Over the Hill to Greytown
Tania Atkinson (Viv Walker illus)
Wai Art Press, $20.00,
Bruiser and the Big Snow
Random House, $21.00,
Juliette MacIver and Sarah Davis
Gecko Press, $20.00,
The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play, so Sophie, who was having tea with her mummy in the kitchen, spied Tom Thumb, who was in the cupboard. Can’t go under it, can’t go over it, and Alfie got in first and the door shut behind him. I’ll eat you up, I love you so. Your father was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor. And into the water they fell. Frances will only eat bread and jam. Captain Najork came with his hired sportsmen. The cat from Brazil caught a very bad chill. “EEEEEOWWWFFTZ” said Scarface Claw. The little yellow digger will sort it.
What am I? I’m an unforgettable children’s book. I’m that perfect combination of story, language and illustration. If I’m written in rhyme, it’s unforced, and there’s not one annoying moment when I don’t scan. There may be terror in my pages, but my ending is inclined to be happy and often to do with comfort food: a cup of tea around a table, with the book’s full cast of characters; being tucked up in bed, having coped with the fact that a storybook wolf can climb out of the pages and into your life. I am something that a parent can read 1000 times and still not want to self-harm.
Thousands of picture books are published yearly, and out of those come, if you’re lucky, a tiny handful of classics. If you, as I do, read stories to grandchildren, you may well get the same slightly smug pleasure as I do in the renaissance of children’s books from the 70s: Shirley Hughes, John Burningham, Helen Oxenbury, Russell Hoban, the Ahlbergs, Dr Seuss, Judith Kerr, Quentin Blake are as loved by the current round of pre-schoolers as they were by their parents. I have to admit that, for me, there was a bar set back then. And very rarely do today’s books reach it. All too often, it feels as if current writers have read those books and are doing a modern-day take on them.
Tania Atkinson’s Over the Hill to Greytown is in the Mr Gumpy’s Outing genre. The story starts with one character – in this case, Samuel Oates (a real person – I like this); in pre-commuter-rail days he pushed a wheel-barrow full of belongings from Wellington to Greytown. Among his belongings, the real Samuel had some gum tree seedlings. In this story, one seedling is all he has in his barrow. And as he travels, what happens in many children’s stories happens to him – he picks up a random bunch of hitch-hikers. A rackety dog and a hitch-hiking sparrow (chosen for its useful ability to rhyme with barrow) and many others. In vigorously written if somewhat chosen-for-convenience verse (“a horse with a plait / And a bossy red cat … a lamb known as ‘Baa’ / and some kids from the pa”) he’s finally got a full cart. Then, in reverse order, they all take off (“the dog heard a whistle / And the goat spied a thistle”) and he’s left with just the seedling he started out with. Then, in the weakest page of the story, Samuel Oates lets out a shocking expletive – “Gee!” – which, outside of Afternoons with Jim Mora, is a word / not often heard. Clearly, I think this use of rhyme was a mistake, but, in other ways, this is an engaging attempt to tell a true story – and an interesting one, given that Greytown is famous for its trees. And the illustrations – particularly the drawings of the animals – are attractive.
Gavin Bishop is deservedly lauded for his input into New Zealand children’s literature, but Bruiser and the Big Snow is not among his best work. As it’s dedicated to “the planners of the new Christchurch”, I searched for earthquake links, wondering if “the big snow” of the title was a subtle reference to liquefaction. If it was, then it was too subtle for me. The illustrations are reliably high quality, they leap energetically off the page. The language shares the pictures’ energy. What lets the book down is the slightly lame story. Bruiser is an anthropomorphised digger and he has to (noisily) clear an overnight snowfall so the traffic can get through. He thinks he’s finished when he hears a “tring” – digging like crazy he unearths … a tricycle. Perhaps it is indeed allegorical – perhaps the tricycle is like a tiny survivor calling for help from under a collapsed building? Whatever its subtext, this is a terrific-to-look-at and good-to-read-out-loud book with a disappointingly weak story.
By far the most-likely-to-win-prizes book of the three is Juliette MacIver’s and Sarah Davis’s gorgeously presented Toucan Can. You can almost sense Dr Seuss being channelled in the tongue-twisting whacky word-mix – “Toucan can do lots of things! / Toucan slides! / Toucan swings! / Toucan hides behind a fan. / Can YOU do what Toucan can?” Again, here the rhyme is often chosen for convenience, but this time with panache. It may well be like Seuss’s Mr Brown Can Moo, but there are essential differences – while asking the young reader if they can do wonderful things that Toucan can do, it suggests that they probably can’t (“Who can DO that? / Very few can”). Then it very nicely gives the power back to the child (“Poor Toucan! What YOU can do, Toucan can NOT”). Also, there’s a large cast of characters, all of whom have strengths that Toucan may or may not have. This is an agreeably fresh take on a timeless story – and with an excellent message. Salamanders and ganders, panthers and pandas all star. So it’s not at all local in its references, but who cares? I can’t imagine a book like this starring a kiwi or a tuatara and even the brazen kaka is simply insufficiently colourful. I look forward to sharing this ode to flat-out but fair fun with Flora, aged two, the youngest of our three gratifyingly book-loving grandchildren.
Linda Burgess is a Wellington writer.