Hard acts to follow, Richard Smith

Mechanical Harry and the Flying Bicycle
Bob Kerr
Mallinson Rendel,  $14.95, ISBN 0 908783 38 8

The Little Yellow Digger at the Zoo
Betty Gilderdale and Alan Gilderdale
Scholastic, $14.95, ISBN 1 86943 448 X

Grandma McGarvey Goes to School
Jenny Hessell, illustrated by Trevor Pye
Scholastic, $12.95, ISBN 1 86943 411 0

In the wake of a book’s popular reception, most shrewd children’s publishers are likely to jump at the opportunity of capitalising on its success. It’s not uncommon to encounter a hastily produced sequel or protracted series designed to make the most of a brief wave of popularity. At the mercy of a fickle and perpetually saturated market, publishing for children is a risky business. Risky for publishers and also for children. One can be forgiven, I think, for approaching sequels with an additional degree of caution and for asking the question: is this book “a Dolly”– an opportunistic clone story based on a “winning formula” of character or concept? That’s not to say sequels can’t also be original, compelling and by their own merits worthy of making print.

2

On a pedal-powered helium-hoisted bicycle, Harry Newton launches himself and his mischievous cat into a Pacific island adventure of new wacky contraptions. Mechanical Harry and the Flying Bicycle continues in the tradition of Mechanical Harry, winner of the Children’s Choice category in 1997’s New Zealand Post Book Awards, though this story has more of a plot. En route to his grandmother’s place, Harry is forced to crash-land on a deserted island. He dismantles the bicycle and using only a handful of tools, some rope and the island’s natural resources, he shelters, sustains and entertains himself. Missing human company, he eventually constructs wings for his bike and flies back to “civilisation”. In structural terms, the plot is primarily a contrivance allowing Harry to be placed in a setting where, McGyver-like, he’s faced with the challenge of having to invent and construct machines with minimal resources at hand.

This book is certain to appeal to children, and its popularity will be due to Bob Kerr’s sense of humour, his inventiveness (the zany machines), and his artwork. Kerr’s characteristic ink and watercolour illustrations closely follow the original Mechanical Harry in style, though this time there are more comic-strip frames included. The illustrations tell the story as much, if not more than the text, which is primarily a first-person monologue in speech bubbles, accompanied by numbered explanations of how the machines work.

Kerr’s understated humour often finds expression in clever incongruities which arise between the illustrations and the text. Against a background of accumulating storm clouds and lightning, Harry remarks, “That’s strange, I’m sure the weather forecast said” (In the background the sky thunders, “BOOM!”) “no wind” (the flying bicycle is swept up in a violent gust) “clear sky, and bright sun.” At this point, Harry’s silhouette is shown, in ET fashion, against an ominous blackening sky.

Many of Harry’s inventions are farfetched, to say the least, but half the fun is in their improbability. Introducing readers to simple machines (such as levers, cogs, winches, and pulleys) and to Newton’s laws of motion (see Mechanical Harry) is intrinsically part of the book’s purpose, but Kerr succeeds in making learning seem almost incidental. Unfortunately, he does not take advantage of the opportunity to introduce further scientific laws or explanations, such as why it is that a helium balloon rises or a glider can become airborne. It seems that Kerr’s primary purpose is to provide pleasure and entertainment for his readers, while consolidating upon the ideas introduced in the first book.

This book was never intended to tell a gripping story, but it’s compelling nevertheless. It’s fun to read and has all the necessary ingredients to make it just as popular as Mechanical Harry. The formula is almost identical, and children will love it. Hardly surprising, when they get to identify the connections linking a chain of events that will catch a fish, rekindle a fire, wake the cat, drop a rope ladder and set off a bell – and all activated by the fish taking the bait.

3

The Little Yellow Digger by Betty and Alan Gilderdale is a hard act to follow, but the Gilderdales have made a valiant attempt with The Little Yellow Digger at the Zoo. Once again the little yellow digger gets stuck, this time while enlarging a zoo’s hippo pool. An additional dilemma presents itself: there’s insufficient room for a “bigger digger” to execute a rescue. A bystander, a “clever young girl”, suggests, “How about letting an elephant try”, and, implausible as it may sound, a makeshift harness is tied to the zoo’s only elephant and an attempt is made to drag the digger out. When the digger tips over, the rope is thrown over the branch of an overhanging tree, creating a pulley effect. The elephant then hoists the digger out of the mud and, thanks to further advice from the girl, a camel is harnessed to pull the suspended digger onto terra firma.

Two of the major strengths of the original Little Yellow Digger story are its plot structure, in which perceivable patterns emerge, and the ease with which readers can identify with the little digger. The story gives readers the satisfaction of recognising the shape of events culminating in a conclusion they can anticipate and enjoy. In The Little Yellow Digger at the Zoo children thoroughly enjoy the concept of animals rescuing machines, but the story lacks a strong human character that readers can identify with. The strongest contender, the “clever young girl”, is only twice mentioned and remains more of a secondary character. The structure of the story is not as simple as that of its predecessor, and the text doesn’t encourage readers to engage in the problem- solving process by exploring options or predicting possible solutions. In this story, the structural and textual patterns are not as accessible, and therefore the reader’s sense of ownership and the pleasure of recognition and prediction are not there to the same extent.

This is not to say that children won’t enjoy the story, which does have its own strengths. Though not employed as frequently as in the first book, the alliterative language is used to good effect and adds to the pleasure of the reading. The sounds and rhythm in a line such as “The digger dug deep and the digger dug wide” can be easily associated with the idle of an engine or the repetitive action of a digger.

In many of the lines the scansion is fairly consistent, and for the most part the rhythm trundles along unimpeded, but variations in metre do arise. In most instances these seem to occur more as a result of convenience than design, and such shifts tend to reduce the pleasure of reading to rhythm. A few sentences are also a little clunky or cluttered, often for the purpose of maintaining the rhythm or rhyme schemes.

Of the book’s 20 carbon pencil and watercolour illustrations, nine are double-page spreads. Alan Gilderdale’s use of heavy lines to emphasise subjects central to the action achieves this purpose very effectively. However, it also tends to give some figures a rather cardboard cut-out appearance. Most of the human figures represented assume very natural postures but one or two are posed a little awkwardly, and unfortunately many of the characters’ faces are either obscured or devoid of expression. Except for one problem with continuity, the illustrations and story complement each other well. As one sharp-eyed child observed, the digger which is supposed to be on its side on page 21 is in
fact upright.

For most of the children who’ve read the story with me, the most exciting aspect of the book seems to be located on the back cover flap. The Little Yellow Digger’s softback edition includes a yellow pop-out digger with instructions for assembly. My initial scepticism about its suitability was proved unfounded. I’ve witnessed half-a-dozen six-year-olds carefully construct the digger without any assistance or frustration. Judging by their responses to the story and particularly to the pop-out digger, I’m confident this edition will prove to be very popular.

4

A recent newspaper article featured a story about an older women’s one-day seminar on “growing old disgracefully”. The event was for those determined not to submit to aging in demure silence and invisibility. Add to the equation some irrepressible exuberance, eccentricity and general obliviousness to convention and you have Grandma McGarvey. Jenny Hessell’s Grandma McGarvey Goes to School is the latest in a series of five books following the Grandma’s quirky exploits.

In this story, the local school is advertising an imminent Grandparents Day. In no time Grandma McGarvey, dressed in a traditional school pinafore, is sitting on the mat in room nine. Grandma’s excess of enthusiasm creates some havoc in class, particularly during Art, when she has the children painting their faces and doing “handprints all over the walls.” The degree of extremity her behaviour will take, and the possibility of the teacher’s intervention, are the only real elements of tension in the story. Of course, the bewildered teacher does not intervene.

It’s unclear whether the author intends to appeal to children’s admiration for Grandma’s unconventionality or to their amusement at her seeming naiveté about classroom propriety. However they choose to respond, in this story Grandma McGarvey is represented as more of a clown figure than a champion of originality and the unconventional. It seems she can’t help but impose herself upon anyone within range. “At last it was time for Show and Tell. ‘Pick me!’ hollered Grandma, ‘Pick me!’ and she pushed her way to the front of the class where all the children could see.” She proceeds to describe some of her adventures and to perform gymnastics, with a mildly irritating self-fascination. Perhaps children are more forgiving. Those who’ve read the story assure me that it’s great. Clearly, they recognise and enjoy the comedy of her eccentric behaviour.

As in the earlier books, Trevor Pye’s colourful pen-and-dye illustrations are simple but entertaining, and central to the story’s success. They emphasise Grandma McGarvey’s larger-than-life personality and demonstrate the impact she has upon others. In some illustrations, the secondary characters possess a limited range of gesture and expression, though perhaps Pye’s intention is to keep the focus upon Grandma.

As in the earlier books of this series, jaunty rhythm and rhyme help to propel the story forward and add to the pleasure of reading the text. But unfortunately, once again the author is not particularly attentive to the scansion. In a number of instances, if the reader attempts to follow the established metre, the words’ natural accents become wrenched. Some lines miss a beat, and others are over-crowded. In a couple of lines the rhythm dissipates completely, which is disconcerting for children reading aloud.

Essentially this book is a slightly farcical comedy of manners. It has no driving plot, no character development, a faltering text and no perceivable climax. Much like its protagonist, it defies convention yet still appeals to children. In the final pages, when the teacher informs Grandma McGarvey that she’s a week early for Grandparents Day, Grandma assures the alarmed and exasperated teacher, “we’ll do it again next week!” It seems likely that there’ll be more Grandma McGarveys to come.

Richard Smith is a Wellington writer and editor.

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