Ways of being in the world, Eirlys Hunter

When Mum Went Funny
Jack Lasenby
Longacre Press, $16.99,
ISBN 1877361534

The Whizbanger That Emmental Built
Reuben Schwarz
Puffin, $17.95,
ISBN 0143318381

Chute Thru
Janice Marriott
Mallinson Rendel, $17.00,
ISBN 0958262632

Thor’s Tale: Endurance & Adventure in the Southern Ocean 
Janice Marriott
HarperCollins, $18.99,
ISBN 1869505727

Hideous and Hilarious: 30 New Zealand Historical Stories
ed Barbara Else,  illus Philip Webb
Random House, $24.99,
ISBN 1669417895

What makes a good children’s novel? It seems to me that the most important ingredient is believable characters, and, in order to be believable, a character’s actions and reactions need to be underpinned by emotional truth. Readers of junior fiction are still learning empathy and don’t yet understand the subtle range of human emotional response. So a story in which a character reacts unexpectedly can lead to insight, if the story is emotionally truthful – or to confusion, if it isn’t.

When Mum Went Funny is a semi-autobiographical tale, told with understatement and humour. Lasenby knows how to show rather than tell, and his humour hides complex emotions. Astute readers will pick up a sense of what the mother of the title must be going through, as she single-handedly looks after the farm and four children through the years of WWII.

Events and feelings in When Mum Went Funny are presented, as in childhood, unprocessed, unanalysed and mysterious – there are no explanations. We see the children keeping Mum on her toes by hiding her belongings and then finding them for her. We see them re-enacting air battles, turning the old horse they ride to school into a Lancaster bomber. But beneath the rhythms of daily life, of school, moving the stock and chopping the kindling, we sense that this family is near the edge. Maybe there won’t be any food, and the children will have to eat nail soup; maybe Mum will try to get into the lion’s cage at the circus.

For an example of the way Lasenby shows the truth, and allows readers their own insight, here’s air-gunner Dad finally coming home:

The troop train whistled, clanked, and chuffed away towards Matamata, the little knot of returned men watching the back of the guard’s van shrink and disappear, as if they’d lost something, as if they wanted to run after it and get back on with their mates. It seemed ages before they turned around, and we could see their faces, and people started calling out names and running towards them.

 

The Whizbanger That Emmental Built is a curious story by a first-time writer, which aims for Roald Dahl territory, but doesn’t quite get there. Emmental is a small girl whose mother has recently died and whose withdrawn novelist father moves her to a new house in a new town, never talks to her and feeds her on nothing but spaghetti. But is Emme distressed? Apparently not. She busies herself watching bugs and drawing inventions in her notebook. It’s only when she goes to school – a school that comes straight from a Beano comic – that she becomes unhappy. She meets an inventor neighbour who helps her realise some of her inventions. Eventually she fights back at her cartoon-cruel teacher, her classmates accept her, and her father emerges from his isolation.

Experienced writers know that all the elements introduced into a story of this kind should work towards the dénouement. The Whizbanger bristles with loose ends, at least partly because Schwarz has doled out gratuitous characteristics to his characters rather than developing any interior truth. The inventor turns out to have an estranged daughter with a French accent. Why? And why (from the story’s point of view) does the inventor need to die? There was a good book in here but Schwarz needed help to find it. The inventions are fun but they would have been much easier to follow if we could have seen the pictures that Emme was supposed to be drawing. And the editing is woeful: angfused instead of confused twice, missing words, and even the Whizbanger web address on the back is wrong (try .co.nz instead of .com). I’m angfused.

Chute Thru by Janice Marriott is also about a young inventor, but even though it’s set on an over-crowded raft town of the future, its characters are real. Siblings bicker, homework gets forgotten, mess is made. Arlo is a problem child; he can’t learn the simplest spellings, but his mind is constantly identifying problems and creating inventions to solve them. His teacher doesn’t value any of his inventive achievements – indeed doesn’t even notice them – and his parents are too stressed by work to help him. Arlo is obsessed with aliens, and when he finds a strange creature he brings him home and hides him … but the creature turns out not to be an alien but Luke Laster, Celebrity Fashion Designer.

Chute Thru is a funny book, satirising TV, the cult of the idiot-celebrity, and education systems that don’t value creativity. Arlo’s dystopian world and his ghastly on-screen teacher Mr Dean Gleam are wonderfully imagined, although I have trouble believing that, if 100,000 people lived on a raft 10 metres by 10 metres and 10 stories high, Arlo would have his own bedroom. (Should it be kilometres?) The action is always character-driven, and every device that Arlo creates ends up playing a role in what unfolds. It’s a fast-paced novel, and fun.

Thor’s Tale, also by Janice Marriott, is an astonishing achievement, and will perhaps allow her to be promoted to the first division of New Zealand children’s writers, whose members are acknowledged by the literati who never read children’s books. It’s the story of a boy of Norwegian extraction who is working at a whaling station on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia during WWI. It has that Laura Ingalls Wilder-factor: with the book as a guide you would, if you had to, be able to do it too – in this case extract a whale’s oil. It also has a tremendous sense of time and place; the whaling station and the climate and landscape of South Georgia are all beautifully evoked.

But Marriott’s considerable research never gets in the way of this truthful and layered story. The cold, the danger and the blood and guts (mostly of whales) are vividly described. But an even greater feat of imagining has created this utterly believable boy who lives in a brutal world, where the only colours are provided by blood and sky. Thor is only 11, but he comes from a harpooning family and is going through the traditional cruel apprenticeship of whalers that pushes him to the limits of what is endurable.

This is the way it has been for generations in his family. But it is the 20th century; change is coming. And the awareness of alternatives, and of the possibility of change, is brought to South Georgia by the Endurance, Shackleton’s ship, which visits the whaling station before sailing on to Antarctic waters. Thor is struck by the way Shackleton’s explorers are interested in the future and the past; until now Thor’s own awareness has been limited to the present. The explorers record everything with photographs and labels, and they explore beyond the fringe of the island that the whalers know. That there are more ways of being in the world than his comes as a revelation to Thor and he begins to long for a different life.

Marriott is operating within the constraints of historical fact but within those constraints she has created a cast of convincing characters. This is a powerful and memorable book – but, alas, its cover is dull and the title isn’t thrilling, so will it be read as widely as it deserves? I certainly hope so. And I hope that schools acquire class sets. It will be read and enjoyed by primary school children but it would make a wonderful book to study with Year Nines: easily read, and with short chapters, but with depths of relationships, characterisation and actions that could stimulate and sustain lengthy classroom discussions.

Emotional truthfulness is not such an issue in stories as short as those in Hideous and Hilarious: 30 New Zealand Historical Stories, the fifth in the popular series edited by Barbara Else and illustrated by Philip Webb. These stories provide snapshots of life at different times in New Zealand’s history – including one rabbit’s-eye view. The contributors include some of New Zealand’s most experienced children’s writers: David Hill, Ron Bacon, Raymond Huber, Elizabeth Pulford, Lorraine Orman and Pauline Cartwright. The stories are randomly ordered, so we jump from Health Camp in the 1930s, to the eruption that created Lake Taupo, to a tale of a Chinese grandmother’s early life, but at the back there are notes that provide some context for each story, and a useful time-line that allows the reader to see the stories in order.

Some of the stories cover important historical events, such as the Tangiwai disaster or the Napier earthquake, but for the most part they just give a glimpse of what it might have been like to be a child in a particular community in the past. A few traditional Maori stories are also included and one from Fiji. This is a charming book, which provides a wide variety of starters to our history. And from this, with their appetite for the “olden days” whetted, readers will perhaps progress to the more substantial main course of books such as Thor’s Tale.

 

Eirlys Hunter is a Wellington writer.

 

Thor’s Tale won the junior fiction category of this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards Children and Young Adults.

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature and Review
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