Illustrating the gaps between words, Raymond Huber

Gavin Bishop
Random House, $30.00,
ISBN 978869419028

Tahi: One Lucky Kiwi
Melanie Drewery, illustrations Ali Teo and John O’Reilly
Random House, $30.00,
ISBN 9781869419301

To the Harbour 
Stanley Palmer
Lopdell House Gallery, $35.00, 
ISBN 9780958228442

Snake and Lizard 
Joy Cowley, illustrations Gavin Bishop
Gecko Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780958272070 

The Mad Tadpole Adventure 
Melanie Drewery, illustrations Jenny Cooper
Scholastic, $30.00,
ISBN 97818699438531

The books under review were all finalists in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. The first three are impressive picture books in hard covers. The quality of their production is high (in layout, printing and binding), so they will probably survive more than one childhood. What makes a great picture book? A good story alone is not enough, nor are pretty pictures. In the best picture books, the artist doesn’t just mirror the words but interprets the story in playful, unexpected ways. “Illustrators must see the gaps and spaces in the written word and exploit them,” says John McKenzie, (past awards judge). Great illustrators also make the most of artistic techniques such as perspective, colour and media.

Rats! is a handsome, large-format book with stunning illustrations by Gavin Bishop. We are plunged straight into the action as a plague of rats wrecks a tea party, plays pirates in the bath and creates a winter Olympics in the kitchen. Polly’s house is overrun, until a stranger offers to trap the rats. They try to disguise themselves but his jiggly music lures the rats away. Polly realises she is lonely and invites the rats back. She successfully negotiates a more civilised “boarding” arrangement.

There are echoes of The Pied Piper here, but Bishop has created an original story. He brings his characters to life using a minimum of text. Young children will be reeled in with repeated phrases such as “No rats here!” which invite the exuberant response, “There they are!” Bishop’s illustrations are rich in humour, flourishes and sly references. There are magnificently detailed scenes which will have preschoolers searching for the hidden rats and their inventive “sports”. He makes full use of illustrative techniques: frames within frames, colours that echo emotions, and flowing lines which lead the eye onwards. Windows, door frames and even television screens are cleverly used to focus attention, change the mood, and zoom in on the action.

My favourite image is the arrival of Rapscallion Claw. It’s a nod towards the brilliant 19th-century fantasy tale King of the Golden River (Bishop acknowledges the artist, Richard Doyle). It’s the kind of playful allusion that lifts his work out of the ordinary.

Rats! is a cosy tale of learning how to respect the one who “calls the tune”. There’s much here to delight young readers, and parents will enjoy reading this aloud.

Tahi: One Lucky Kiwi by Melanie Drewery is a picture book that dares to be different. There’s been a glut of children’s books about kiwi – they’re not that cute, are they? – but Tahi gets it right. Near perfect, in fact, with a blend of cartoon and realism. The story is based on a real kiwi with an artificial limb. At news time in class a boy tells how he saved a kiwi from a monster with silver jaws. The teacher quickly moves the discussion along (as teachers do), but the boy persists in his tale of rescue and amputation. He finally convinces them after a class study of the kiwi, and they go to meet Tahi in Wellington Zoo.

The superb multi-level design and illustration are by Ali Teo and John O’Reilly. Their characters are energetic comic figures set against digital-style backgrounds. A series of insets provides another layer – photographic pages from a science notebook. These deliver the fascinating real-life details of Tahi as an endangered species, and show the pioneering engineering by Weta Workshop and the Artificial Limb Centre. It’s all visually arresting for children aged five to 10 years. Ali Teo’s quirky style is consistently popular with children – and okay, her kiwi is cute.

Drewery’s text is tightly focused for a young audience, and I enjoyed her use of subtle humour. The story is in three forms: cartoon, fact and text. Each is strong enough to stand alone, yet there’s interaction between them too. This deserved to win the picture book of the year award, for the combined impact of illustrations and storytelling – and the archetypal theme of a resilient little kiwi.

Stanley Palmer’s To The Harbour has magic in the pictures but tends more towards an illustrated memoir than a children’s book. It’s a beautifully bound hardback collection of prints based on his childhood holidays on the Manukau Harbour. The war is over, and the kids are packed off on a barge for a summer camping holiday. They revel in the freedom: making flounder spears, fishing off the wharf and sailing flax-stick outriggers. Just before returning, they witness a boating accident and rescue.

I loved the evocative monoprints. There is something timeless about the slightly blurred faces of the people. In his introduction, Palmer explains how this effect is achieved by painting on steel plates: “allowing the image to become a little more abstracted after each printing”.

The story is really a series of recollections. Palmer succeeds in capturing some of the flavour of the times with his dialogue: “How about a bob for the flicks this arvo?” (footnotes explain the colloquialisms). Ultimately there’s not enough drama or character development here for younger readers. There are hints at the fears children have about the adult world – I wished they’d tied in with the pictures a bit more. The text isn’t child-friendly either, with its small font, and sections in need of editing. The stylish illustrations convey a sense of those distant, relaxed holidays when children could be sent off into a world of their own. It’s a book that grandparents will enjoy sharing with children.

Picture books like the three above are rare in New Zealand. Many local books seem cheaply produced in comparison. Perhaps it’s the expense, or because publishers are not taking risks with artistic illustrations and original themes. Gecko Press has recently stepped in to fill the gap to some extent. They import award-winning European picture books and have them translated and edited locally.

The other two books for review were short-listed for the junior fiction category of the awards. Snake and Lizard is Gecko Press’s first New Zealand written and illustrated book. Once again it’s an elegant, silky hardback – a book that can be neatly cradled in one hand. Author Joy Cowley’s dedication states that “friendship is not made out of sameness but the accommodation of differences”, which is clearly the theme of this collection of short stories.

It begins with an argument between Snake and Lizard over where exactly a snake’s body ends and its tail begins. The two quickly become friends although they argue over everything. There’s a debate over eating habits: swallowing whole versus chewing and dribbling. They move in together and have to learn to get along, apology by apology. The characters are most interesting when dealing with the other desert creatures. Snake and Lizard set up a “counselling” service but their advice creates a few problems. There are minor inconsistencies – the animals know about money but don’t understand cars.

These are really parables with a moral, and, like Aesop’s Fables, they are more concerned with common sense than high ideals. The main message is that friends can argue and still remain friends. A few threads link the stories, but there’s no overall narrative drive or satisfying ending. Still, the tales are well-packaged for a short bedtime read aloud. Gavin Bishop provides the intense illustrations. His choice of golds, warm blues and black reflects the stark American desert setting. Bishop’s animal characters have just the right balance of biological realism and “human” expression for this age group. Cowley is adept at using dialogue to woo the newly independent reader along.

This kind of junior fiction is tricky for writers to do well. It’s the transition zone from pictures to chapters: text must increase and pictures decrease. A more meaty narrative is required without losing economy. Pictures are still needed but they are becoming refined.

The other junior fiction finalist, The Mad Tadpole Adventure by Melanie Drewery, nicely targets this transition level. The story is told by young Maddie who loves the sound of her own (irritating) voice. She watches as her pet tadpole grows but Maddie inevitably becomes too attached to the frog, Isabella Princess Big Eyes. Her mother convinces her to release it into a pond (using the “if you love something set it free” rationale). But Maddie spots someone catching tadpoles and imagines her Princess has reverted to a tadpole and been captured – a slightly clumsy plot device. Maddie and her friend go on a night rescue mission to the home of the witch who kidnapped Princess. It all goes wrong of course but her wise mother restores peace in the end.

Drewery nails the character of Maddie with her enthusing, prattling voice. The weary mother is a good contrast: “she asked me if I had any washing which is what she always does when she doesn’t want to talk about something.” Drewery’s writing is well-paced and never drags – although the use of capitals for emphasis is not necessary. I  liked the Lemony Snicket-style explanations of difficult words. The book is illustrated by Jenny Cooper who is skilled at creating appealing characters to entice the early reader. There’s humour and energy in her drawings which reflect the text. Unfortunately the book is a flimsy paperback which limits its lifespan, especially in the rough and tumble of school libraries.

First chapter novels like these last two are vital for young readers. The difficulty for the judges of the junior fiction award is that they must compare them with fully-fleshed, long novels all lumped in the same category. More flexibility is needed in the awards: maybe an intermediate section (for nine to 13 years) could be created when necessary.


Raymond Huber is a Dunedin teacher and writer.

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review
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