Scaring them silly, Linda Burgess

Gladys Goes to War
Glyn Harper (Jenny Cooper illus)
Puffin, $20.00, ISBN 9780143507208

Speed King
David Hill (Phoebe Morris illus)
Puffin, $25.00, ISBN 9780143507222

My Grandpa is a Dinosaur
Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones
Puffin, $20.00, ISBN 9780143507192

Did You Hear a Monster?
Raymond McGrath
Puffin, $20.00, ISBN 9780143309130

WWI was interminable for those who experienced it. One hundred years later, those of us forced to go through those mad, cruel, ill-conceived times again are already praying that it might be over by Christmas. Unfortunately, thanks to that irritating thing called hindsight, we know there are still two years to go before armistice. Which means harmless toddlers and primary school students, for whom picture books are designed, could well have gone right through kindergarten and be at high school before someone calls a halt to the onslaught of books designed to either scare (or bore) them witless.

Given our tendency for sentimentality, and the fact that generally children have scant say on the subject matter of books that are provided for them, no one could blame editors, authors, illustrators and publishers for jumping onto a modestly profitable bandwagon. At the time of writing, in my personal research on the subject of small children and books about war, I have a sample of one, Flora, about to turn five, who will listen at any time of the day to whatever Russell Hoban’s Frances is getting up to, or who will celebrate yet again Tom’s victory over Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen. Sent to bed on the dot of seven, she likes a dose of the subversive in her literature. But “no thanks”, she says, to books featuring people in military attire. Thus, I do not think she lies awake at night fretting about great-great-uncles suffering in the trenches. Though, given we cluelessly took her to Te Papa’s Gallipoli exhibition, carrying her traumatised shrieking body past monstrous giants at galloping speed, it is indeed possible.

Given that the subject is one of such consummate horror, however, the team of historian Glyn Harper and illustrator Jenny Cooper have produced yet another lovely looking book in Gladys Goes to War. Gladys is Gladys Sandford, an indomitable young New Zealander who can’t be told that she should stay at home and knit socks and balaclavas. This is far more than a war story: this is also a description of burgeoning feminism. The amazingly clever Cooper’s drawings are gorgeous; Gladys is snub-nosed with a smattering of freckles and a clear blue-eyed, forthright gaze. For most of the book, we see her accepting all challenges coming her way: girls can do anything. It’s only at the end of the book that we’re confronted by the horror of it all – the bombing, the death of both brothers and a lover. Even given the fact that children are now expected to read picture books for many more years than they used to be, I wonder if even nine-year-olds should be asked to reflect on this horror. We want children to have empathy: isn’t it dreadful expecting them to imagine their own homes under attack from the sky? Their own brothers dead?

Harper has a straightforward narrative style – the story is told compactly and vividly. I, for one, can’t wait for November 2018 when Harper and Cooper can turn their prodigious talents to writing about something else.

David Hill is not averse to dabbling his toes in adversity – the subject matter for his non-fiction work includes not only the Great War but also the Wahine disaster. Luckily, he also likes to celebrate resolute blokes – Edmund Hillary, and now Burt Munro, of World’s Fastest Indian fame. Speed King will delight teachers who aim to encourage the sort of boys who’d rather be racing around on their bikes than sitting in a classroom, to read. And girls, too – of course! Hill never leaves his sense of humour at home – why was it that the thought of Invercargill being invaded made me smile? – and this is a charming story celebrating those with attitude and tenacity: if Burt had got together with Gladys, they would have made a terrifyingly unbeatable twosome. I very much like Phoebe Morris’s illustrative style, as well; the book is full of details that children could spend hours poring over. Lovely.

So much for non-fiction. Richard Fairgray’s and Terry Jones’s My Grandpa is a Dinosaur is fiction. There’s a nice, albeit adult, play on words in the title that will cause a bump of recognition in those of us who are starting to feel worryingly dinosauric. Not only is Wanda’s family in denial about Grandpa being a dinosaur, everyone to whom she mentions it poo-poos it. Yet the evidence is there for all to see – a special seat on the roof of the car, tail holes in his pants, green skin and, most convincing of all, the fact that he’s followed by palaeontologists. Given that Wanda’s family tend towards eccentricity themselves – her parents hang fishing lines into little jars, her mother can be seen burying a carved Halloween pumpkin – it’s surprising that they don’t listen to their daughter. It’s only when Wanda visits an old folks’ home that she has her theory confirmed. This is one of those books in which the illustrations add enormously to the story, making it considerably more layered. It’s nicely presented, a good quick read, and funny. And perhaps intended for the American market – one child describes her grandfather as owning “a public utility”, which has a very un-New Zealand ring to it. My only worry – it’s clearly ageist…

Did You Hear a Monster? is designed to scare sensitive children silly; apparently, some expert or other has said it’s really good for kids to be frightened. As long as, I assume, all comes right in the end. Raymond McGrath’s heroine, Clarice Caroline, is not at all brave – so fearful, in fact, that she wears her helmet everywhere – but this doesn’t deter her from getting up in the night not only to confront her own fears, but to help someone who’s even more fearful than she is. McGrath’s language swings along with a cheerful use of alliteration and onomatopoeia. As in My Grandpa is a Dinosaur, it’s a universal rather than local book – Clarice has “no nerve, mettle, pluck, bottle, steel, daring or even chutzpah” – but this is great for burgeoning vocabularies. It comes with a CD, so you can organise the child to be plugged in with headphones, congratulate yourself that there’s no screen involved, and have some time out when you need it most.

I will save books about war until Flora is older, and I suspect she won’t say “again” to Burt Munro. I predict, however, that even though still unfamiliar with the dinosaur metaphor, she’s sufficiently fascinated by the skin on her Granny’s hands to get the point of it. So she’ll laugh at a Grandpa who’s a dinosaur and, being a plucky kid with a fair share of chutzpah, after the first reading will cope okay with Clarice and her monster.

Linda Burgess is a Wellington writer.

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