It’s in the detail, Trevor Agnew

The Cat From Muzzle
Sally Sutton (Scott Tulloch illus)
Puffin, $20.00, ISBN 9780143773085

Bess The Brave War Horse
Susan Brocker (Raymond McGrath illus)
Scholastic, $28.00,
ISBN 9781775435563

Home Child: A Child Migrant In New Zealand
Dawn McMillan (Trish Bowles illus)
Oratia, $28.00, ISBN 9780947506582

Everest: The Remarkable Story Of Edmund Hillary And Tenzing Norgay
Alexandra Stewart (Joe Todd-Stanton illus)
Bloomsbury, $27.00,
ISBN 9781526600769

Picture books are for all ages. They all tell stories, but not all the stories are fiction. Four recent picture books offer to New Zealand readers, of various ages, four elegant slices of history. Each retelling offers a very different insight into real lives and events.

The youngest readers (or readees) are the target for Sally Sutton’s The Cat From Muzzle. In it, she retells, in verse, the story of Dwayne, a hard-case cat who declined to be re-settled and made a five week trek from Kaikoura back to his Muzzle Station home in Marlborough. The verse is workaday rather than inspiring:

He walked and walked and walked, until his paws were sore.

He walked for hours. He walked for days, and then he walked some more.

Fortunately, Sutton’s narrative provides a sound framework for Scott Tulloch and designer Rachel Clark to work their magic. Tulloch can do superb nature illustrations (as for Beak Of The Moon), but his most beloved books (like the Willy series) have cheerful comic-style pictures. Here, Tulloch combines the two styles.

When Dwayne crosses the seaward Kaikouras, Sutton writes: “His teeth clap-clapped. His poor ears froze.” Tulloch’s majestic mountain scene has a cartoon-style moggy clawing his way over the snowy ridge, displaying a clenched set of human-style choppers. Dwayne may be a cartoon cat, but he can move fast, drawing young readers along as he escapes a wild pig, pursues a rat and hitches several unlikely rides. The final picture shows a triumphant Dwayne about to repossess his food bowl from a stroppy rooster. There’s also a map showing Dwayne’s odyssey; it’s a very Tulloch-y map.

A war story may seem an odd choice for a picture book, but Susan Brocker’s passion for animals led her to write a novel, Brave Bess And The ANZAC Horses, giving a cavalry horse’s view of the Great War. Now, she has recast that story in Bess The Brave War Horse, a picture book for younger readers. A very attractive story it is, too, beginning and ending in the green fields of the Wairarapa. Bess, one of 10,000 horses New Zealand sent to the battlefields, is selected by Captain Powles and travels by troopship convoy to Egypt, then takes part in the desert war. Brocker’s prose is clear and simple, and she is blunt about the hardships suffered by the cavalry horses. The care the troopers took of their mounts is also well described; when Powles is blown from his horse by a shell-blast, his first words are a call for a vet, to ensure that Bess is uninjured.

Raymond McGrath has re-created the various historical settings with all the colour and verve of Victor Ambrus. His horses are splendid, and gracefully arranged across the pages, as they roll in the sand, swim in the Nile, panic at the sight of camels and tremble in fear at their first rifle practice. The columns of horses form a sinuous line through the text as they sweep across the sandhills and off to war. The battle scenes are dramatic, but carefully avoid showing dead men or horses. Nor do the enemy ever appear.

Bess was one of only four war horses to return to New Zealand. (Bess was the model for the horse on the Wellington Cenotaph, as well as the ANZAC memorial sculpture in Canberra.) In her moving conclusion, Brocker has made a neat link between her owner’s small boy (the future Sir Guy Powles) riding Bess and the troopers giving horse rides to the children from a Jaffa orphanage: “Bess walked gently and carefully then – just like she’d done with another child a world away.”

Home Child, which is for slightly older children, introduces a new topic for our picture books – the fate of British children sent out to foster homes across the Commonwealth. Although there have been several young adult novels on the issue, Dawn McMillan has created the first picture book on the topic. We begin with the central figure, Pat Brown, as a grandmother telling her story to her little granddaughter. Pat’s tale begins in England in 1950, when her father, failing to cope with raising five children on his own, allows the four eldest to be sent overseas – to New Zealand: “We were the poorest family in the street and we were going to the other side of the world!”

After an idyllic voyage on the Rangitane, the four children are split up and sent to two different families. The story captures all the pain of homesickness and divided families, as well as the process of settling down in a strange society.

Trish Bowles’s water-colour illustrations give a realistic version of Pat’s experiences, with lovely period detail of clothing and transport. The structure of the book follows the same pattern as the reality television show which organised a surprise reunion for all five siblings, thus providing a suitably happy ending to Pat’s story.

Home Child provides a good human interest account of life in the 1950s, as well as an excellent resource for young people trying to start a simple family history by interviewing their grandparents.

One of the great advances in picture books has been the realisation that the illustrated format also has a strong appeal for older readers. Such a book is Everest, Alexandra Stewart’s account of the achievements of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. I was lucky enough to come to this book just after reading Into The Silence by Wade Davis, a gripping account of the earlier expeditions to Everest. I was therefore amazed at how much information Stewart has managed to pack into Everest, and even more impressed by the imagination and clarity with which it is presented: “Exhausted and breathing hard, they could go no further – there was nowhere further to go.”

Stewart writes well, simplifying complex issues without trivialising them. Her well-structured account provides excellent biographies of both men, but also sketches in lots of background information which shows just what remarkable people the yak-herder and the bee-keeper were. There is also good coverage of their later post-summit careers as world figures. Remarkably, Stewart even finds room to slip in a couple of pages on the yeti.

Much of the credit for Everest’s appeal must go to Joe Todd-Stanton, whose pictures and diagrams have been skilfully incorporated into the text. The double-page treatment, where the text picks its way across the Khumbu Icefall, makes the treacherous nature of the “icy labyrinthvividly apparent. Even more impressive is the stunning diagram of the “pyramid of human effort” which supported Tenzing and Hillary, making clear the importance of the scientists, medics, fundraisers, manufacturers, diplomats and families in achieving the ultimate summit.  The Sherpas receive credit for their role.

There is also plenty of room in this book for lively nuggets of knowledge, so that we learn why an ant colony was so important to the young Hillary, just who lived downstairs in Tenzing’s childhood home, and why Tenzing’s smile was so important to his career.

Picture books are for all ages.

Trevor Agnew is a Christchurch reviewer.

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