A wink to the grown-ups, Gavin Bishop

The Night Kite
Peter Bland, illustrations by Carl Bland,
Mallinson Rendel, $24.95,
ISBN 0908783833

Napoleon and the Chicken Farmer
Lloyd Jones, illustrations by Graeme Gash,
Mallinson Rendel, $29.95,
ISBN 0908783752

Cat’s Whiskers – 4 Favourite Lynley Dodd Stories
Lynley Dodd
Mallinson Rendel, $32.95,
ISBN 0908783795

It is difficult for New Zealand writers and illustrators to get a children’s picture book published in hardback these days. But here are three new books from Mallinson Rendel, all in hardback. Two are by first-timers and one is by an old-timer, Lynley Dodd, who even has a dust jacket on her book – something that New Zealand children’s books were stripped of 30 years ago. It is understandable, because of Dodd’s track record, that her book should be produced well, but it is not clear why the other two books, in the present climate of New Zealand children’s publishing, have been given special treatment. The fact that they have been produced by writers and artists already respected for their work in the adult literary world could have something to do with it. Whatever the reason, Mallinson Rendel must be congratulated for publishing these books in such a fine manner, with high production values.

What a difference a handsome book makes. If publishers want to wrestle children away from television and video games, they need to make their books physically more seductive. Yes, the story and pictures should be good – the main thing, but there is nothing like smart packaging to sell a book. The weight of a board-cover wrapped in a dust jacket, and the smell of glue and stitching are irresistible. On initial contact, these three books from Mallinson Rendel feel right. They look right. So let’s open the covers and see what they have to say.

The Night Kite is a quirky and occasionally surreal collection of poetry for children by Peter Bland. He was co-founder of Wellington’s Downstage Theatre and is a well-known actor and widely published poet. Some of the poems in The Night Kite follow a clearly defined path, as in “Our Dog Charlie” or “Eat It All Up”, but others, like “The Little Blue Man”, seem to have been sabotaged by random ideas that take control and lead the poems to unconvincing conclusions. There is plenty here, though, that will trigger a young reader’s imagination. The poems are lively and read aloud well – just the sort of thing for an adult to share with a child.

I am not so sure about the illustrations by Carl Bland. They are certainly bright and colourful and a good deal of lush, thick paint has been used in their execution, but I suspect that the impasto disguises some pretty shaky drawing. Stylistic references to naive painting are not convincing. The drawing of the figures accompanying the poems “The Moon Man” and “It’s Time” would be considered weak in any genre. On the other hand, some pictures work very well. The painting of the cat that curls up on the page with the poem “Kids Love Cats” is a delight.

Carl Bland’s illustration style is one not widely used in this country. It is good to see a fresh approach amongst all the cross-hatching and watercolour washes that so many New Zealand illustrators use. The imprecise nature of Bland’s work leaves room for young readers to flesh out the pictures with mind-images of their own. Some folio numbers would have been a useful addition. A bit of juggling with the front matter could have accommodated a contents page, although that would have disturbed the elegant entry into the book through the deep blue half-title and title pages.

Lloyd Jones is one of New Zealand’s foremost fiction writers for adults. Napoleon and the Chicken Farmer is his first book for children. Or I should say, this is his first text for a children’s book, because it is not his book alone. Napoleon and the Chicken Farmer is a collaboration between Jones and illustrator Graeme Gash.

In an ideal picture book the story needs the support of the pictures to be complete. However, Jones’s story stands on its own. And as one might expect, it reads very well. It is carefully paced, rich with historical and literary references, and it is witty. But one feels that it is the adult rather than the child reader that Jones wants to please and amuse. He has not entirely allowed himself to work at a child’s level.

The same goes for the illustrations. The dazzling use of composition and colour is a revelation at a time when so many New Zealand children’s picture books are dull and unadventurous. Here are illustrations with guts. But unfortunately Gash’s style is at times self-indulgent and his goof-ball characters try too hard to get a laugh. His artistic references, which seem to be television cartoons such as “Cow and Chicken”, often make the pictures difficult to read and therefore they don’t pull their weight in their story-telling task. The artistically savvy child, though, will love these pictures and will revisit them time and time again.

In the end, it’s up to the old-timer in this collection to show us just how it should be done.

Lynley Dodd writes and illustrates her books with a natural ease. There is nothing forced, nothing patronising, and no witty asides to the adult reader. They are understated and restrained, allowing for multiple re-readings without sending adults around the bend.

In recent years, the Hairy Maclary books have become a commodity. But once you get past the jigsaw puzzles, the sticker books, and the freebies from Fuji Plaza it is reassuring to be reminded that these are good stories. They do what they set out to do really well. Unlike the diluting effect that the Disney machine has on literature and art, the Hairy Maclary industry allows the integrity of the original books to shine through.

Cat’s Whiskers is a compilation of four previously published cat stories by Dodd. The stories will by now be old favourites and the pictures are just what we have all come to expect – painted simply in watercolour on the left-hand side of a double-page spread. There is something reassuring about knowing where everything will be when you open a Dodd book. Sometimes, though, my artist’s eye aches for a little improvisation, a footprint, or a whisker on the white page to break the inevitable pattern of picture, text, picture, text . But Dodd knows what she is doing. She speaks to her audience in a voice they understand.

As I conclude, I can’t help but wonder if the “adult” writers and artists of the first two books in this review, on their first excursions into children’s literature, know what sort of world they are entering. Do they know that their work will be seen by most adults as little more than an entertainment for children? Do they know that their 32-page picture books will receive only 30 per cent of the full Author’s Fund payment? And are they aware that serious critical reviewing of children’s literature is rare in New Zealand? Except for some dedicated enthusiasts in a few specialist publications, children’s books are usually reviewed by junior newspaper journalists with no knowledge of children’s writing or indeed any interest in it at all.

 

Gavin Bishop is a writer and illustrator of children’s picture books.

 

Napoleon and the Chicken Farmer won an Honour Award at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults 2004.

 

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