History, myth and jollity, Linda Burgess

Roly the Anzac Donkey 
Glyn Harper (Jenny Cooper illus)
Puffin, $20.00,
ISBN 9780143506638

The Song of Kauri 
Melinda Szymanik (Dominique Ford illus)
Scholastic, $27.00,
ISBN 9781775432289

I Am Not a Worm 
Scott Tulloch
Scholastic, $19.00,
ISBN 9781775432517

Zoo Train
Sally Sutton (Daron Parton illus)
Walker Books, $28.00,
ISBN 9781922179876

There’s an immutable force that stands between a child and a book: the adult who buys it. There’s already been the adult who wrote it, published it, reviewed it, stocked it, displayed it – all that has to have taken place before the child can say that magical – sometimes chilling – word: “Again.”

We all know that children aren’t the best critics, otherwise they wouldn’t get hopelessly attached to absolute trash. Or even to appealing books that are excruciatingly difficult to read aloud (anything vaguely comic-book-ish). Children’s picture books fall into two broad categories: those for pre-schoolers, and those written with much older children in mind.

Of the four being reviewed, two are clearly designed for school-age readers. They are more inclined to be earnest, worthy, than those for younger readers. There has been a deluge of Anzac-related books this year, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a pre-schooler who gives a toss. In fact, having stupidly taken a three-year-old to see Te Papa’s Gallipoli exhibition, I can confirm that not only was she unmoved by the Anzac story, she was deeply traumatised by a wounded man two and a half times the size of her father.

Roly the Anzac Donkey takes the point of view of Roly himself, beautifully drawn by Jenny Cooper: donkeys have such pretty faces. It’s based on the true story of New Zealand soldier Richard Henderson who was in the Medical Corps and used the donkey to carry wounded soldiers. This is an unornamented telling of the story of Gallipoli, with a final page of facts for young readers, including the depressing sentence that, for the Allies, “the best planned and most successful part of the campaign was the evacuation of Gallipoli”. I’ve felt ambivalent at best about our celebration of the tragic attempted invasion of a country on the other side of the world, but at least in this book, by focusing on the innocent animal and the kind soldier who befriends (and uses) him, the story is softened. Imagine telling the whole truth in a book for children – when even many grown-ups prefer the sentimental version.

Also clearly designed with the older child in mind is The Song of Kauri, a Librarians’ Choice Award Finalist in the 2015 LIANZA Children’s Book Awards. Melinda Szymanik has chosen to use the language of myth to tell her story, personifying the tree – “Through a cloak of mist, young Kauri raised his arms to the warming sun and the sap inside him stirred.” Fifty shades of Kauri? I find myself recoiling a little from the language of myth, finding it overwhelmingly portentous, but there’ll surely be teachers who enter into the mood of the book and use it as a teaching aid. It’s a nice idea to show the development of New Zealand from the point of view of a tree. Dominique Ford’s illustrations are both splendid – very painterly – and off-putting, being muted almost to the point of dinginess. However, the reader is rewarded for looking at them closely: there are layers. I’d love to see the originals. A teacher could happily leave an intelligent child alone with this book for some time. The teacher would, however, have to correct an incipient inaccuracy – when what are undoubtedly European settlers (“new people singing songs of urgency”) arrive, they so respect Kauri’s size and dignity “they never put an axe to Kauri.” This is all very well if Kauri in the story is, say, Tāne Mahuta, as opposed to standing for all kauri, but given kauri for ships’ masts was one of our most successful early exports, this is misleading.

Much more jolly, and clearly for younger booklovers, are I Am Not a Worm and Zoo Train. The former, both written and illustrated by Scott Tulloch, shows an angry-eyed peevish caterpillar who constantly insists that he’s not a worm – there’s a predatory frog who believes he is. It’s engagingly enough written – children will like the sheer bloody-mindedness of the caterpillar and, if parents want to discourage grumpiness, they can read the ending somewhat pointedly:  the caterpillar becomes a butterfly and, as it turns out, the frog likes butterflies. And not in a caring way. There’s a pointiness about Tulloch’s drawings which doesn’t particularly appeal to me, but then I’m only one of those adults who stands between a child and a book. This one flows well and reads aloud well.

Flowing less well is Zoo Train – effectively a book written in rhyme (not bad rhyme either; it bounces along and usually scans well). But, for some reason, the writer has decided to add chugga chugga choo choo, and other onomatopoeic train-linked phrases between each short verse. The device quickly becomes tedious. But … show me a canny adult reading to someone who can’t read yet, and I’ll show you an editor: right from the first read, just leave out the noisy bits. The colourful illustrations are quite lovely, the story races along as fast as the train as it travels around the zoo, there’s humour and a mystery that you and the little person you’re cuddling can talk about.

Although it’s difficult to compare a diligent donkey with a kinglike kauri, a canny caterpillar with a mischievous monkey, I think, of the four books, as a whole the (edited) last book works best for me.

Linda Burgess is a Wellington writer whose latest book, Historic Churches, is published in September by Penguin Random.

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Posted in Children, Literature and Review
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