Only kidding, Julie Eberly

Hark
William Taylor
Scholastic, $11.95
ISBN 1 86943 397 1

Uncle Trev’s Teeth
Jack Lasenby
Cape Catley, $24.95
ISBN 0 90856166 0

Bad grammar and quickly dated vernacular are the most significant problems in William Taylor’s use of a first person narrator in Hark, otherwise known as Hark the Herald Angel. “Thick as”, “sweet as” and “cool as” may be the trendy expressions of the moment, but they will quickly pass on like their forebears “dork” and “groovy”. If kids do not know the difference between correct and incorrect grammar, why do authors choose to model the wrong version? The choice of “him and me and Jacko” and similar phrases is unnecessary, gratuitously pandering to Taylor’s idea of being trendy for kids.

I am also suspicious of the intended market for this book. The popular sport in the book is softball, which though growing in popularity in New Zealand, is much more common in the United States. In addition the teacher in charge of the holiday performance central to the book’s straightforward plot is named Mason-Dixon. Now this is a funny name to me as an adult, expatriate American. But I cannot imagine many children of the appropriate reading level (8-12 years) in either the United States or New Zealand catching the humorous allusion to the Mason-Dixon line that divided the North and the South during the American Civil War. Is this just an inside joke for the author Taylor? Why not make it broader and funnier and relevant to both audiences? Combine two rock groups, such as Hansen-Madonna, that are certainly part of the shared international kid culture.

This said, Hark has kid appeal. Taylor is more successful at these humorous, well-paced stories for pre-teens than his attempts at serious social drama such as the recent Circles which has various inconsistencies and is poorly executed. There are numerous funny bits in Hark. Situating the Christmas story in a contemporary town with a Harley motorcycle replacing the traditional donkey for transport and rewording the play into 1990s kids’ jargon provide some excellent vehicles for humour, and Taylor makes use of them. I found myself laughing aloud at the baby Jesus birth scene, and his use of repetition is both comic and effective in helping to portray different personalities; Alice Pepper’s character is established using this device early on in the book.

Taylor is determined in his efforts to be trendy by inducing a lesbian couple, Mary and Joseph(ine), and a grandmother who is an aerobics instructor. Girls are assertive to the point of being active bullies, and Charlie is a fairly innocuous protagonist who, nevertheless, manages to have an engaging and distinctive personality. The book has all the trademarks of a Scholastic book, with popular appeal at a modest price but without being as trite or formulaic as its competitors the BSC (Baby Sitters Club) and Goosebumps books.

A production problem with my copy was some uncut pages that could not be separated cleanly without scissors. And while the spacing of the text is good, allowing young readers visual room, the choice of type is unappealing, it is spiky and compares poorly in relation to the attractively produced hardback collection of Uncle Trev stories by Jack Lasenby, Uncle Trev’s Teeth.

Lasenby shoots higher than Taylor and does not succeed as well. The cased edition with effectively understated end-pieces by Bob Kerr is a physically attractive collection of Uncle Trev stories, some new and some from earlier collections. Rewritten, and sometimes renamed (just to confuse young readers), there are no surprises. The tall tales are amazing and ridiculous but not particularly funny as they are really a vehicle for Uncle Jack’s reminiscences of the good old rural days of yore. The first person narration is at least grammatical but I feel sorry for this constantly convalescing young boy who is unbelievably ingenuous and gullible about his uncle’s exaggerated stories. That the boy is unnamed adds to his lack of substance as a character and underlines the impression that these stories are really for, as well as about, Uncle Trev.

Lasenby’s writing always leaves me wondering how in touch he is with his intended audience. Children are fascinated with their cuts, bruises and illnesses. It is frustrating not to be told why the boy is perpetually ill. Children also like to read about children and their heroics and adventures. This is something that, with admittedly less eloquence, William Taylor’s writing does respond to.

The stories I liked best were the ones in which Uncle Trev did not appear. Interestingly, these are the few stories in the volume that deal with serious issues such as pacifism, death and religion. These are the stories in which Mum tells us about the sensitive side of her usually brusque brother. Don’t real men admit their emotions or is Trevor just too modest? Leaving Mum to portray Trevor’s other side unfortunately has the effect of keeping him as one-dimensional as the other characters in the book. The different tone struck in these more contemplative stories provides a welcome contrast to the insistent heartiness of the bulk of the stories.

My biggest complaint, however, is the stereotyped mum. She “sniffs” at just about everything, she “snaps” at Uncle Trev frequently, she holds up progress, is “fiercer than any old bull” and, in general, rains on everyone’s parades. Personally, I am tired of humourless and unpleasant mothers in children’s fiction, and if they do not have these characteristics they are often, as in Taylor’s book, portrayed as incompetent, requiring the child to support and direct them.

There are small problems that one would have expected to see ironed out in this collection, such as Uncle Trev’s preference for a teacup without a saucer in the early part of the book contradicted by his consistent use of a saucer in subsequent stories. It is also disconcerting that the second story “Gotta Henry’s Hot Air Balloon” takes Old Gotta to Australia and yet we find him back; with no explanation about his adventures, in the next story. There is usually a rationale for the particular organisation of a short story collection, chronological or thematic arrangements are common choices, but in this volume there is no apparent rationale and the lack of it affects the overall sense of unity.

These are quite short stories and, as such, make for quick classroom or bedtime reading. Such small doses are ideal since read consecutively the stories are tedious and repetitive.

But for fans of Uncle Trev’s antics this is a handsome collection to have; I would expect these fans to be found primarily among adult readers, who will enjoy harking back to earlier years, rather than children for whom the stories are ostensibly written.

The glossary is thorough and interesting reading in itself for all those terms that readers are too young, or too urban, to be familiar with. And for those who enjoy accompanying Lasenby down memory lane to the accompaniment of exaggerated stories of ferocious eels and other performing animals and rustics, this is the edition to have.

Choosing between the two books, I would have to vote hands down for Hark if I were selecting for most children, on the other hand I can think of a number of adults who would enjoy Lasenby’s collection for both the brevity of the stories and the evident nostalgia. As a light, fun book, Taylor’s is undeniably better suited to its intended audience.

Julie Eberly teaches a Master’s paper in children’s literature at Victoria University.

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review
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