Telling it like it is, Brent Southgate

I am an Insect
Simon Pollard
Reed, $19.95,
ISBN 1869487400

The Life-size Guide to New Zealand Wildflowers
Andrew Crowe
Penguin, $24.95,
ISBN 0143018477

Pick Up a Pack: a guide to tramping and camping the New Zealand way
Keith Olsen
Reed, $19.95,
ISBN 1869487893

A Bird in the Hand: Keeping New Zealand Wildlife Safe
Janet Hunt
Random House, $29.95,
ISBN 1869415639

To the Max: a Teen Reader’s Version of “No Mean Feat”
Mark Inglis
Random House, $16.95,
ISBN 186941571X

These five books have little in common apart from their shortlisting in the non-fiction category of this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards. The implied age of their readership ranges from eight or so (I am an Insect) to the middle teens (To the Max). Three deal with natural history topics, a fairly large but by now standard proportion; I feel New Zealand children could be offered a wider range of subject matter, but it seems the market disagrees.

Can books so different be sensibly compared? It’s not easy. Almost the only common agreement about this slipperiest of categories is that it should be enlivening as well as simply informative. I want, though, to draw attention to something less noticed: tone of voice. In my experience the best displays an easy and unforced relationship with young readers, a quality somewhat akin to that of a natural teacher.

By this standard the three shortest books, I am an Insect, The Life-size Guide to New Zealand Wildflowers, and Pick Up a Pack, all written by previous winners of children’s non-fiction awards, fare best.

Nervous children, or nervous parents, may blench at the cover photo of Simon Pollard’s I am an Insect, which shows a looming praying mantis, all spiky green legs and mandibles and apparently the size of a ferret, disposing of an equally enormous spider. But those brave enough to open the book will surely enjoy this impressive sequel to the author’s I am a Spider. As with the earlier book, much of the attractiveness lies in its array of truly stunning colour photographs, nearly all larger than life size and some at magnifications of 20 times or more.

The text is organised sensibly and, apart from some dullish opening chapters on insect evolution and classification, reads well. Supplementing this and the captioned photos throughout are side panels of entertaining titbits: the world speed record for an insect, for instance, is apparently held by “a male tabanid fly chasing a female at 145 kilometres per hour”.

Given that the author clearly has some interesting stories to tell (he says at one point, “I spent three weeks in a huge cave in Sarawak, Borneo with about five million bats”), I’d like to have heard more of his own direct observations and anecdotes. The little we do get, though, is excellent: children will enjoy his stories about his pet insects, Frank the elephant weevil and Boris the rhinoceros beetle. There is an engaging photo of Boris lying in the shower, drunk, clutching a piece of fermented banana.

Also adding to a well-received series is Andrew Crowe with The Life-size Guide to New Zealand Wildflowers. As with his earlier guides, the aim has been to provide a good coverage of the commonest species and clear life-size photos, together with an easily understood key. Here 78 species of wildflower are profiled in a 32-page booklet, which is pretty good. (It seems a pity no New Zealand natives are included, though. Many are admittedly confined to bush or mountain areas, but not all.) The book’s organising principle is the colour of each flower’s petals, which means that all the yellow flowers, for instance, appear together. Matching colour tabs are handily placed at the corner of the page to speed the task of identification. The photos are consistently good, and all trace of confusing background has been removed so each flower can be shown crisply outlined on the white page. The book’s design, in fact, is one of its merits: unshowy but well considered.

Much the same could be said of the caption text accompanying each flower. The author has kept to functional writing (“Waist high. Very common along roadsides, even in poor, dry soil. The leaves have a strong carrot smell when crushed …”) but the information is usually interesting and it usefully complements the photos as a means of identification. Botanical technicalities are avoided.

Keith Olsen has been able to draw on his experience as an outdoor education instructor in his attractive Pick Up a Pack. As well as covering the basics of tramping in the New Zealand outdoors, he has provided a wealth of detailed practical advice on such matters as how to avoid stumbling (“watch the track a few steps ahead and think where each footstep will go”), how to deal with blisters, and even how to make something passably edible from instant mashed potato. A recipe for an inexpensive sandfly repellent is provided, but apparently, too, just walking steadily on is a good way to beat them (they can’t keep up).

I liked the clear, straightforward prose: “You’re sweaty and wet, there’s mud on your damp socks and your hands are full of used tea bags and the empty packets from a freeze-dried meal. With no rubbish bin, washing machine, dryer or shower handy, what are you supposed to do?” The author’s watercolour illustrations add a pleasant touch to the book. Clear and detailed when required, as in pictures of useful gear or hazards to avoid, their main point is to convey a certain tone, relaxed and informal, and to show children confidently handling the challenges of outdoor life (crossing a swing bridge, drying wet clothes, digging a latrine). Although the figure drawing is sometimes a little stiff, in general, the illustrations complement the text admirably.

The longest and most ambitious of the five books under review is Janet Hunt’s A Bird in the Hand. Her aim is worthy: to provide background information on a selection of 18, nearly all endangered, New Zealand creatures, and to tell of the efforts being made to save them. It’s well researched and beautifully presented. But though it has all the right ingredients, there is an uncertainty of aim, perhaps from a lack of confidence with a younger readership, which means that for me the cake fails to rise. For instance:

A young female tuatara lies in the part-sun, part-shade outside her burrow. She does not know it, but deep inside, a cell is dividing in a new, different way. An egg forms, and then another and another, until there are twelve altogether. She is becoming a teenager.

 

This is surely both coy and vague (deep inside what?) and the failure of tone here can be seen elsewhere: things are often “cute”, animals get personalised (“Mr and Mrs Hoiho”), and there are lots of exclamations! All of which seems a pity, because Janet Hunt shows elsewhere that she can write. The book’s Introduction, in particular, features an apt and deeply felt commentary on a picture of albatross hunters: “I am haunted by a grainy black-and-white photograph. It was taken at North-East Harbour on Campbell Island in 1888. Three men pose beside a whaling boat on a grey shore …. It’s the closest man, the one on the left of the picture, who catches my eye, because he is holding two live royal albatross, one in each arm like children or big teddy bears.” Unfortunately, in the book that follows, this direct and personal note gets muffled.

To the Max stands apart from the rest in having been originally written for an adult readership (No Mean Feat, Random House, 2002). The present abridgement, presumably done in-house as there is no acknowledgement, is aimed at teenagers. It’s the autobiographical story of the climber Mark Inglis, who lost both legs after being trapped on Mount Cook. Clearly a man of great courage and resource, he set about rebuilding his life, and eventually went on to win paralympic cycling and skiing medals. In 2002 he reached the summit of Mount Cook once more.

Given the obvious appeal of the topic, it was understandable that a publisher might want to produce an adaptation for a younger audience, but I’m not really convinced by the result. To the Max is certainly shorter and perhaps simpler to read than No Mean Feat, which I hadn’t read, but it’s less visually attractive: there are fewer photos, none in colour, and they are separated from the text on two gloss-paper inserts. Despite a glossary of climbing terms, which was a good idea, the description of the ascents remains technical and, to me anyway, at times obscure. A map might have helped.

And do teenagers really have to be protected from bad language these days? “Bugger off”, the author’s comment on the irritating presence of a helicopter getting tv film footage during his 2002 ascent, has become, would you believe, “go away”.

 

Brent Southgate is a former “School Journal” editor who now lives in Dunedin.

 

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Posted in Biography, Children, Literature, Natural History, Non-fiction and Review
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