Forward to the 1950s, Trevor Agnew

The Adventures of Hutu and Kawa
Avis Acres (text and illus)
Puffin, $25.00, ISBN 9780143507055

First to the Top: Sir Edmund Hillary’s Everest Adventure
David Hill (Phoebe Morris illus)
Puffin, $25.00, ISBN 9780143506874

Changing Times: The Story of a New Zealand Town and its Newspaper
Bob Kerr (text and illus)
Potton and Burton, $20.00, ISBN 9781927213537

A Bear’s Journey: The Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand
Sally Louise Hill
Treasured Travels Publishing, $35.00, ISBN 9780473268152

It is sobering to find that a book you remember from its first appearance has just been re-issued as a “New Zealand Classic”. My sister had a copy of The Adventures of Hutu and Kawa (1955), and I remember thinking then that the Pohutukawa Babies looked just like the kewpie doll prizes at the Winter Show. Not that flower fairies were unfamiliar to us in the 1950s. My sisters’ English comics were full of frolicking flower-sylphs, while our libraries had similar British and Australian picture books from earlier in the century. The most famous creator of these was May Gibbs, whose Gumnut Babies were a trans-Tasman success. In fact, Gibbs’s Wattle Babies, with their fluffy yellow bonnets, seem to have inspired Avis Acres to adapt the pohutukawa blossom.

Avis Acres (1910-1994) was a skilled artist. Although she created wildlife illustrations for books and magazines, and sold her paintings widely, she was best known for her weekly comic strip, The Tale of Hutu and Kawa, which appeared in the New Zealand Herald throughout the 1950s.  Then A H and A W Reed published a picture book version, The Adventures of Hutu and Kawa. Apart from its spiffy padded cover, the new 60th anniversary edition is identical to its 1955 forerunner. There is an illustration on every page although, because of the printing constraints of the time, most are in a maroon monochrome. The colour illustrations – six single-page and one double-page – show Acres’s mastery of watercolour technique and her skill in portraying native birds and plants. For 1950s New Zealanders, of course, it was wonderful to see local flora and fauna portrayed, even if it was in the form of the Flax Pixie, Piki the Clematis elf and a troupe of dancing Orchid Fairies.

Chubby, almost to the point of elephantiasis, Hutu and Kawa sport scarlet hedgehog-style haircuts and matching scarlet skirts, as they play with the Kowhai Kiddies (brown caps, yellow smocks) and the Fuchsia Fairies (ethereal winged pink and red sylphs). The plot is simple. The pair hollow out a canoe from a totara branch (using traditional Māori techniques, passed on by Grandpa Kiwi) and then – wearing handsome feather cloaks (with feathers provided voluntarily by Mr Tui, Mrs Bellbird and Mrs Woodpigeon) – they go exploring up the creek. In pre-television 1950s, going up the creek was an activity familiar to nearly every child.

“In my young days, the Forest Folk were content to stay at home,” grumbles loveable old Grandpa Kiwi. Paddling upstream, Hutu and Kawa meet Mrs Grey Duck, are alarmed by a dragonfly, escape a bush hawk and watch a baby kiwi hatch. Lost in the dark, they use a magic whistle to summon Grandpa Kiwi to the rescue and are soon back in their nest in the pohutukawa tree.

Not only are Acres’s nature illustrations true to life; her descriptions are equally well-observed: “Mr Morepork held a large moth in his claw and ate it slowly, bit by bit.” This picture book was followed by Hutu and Kawa meet Tuatara (1956) and Hutu and Kawa Find an Island (1957), but a fourth volume was turned down by Reed and other publishers. Since then, there have been many successful re-printings (as well as a re-issue of her Opo the Gay Dolphin (1956)), but I suspect that the only purchasers are going to be nostalgic grandparents.

First to the Top demonstrates the changes as well as the continuities in New Zealand picture books since the 1950s.  Both books are 32 pages long. David Hill’s text, however, is briefer: an essay, where Acres offers a short story. Hill’s prose is also set in larger type, with key words emphasised. Every page is illustrated, and every illustration is in colour. Hill’s story races, where Acres’s tale plods.

David Hill is a skilled writer and he makes an excellent job of describing Sir Edmund Hillary’s mountaineering life and achievements.

For days the party tramped towards the mountains. They crossed icy rivers, they plodded through forests. Snowy peaks rose ahead. From the base of Everest, they cut trails and carried up tents, food and oxygen to make a chain of camps.

Hill sketches in the bond that Hillary formed with Sherpa Tenzing, and then describes their historic ascent with flair: “They were on the roof of the world.”

This is Phoebe Morris’s first picture book, but she is already established as a strikingly original artist and designer. (The Peter and the Wolf illustration on her website is stunning.) Morris’s illustrations for First to the Top make an impressive first impact, but their subtle details also reward careful scrutiny. Hillary’s height is always shown by making his trousers too short. Bees follow him everywhere. Steam rises as the climbing men breathe. When they camp overnight in their tent, Tenzing and Hillary are tiny silhouettes, surrounded by a swirling purple sky, with clouds shaped like Nepalese mandala patterns. More tiny silhouettes suggest the climbers’ dreams: watch, ice-axe, aircraft and the ever-present honeybee.

Gavin Bishop says the test of an illustrator is whether their work adds anything to the text. Morris’s illustrations add whole layers of meaning. When Hill describes Tenzing Norgay’s 1971 visit to New Zealand, when the two old friends “reached the top of another peak – Mt Victoria in Wellington,” Morris’s picture directs our view down from a bee-rich pohutukawa to the two ageing heroes. Their shadows carry heavy packs and ice-axes.

With its detailed time-line, First to the Top will be a valuable addition to every school library.

In 1953, we learned of Hillary’s triumph through Broadcasts to Schools and the newspapers. Two years later, I was pedalling through Sawyers Bay, with my bag of Otago Daily Times, calling out, “Opo’s dead.” Raised in Tokoroa in the 1950s, Bob Kerr delivered The South Waikato News and even wrote a YA novel, The Paper War (1994), about young papersellers losing their jobs to newspaper vending machines. His career since has been as an artist and illustrator, but he has also found time to illustrate the Terry Teo series of comics (with Terry and the Gunrunners just re-issued to accompany a new TV version) and a number of excellent picture books on historic topics. Now, with Changing Times, Kerr returns to his beloved papers, with the epic story of a small town’s newspaper.

Glasgow printers Mary and James McPherson bring their Albion hand-press when they immigrate to New Zealand and are thus able to print Issue 1 of The New Zealander with news of the recent gathering of Māori leaders on “the grounds of Mr Busby’s residence at Waitangi”. Over a century and a half later, one of their descendants, young Matt McPherson, tells the intertwined story of the district and the birth and death of its newspaper.

Kerr has created a miniature social history of New Zealand, with snapshots of the bustling settlement through the decades, embellished with genuine extracts from historic newspapers. Railway lines are built and closed; television comes and the cinema goes. Objects displayed in advertisements are also seen being used by Matt’s forebears. (There are also tiny jokes concealed in Kerr’s carefully crafted pictures: the local bookshop has a nod to John and Ruth McIntyre, while Mary’s tartan shawl can be spotted in every decade.) Various family names recur, so readers can track graduations, weddings and other celebrations. Poignantly, a Great War casualty list also carries bad news. There is a moving conclusion as Matt makes his last delivery, watched over by the spirits of his ancestors.

Changing Times is a fascinating introduction to our press history, and social change. The website (www.mattsnewspaper.blogspot.co.nz) provides readers with easy links to a range of historical resources. This is a book that children will read of their own free will.

A Bear’s Journey is a disappointing near-miss. Sally Louise Hill has written a long (72-page) account of a family holiday, focused on Teddy Bearson, her grandson’s toy bear. Teddy travels to Queen Charlotte Sound and meets local land and sea creatures there, from the sea eagle to Willy the weka. Dozens of the author’s colour photos are interspersed with her drawings and paintings. Teddy is present in some photos and has been photo-shopped into others, along with butterflies, which are “symbols of Teddy’s excitement.”

The text is poorly written and wordy, with no idea of an intended audience. With a professional editor, proof-reader and designer, this could have been an interesting picture book, instead of a hefty holiday souvenir.

Trevor Agnew is a retired history teacher and teacher-librarian from Christchurch.

Changing Times and First to the Top were among the ten picture books added to the Notable Books listings for 2016, by the Storylines Children’s Literature Trust.

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