Ephemera and treasure, Eirlys Hunter

The Wonky Donkey
Craig Smith, music Craig Smith, illustrations Katz Cowley
Scholastic, $24.99,
ISBN 9781869439262

Old Hu-hu/Huhu Koroheke
Kyle Mewburn, illustrations Rachel Driscoll
Maori text Katerina Te Heikoko Mataira
Scholastic, $18.99,
ISBN 9781869435189 / 9781869438975

Piggity-Wiggity Jiggity Jig Goes to Dad’s Café
Diana Neild, illustrations Philip Webb
Scholastic, $18.99,
ISBN 9781869439101

Cowshed Christmas
Joy Cowley, illustrations Gavin Bishop
Random House, $24.99,
ISBN 9781869790738

Aunt Concertina and Her Niece Evalina
Paula Green, illustrations Michael Hight
Random House, $35.00,
ISBN 9781869790110

The best picture books are magical objects that become part of a family’s shared mythology. Their language stimulates the ear, the brain and the heart, and becomes part of our private vocabulary: “And he never once said please!”; “Nonsense, little boy”; “We’ll eat you up – we love you so!”

Such books have illustrations that perfectly complement the text, bringing it alive, adding context, providing clues. The texts themselves are more akin to poetry than prose, with sound and rhythm carrying as much weight as meaning. The stories affirm the imagination by suggesting that the world is a place where a lion might play in the meadow, a tiger might ring the doorbell or an elephant and a baby might go on the rampage together. And their themes often work on more than one level, satisfying the conscious need for narrative while also connecting with children’s unconscious feelings, as they attempt to understand and control their own turbulent emotions. These special books depict a world that’s full of mystery and wonder, and they do so without explanation or rationalisation. As Billy Collins might say, they are not afraid of leaving some of their cards face down.

The first four books under review were all short-listed for the picture book category of this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. There’s not much metaphor here or a lot of wonder, and most of their cards are presented face up. However, although none of them carry the hallmarks of an instant classic, some of these books deserve a long shelf-life, for different reasons.

I can’t imagine Craig Smith’s The Wonky Donkey being saved for the grandchildren. It began life as an APRA award-winning children’s song, and has immediate child-appeal, with lots of repetition and a cumulative refrain. It’s a piece of jolly nonsense, and I suspect that many two- and three-year olds will want to hear it over and over again, although some may, like me, find Katz Cowley’s illustrations off-putting. Her evil-looking donkey is all distorted nostrils, bad teeth and bristly chin. The book comes with a CD of the song played and sung by the author, which is a bonus for adults, who won’t be required to read the story of the spunky hanky-panky cranky donkey quite so often themselves.

The Wonky Donkey is apparently hugely popular amongst preschoolers, but since when has popularity been synonymous with award-winning quality? This is fun, it’s catchy, but it’s ephemera. There’s nothing more to be gained from a second reading, and by the fifth reading many adults may be gritting their teeth. At least it’s short.

Old Hu-Hu by Kyle Mewburn, illustrated by Rachel Driscoll, is also available in a Maori-language version, Huhu Koroheke by Katerina Mataira. It’s a deftly told story about death and grief. Old Hu-Hu flies to the moon and back, then he falls to the ground, dead. Distraught, young Hu-Hu-Tu asks everyone where old Hu-Hu has gone. Ladybird, Spider and Butterfly all make suggestions – he’s on a cloud, he’s part of the earth, he’s going to be born again as something else. Finally the bereft Hu-Hu-Tu realises that Old Hu-Hu is inside him, and the book finishes as he flies to the moon and back, just as Old Hu-Hu used to do.

American children’s writer Katherine Paterson says that it’s too late to give a book dealing with death to a child who’s been bereaved; children need to think and talk about death before they experience it in their lives. Old Hu-Hu provides a perfect way to introduce mortality to the very young. The insects’ different explanations of what happens after death roughly equate to the beliefs of the major religions, so there’s potential here for some interesting philosophical discussions.

It must be particularly hard to illustrate insects so they retain the essential characteristics of their species while still displaying emotions that readers can identify with. Driscoll’s solution is to provide her insects with expressive, human-like eyes on their distinctly beetle-y bodies. Old Hu-Hu also has a moustache – giving him a charming resemblance to Jack Lasenby.

The subject matter of this book means that it will always have an important place in every school and home library, and top marks to Scholastic for publishing it in hardback so it will withstand much re-reading.

Piggity-Wiggity Jiggety Jig Goes to Dad’s Café is Diana Neild’s and Philip Webb’s second book about the piglet and his family. Unlike the insects in Old Hu-Hu, these animals are humans wearing pig masks. P-WJJ’s siblings go off to school by skateboard, bike and trotter, but P-WJJ has to stay at home because he has a cold. When he’s better, his Mum takes him to his Dad’s café, The Ravenous Snout, for grown-up lunch. Children will identify with P-WJJ’s uncertainty when the waiter reels off a list of sophisticated dishes, and his relief when chef Dad appears with a tray of the piglet’s favourite food.

Neild’s rollicking couplets make few concessions to the pre-schooler:

There were business-suit pigs having earnest discussions
Of companies crumbling and “grave repercussions”
Lawyers resplendent in wiggity-wigs
And a few politician-y piggity-pigs.

 

Listeners will get great pleasure from the sound of this story, and there is food for the imagination in the juxtaposition of the deliciously sophisticated vocabulary with Webb’s lively, but simple, illustrations. Companies crumbling? The picture shows every table in the cafe covered in spilled drink – and crumbs. This book may not quite have the X factor that’ll keep it in print for years, but it’s a lot less ephemeral than The Wonky Donkey.

Cowshed Christmas by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Gavin Bishop, is a beautiful book. On a starry night each animal arrives in turn at the corrugated iron cowshed door – “the jersey cow came mooing, mooing, mooing … the collie dog came barking, barking, barking … the sheep and lambs came baaing, baaing, baaing.” The illustrations show the animals in clear outlines and bright colours bringing presents (a pavlova, jandals, an icecream) for “little baby Jesus by the cowshed door”.

As one would expect from these two stars of the New Zealand children’s literature firmament, this is an exemplary book for the very young. The text is simple and leaves space for the imagination. The illustrations add narrative detail to the text, the rhythms have a natural swing, and the repetition invites listeners to join in. This is a small treasure.

Aunt Concertina and Her Niece Evalina is a hardback from husband-and-wife team, poet Paula Green and artist Michael Hight, and was a surprising omission from the award shortlist. It is more ambitious than the other four books: the text is longer, the illustrations more detailed, the design more sophisticated. It will also appeal to the widest age range.

When trawling in a junk shop with her trumpet-playing aunt Concertina, Evalina is given a kite that whisks them both away. They go to the Himalayas, the Nile, the Arctic … . Each two-page spread shows a new destination, with a map of the world tucked away somewhere in the picture to aid orientation.

This is a glorious book. Both text and illustration are full of surprises and humour. The language is magical:

The rocks were diamante.
The water was volante.
The spray was andante.
The beauty was de luxe!

 

The exquisite illustrations are wonderfully inventive: there’s mad steam-punk activity under the surface of Loch Ness, Kilauea is surrounded by miniatures of the world’s great volcanoes from Krakatoa to Cotopaxi, and the sky above Tokyo is filled with hot-air balloons from which we look down on parks and temples as well as hundreds of buildings.

This book rewards multiple re-readings. The text takes risks, trusts its readers, and doesn’t over-explain (what are the golden cities and missing men of the Amazon?). Green uses rhyme, half-rhyme and rhythm to create a mixture of poetry and prose that swoops and sings like the kite. I’ll be keeping this book for my grandchildren. Poetry, humour, art, mystery, flying – what more could anyone want?

 

Eirlys Hunter is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 

 

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