Pinning down the “again” factor, Linda Burgess

The Other Ark
Lynley Dodd
Mallinson Rendel, $27.95,
ISBN 090878385X

Taming the Sun: Four Maori Myths
Gavin Bishop
Random, $29.95,
ISBN 1869416120

Koro’s Medicine
Melanie Drewery, illustrations by Sabrina Malcolm
Huia, $16.95,
ISBN 1869691044

Clubs 
Kate De Goldi, illustrations by Jacqui Colley
Trapeze, $19.99,
ISBN 047600912X

 

Stand in awe of the picture-book writer – no other book has to work in so many different ways. The language, for a start, has to be fresh, fluent and mellifluous. It has to engage the very young, the parent, the grandparent, the teacher, and it has to withstand the toughest of tests:

“Again.”
“Again? Why don’t we read … ?”
Again.”

Although their job generally takes many more hours, illustrators get off more lightly – to engage the reader initially is to engage the reader forever, though a good illustration exudes a permanent freshness. With two pre-school grandchildren I’m very aware which books owned by their mother at their age have worn well. Should I ever be a great-grandmother, it’ll be interesting to see how these four very different picture books, all shortlisted in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards Children and Young Adults – two of which are illustrated by their writers – last the distance.

In The Other Ark Lynley Dodd rather depends on the secular tsunami-aware child of today not asking what actually happens to all the people – not to mention the sweet little kittens and Thelwellian ponies – who didn’t make it onto Noah’s ark. I had to give four-year-old Lucie a quick rundown on The Flood, the building of the ark and the pairs of saved animals, before reading her Lynley Dodd’s alternative account. I steered clear of evocative descriptions of the screaming, howling, pleading and gurgling of the un-saved.

The premise of the book is that once the first ark was full, there was still a queue of animals waiting to board. Slouched under a rather delectable purple and green (now extinct) Nikau palm is Noah’s friend Sam Jam Balu, chewing laconically on a straw while he awaits his fate. As a rather blasé Noah sails away to semi-solitary safety (or a Sartre-style Hell), he mentions that Sam Jam can use his second-best ark to save the rest of the animals. These animals are the quirky ones – the candy-striped camels with comical humps, the mad kangaroosters, the flying flapdoodles, marmalade mammoths and so forth. With much effort Sam Jam gets the whole colourful lot of them on board, only to find that when he hoists his anchor he’s “STUCK TO THE SPOT”:

“But wasn’t there a flood, Granny?”
“Well not for this ark.”
“So they didn’t drown?”
“Ummm …”
“So what happened to them?”
“Well, something must have – because we don’t have them anymore.”

 

And there, my dear, lies a rather large fault in the plot – its climax. More logical by far would be an iceberg waiting just off-page. Ah, but that’s being churlish.

I’m always pleased that Lynley Dodd ignores the advice of those critics who tell writers of children’s books not to use rhyme. That, of course, is advice to be listened to carefully by those who would love to write children’s books, and do, even though they shouldn’t. Her rhyme is bouncy and rarely forced, her lines scan and the pictures are cheerful and appealing. Nonetheless, as the goody four-hooves clambered on the first ark – “shipshape and steady/on skittering toes/they filed up the gangplank/in well-behaved rows” – leaving the more interesting, more colourful animals to wait for the “second-best ark”, this adult reader couldn’t help but think that perhaps Philip Pullman got it right, the killjoy did win.

You have to applaud the writers in New Zealand who bring Maori myths and stories to the page, because if it’s not done here it’s not going to be done anywhere. It’s hard, though, to do it well and not to patronise. It’s all too easy for the medium to be overwhelmed by the message. The books, assured of a reasonable market at least from schools, are, from what I saw during a stint on Creative New Zealand’s literature committee, all too often badly written with ugly, angry illustrations.

This is not the case with Taming the Sun: Four Maori Myths in which Gavin Bishop has done a very good job of bringing some well-known Maori myths to life. Like Lynley Dodd, Bishop both writes and illustrates his stories. Stronger as an artist than as a writer, Bishop nevertheless tells an economical and lively tale. His short sentences and energetic verbs make this book not only a pleasure to read aloud but also very readable for a beginner reader. His pictures, quite simply, are gorgeous. In Maui and the Sun the smudgy dark greys and pale lemons evoke dawn. As the attack on the sun is launched, the pages burst into fiery scarlets and golds. Kahu and the Taniwha is perhaps the weakest of the four stories but the rich pinks and golds have the reader placed right in the North Island’s volcanic plateau – I could smell it from here. But best of all is the North Island being pulled from the sea by Maui, for all the world as if we’re seeing it from a water-spattered submarine window.

Melanie Drewery’s Koro’s Medicine tackles a harder task and it’s not so easy to see who the book’s actually for. Coming with a children-ask-your-parents-first-style warning, it is the story of an unnamed child (a mistake, that) who visits his koro in the country. The rather accident-prone mokopuna spends his holiday being sick or getting hurt. Each time, koro has a traditional Maori remedy. New shoes cause blisters, which are fixed with the juice from harakeke (flax), a cut after a fall from a bike is fixed with ti kouka (cabbage tree) leaves, crushed ngaio leaves ease mosquito bites. While dealing with his grandson’s aches and injuries, the kindly, wise koro educates him in the medicinal ways of his ancestors.

While I found this very interesting, many children wouldn’t. Although not really a story – the plot is a slender branch on which to hang the message – it’s a charming book, well told and attractively illustrated by Sabrina Malcolm. But it will find its way into more schools (right through to secondary) than homes. Unless a child is a burgeoning hypochondriac, it lacks the “again” factor.

I was interested that Lucie – whom I would have thought younger than the book’s intended demographic – found the “again” factor in abundance in the most realist of the four books, Kate de Goldi’s and Jacqui Colley’s stunning Clubs. Sadly at four she’s all too aware of in-groups and took huge delight in having five letters in her name, which gave her entry into the Grass Growing Spectators’ Club.

This is very much a book for those who are in the know. Interestingly, those in the know in this book are strangely aligned with authority, in the form of Ms Love, the class’s adorably subversive teacher. In Ms Love’s class, clubs become the fashion, but Ms Love is quick to show what side she’s on. When the Barbie Club takes off Ms Love pronounces herself a One Woman Beauty Contest Protest Movement. When the Kitten Club, unable to bring to school the kittens they got for Christmas, just makes badges, invents passwords and designs draconic Miaow Club rules, Ms Love, as a member of Amnesty International and therefore with a duty to fight discrimination and torture, bans Kitten Club punishments. Heck, if we weren’t so firmly on Ms Love’s side, we could well accuse her of having undue influence.

Then there’s the Lego Club and the Harry Potter Club and by the end of March there are only three people in Room 7 not in a club. One of these is our heroine Lolly Leopold. Joined by their outsider status, by having five letters in their names, and by their already knowing how to spell their names backwards, they form the Grass Growing Spectators’ Club.

So… by the very fact that they disdain in-groups, they form the most significant in-group in the class. These are the bright kids – the ones who love having a teacher who teaches them things like “homonym” and who so clearly supports those who are… like her? These are the kids born knowing that, in the long run, it’s more interesting not to run with the crowd. Can’t you just hear the parents’ discussions about Ms Love as a teacher? There are those of us – I would happily guess the large majority of readers of this periodical – who long for their children (and children’s children) to get a teacher like Ms Love. And then there would be the Dads who would have a word with Ms Love’s principal at Rotary, though those Dads can relax in the knowledge that it was not the subversive who were saved on Noah’s first ark.

What makes this book the success it undoubtedly is, is that Kate de Goldi is a frenetic reader who knows what works in a book. Oh, that all writers were also readers. The marvellous detail-rich illustrations speak to readers of all ages, none more than that on page four, which is a collection of portraits much like one would find of the 7th form in a school magazine. These have led to spontaneous games of Guess Who in our family. Everyone has pored over these portraits, right down to Max, 18 months, who points optimistically at Billy, class stud, then points at himself. There’s a well-substantiated rumour that Clubs is only the first Lolly Leopold story; a writer who reads knows we love a series. Again, Kate and Jacqui. Again.

 

Linda Burgess is a Wellington writer and television reviewer. 

 

This year’s fifth short-listed picture book, The Night Kite: Poems for Children by Peter Bland, illustrated by Carl Bland, was reviewed in our August 2004 issue. Clubs won the picture-book category in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and is Book of the Year.

 

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