Back in the day, Gavin McLean

Moo and Moo and the Little Calf too
Jane Millton (Deborah Hinde illus)
Allen and Unwin, $20.00, ISBN 978877505928

Allis the Little Tractor
Sophie Siers (Helen Kerridge illus)
Millwood-Heritage Productions, $20.00, ISBN 9780473329594

The Viaduct Postcard
Susan Price (Judith Trevelyan illus)
Millwood-Heritage Productions, $20.00, ISBN 9780473369224

Sky High: Jean Batten’s Incredible Flying Adventures
David Hill (Phoebe Morris illus)
Penguin Random House, $25.00, ISBN 9780143770367

Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story
Gavin Bishop
Puffin, $40.00, ISBN 978043770350

Children’s books do not feature strongly in my childhood memories. Avis Acres was selling New Zealand-themed ones, but I mostly recall British books, full of their steam trains and villages. There were also books you brushed with water to bring up their pallid colours. But the real revolution came with the widespread adoption of Asian printing, making the highly colourful “picture flat” (and these all are) affordable to a wider audience. Think lots of colour, big pictures and big formats.

History features in all these publications, welcome in these days of subject drop-off at high school level. Its touch is light in the rural titles, but central for the rest. The books offer generally positive views of the people from the past (though Gavin Bishop’s big book covers wars and violence). There is some humour, though nothing of the Horrible Histories kind. 

While the selection under consideration cannot be described as representative, it is also fascinating how strongly rural life still features in kids’ books in this country of townies. Moo and Moo and the Little Calf too is inspired by very recent history. A picture of three cows stranded on a small island of grass by the November 2016 Kaikoura earthquake went viral around the globe. Everything had slipped down the hillside, marooning them on a mound that had surfed 80 metres down the mangled hillside.  In this colourfully illustrated book, Jane Millton tells the story of the quake, the cows’ dilemma and their rescue. Like most authors discussed here, she finishes the book with a short follow-up and some bullet points on the earthquake itself.

Allis the Little Tractor is also set on a farm. The story is simple and common. Allis has long been put out to pasture, parked under a macrocarpa tree. Her paint has faded, and her battery has gone. She is, as Sophie Siers points out, an Allis Chalmers model B, made in Milwaukee in 1938. Think of an old newsreel farming story, all exposed hand-brakes and gear-levers and no creature comforts. Toby’s Uncle Jack rightly prefers his new John Deere, all enclosed cab, air con and, no doubt, stereo systems and internet docking stations.

But is this really the end? Young Toby loves the old girl and persuades Uncle Jack to get Allis a new battery, fuel and water. Eventually, she is up and running, ready for new adventures (more Allis books are promised).  Helen Kerridge’s bright, colourful pictures are a major strength.

Susan Price has an impressive reputation as a Wellington storyteller and expert on children’s literature. She has a particular interest in the Wellington of 100 years ago. Judith Trevelyan has given the illustrations (right down to newspaper squares in the posh new indoor loo) a period look in a book that may appeal to children a few years older than Moo and Moo and Allis. The Viaduct Postcard features a mix of historical and fictional characters (two pages at the back set this out in some detail for the curious). 

Briefly, it is the story of Bessie and Jack, who take the train from Levin to Wellington. The book is full of historical details on the train trip to the city, the Karori tram and the viaduct, the big old wooden bridge that used to run across the road near the botanical gardens. There are two minor domestic dramas. Bessie, more reliable than her older brother, messes up addressing the postcard that their mum asked them to send announcing their safe arrival, by filling up most of the limited space with their temporary address, and Jack loses his jacket while playing cricket with local boys, but gets it back after the finder discovers in the coat pocket the address Bessie had written on the ruined postcard. And, yes, there is a copy of the postcard in the back flap. 

Sky High also takes us back in history, this time to tell the story of Jean Batten. It is part of a series by the Hill/Morris team that already covers other Kiwi heroes, Burt Munro (Speed King) and Sir Edmund Hillary (First to the Top).  Presented in hardback, the book opens strongly with Batten’s perilous arrival in New Zealand during a storm and in the dark. It reminds us that the elements were a major challenge in the pioneering days of long distance flying.

The Jean Batten story continues to fascinate. A young woman, with only one dress to wear, sails to England to learn to fly and, as was necessary in those days, to fix planes. Her first epic flight, in a Gypsy Moth, took her from Britain to Australia. It came to grief in Pakistan. A second attempt ended in a crash in Italy. The third attempt succeeded after 14 days, 22 hours, 30 minutes. “The Garbo of the Skies” was now famous. She added to her laurels by being the first person to make the return flight to England.

Other flights followed, but the one we remember best was her flight across the Tasman in the shiny Percival Gull that we can still see at Auckland’s international terminal. But that was pretty much the end of the good times. The RAF refused her offer to be a wartime delivery pilot and, as Hill briefly notes in this celebratory book, she became a recluse, dying from an untreated dog bite in 1982. An illustrated timeline and the back endpapers showing Batten’s flights, giving times and distances travelled, make things easier for readers.

Aotearoa is also hard-bound, but is a massive, large format production, the sort of book that I can imagine being spread out on the floor and read/flicked through together by parents and kids side by side. An experienced and accomplished writer, Bishop has clearly thought hard about this volume, right down to a glossary of Māori words used in the text, and a short list of the books, artworks and websites that inspired his thinking.

The sweep is breathtaking, beginning with a page on an asteroid collision and the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. After that we move to double-page spreads. There is a general chronological movement (“Slowly Life Returned” is followed by “Voyages to Aotearoa” to “A Land of Birds”, for example) and the first Pākehā do not get a look-in until page 14. In these early pages, the reader learns much about the Māori economy, their naming of places and intertribal warfare, all told through the up to 6o images that swirl colourfully across each spread, often simply labelled as who/what they represent or accompanied at best by short comments, such as the fact that the fish kumukumu “often grunts when taken from the water”. There is much to whet young appetites.

After Pākehā arrive, we see the familiar old faces, though it was good to see Dumont D’Urville get almost as much space as Cook. The world wars get their treatment, but now the more thematic spreads kick in. “Transport in the New Dominion 1860-1919” [sic] races through carts and horses, locos, trams and even Richard Pearse’s aircraft. Others look at employment, honouring not just farming and manufacturing but also art dealers and modern baristas. The next bunch takes a similarly wide-ranging view of houses (there is even a bird house!), education, food, sports and clothing. In the last-mentioned, Bishop’s brother Russell is immortalised in his 1970s flares, while a high school teacher models walk-shorts and sandals. Other spreads include natural attractions and famous places. After several more themes, Bishop concludes with a conservation message and a brief look at the future, which is also a plea for looking after the environment better.

If that summary has your head spinning, I think that it suggests that the book is an illustrated encyclopaedia full of points of interest and discussion starters, well worth inspecting.


Gavin McLean is a Wellington historian and reviewer.

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review
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