken – even for impact.

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John Walsh’s Nanny Mango explores most strongly the amazonian element. In a clear, individual storyteller’s voice, Walsh presents his protagonist: “This is Nanny Mango. […] People who don’t know her call her Nanny MAN-go, like that soft juicy fruit from Rarotonga. But you really say it Nanny MUNG-or. It means … shark. Her father was an Irishman from Auckland, her mother was a Maori from here. […] She’s a bully, and she’s greedy as well.” Thus his storytelling technique enables him to explain pronunciation and meaning with ease.

Because of Nanny’s interfering and bullying, tohunga Uncle Rongo puts a makutu on her. This makes her indulge further her predilection for harassment. She doesn’t change; she only becomes more monstrous, taking pleasure in dismembering and eating pale-skinned victims, “soft” babies too. Her favourite chant resounds with monosyllabic verbs: “Hound and harass / kick and thrash / spit and smash / grind and slash / pound and gnash /bite and bash /people and mash – / PEOPLE AND MASH / I’ll eat them, I will.”  Indeed, she not only out-chants Jack-the-Giant-Killer’s ogre, but she also out-amazons the Amazons, who abandoned or killed boy babies, but never resorted to cannibalism. Finally, when “something hard and cold broke inside” and Nanny realises she is hoha and lonely, Uncle Rongo can remove his curse. Now a changed woman, she becomes a Member of Parliament, “fighting all the bullies and greedy people”, though Uncle Rongo still needs to watch over her in case she lapses into her old ways. (Such is the instability of politicians.)

The blurb for this book, perhaps because of the violence, links it with Grimm’s fairy tales, but it differs in several fundamental ways from those well-honed versions we have inherited today. In particular, Walsh speaks individually and personally to his listeners. He creates an older if not elderly protagonist whereas a child or adolescent is central to the best-known Grimm’s tales such as “The Goose Girl” or “Aschenputtel”. Thus Walsh distances his readers from undergoing what Tolkien calls the essential processes of fairy tale: “fantasy, recovery, escape and consolation”. Yet Nanny’s violence is all the more repelling, being here-and-now, not once-upon-a-time or ancient legend.

As well, there is nothing good or virtuous in Nanny’s past as there is in, say, Cinderella’s, to justify restoration and reward. Besides, hero-villain Nanny doesn’t face any retribution for her violence, even though in today’s society dismemberment and cannibalism are totally outlawed. Children need to see justice done, according to Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment, in order to make sense of their world.  In one aspect, nevertheless, Walsh’s Nanny belongs to fairy tale: she experiences an important change of heart. As Bettelheim says, “The fairy tale suggests … an inner development must take place for the hero to gain true autonomy.”  Readers can see that such a step forward in wisdom is commendable.

In the visual presentation of his story, Walsh’s instinctive, individualistic voice is matched by his instinctive illustrating style. He uses colour sensitively and powerfully to establish a strong spatial appeal in background and shadow. He develops pattern and direction from a planetary flow in curved horizons. His figures and shapes – humans, animals, trees, buildings – stand, pose, strut, dance, caper, or writhe expressively. Among his quirky details, the most intriguing are the lively cat and dog motifs on Nanny’s dress. They gather their own momentum on and off her dress, mirroring her actions.

Asking readers to consider Nanny Mango as an updated Grimm’s tale is probably unhelpful. In any case, its graphic violence is not used as retribution for villainous behaviour. Asking readers to take a symbolic approach probably brings them closer to the intention of this story. Bullying then appears as destructive – as do dismemberment and cannibalism – to both victims and perpetrators, turning the latter into lonely outcasts. Those who do have a change of heart can do good in society and win acceptance, even mana.

While Dodd’s and Joseph’s books may give young listeners an enjoyable scary thrill, Walsh’s powerfully visualised, more-than-amazonian story is far from a merry romp suitable for preschoolers and young children. Older children and adolescents may respond positively to its messages, but it would probably make its most fruitful impact on parents through kindergarten or playcentre or kohanga reo libraries, persuading those who abuse their families to change their ways, and so gain the support and acceptance of their communities.

 

Diane Hebley is the author of The Power of Place: Landscape in New Zealand Children’s Fiction (1998). She lives in Napier.

 

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature and Review
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