Mallinson Rendel, $16.95,
Chinatown Girl: The Diary of Silvey Chan, Auckland, 1942
Eva Wong Ng
Scholastic New Zealand, $16.99,
Ask any publisher of New Zealand children’s books what it is that makes them decide to go with a title, and so often the answer is a certain indefinable something that lifts a story out of the ordinary, or something that gives it, as Longacre Press in Dunedin once said, that wow factor. In this trio of children’s books, two most certainly have this in abundance and all have enough that is different to take them soaring away from the run-of-the-mill, frankly mundane stories that, as someone who reads a multitude of children’s books through her work, I see so often. The three books are intended for 10-12 year-old-readers but, like most good books for children, their appeal is much wider, and many people outside this age range will enjoy them.
I have been an enthusiastic reader of all that Joy Cowley has written, from her first adult books back in the 1960s, and her short stories (29 sent to the New Zealand Listener before one was accepted!), to the abundance of her children’s books sweeping New Zealand and the rest of the world since 1969, the year her first picture book, The Duck in the Gun, was published in New York. That was the year Margaret Mahy too burst on the world of children’s books with The Lion in the Meadow – also first published in New York.
Whether she is writing about unhappy marriage versus casual affair, in Of Men and Angels (1972), or of the bathing rituals of three farm animals with a liking for rose-pink soap in Mrs Wishy Washy’s Christmas (2005), Joy Cowley’s words come off the page with an almost tangible sense of humanity. This is reinforced in Hunter where, across a time-slip of 200 years, Jordan, who with her two younger brothers has just survived a plane crash in Fiordland in which the pilot died and is now in a perilous state, and Hunter, a young Maori slave, communicate with each other. Not one of the characters in this book is perfect but their imperfections are all ones the reader can identify with. Jordan’s younger brothers whimper and whine (as well they might) and become, as circumstances get more dire, almost totally self-absorbed.
Nearly everything about this book is right – the storyline, the manner in which it is told (spot-on for reading aloud) and the way the writer manages to get into the heads of her characters.
In contrast to Joy Cowley’s 40-year writing life, Brian Falkner is a newcomer, first making a splash with Henry and the Flea (2003). Like the electric pylon in Super Freak, Brian Falkner’s stories crackle with energy. Teachers of so-called reluctant (and, sadly, often boy) readers bless him for the way in which he, like Joy Cowley, appears to be able to see into the minds of children and present their perspective on the world. Asked in a recent interview, why he thought this was so, he said,
I put it down to the fact that I am just a big kid. Like Peter Pan, I never grew up, I just got older. I do listen to my kids and I think I pick up a lot from them about the way kids think, which is quite different from the way adults think.
In Super Freak, the reader meets Jacob, a young man with a real problem: he is being bullied. He has few friends and he has discovered he has what he decides must be psychic powers. His biggest dilemma is whether he will use this ability for good or for evil. And then, there is Ben, his one true friend, apart, that is, from Erica, with whom he may be falling in love. Oh, and Ben may possibly be a robot. In other words, a story in true Brian Falkner-style that moves at lightning-fast pace and is being gobbled up by enthusiastic readers. A quick check via the internet of holdings of Super Freak at Wellington, Auckland, Dunedin and the Hutt public libraries showed plenty of copies bought for their collections, and on the day I looked all were out on issue.
Chinatown Girl: The Diary of Silvey Chan doesn’t have the zap of the other two titles but it does have enough of the exotic to give it appeal. Silvey is an eleven-year-old schoolgirl in the Chinese community in Auckland during WWII, and she holds our interest because of her honesty, her inquiring mind and obvious dependability. The events of the time, the detailed description of the cultural and domestic life of the community, and the family’s emigration to New Zealand are the “plot” for the book. I was experiencing the same national events at this time, although mine seemed to take place in a much blander and almost colourless culture compared with Chinatown, Auckland. We children in Wellington were also scared about the fall of Singapore and the air-raid practices we had to undergo (biting on a piece of foul-tasting rubber slung on a string around our necks), but we had nothing so vivid as Silvey’s family to balance these experiences. Their preparation for Chinese New Year, which required many weeks work before the actual event, attendance at Chinese school with only two weeks’ holiday in the whole year, and living in a house with a shop in the front would have been beyond our ken.
Scholastic’s My Story series, of which this is one, has been going for a long time now, and there is always the risk of becoming formulaic when writers must build a story around historical events. However, perhaps because of the calibre of many of the writers for the series – Fleur Beale (Treaty of Waitangi), David Hill (Tangiwai disaster) and Shirley Corlett (Tarawera eruption) – this has not been the case with many of the titles. So if I have a criticism of Chinatown Girl it is that the historical background is sometimes introduced via such devices as the older people in the Chinese community remembering. Many readers find this irritating because it cuts into the story without adding much to the sequence of events, making it a story within a story. However, the book is still a good read, with a special appeal to a much older audience because of its wartime setting.
Barbara Murison is a Wellington-based children’s book consultant.