Fabulous and Familiar: Children’s reading in New Zealand past and present
Mary Atwool and others,
Exhibition and Catalogue, National Library of New Zealand, Wellington, 1991, $24.75
Books for Life
The Gondwanaland Press, Wellington, 1991, $12
My Mum took me to the Fabulous and Familiar exhibition at the National Library. When she asked me to write a review about it and the catalogue I found it really difficult because I could not think of any bad points. The display was about children’s books of the last 100 years, written both in New Zealand and overseas. It also incorporated a Beatrix Potter exhibition and a large section of School Journals. The main part had some first issues and books from the last century, and they were so interesting because you could see the way bindings and illustrations have changed ‑ and also the way that books today are not separated so much into those suitable only for boys or for girls.
Dotted round the exhibition were miniature bookshelves where you could flick through the books. Not only was it interesting to see those you had read but the many you had not and now wanted to. There were huge wall displays ‑these were great as they made the room colourful and you could instantly recognise books you had read.
In the School Journal section it was surprising to see how much the contents and also the types of illustrations had changed over the years. But the part I enjoyed most was the Beatrix Potter exhibition. It covered her life as well as her books and included some cute, tiny, original letters she had written to children in New Zealand and many prints of original drawings. Being able to read about her life helped put things into perspective. Around the walls were Peter Rabbit etc. memorabilia which I think was a good touch because young children could recognise these even if they could not read the captions.
I think the exhibition was very enjoyable because it offered something for everyone. The only thing I would add is that if the National Library puts on displays that children are going to attend, maybe they should print a double-sided sheet of background information and a guide to the exhibition, because most kids wouldn’t be able to afford the catalogue. This catalogue is really for adults rather than children. It has long essays by Mary Atwool and Mary Hutton on ‘Children’s reading in New Zealand’ from the 1890s to the 1940s and from 1940-1990 respectively. There are also shorter essays by Athol McCredie on ‘Growing up with the School Journal: illustrations since 1940’ and by Judy Taylor on ‘Beatrix Potter and New Zealand’. There are lots of wonderful illustrations, including a miniature Beatrix Potter letter. It is really well designed and makes me remember the exhibition with pleasure.
Books for Life is quite short, and tells the personal story of how Susan Price started her collection of children’s books which will eventually go to the National Library. I thought it was absorbing to read and brought to light how lucky we are today with the range of books that are easy to get hold of ‑ even if some of them are not very well written now. It gave a good reflection of the past, of the time my mum was growing up. It also made me think a lot about the books mentioned, although I found I didn’t agree with all the author’s assessments and categorising.
Even so, Books for Life is well worth reading. I thought I knew a lot of the good children’s books, as Mum already had a large collection before I could read, but I saw that the names I recognised barely scratched the surface, and my attention was drawn to some I am now going to try and find in the school library. It again reinforced the way the School Journal has played a huge part in kids’ reading in New Zealand. It is good the way these two publications help make books more interesting and suggest others to discover.
Nicola Chilton is twelve years old and is in Form 2 at Northland School, Wellington.