Going into detail, Diane Hebley

The House that Jack Built
Gavin Bishop
Scholastic, $29.95, ISBN 1 86943 434 X

Hairy Maclary and Zachary Quack
Lynley Dodd
Mallinson Rendel, $22.95,
ISBN 0 908783 42 6

Sydney and the Sea Monster
David Elliot
Random House, $19.95,
ISBN 1 86941 407 1

Mouse Opera
Richard Wolfe and Pamela Wolfe
Scholastic, $24.95, ISBN 1 86943 406 4

To entertain and inform – these are the aims of books, and most readers would agree with John Donne that comparisons are “odious”. But awards for the previous year’s best books make comparisons inevitable, even “odorous”, as Shakespeare’s Dogberry would say. For uncovering the relative merits of each book leads to new insight, new appreciation. Up for discussion here are four out of five titles that were shortlisted for this year’s New Zealand Post Picture Book Award.

2

Gavin Bishop’s The House that Jack Built is a multi-layered “metaphor” (his word) of New Zealand’s colonial history. Bold, well-designed compositions carry the traditional rhyme, unchanged – almost – from the 1755 version, and key words – “house”, “Jack”, “malt”, “lay” – first appear in a larger point size, suggesting this book is for the very young. Not so. Bishop’s visual imagery presents a complex duality in exploring separation, change, growth, racial dissension and war.

The first two double spreads in loose Hogarthian style show Jack leaving London for New Zealand in 1798, driving his cart to his ship past houses with smoking chimneys and people trading or dousing a house fire. (Given current concerns about copyright laws, perhaps Bishop is paying double homage to satirist and entertainer Hogarth, who in 1735 legally established copyright protection for original artists.) In New Zealand, Jack builds his house and begins trading. The beige-toned illustrations on alternate double spreads grow in complexity with borders for commentary, leaving Jack’s red door to hold continuity. Maori bring potatoes to trade for axes, nails, blankets, and guns. Whalers and more European settlers arrive, and missionaries, represented by an identifiable Samuel Marsden, establish their educative and evangelising roles, introducing concepts from hellfire to prudery. The European “tattered” man marries the Maori maiden “all forlorn”. Time passes. A delightful gallery of settler faces borders a bustling township; Jack’s original house and “Jackson’s General Store” have grown into Jackstown.

As a counterpoint, other illustrations follow Maori traditional figurative art, such as the panels at Rongopai, to establish the spiritual relationship of the Maori with their environment. Behind and around the text, Bishop fills the blue of sea and sky with faces and eyes, and a commentary bordering the page recounts the mythological split between Earth and Sky. As European influence expands, Maori images recede. A particularly successful page also shows native creatures fleeing for their lives. Elsewhere, a devil recalls the work of Aporo; warriors recall the work of Joseph Merrett. The sky gradually becomes russet-hued as Maori faces return to indicate Maori resurgence in war. And here Bishop adds his own sad ending to the traditional text: “This is the soldier all weary and worn,/ And this was the house that Jack built.”

Nevertheless, confusions arise. Although Bishop claims his work is a metaphor, he is dealing with historical happenings in time and space. Jack in 1799 (Bishop’s date), representing the earliest traders, wouldn’t have had a cow on arrival here: domestic animals came with Samuel Marsden in 1814. And the Maori soon had more for trade than potatoes or kumara: most notably, flax. Moreover, though the early maps are fancifully vague, the compass rose should at least point true north. Then the town isn’t identified. Yet since the earliest settlers came to Kororareka in the Bay of Islands (the hell-hole of the Pacific) and Marsden began his work there, the metaphor is obviously played out beside its expansive harbour. But that makes a geographical anomaly of the nearby volcano steaming away while the (Maori?) farmer sows his corn, two ships burn in the bay, and war canoes approach, suggesting the burning of Kororareka in 1845. The volcano makes sense only as a metaphor emphasising racial dissension over land. Likewise, Captain von Tempsky, associated with the 1860s Land Wars in the Waikato, not Kororareka, symbolises all Europeans caught up in the wars.

Also, as if influenced by folk art style, Bishop sometimes loses important details in his realistic drawing – to do, for example, with the functioning of ships’ rigging and horses’ harnesses. He shows a beached, rearing whale being flensed alive. And if one should read this book in mythopoetic terms, do the burning houses and smoking chimneys introducing and ending the story (with excessive smoking for a New Zealand setting up North) suggest that the ills of London have surfaced in New Zealand, contrary to the hopes of most settlers? Has intermarriage between Pakeha and Maori not worked at all? Bishop’s notes claim that both cultures are “now intertwined in the rich history of Aotearoa”. Nevertheless, perhaps through oversimplification, his endpapers showing Jack’s burning house and a Pakeha soldier and Maori warrior leave a final strong impression of dissension, not resolution. In many ways, then, this ambitious, provocative book invites discussion mostly among advanced readers.

3

In contrast to Bishop’s book, the other three contain an original text on one narratological level, valuable in different ways. Lynley Dodd in Hairy Maclary and Zachary Quack, for example, makes no attempt to convey information that concerns anything other than the natural behaviour of animals from their point of view in a possible sequence of events. Her whole purpose is to enchant readers. This, her eighth book about her canine creation, is polished vintage Dodd in its circular structure, skilfully integrated text and illustration, and high level of light-hearted verve and humour. Yet it contains a hint of life’s darker forces to add some tension, and a new character – sure to captivate readers from age three up.

A snoozing Hairy M is woken by a little yellow duckling who wants to play and who persists in pursuing Hairy M as he tries to escape. Naturally, when Hairy M can’t get out of the river, it’s the duckling who shows him the way (triumph for the little guy is always a reader-pleaser), and the two finish up together in Hairy M’s original snoozing place. Perseverance and friendship have won the day.

Reading Dodd’s text aloud reinforces her comic use of onomatopoeia. The z sounds and long vowels conveying the dog’s drowsiness balance the quick sharp sounds portraying the duckling’s arrival and pursuit: “pittery pattery,/ skittery scattery,/ ZIP/ round the corner/ came/ Zachary Quack.” The text flows easily. The strong beat of words holds the rhythm naturally without fillers, but with active verbs like “floundered”, “footle” or “skedaddled”. Three times, as in the classic tales, Hairy M tries to escape from the duckling; three times the pattern of language is repeated to increase drama and delight in the sound of words.

As always, Dodd’s illustrations match the strength of her text. Her fine sense of design achieves a balance between rhythm and form, her colours are lively but not lurid, and her drawing is underpinned by solid draughtsmanship. Consider her use of detail, for example, when Hairy M is hiding in the broom cupboard. Warmth and assurance rule out any whiff of a patronising tone. No wonder Hairy M has become a beloved New Zealand icon for many young readers.

Like Dodd, David Elliot in Sydney and the Sea Monster aims to entertain his readers; like Bishop, he wants to introduce some historical element, although lightly so. He proceeds in a fantasy story to draw on activities associated with whalers and sealers on a sub-Antarctic island.

Sydney is a Just William of a penguin; even his “hair” sticks up. His inventions land him in trouble, and his curiosity about a box labelled “Dynamite” nearly kills him when he sets it alight. But he miraculously escapes. Ostracised by his colony for attracting the sealers’ attention, he sets out with his whale friend to scare the sealers away and so make the colony safe again. Sydney and Bill the whale devise a way to cover Bill with driftwood and seaweed, rigging, ropes and levers, so that it’s Bill who looks like some monster – an idea Elliot took from images of sea monsters on old maps. Tension lies in the risk that yet again Sydney’s ploy will end in disaster. But the wind colludes by blowing the whale’s mask into the faces of the sealers. Saved!

That Sydney should be so anthropomorphised is part of fantasy tradition. Only in fantasy could these events take place. But, unlike Dodd, who keeps to the realm of animal possibility, Elliot sometimes stretches fantasy too far. Harpoon cannons for sealers on a sailing ship? Flotsam and jetsam as a source of Sydney’s paraphernalia? A beluga-type whale sitting on a beach? And the ship’s sails hang in impossible folds. As for the whaleboat, it appears to be levitating beside its mother ship, it at times loses its rowlocks, and four sealers are squashed in to row with two oars each, not the customary one. Ironically, it’s easier to accept the absurd if the real is in place.

Yet Elliot’s strong spare prose carries the ebullience and tension of events: “Next morning, the monstrous shadow of a sailing ship loomed out of the mist. It bristled with harpoons and cudgels and a feeling of menace.” Moreover, his illustrating skills are beguiling: the relationship between text and illustrations is well designed; the sensitive pencil lines and subtle watercolours admirably capture the mood of his characters, their actions, their environment, and the light from Sydney’s explosion. Delicate blue tones evoke the chill of the Antarctic, and Sydney is so energetic and comical that he readily engages the reader’s sympathies. So, if you don’t ask too many questions about some details, then this is truly an enchanting book.

From outdoor to indoor entertainment. Richard and Pamela Wolfe’s Mouse Opera presents a cutely sophisticated spoof – with more sugar than spice – on musical theatre. The company consists of anthropomorphic mice; hence puns like Les Micerables, though nothing here suggests the barricades or dark streets of Les Mis. Instead, we meet Oprah Mouse the Diva and aging Louie Ratatouille, seamstress Madame Fifi Fromage, conductor Hermann P von Vermin, while the Opera House recalls the famous L’Opéra in Paris. The rush of activity includes costume-making, design and scenery construction, and orchestra rehearsal. Backstage, Miss Doris Stilton stocks her Nibble Nook and Mr W C Field Mouse cleans the ancient lavatories. The show is finally “underway” (sic) and, no surprise, the “best”.

The rhyming verses concentrate on pre-performance nerves and the hustle and bustle of backstage preparation: “As if this wasn’t bad enough,/ the word has got about,/ he can’t recall his lines/ and his hair is falling out!” But some verses are erratic in rhythm and supported by fillers like “just”, “quite” or “such”, often becoming pedestrian. Though this is a mouse spoof, no musicians’ union would tolerate “practices” (ie, rehearsals) night and day (even to complete a verse).

However, the colourful illustrations in well-designed, self-contained blocks strengthen the text they face on opposite pages. Deep-red curtains and chandeliers under spotlights capture the velvety richness of an old-world opera house, this one with glamorous dressing-rooms for the stars and sumptuous costumes to relieve the austere space allotted to wardrobe. Sets and costumes against a deep-blue cyclorama evoke a lavish show on stage. Details enhance the illustrations: the Nibble Nook sells cheese as well as cake and chocolate, though the musical instruments look somewhat odd. In addition, each page of text is decorated with small, intriguing items – stage props or a calendar showing January with days progressively crossed off. The final billboard promises more: “Rats! Coming Soon!” Mice try!

4

By the time this review appears, the judges will have chosen their winner: an ambitious, innovative, historical metaphor for advanced readers; a polished integrated delight for the youngest readers; a beguiling fantasy for junior readers; a visually rich spoof for those who enjoy musical theatre; or the fifth shortlisted book (The Video Shop Sparrow) not discussed here. Each is well produced, providing “odorous” pleasure and value in individual ways. I’m glad I didn’t have the “odious” job of casting my vote.

Diane Hebley is the author of The Power of Place: Landscape in New Zealand Children’s Fiction.

In the 2000 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, Gavin Bishop won the Children’s Book of the Year and the Picture Book Category, Lynley Dodd won the Children’s Choice, and David Elliot won an Honour Award.

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