Truths both bald and stretched, Eirlys Hunter

The Diamond Horse 
Stacy Gregg
HarperCollins, $25.00, ISBN 9780008124397

Grandad’s Wheelies
Jack Lasenby
Penguin Random House, $17.00, ISBN 9780143507338

Rona 
Chris Szekely
Huia, $15.00, ISBN 9781775501985

The Impossible Boy
Leonie Agnew
Penguin Random House, $20.00, ISBN 9780143309062

Reading fiction allows a child to imagine what it would be like to be someone else, and to develop insight into character, motivation and relationships. These four novels are very different from each other, but they all include depictions of behaviour and relationships that will help their readers to understand something true about people.

Stacy Gregg’s previous 20 novels have sold more than two million copies and been translated into a dozen languages, and she’s won the past two Children’s Choice Awards. On the jacket of The Diamond Horse, reflective silver sparkles frame a photo of a young girl and her horse. This book is set in 18th-century Russia, but its background research is lightly worn. It’s loosely based on the true story of Anna Orlov and her father, Count Orlov, who was an early animal breeder. Anna saves a special foal, Drakon, which her father had ordered to be killed and, ultimately, the foal becomes the foundation sire for a fast new breed, the Orlov trotter.

There are no shades of grey here: the characters are either good or evil, and the most believable relationship is that between young Anna and Drakon. The Diamond Horse won’t add much to any child’s understanding of the world, but that won’t stop a reader having a great time galloping across the snowy taiga with Anna. And, despite having the appearance of pure escapism, an alert reader may absorb some important food for thought. For example, she may notice that when Anna’s father, who is a violent bully, is in the presence of his ruler Catherine the Great, he becomes a sycophant. Some readers may even consider the implications of our nine-year-old protagonist’s insistence that the stableman go against her father’s wishes and help her save and rear the foal, even though she knows that her father kills people who anger him. Anna is the daughter of the estate, she can choose to take risks. He is a serf. She obliges him to take risks on her behalf.

Grandad’s Wheelies provides a different kind of escapism. This is another collection of tall tales from the irrepressible Jack Lasenby, in the form he has made his own, by Uncle Trev, out of Aunt Effie. Each short chapter is a tale from Granny or Grandad, who make a competitive sport out of yarning to their grandson Jack. How Grandpa built the Auckland-Wellington railway is topped by how Granny made a tunnel under Cook Strait. There’s no big historical truth or Māori mythology to be gleaned here, but there’s personal truth in the delightful relationship between Granny and Grandad and their closeness to their grandson. Behind the yarning and bickering, we see a subtly portrayed elegy to aging love and a long-established marriage. The story is set a while ago, and there’s a great deal of domestic detail tucked away in the background. The reader will learn about chopping firewood for the stove to cook scones; about Aunt Daisy, who lived in the wireless, and about doing the washing in the copper – though they may wonder if there were any Māori in New Zealand in the old days.

Most importantly, though, Grandad’s Wheelies validates wild imagining, and the great “what if …” that frees us to be silly, and to be creative. Schools hadn’t been invented when Grandad was young, and his mother made him go to work selling papers as soon as he could walk:

The first day I couldn’t sell a single paper, so I taught myself to read, looked at the front page, and shouted, “Lion-tamer eaten by his own lion. Boy bites shark in Parnell Baths….”

…. Next day I sold twice as many. “Cow eats farmer in Dunedin,” I shouted. “Whale squashes car in Wellington. Giant rabbit chases policeman through Christchurch. Read all about it.”

People were in such a hurry to read the paper they didn’t wait for their change, and my pockets were so full my pants kept falling down.

The enticing cover art by Bob Kerr shows a rotary clothesline flying through the air, with a panicking Grandad sitting in a chair fastened underneath, and Granny hanging onto a pegged sheet like a kite-tail. The chapters are short, and there are more of Kerr’s illustrations sprinkled through the text. It’s an ideal book for a teacher to read to the class for some gentle hilarity, and to emphasise that without imagination we are doomed.

All four of the books being reviewed have been lying around my house over the holidays. Rona, being short and fully illustrated, has been picked up most often by family and visitors, leading to giggles and snorts of delighted laughter. Chris Szekely, the Chief Librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library, has published three previous titles, including the award-winning Rahui. Rona (which Szekely wrote for his folio in my CREW 255 class, Writing for Children) was first published in Māori for the Ministry of Education; now Huia have produced a trade edition of the original English text with illustrations by Josh Morgan. It’s a chapter book for the newly confident reader and portrays the bi-cultural New Zealand that most children take for granted. Nine-year-old Rona Price lives with her grandparents near Kaitaia; she is Māori, but this isn’t signalled by any special cultural events. This is set squarely in Rona’s everyday world. She helps her grandfather cut the grass, she jumps off the wharf, she bosses younger cousin Jessie, and she finds out about the awkward gap between wishing something was true and lying. Rona feels absolutely real – this could have been one of my children:

The growing pile of presents under the tree had been sorted, arranged and counted by Rona throughout the week – several times. She knew exactly who had how many. Each gift had been carefully squeezed, and Rona had guessed the contents of most of them. Identical box-shaped ones were chocolates. Large, soft ones were beach towels. Medium soft ones were clothes.

The most exciting presents were the ones that could not be guessed.

That Rona had found a weta on the Christmas tree and that this Christmas is in summer, will give young readers a grin of recognition, but the underlying power of the book comes from its depiction of the characters’ feelings. Szekely demonstrates that you don’t need an epic story to show jealousy, pride, guilt, anxiety, forgiveness and love, and their consequences. It’s all here on a small scale that any child could understand, recognise and be reassured by. Rona is a classic, and I hope this is the first of many books about her.

The Impossible Boy is an ambitious and innovative book that won Leonie Agnew the David Fickling Master of the Inkpot Competition. It’s set in the future, as we learn when the narrator observes the futility of trying to clean sand off a stretcher: “You can’t clean away sand, not really. The stuff gets everywhere – since the cities turned into deserts it’s like living on a beach with no ocean.”

The stretcher is in a dormitory in a Red Cross emergency shelter for children, in a city that’s at war. We never find out which city the shelter is in; we are told that the fighting is about water, but it could equally be oil. The fact that this is set in the future is small comfort, for it looks just like a Syrian city on today’s news.

The experience of war is a hugely difficult subject for a junior novel; a writer can’t afford to traumatise their young readers with the bald truth. Agnew has taken an original and sideways approach by creating a narrator, Vincent Gum, who doesn’t actually exist. He’s six-year-old Benjamin’s imaginary friend. Benjamin conjures him into life when he loses his parents after an explosion on a train; Benjamin can see Vincent, but no one else can. Because Vincent is not actually experiencing the things he describes, at least to begin with (he cannot feel, sleep, eat etc), he is slightly removed from events, and therefore his story is a little less shocking than Benjamin’s would be. Vincent’s central preoccupation is to discover who or what he is, and what his powers are, so when Benjamin becomes particularly stressed, causing Vincent to begin to fade, we focus on Vincent’s dread of disappearing rather than Benjamin’s fear. We don’t learn many specifics about life in the children’s shelter, or what the individual experiences of the group of kids that befriend Benjamin have been, apart from Lucky who lost her toes to a landmine. As the book progresses, we discover what bombed-out streets look like, and gradually the reality of war creeps closer until we hear approaching helicopters and share the children’s terror.

The circumstances these children live in are chaotic and dangerous, and they band together to make their own family out of necessity. Fear is everywhere – of starvation, bombs, bullets and crushing masonry –  and this fear is personified as a monster that emerges from a cupboard in the dormitory. Vincent confronts the monster, which intends to destroy Benjamin. Eventually, the monster is defeated, when Benjamin convinces the gang of children to declare their belief in Vincent; belief makes Vincent real, rather like the resuscitation of Tinkerbell in Peter Pan. Vincent represents hope and, ultimately, hope conquers fear. In the final chapter, Vincent, Benjamin and the gang, are all grown up, and stories of the power of Vincent have spread around the world.

The Impossible Boy is a layered, exciting and challenging book. I’m not sure that it entirely hangs together, but who cares? It’s trying to do the impossible, and it almost succeeds. Congratulations to Agnew for taking the risk and finding a way to write this book. We all need help to imagine what it would really be like to be a child caught up in a war zone; the photo in the morning paper is not enough. Stories provide the fuel for our imagination and understanding. In these difficult times, we need all the stories we can get.

Eirlys Hunter teaches writing for children at the International Institute of Modern Letters.

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Posted in Children, Literature, Review
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