Minding our own beeswax, Barbara Murison

Everything You Need to Know About the World by Simon Eliot
Lloyd Jones, illustrations by Timon Maxey
Four Winds Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0958251495

From Weta to Kauri: A Guide to the New Zealand Forest
Janet Hunt, photographs by Rob Lucas
Random, $29.99,
ISBN 1869416554

The Life-size Guide to the New Zealand Beach
Andrew Crowe
Penguin Books, $25,
ISBN 0143019341

John Britten: The Boy Who Did Do Better
Jennifer Beck
Scholastic, $17.99,
ISBN 1869435486  

By the time you read this, Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People by Gregory O’Brien [to be reviewed in our next issue] will have won the non-fiction award in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. But each of these titles has something so unique going for it that I am glad I was not involved in helping to make that final mind-twisting decision.  Each  passes the real test of success for a non-fiction title for children and young people, which is to be a book adult readers can also enjoy and from which they may learn something new.

When I was a small child collecting eggs for my grandmother on her Auckland farm, I could never understand why the hens didn’t break them by sitting on them too heavily or by putting a careless claw through the shell; but here on page 86 of Everything You Need to Know About the World by Simon Eliot  is the answer. Hens don’t sit on eggs at all. They sit behind them, fluffing out their matronly feathers to cover the clutch. Inspired by this piece of information, I sat down and read straight through what, even with the kindest heart in the world, one could not say is a particularly charismatic-looking book. Then a visiting 10-year-old swept it away and was quiet for over two hours.

What is the pulling power of a book with 181 pages of what looks like typewritten text, with three or four different fonts and no index to lead the reader to anything they might need to know? Possibly it is the true browsing nature of the material that gives it its charm. Open the book anywhere and there are the facts many children between the ages of 10 and 14 should find irresistible: the 15 pages at the beginning of the book devoted to toilets, farts, vomit and the digestive system, possibly placed to lure the unsure reader to investigate further; the story of Socrates (c 470-399BC), a teacher who couldn’t read or write; and not forgetting the small cluster of “things we say without understanding where they came from”, on page 131, the true meaning of the saying “mind your own beeswax”. It’s quite a bizarre explanation.

With a book title that will be every library cataloguer’s nightmare, Lloyd Jones, whose  Napoleon and the Chicken Farmer (Mallinson Rendel) won the LIANZA Russell Clark Award in 2004, and who is, of course, the creator of prize-winning fiction for adults, has assembled an eclectic bunch of facts in a book reported to be highly popular with normally less-than-interested readers, and particularly in boys’ schools. If I have just one quibble it is that the emphasis is on the boys and their achievements. For instance, the entry for famous writers has a ratio of 11 men to four women. Maybe, in a country where it is often claimed that girls can do anything, and nowadays, particularly in the Top Jobs, they do do everything, this is Simon Eliot’s revenge.

At first glance From Weta to Kauri: A Guide to the New Zealand Forest does have the appearance and feel of a book entirely for adults, with its small print and packed information on each page. I later discovered it is intended by the publisher as the junior version of an earlier publication, Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest by John Dawson, and is based on that book.

Janet Hunt is passionate about her subject and in 2004 she won the New Zealand Post Book of the Year and non-fiction award with her plea to keep our wildlife safe – A Bird in the Hand (Random). She has filled this new book full of interest for anyone, child or adult, who makes forays into the forest – the vines and birds, insects and frogs, shrubs and trees. The text is supported and enlarged on with magnificent photographs by Rob Lucas, who also illustrated Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest. Everyone will use the book differently, but how practical it will be to actually take into the forest with a group of children or young people (or even just one child) I am not so sure, unless you are very familiar with the layout before the trip. Maybe like Simon Eliot’s guide, this is more of a browsing book or one to use after emerging from the bush, when the specimens (where appropriate) can be viewed at leisure.

However, it is an admirable piece of book production whose layout has been meticulously thought through, with all entries following a definite pattern within their classification. There is also a restrained but welcome note of humour in the text. Marketed as a children’s book it may be, but it has already found its way into many car glove boxes (mine included) and onto kitchen and bedside tables.

The Life-size Guide to the New Zealand Beach by Andrew Crowe is much more of a workbook and has a wonderful use-me feel to it. The one-subject-to-a-page and life-size presentation of the material makes it an ideal companion to take to the water’s edge. I would like to think of it there – stained by salt water, full of sand, and marked and scarred where items have been placed on it for comparative purposes. That is, for those of us who are not too hung up about the sanctity of the book and the printed page.

The book works well at many levels. Some young readers will be happy enough simply to identify their find and discover its name – and Maori names are included wherever possible. However, those who persevere with the small print will find an amazing amount of information. One of many captivating pages looks at the floating rubbish that arrives on New Zealand beaches, carried in by the ocean currents – broken crockery, toy false teeth, ring-pull bottle tops from Australia, Diya lamps from Indian fishing boats. Definitely a book for beachcombers of all ages.

In 1991 an unknown but smooth and shining motorcycle called a Britten came second in the Battle of the Twins race at Daytona, Florida. It had been designed by John Britten who, as a boy, had struggled through his school years getting Es for his reading skills but straight As for art expression. In 1961 a teacher wrote about him: “John’s interest in artwork and mechanical things will always overshadow the world of books … . Reading and spelling still require extra attention.” In other words – he could do better.

John Britten: The Boy Who Did Do Better has about it the warm feeling of a family scrapbook, with its many photos, handwritten comments, reproductions of school reports and pictures of John’s early engineering plans and designs for the motorcycles that were his passion. Jennifer Beck’s picture book The Bantam and the Soldier (Scholastic), illustrated by Robyn Belton, won the picture-book category and the Book of the Year Award in the 1997 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. She writes simply but her words, as she describes the tragically short life of a young man who could easily have been written off as a no-hoper, are powerful and really engage the reader’s emotions. For the sake of those who also struggle with words, I wish it had been possible to make the print even one size larger, which would have made a truly inspirational story even more accessible. A model of one of John Britten’s motorcycles is permanently on show at Te Papa Museum of New Zealand. It was raced to victory in the New Zealand Grand Prix before being rebuilt for the museum display.


Barbara Murison is a Wellington-based children’s book consultant.


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Posted in Biography, Children, Natural History, Non-fiction
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