Quality assured, Guy Somerset

Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris (eds)
Gecko Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781776570775

Would it kill Wellington children’s publisher Gecko Press to once – just once! – say “Sod it, really, who can be bothered?” and bung out some bit of old rubbish they have given neither thought nor effort to?

They could use the best editors, writers, illustrators and designer, and get the whole thing printed to the highest art-book standards offshore in China, resulting in an object so exquisitely pleasing you’re as likely to stare at it in religious awe as you are to crack it open to actually read.

But aren’t they ever tempted to take the day off, cut a few corners and send into the world some ill-thought-out, cheaply papered, shoddily bound excuse for a book that ticks just enough boxes to turn a buck or two, but has not an ounce of integrity and will probably fall to pieces by the end of Boxing Day, desperate and gullible Christmas shoppers being its main market?

In short: the sort of annual of my 1970s childhood. The Fab 208 annual. The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and Magpie annuals. The Starsky and Hutch and The Professionals annuals. Tie-ins that transferred to another medium the joy of the endless hours I frittered away in front of the television or with my ear to a transistor radio.

Happy days. (And, indeed, Happy Days. There was an annual for that, too.)

But not, in the main, the days Annual harks back to. In “A Short History of Annuals” on the website that complements the book (and is as exquisite and pleasing, etc, etc, as its printed cousin), editors Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris do refer fondly to the literary and artistic splendours of the Puffin Annual 1 and Puffin Annual 2 of 1974 and 1975. But the annuals that inspired Annual are the ones that thrived from the turn of the 20th century to the 1950s. Your Boy’s Own and Girl’s Own annuals. Bunty and School Friend annuals.

With contributions from more than 40 writers and illustrators, Annual reinvents these Mother Country staples’ mix of comics, cartoon strips, stories, verse and activities (with added art appreciation, non-fiction and a song from Phoenix Foundation’s Samuel  Scott) for a 21st-century New Zealand readership aged primarily nine to 12.

Primarily nine to 12, but there is much here for older readers, too (even this 52-year-old), over and above the charm of the book’s mere existence. Indeed, there are aspects of Annual that seem more geared toward adult readers than those aged nine to 12.

The dearth of digital devices (Scott’s song Always on Your Phone being among a handful of exceptions) feels aspirational to those of us recently returned from summer holidays spent dodging our children’s endless demands for data to satisfy their Snapchat cravings.

Despite its title, Annual isn’t as contemporary to 2016 as it might be. A lot of the book either refers to the past or is in no fixed time at all. Individually this is fine, but it does take a cumulative toll. The steampunk aesthetic and Victorian “major and his mother” of Fifi Colston’s plastic bottle craft activity will doubtless appeal to many children, but there will be others who might prefer turning their bottles into someone more modern. I couldn’t help wondering what they might look like as Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

Lorde makes an appearance, though, along with Taylor Swift, in Steve Braunias’s well-aimed series of “Selfies”. (Unfortunately, these satires are little too true to their time, poking fun at Prime Minister (sic) John Key. But then, no one saw that one coming.)

Sarah Laing supplies the selfie images that accompany Braunias’s text. The illustrations are uniformly tremendous throughout Annual, from showpieces such as Dylan Horrocks’s contents spread and “Naked Grandmother” board game, Jonathan King’s spooky comic “Holiday” and Paul Beavis’s six-page guide to visual storytelling featuring his trusty Mrs Mo’s Monster, through the illustrations accompanying stories (particular shout-outs here for the mottled-green colour fields of Sarah Wilkins’s abstractions in brother Damien’s “The Glove” and Giselle Clarkson’s representations of the family in “A Box of Birds”, Kirsten McDougall’s droll dictionary of whimsical neologisms uttered during a road trip), to Gregory O’Brien’s cover motifs, Daron Parton’s endpapers and William Carden-Horton’s lightest of touches on pages housing poems by James Brown and Jenny Bornholdt.

Brown’s “Lost Items” is one of his found poems, featuring lines lifted from school newsletters. Kate Camp has a poem, too, with 16 animal names embedded within it for the finding. (Sometimes poems are activities, too.) Best of all is Tim Upperton’s darkly funny “Kill List”, inspired by Wellington Zoo’s shoot-to-kill list of animals should any escape. Readers who get a taste for Upperton’s pitch black humour might care to progress to his The Night We Ate the Baby.

With “The Glove”, Damien Wilkins continues to flex different muscles in his fiction, following his 2013 Thomas Hardy novel Max Gate and last year’s contemporary comic novel Dad Art with a beautifully pitched (sorry) story of softball, bereavement and mourning. Annual’s other fiction highpoint is Whiti Hereaka’s “Star Gazing”, a family beach holiday story that perfectly captures the confusions, contradictions and cruelties of two sisters during the transitions of adolescence.

There is non-fiction, too, including Bernard Beckett on mathematics as logic training. It’s too late for me (I’m still trying to work out some of the puzzles he sets), but possibly not for your child. If anything could inspire them it is Beckett’s writing here, a model of clarity and persuasiveness.

The same qualities apply to Annual’s art writing, eloquent close readings of works in the accessible school of Gregory O’Brien’s art books for young people, written here by Catharina van Bohemen, Eve Armstrong, Dylan Owen, Karira Allen and Edith Amituanai. Owen looks at an early 20th-century photograph of kauri gum tree climbers. Can it really be true that in 1899 a gum-bleeder was found up a tree after being missing for 20 years, his skeleton completely covered in gum? What an astonishing fact. Exactly the thing to capture a child’s imagination. And an adult’s too.

The artworks, like the other illustrations and the rest of Annual, are reproduced exemplarily. Designer Spencer Levine, editors De Goldi and Paris – they are all at the top of their game here.

My copy of the book even came with a small slip of paper from Everbest Printing Co Ltd certifying that it had been checked by Quality Assurance. Of course it had. It’s Gecko Press, after all.

Guy Somerset edits the digital arts magazine ARTicle for the New Zealand Festival. He is a former Books & Culture Editor of the New Zealand Listener and Books Editor of The Dominion Post.

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