Cheap Christmases, Diane Hebley

Owning books is part of the pleasure principle that brings children a lifetime’s development in the understanding of mysteries and complications in the human condition. Children who own books establish long-term relationships with book-creators through frequent rereadings — something much more difficult to achieve with borrowed books. The enticement for adults to buy children’s books as gifts is one good thing that comes from the commercial emphasis put on Christmas. Since books have lasting powers, the cost of books as gifts becomes cheap in comparison with the cost of ephemeral pleasures. So, from New Zealand publishers in 1996 for young readers, what’s on offer that might have a special value, a touch of magic?

Lynley Dodd continues her yearly output of picture books, remarkable for their integrity and their consistently high quality in text, illustration and production. Schnitzel von Krumm: Forget-Me-Not features Hairy Maclary’s dachshund chum in trouble. Chased away by his family while they pack for a holiday, Schnitzel isn’t on the spot when the family takes off. How he catches up provides excitement and humour. Dodd’s use of language — for example, “pattering paws”, “scurrying bustle”, “woebegone misery” — is expressively emphatic and satisfying, while her use of space and colour in her illustrations achieves balance and harmony.

Martin Baynton’s Under the Hill deals with a major issue: mining for gold damages the landscape. His rhythmic, rhyming verse, well-crafted and excellent to read aloud, describes the damage: “Dozers, loaders, / diggers too, / tore and dug / and spat and blew.” A dragon, a traditionally symbolic protector of the land and its treasure, goes everywhere to retrieve his gold, devouring it from people’s teeth, Spanish treasure, “mosque and noble saint” (but a watching tuatara signals New Zealand). Unfortunately, apart from one expressive digger with jaws, the warm, gently-coloured, beautifully-handled illustrations soften the impact of the damage and the dragon, far from being the traditional fiery embodiment of fearsome energies, is a cute, cuddly little fellow. The fantasy goes awry when the dragon tumbles down into the volcano “to set the world alight” and the volcano erupts. Instead of having to face burning and blackness, the people dance around trying “to capture every drop” of gold in the molten form of “golden rain” and buttercups appear everywhere. Thus the result of the conflict is not devastation but something beautiful, though only one little girl appreciates it. This leaves us, surprisingly, with the message: “It’s all right, Jack.” There is nothing to fear in a possible replay suggested by the final stanza’s echo of the opening stanza.

A unity between text and illustration, an impressive quality in Lynley Dodd’s picture books, is also absent from Just in Case. Here, Joy Watson’s text is warm, natural in dialogue, dryly humorous and well-composed, on the wavelength of many children. When Jody shows off to her new friend Christopher, he tries to unsettle her by describing imaginative horrors waiting for her among her playthings. But he is caught out when Jody uses the same technique in retaliation. Bob Stenhouse’s large, TV-cartoon-style, well-spaced illustrations suit the brief portrayal of horrors, such as pirate bones, but they make what are ordinary little preschoolers look unprepossessingly bold and gaunt. Fortunately, neither text nor illustration tries to define exactly what Jody says is lurking down the plughole.

John Parker’s and Linda McClelland’s picture book, Pavlova & Presents, might well have unity but it lacks another essential quality in Dodd’s books — integrity in the creative process. Its commercial purpose is blatantly clear: a New Zealand book for the Christmas trade. A large mixed family largely celebrates the present-getting (not giving), beach-playing,eating and carol-singing of the season. Of course, a ball lands in a pavlova, a veritable palpable hit. Yet there’s nothing here of the satirical vein that underpins Gavin Bishop’s The Horror of Hickory Bay (1984). Parker’s rhyming text is rhythmically clumsy, irregular and often reliant on fill-ins (“just” appears three times on one page). McClelland’s illustrations are hearty and expansive, at times awkward, with faces ghoulish in the sunlight. But at least text and illustrations have energy, redeeming themselves in the candlelight and composition of the last page, that’s if you think “glimmering” is an accurate word to describe the brightness of a candle. Though publishers have to stay in business, surely something better than this could have been produced.

John Parker’s talents are far better displayed in his four short stories entitled Not Nice Stories. Certainly, the stories are not “nice” in that they feature the less admirable traits in human beings and the top-of-the-class-at any-price seeker, the power seeker, the bully and the greedy businessman all meet an unpleasant fate. However, the stories are neatly composed, nicely resolved in apt or gruesome ways and “Hooper’s Chocolate” almost out-Dahls Dahl’s obsession with chocolate-making machines.

Two other publications for junior readers capture attention for their unusual storyline and humour. Cobweb House by Cynthia Todd Maguire, gives a spider’s eye-view of what it’s like when a family of “spotted Fourleggers” (mosquito-bitten) moves into her old house and war is waged until Gran explains that spiders keep down the mosquito population in an environmentally friendly way. Jeffy James entertainingly and appropriately matches drawings to text, clarifying the angle of the spider’s view of people from up in the rafters. Really Rotten Rufus, by Jonathan and Evelyn Dunstan, features a “rotten”, destructive, mischievous rooster, a prize-winning Rhode Island Red, who has to lose his home comforts, submit to the rigours of a prison-like “proper” chicken farm and then endure amusing, if not entirely credible, feather-raising adventures before he can return home cured of his bad behaviour. A cautionary tale for any like-minded creature — human or bird.

Also for junior readers, but with a longer text, Margaret Beames’s Archway Arrow follows the fortunes of six boys and girls under 13, who as a team enter a competition to win $1000 for their school. In two-and-a-bit weeks, unaided by adults, they must build their raft for less than $10, practise rowing it, survive the dirty tricks of another team and try to win the kilometre-long race down the local river. In this well-paced, good read-aloud adventure the emphasis is on team contribution, playing fair and generosity of spirit in moral and physical challenges. Ethnic variety is hinted at in the name “Stefan” and in the reference to Annie’s grandfather’s role in building a waka. Chapter headings are decorated by Carla Shale.

Another “water” adventure, Helen Beaglehole’s Strange Company, with map and drawings by Gary Hebley, brings mystery and excitement to a family’s summer yachting holiday in the Marlborough sounds. In sequences recalling other New Zealand novels, such as Tessa Duder’s Night Race to Kawau, Joan de Hamel’s The Third Eye  and John Bonallack’s Goat Kingdom, protagonist Kate, Mum and Kate’s two sisters (older sister Becky is “at secondary”) strike real trouble when Dad is caught by tuatara smugglers up in the bush and they must sail their yacht through a storm to Nelson to seek his rescue. However, when Becky falls overboard she is still active and attached by her safety harness to the lee side of the heeling yacht and the drama of pulling her back on deck involves a time-consuming, over-elaborate winching system. It’s amazing, too, how they all manage to “rush” about the heaving yacht. But the dialogue is lively, the nautical details are plentiful and the family dynamics are enough to keep non-sailing readers interested too.

Another lively mystery-adventure story — on land — is Joy Lowe’s House of Huxtable, with drawings by Brent Putze. Quinn and her family, including her intellectually-handicapped brother, Toby, move into an old “dilapidated” house. It transpires that crooks have hidden embezzled money there somewhere and will go to any lengths to retrieve it. Relationships between members of the family and their new friends are warmly portrayed, logically developed, humorously effective. What distinguishes this story, however, is the delightful way the house itself becomes a character. Tartly or sympathetically, it comments in italics on its family’s predicaments and in dignifying, not patronising, terms it gives Toby a crucial part to play in rescuing the money.

In the past two decades Eve Sutton, Ruth Dallas, Anne de Roo and Margaret Beames wrote novels about the experiences of young boys coming to New Zealand last century, alone usually because of their parents’ death. Éliane Whitehouse now vividly describes the parallel experiences of a girl, 15 year-old Jessica, in Young Exile. Unbeknown to Jessica, her mother had eloped to marry her father, a poor minister of the church, for which she was disinherited by her wealthy father, but later reinstated without notification. Jessica’s aunt and uncle hasten to collect orphaned Jessica in London and ship her out, in 1849, as a housemaid to New Zealand, before she discovers her legal entitlement.

The plot depends upon Jessica’s surprising lack of curiosity about her mother’s journal. She does not read it until she has sailed from Glasgow. Yet Jessica’s valuable talent, literacy and grit and determination help her survive harsh times. She is eventually rescued by a doctor and his family in Dunedin, thereby gaining a chance link with her past. The doctor knew her father in Edinburgh and his son is there studying law. Jessica, however, has ideals; she wants to keep on teaching. Historical details evoking the sights, smells and sounds of London slums, the aunt’s opulent English country house, the poignant grief of emigrants on the Glasgow wharves, shipboard life and death, the whaling beach in New Zealand, the settlers’ kitchens and tough, rough way of life, are mainly absorbed deftly into the narrative, though it takes a week after Jess has landed and the onset of a fever, before she feels the floor heaving, a reaction to sailing usually experienced soon after landing.

Finally, two publications from Scholastic have much to interest and inform readers of all ages, as well as bringing help to their subjects. Both Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley take pleasure in receiving many letters from admirers worldwide wanting answers to a persistently similar list of questions but replying to these letters costs both writers much time and money for postage. Now admirers can find out what they want to know from Questions Kids Ask Margaret Mahy and Questions Kids Ask Joy Cowley. Chapter headings cover aspects of each writer’s life and work, such as “Childhood”, “Family Now” and “Writing”. Leading questions in italics, such as When did you start writing stories? or Where do you live? or How many stories do you write a week?, serve as subtitles for the answers in paragraphs of about four to 10 lines, plentifully illustrated with appropriate photos. These two reference books will be invaluable in all school and public libraries.

Diane Hebley has written several books for children, with husband Gary as illustrator, has a doctorate on New Zealand children’s fiction and is a tutor for the Christchurch College of Education and Massey University. 

Diane Hebley is writing a comprehensive review of books for children which will be published in the March issue.

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