Picture books, the cunning genre, Norman Bilbrough

Papa’s Island
Melanie Drewery, illustrations Fifi Colston
Reed, $16.99,
ISBN 1869485947

Nobody’s Dog
Jennifer Beck, illustrations Lindy Fisher
Scholastic, $16.99,
ISBN 1869437284

Haere – Farewell, Jack, Farewell
Tim Tipene, illustrations Huhana Smith
Huia, $16.99,
ISBN 1869691040

Uncle Jack
Kate De Goldi, illustrations Jacqui Colley
Trapeze, $19.95,
ISBN 0473100649

A Booming in the Night
Ben Brown, illustrations Helen Taylor
Reed, $16.99,
ISBN 1869485866

Where’s the Gold?
Pamela Allen
Puffin, $25.00,
ISBN 0670028444

The Waka/Te Waka
Jean Prior, illustrations Gavin Bishop
Scholastic, $16.99,
ISBN 1869436849/857

Some writers seem to think a picture book is, if not a pushover, certainly a short and sweet project that’s less than taxing. Often they go for a rhyming work that ends up as slightly incoherent doggerel, short on story. And they tend to present an idealised view of life: the story is too often overly palatable. But picture books are a cunning genre, and several elements are essential.

First, a good story. The need for this often goes unrecognised, and may indeed be dismissed as an old-fashioned concept. The story must be focused, and it must be written for kids. Sound banal? Yet a surprising number of picture books are covertly (or not so covertly) aimed at the Mum or Dad who will buy the book and read it to a child. Authors of these kinds of texts seem, almost deliberately, out of touch with their reading audience. Picture-book authors must also realise that the language they think in and use is not the language of a kid. More commonsense perhaps, but a lot of adult vocabulary and perceptions creep into picture books. Then there is simplicity – a quality I hammer as a creative writing teacher: forget two storylines, forget cute sidetracks; find your topic and stick to it rigorously.

Author attitude is also important. Do they expect kids to be intelligent beyond their years? Do they expect them to be culture savvy or life savvy? Or do they expect kids to be cute undiscriminating sumps? These attitudes come through in several of the books reviewed here.

Illustrations must be evocative and extend the story. Sometimes they do; sometimes they partly work for a narrative, and sometimes they don’t work at all. Illustrators are also guilty of producing what they think a kid needs, and of showing off – primarily to Mum and Dad. So it comes down to marriage: a good picture book is a successful union between story and illustration. Each complements the other, and together they achieve a satisfying and entertaining whole.

Papa’s Island is the story of an Italian immigrant interned on Soames Island during WWII, and told from his daughter’s point of view. The scene is expressively set from the first page: “My Papa was away a long time. When the men came to take him my mama cried and held us tight.” The girl and Mama send messages across Wellington harbour: 50 small paper boats, telling papa they love him. It’s a tangle of love and incomprehension for the girl – “If he loves us he should come home.” But Papa is away far longer than expected. The girl grows. What if Papa no longer recognises her? She’s taunted at school about her father being an enemy alien. Then, at last, she visits him. This is a simple and affecting story that would go deep into a young reader.  It’s based on real events, and has an accessible and helpful glossary.

Nobody’s Dog is not simple; it tends to be too wordy, and the start is confusing: “He was the kind of dog Sam had always wanted. Perhaps that’s why he liked the painting that hung above the fireplace in his grandfather’s house.” There’s a lot about painting, rural life, dogs, and feelings between a boy and his granddad; the book contains concepts too sophisticated for a young reader: “When I look at him, I feel like a real artist, not just a Sunday painter.” So it’s a story that makes an impression on an adult – one who understands the hard side of farm life, how dogs need to earn their keep, and of course the status of a Sunday painter. The illustrations are often too impressionistic and abstract: they evoke colour and movement when they need to be more definitively about the boy and the dog. Text and illustrations need adult interpretation. This is a gripping narrative, a lovely story, but the young reader would, in a sense, need a translator.

In comparison, simplicity is the essence of Haere: “It was a cold day when Koro Jack died ….” It looks cold too, and the first illustration is a very New Zealand scene: a bare house on a tidy bare section, a house on the edge of a rural town, perhaps.  A man has just died in this house.

But there are presences here too, ancestors as well as relations: “We stayed with him most of the morning.” A little girl sees death, and then a birth, sees life coming full circle. The story is as evocative as a stark tree, and the simple illustrations reinforce and accentuate the text. It’s the story of a human journey, a big topic to get into a book of less than 500 words. Yet it focuses on this huge issue thoughtfully and economically.

Uncle Jack arouses mixed feelings. Kate De Goldi, winner of the New Zealand Post Book Awards 2005 Book of the Year for her picture book Clubs: A Lolly Leopold Story, is an imaginative writer, and she mines Uncle Jack extensively for his quirkiness and endearing temperament. But he is also limited by being a “character”, and the book is not a story but a character study. It’s too long and, despite the author’s insistence in the text that it’s a book for a five-year-old, too adult. For instance: “Uncle Jack’s stories … start in March and finish in April and are more hair-raising than a Harley Davidson weekend.” And: “As well as having a natural narrative drive … Jack is a regular Silas Marner.”

Although a character study could be a good idea for this genre, the material is shapeless – in parts out of control – and well before they reach the end, a young (or older reader) might wish De Goldi would stop rabbiting on about this old bloke. The illustrations might also be frustrating for the five-year-old. They’re impressionistic, sketchy and somehow very general. They too are essentially adult. It all adds up to a book that seems too ambitious for its intended readership.

A child would be drawn to A Booming in the Night, its illustrations full of colour, a pretty book. And yet the illustrations are curiously static, they don’t have much energy. Pukeko is looking for a mate for Kakapo. But the tale lacks weight; it’s limp, and it’s ho-hum.  It’s also repetitive, and not in a rhythmic way. The author underestimates the young reader, believing they need to be given the same information several times. If author and illustrator had weighed in with a story of originality and depth accompanied by less pretty pictures, this might have been a more interesting book.

Where’s the Gold? is so ordinary and unimaginative, so derivative of other tales, that I thought it disrespectful to a reader. Three pirates and a parrot search for gold in a hole, they meet an unidentified monster, and finally find the gold in the form of the sun. Although the illustrations are competent, there’s a lazy idea behind them. The story is tedious, pat and has no lift.  It doesn’t charm, and it certainly would not engross.

The Waka (one volume in Maori and one in English) tells the New Zealand version of the Ark story. It’s raining and raining, the world is flooding, and Moa can’t swim or fly, so she stomps on board the waka. This is a counting book; it also offers natural history and quirky cultural advice. It’s a good idea presented simply and effectively. It uses good colours and has a fine cover. The narrative is simple: get out of the wind and rain, get away from rising waters, and shelter in the waka that – after a rough thumping journey – arrives at a safe haven (although the kiwis are looking hungrily at the weta). This book works – it’s charming, and has a comprehensive cast of animals from tuatara to frogs.

Several of this clutch of picture books have conquered the genre. The less successful seem inhibited by the authors’ and illustrators’ ideas of what a young reader requires.  And craft failures follow: a poor story, or one that’s too adult; incoherent illustrations, and, I suspect, a failure to rewrite and rewrite. The notable feature of the more successful is their simplicity: their rigorous adherence to an uncluttered idea. And the judicious choice of sympathetic illustrations to accompany that idea.


Norman Bilbrough’s A Brief History of Paradise was reviewed in our March 2006 issue. 


A Booming in the Night won Best Picture Book in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards, and Haere – Farewell, Jack, Farewell won the Picture Book Honour Award. The Waka/Te Waka and Where’s the Gold? were finalists in the Picture Book section, and Nobody’s Dog won the Children’s Choice Award.


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