Sunday, 20 May 2018

Sunken Forest Des Hunt





Sunken Forest    Des Hunt
Reviewed by Trevor Agnew

Sunken Forest
Des Hunt
Scholastic (2016)
269 pages, paperback
ISBN   978 1 77543 413 0

Given that New Zealand’s longfin eels can live for a century and grow to a length of two metres, it was a certainty that Des Hunt would one day write a novel with an eel as the hero. Or in this case, heroine. Elsa is the name young Matt gives to the queen-sized eel he encounters in Lake Waikaremoana. (Matt reads widely and has definitely been influenced by reading Born Free.)

Waikaremoana is not a lake to be messed with,” warns a fisherman and Matt would be the first to agree with him.

This was deep jungle – New Zealand style.”

Matt doesn’t want to be there, but he has been sent to this tightly-run wilderness camp because of his tainted reputation at his new school. Already suspected of theft, Matt has fallen in with bad company in the form of Cam and Jay. At the adventure camp at Lake Waikaremoana, which is run on semi-military lines by Mr Klineck, Matt is suspected of further misdemeanours. (It is interesting that Matt finds some literary comfort in comparing himself to the falsely-accused David Balfour in Kidnapped.)

He strikes up an odd companionship with the bookish Paul and comes a little closer to understanding girls like Azura and Maddy. When one of Cam’s vicious tricks has serious consequences for the group members, they begin plotting revenge but a natural disaster puts many lives at risk.

As always Des Hunt provides a strong element of science – in this case geology – but he also raises moral issues which will be important to his young readers. Matt’s reputation is repeatedly slurred by a caller on talk-back radio, and the powerful influence of social media on opinion is well shown. The harmful power of peer pressure and gossip is also sharply depicted. Words can wound and leave scars.  
There is also a strong moral issue. Are Matt and his friends seeking justice or do they just want revenge? The matter is well debated in a lively and satisfying adventure that manages to bring together unrelated events from decades earlier, and produce a satisfying conclusion, featuring the monster eel as a key player.  As Matt reflects, “Lions were animals that scare people… Eels were much the same, scary in form with a bad reputation.” 

Sunken Forest may indeed give us all a better appreciation of eels.

Trevor Agnew 
23 Jul 2016

 

Friday, 20 April 2018

Anzac Animals & The Treaty of Waitangi in Tauranga

The Treaty of Waitangi in Tauranga (2018)
(Te Tiriti o Waitangi ki Tauranga Moana)
Debbie McCauley, illustrated by Whare Thompson
Mauao Publishing (Tauranga), 48 pages
NZ$39.95  hardback ISBN 978 0 473 41214 2

Anzac Animals (2018)
Maria Gill, illustrated by Marco Ivancic
Scholastic, 64 pages
NZ$30  hardback  ISBN 978 177543 474 0

Two excellent non-fiction books for young readers have just been published, and should be on your shopping list for junior readers.

Anzac Animals is the most eye-catching of the two books. Maria Gill and illustrator Marco Ivancic have used the same clear, well-organised format as their award-winning Anzac Heroes, but here they are celebrating creatures rather than people.  The Anzac Animals of the titles are creatures which played a significant role in the wartime experiences of Australians and New Zealanders.

Some were beasts of burden like mules, donkeys and Beet Algar’s camel, which “smelled, spat and was often stubborn.” Some, such as the pigeons, carried messages. Others were mascots, like the many kangaroos taken to Europe and Africa. Dogs were common; the Maori Battalion had at least three. It will be the horses who will be the favourites. Maria Gill has selected Bess, who is immortalised in both the Troopers Memorial in Canberra and the Wellington cenotaph, and Bill, the waler who was buried at Gallipoli. Their lives and experiences are both fascinating.

I was surprised at the enormous range of creatures involved and also by the fact that so many of them survived the war. Marine Stupid, a highly intelligent macaque, served on two Australian warships, was at the surrender ceremony in Tokyo and retired comfortably to the Melbourne Zoo, where she had a baby in 1949. The longest lived is, of course, Torty, a Greek tortoise rescued by a New Zealand medical orderly in 1916, and still alive.

The text also sorts out the tangled history of Murphy the Gallipoli donkey, always a tricky matter but well handled here.

As well as the entertaining and lively biographies of the twenty selected animals, Maria Gill has also provided a brief overview of both world wars, along with accounts of veterinary services, and animal welfare concerns. A time line, glossary bibliography and maps are included.   

Marco Ivancic’s colour illustrations are realistic and attractive without being sentimental.

For young people who like going around quoting interesting bits from books, Anzac Animals has the story of Charles Upham sleeping on the floor because Mrs Rommel and her kittens were in his bed. Mrs Rommel was a cat.

**************************************************
 
Debbie McCauley’s first book, Motiti Blue and the Oil Spill (2014), took a local disaster (the wreck of the Rena on Astrolabe Reef) and used the resulting disaster and clean-up as a microcosm of international pollution and conservation issues. It was a brilliant example of a locally-produced, self-published book gaining national recognition.

Now she has repeated the process in The Treaty of Waitangi in Tauranga, by looking at New Zealand’s Maori-Pakeha relations by concentrating on exactly how the treaty of Waitangi has affected the Tauranga region.

It is not easy to pack two centuries of history into 48 pages, especially when they include events like Gate pa, but Debbie McCauley has done well. Not only has she written a simple bi-lingual narrative history (Maori translation by Tamati Waaka) but she has also provided a rich historical context with time-lines, fact-boxes, diary entries and brief biographies that bring history to life.
I like the way that we meet individuals and see how their attitudes were formed, so that the complexities of tribal allegiances, warfare and land negotiations become more comprehensible. Issues are carried right up to the present day.
A lot of information has been packed into this book, so some sections are in such small type that I had to use a magnifying glass. Younger, sharper eyes should be able to cope.

The book cries out for a clear map to show the relationship of the various pa sites, landscape features and settlements mentioned. The three maps provided are rather limited. Fortunately two of the first suggestions on the “Treaty Activities” page involve map drawing.

The index is excellent, and Whare Thompson’s pencil drawings add life to the pages. 
It is important to point out that this interesting book will not only be useful in the Tauranga area but will also be a superb exemplar for students of our history in all parts of Aotearoa New Zealand. My hope is that it will inspire young historians to start researching the finer details of what happened in their own region. This book has a great future.

 

Trevor Agnew
21 April 2018


Saturday, 24 February 2018

The Fruits of Our Labours: Chinese Fruit Shops in New Zealand

The Fruits of Our Labours:
Chinese Fruit Shops in New Zealand
Ruth Lam, Beverly Lowe, Helen Wong, Michael Wong, Carolyn King
Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust (2018)
904 pages, 2 volumes,
Hardcover       ISBN 978-0-473-41551-8       NZ$110
Softcover        ISBN 978-0-473-41550-1       NZ$90
[Special price for early orders – Softcover NZ$80]

Fruitful Research

The Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust has performed a valuable service in publishing The Fruits of Our Labours. It wasn’t until I started leafing through it that I fully realised that, in the space of a few generations, we have seen the rise and fall of the Chinese fruit-shop as an institution. Like so many other specialised services that we took for granted, family fruit-shops have been swept away by the changes in how we do our shopping. Here we have an important social document, which recognises a significant chapter in our nation’s history.

This book’s companion work, Sons of the Soil (2012) credited one of the earliest Chinese market gardens in New Zealand to Ah Poe in Dunedin.  In August 1867, he and five other Cantonese from Victoria began converting 3 acres of swampy land (now part of the Museum Reserve) into a market garden and began hawking vegetables. About 1868, on the Great King Street edge of his garden, Ah Poe erected ‘premises’ which seems to have been a shop, thus making Ah Poe our first Chinese greengrocer as well.  

Typical of the careful research behind this work, a fascinating graph shows that as the number of Chinese working at gold-mining declined, the number working in fruit-shops and market gardens began to increase. Every region has its own graph showing the number of Chinese fruit-shops over the years. In most areas the first shops opened in the 1880s, followed by a steady increase to the 1920s; the peak years were from the 1940s to the 1970s and then came a steady decline in numbers, attributed to the rise of supermarkets and introduction of weekend trading. 

The family-owned Chinese fruit-shop (like the market garden and the laundry) was a system which rewarded effort and expertise with a reasonable chance of prosperity. It was an escalator, driven by human toil, which conveyed people from life as Chinese peasants to life as New Zealand professionals. It wasn’t efficient, and there were casualties but over three generations it helped create a prosperous, well-educated group of New Zealanders.

When my sister, Pinky, moved to Wellington, she was so impressed by the service she received at Hoon’s Foodmarket, Newtown, that she insisted on taking me in there to talk to some of the Hoon family. We chatted about the importance of family history and family trees, and agreed that too many elderly New Zealand Chinese regard their life’s work as uninteresting and not worth recording. Fortunately the five authors have managed to record many accounts of the work and the people who did it – in many cases, just in time.

It is clear, after reading this work, that the Hoon family’s achievements are similar to many other family sagas. In fact, a clear pattern emerges for most New Zealand Chinese families’ fruit-shop experience.
 
First comes a brave individual. Only he’s not an individual; he’s part of a tightly-linked system of clan loyalty and obligation. Guided by letters from relatives, he arrives in New Zealand to face the poll tax, language barriers and racial hostility. He copes with long hours of tedious work and the stress of repaying loans but is helped and encouraged by a network of relatives, village cousins and local Chinese. Marriage becomes a possibility. He starts his own shop.  His children all work hard there. His wife works even harder. A generation passes. The family enterprise adapts. Everyone works hard. Signs of success may include acceptance in the community, buying a truck or opening another branch. Members of the next generation are able to gain professional qualifications and become doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers and engineers – and that’s only the girls.

There are dozens of variations on this theme in the sixteen regions covered in The Fruits of Our Labours, and every one of them carries a distinct fascination.

When I was asked to review The Fruits of Our Labours, it was suggested that I should indicate who would be interested in reading it. The answer has surprised me. A two-volume history of New Zealand’s Chinese fruit shops, weighing in at 3.8 kg, is not exactly bedtime reading but it is remarkably appealing. 

So who is going to read The Fruits of Our Labours? Obviously public libraries will buy it as a well-documented slice of New Zealand history. Equally obviously, secondary school libraries will find it useful as a social studies resource. Even more obviously, those elderly people whose stories are told in these pages will want a copy.

My concern is for a fourth group, those young family members – the doctors, lawyers, accountants, teacher and engineers - who barely remember the fruit-shop run by their parents and grandparents. It is vitally important for them to buy this book and use it as a base for building up their own detailed personal family history. There are plenty of good examples in these volumes, with Albert Young particularly evocative in listing his work as a five-year old in Timaru’s Crown Fruit Supply,
“… sweep the floor, open newspaper for wrapping, fill up bag racks, fill up cigarette stands, pre-bag onions and potatoes, carry parcels to customers’ cars, try to open wooden boxes of fruit, and anything else Dad could think of.”

As Daniel Wong puts it, “The shop taught us the value of money.”

The five authors of this book have done a brilliant job of assembling all the information they could find about every Chinese fruit-shop in New Zealand. (The criteria that were used are detailed on p.8.) The handy database at the end of Volume 2 is breath-taking in its scope, listing every known shop from Bluff (W. Wong, 1940s) to Kaitaia (Hop Hing & Co, 1942-59), along with their Chinese names, owners’ names, dates, and their original village and county origin.  There are maps, diagrams, graphs, shop plans and masses of photographs.

The arrangement of the two volumes is broadly geographical, beginning for historical reasons with Otago, then following the spread of the original Cantonese into Southland, Canterbury and the West Coast, then to Wellington, the centre for the second concentration of Cantonese settlers, and ending in the northern regions such as Auckland and Northland. Each of the sixteen regions has its own historical introduction and overview, so that we also learn about their cultural groups, produce markets, sports clubs, and Sunday screenings of opera films.

The most remarkable stories are related in a simple fashion, such as the account of stoker Li Sing Ah Lee (p.94) jumping ship at Lyttelton in the 1940s, evading arrest, and becoming an Oamaru market gardener and shop owner. Through hard work, an illegal immigrant, a Hakka orphan from Java, became a respected community figure and saw his family enter a range of professional careers.

This book contains dozens of equally gripping accounts of survival and success, and in each of them, we can only guess at the emotional strains behind the simple statements, such as for Wong Chik Kwan (p.214), “He came back to New Zealand, leaving behind his wife who later died.” The authors have carried out a wide range of interviews, so that often we hear the authentic voice of experience.

My wife, Jenny raised in a fruit-shop, recalls that as a young girl, she thought all Chinese were her relatives and that they all worked in fruit-shops. Reading here of the experiences of hundreds of fruit-shop families, it is easy to see why Jenny felt that way. For each family the fruit-shop  often absorbed all their efforts six days a week, so that it was only on Sundays (and on Double Ten) that there was time for families to socialise with each other or attend cultural or sporting events.

Of course this closeness also meant that weddings often linked fruit-shop families, so a complex network of relationships resulted. Inevitably the coverage of one fruit-shop family has cross-references to several others. I greatly enjoyed tracing various branches of my wife’s family tree and thinking of stories that aren’t in the book. (My lovely mother-in-law once seated our 2-year-old eldest daughter among the fruit displayed in her shop window, just so she could say to each customer, “That’s my granddaughter.”) 

 I hope that everyone with a fruit-shop in their family buys this book and uses it as a starting point to create their own family history.  If they do, the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust can be proud of their continued support for the preservation of Chinese New Zealand history.

Trevor Agnew
25 January 2018

NOTE: The Auckland launch of The Fruits of our Labours was on 23 February 2018 and each region will be having its own launch in the weeks which follow. Check the book's Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/fruitshopsnz) for locations and dates.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Toroa’s Journey Maria Gill Gavin Mouldey


Toroa’s Journey  (2017)
Maria Gill 
ill. Gavin Mouldey
Potton & Burton
32 pages (with gatefold)
Hardback NZ$30
ISBN 978 0 947503 53 6
Paperback NZ$20
ISBN 978 0 947503 52 9

The magic of Maria Gill’s non-fiction books is that they consistently provide lively, entertaining reading. Give her a few facts and she’ll create a story. Toroa’s Journey is no exception.
In 2007 Toroa was the 500th Southern Royal Albatross chick to hatch at the protected albatross
colony at Taiaroa Head, near Dunedin. A ranger fitted him with a tiny transmitter just before he grew his adult feathers.
Maria Gill has used her writing skills to take these facts and create not one but two books. One is a splendid picture book which tells the story of Toroa’s amazing endurance flights. Children can read this as a story about a bird’s awe-inspiring, seven-year journey. The other is a nature study book with fact-boxes packed with amazing information about albatrosses. My favourite is that Toroa’s grandmother raised her last chick when she was 60 years old.
Gavin Mouldey’s colour illustrations add another whole dimension to the story. He has captured the various moods of the giant birds, their surprising anatomy and their surroundings.

It is a sobering thought that the picture of Toroa encountering an ocean scrapheap of drifting plastic rubbish is actually a mixed media illustration, combining paint and actual plastic trash Gavin Mouldey collected from Kapiti Beach near his home. The highlight of the book is a 4-page fold-out showing Toroa in flight, with his three metre wing-span at full extent.  It is a show-stopper at any reading session.
There is a useful glossary.

Gavin Mouldey’s website is at: http://dittyboxblog.blogspot.co.nz/
Maria Gill’s website is at: https://www.mariagill.co.nz/
Toroa’s website is at: http://www.doc.govt.nz/royalcam

 

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story Gavin Bishop

Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story
Gavin Bishop (2017)
Puffin/Penguin Random House
64 pages, hardback, NZ$40
ISBN 978 0 14 377035 0
Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story is such a wonderful book that I have only ever heard one criticism of it.  A senior literary figure, referring to page 53, expressed surprise that there was a portrait of Sister Mary Leo but no picture of her most famous pupil. It gives me great pleasure that one day when she looks at page 54, ‘Some People Who Told Our Stories,’ she will find a portrait of Kiri Te Kanawa, neatly placed between Peter Jackson and Colin McCahon. And she will find it because this is a book that demands to be read again and again.

No one can blame the senior literary figure for not spotting Kiri on her first reading. Every one of the 64 pages of this large format hardback carries a wealth of detail. That’s because Gavin Bishop has had to pack in 150 million years of history between the front endpapers (where pterodactyls fly in) and the back endpapers (where birds fly out).

I was lucky enough to hear Gavin Bishop talk about the creation of Aotearoa and to see his original illustrations, along with outline pages and concept sketches. The underlying design motif is based on the Maori pantheon, so that the symbolic curved forms of Ranginui the sky father and Papatuanuku the sky mother can be seen in many illustrations. (That's them on the cover - above.) Unfortunately the sinister figure of Tumatuaenga the god of war is also present on all too many pages of our history.

Across this subtle framework and a remarkable range of symbolic maps, Gavin Bishop has sketched in a broad overview of some of our shared experiences. Here are the first settlers and the latest refugees. Here are the homes we made from raupo hut to corrugated iron bach. These are the names we gave to the land. This is where we worked. These are the conflicts we fought, the settlements we built, the crops we grew, the schools we went to, the suffering we shared, the monuments we erected, the games we played and the stories we told.

In Gavin’s talk, he frequently mentioned the pressure on space and how much he had to leave out. “The challenge of this book was to know what to leave out,” he explained. Given this, it is amazing how much he has managed to include without overloading his pages. His aim was to include “lots of pithy little pieces of information.” To mention only one letter of the alphabet, Aotearoa offers polar dinosaurs, Precious McKenzie, pineapple chunks, Pixie Town, paraoa parai [fried bread], Princess Te Puea, pepe-tuna (puriri moth), Plunket rooms and the world’s ugliest pepper-and-salt set – shaped like New Zealand.

Then there are the colours. Many pages have a light blue background, often reflecting sea or sky. “I wanted to use a lot of blue, so I mixed up a large quantity to keep the same shade throughout.” He also described his technique of sprinkling salt on the watercolours while they are still wet. When the pictures had dried, he brushed the salt off. “You get the most beautiful effect.” More sombre topics such as the New Zealand Wars and the Long Depression have grimmer reds and greys in their backgrounds.

Nestled in among the historical figures are ordinary people – such as a small boy mowing the lawn, and a land girl working on a wartime farm. Charmingly, some of the people depicted are real members of the author’s family. Thus his father is seen at El Alamein and his great-grandmother, Irihapeti Hahau, appears as a supporter of Kingitanga. (“My great-grandmother. Why not?” asked Gavin.) The spirit of Gavin’s tribal ancestral figure, Hinepau, can be found on every page. We can also find his wife, grandmother, grandfather, cousin, brother and honeymooning parents among the models in the Clothes section. There is even a tiny (and unflattering) illustration of Gavin himself among a group of storytellers. This family thread in the weaving is a marvellous idea, because it gives every reader the impetus to fit their own lives and their family story into the events shown.

The result is a delight, a personal vision of the history of our country in word and picture, a triumph of good design and a celebration of all those who have contributed to our national identity. Aotearoa is the book of the year, perhaps even the book of the decade.

Best of all it attracts readers like a magnet. Aotearoa, with its richness of detail, has the same fascination for young readers as the Guinness Book of Records. They carry it around, reading bits out aloud. What better advertisement could there be for a book?

Trevor Agnew
Nov 2017


 

 

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The New Zealand Art Activity Book (New edition)


The New Zealand Art Activity Book (New edition)
(2017)
Helen Lloyd, Te Papa Press
Paperback   158 pages
NZ$30
ISBN 978 0 9941362 3 7
 
There was never better proof that the (scrapped) plan to close down Te Papa Press was folly than books such as Simon Pollard’s Genius of Bugs and now Helen Lloyd’s new edition of The New
Zealand Art Activity Book. These are books designed to make young people think and to set their creative juices flowing – which, after all, is the whole point of Te papa, our national museum.

The best way to get the measure of The NZ Art Activity Book is to flick through it. The cover might mislead you into mistaking it for one of those boring join-the-dots, find-the hidden-words time killers that the Warehouse markets as books. You couldn’t be wronger.

Helen Lloyd has assembled an amazing range of New Zealand art-works using each one to create insights. Each illustration also invites young readers to try their own hand at creating their own images. Can you make an artwork that flies? Will a hammer and a bunch of flowers come together to create a delicate watercolour?

A wakahuia becomes an invitation to design your own treasure box – and decide on its contents. A tapa cloth pattern is an inspiration for more designs. Wayne Youle’s multi-coloured portrait of Ralph Hotere offers readers a chance to try their own colour combinations.  A bleak Brent Wong landscape calls for its story to be told – past, present or future.

Stars have been celebrated in jewellery, tukutuku panels and photographs and this book has examples of them all to encourage young artists to follow their star. Along the way they will painlessly imbibe a great deal of New Zealand art.

The New Zealand Art Activity Book is an inviting springboard for young minds.

 

Trevor Agnew

6 October 2017

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Joy Cowley: Fifty Years of Books!

Joy Cowley: Fifty Years of Books!

Joy Cowley published her first novel, Nest in a Falling Tree, in 1967.  Since then she has published hundreds of novels, picture books and readers. Here is an interview she gave in December 1998. It originally appeared in Magpies Magazine in March 1999.

 

Photo of Joy Cowley in action at Storylines, Christchurch, August 2010

      








 
Toad in a Tiger Moth meets Icarus
Joy Cowley answers some flumsy questions put to her by Trevor Agnew

She has French perfume and fine lace underwear, an Edwardian dress of yellow silk with mutton chop sleeves and tiny pearl buttons, a picture hat covered with veiling and gold silk roses, and she is riding through the town on a BSA 650 Gold Flash.” –Joy Cowley, The Machinery of Dreams, in Summer Book 2, Port Nicholson Press, 1983.

Joy Cowley was born in 1936, five months after Margaret Mahy.  In the Asian zodiac’s twelve year cycle, this was the Year of the Rat, the beginning of a new era.  Certainly the Year of the Rat is an auspicious one for children’s writing.  Rat people (who are expected to be creative, inventive, gossipy, ambitious, lively and adaptable) include Elsie Locke, Caroline Macdonald, Ron Bacon, Joan de Hamel, Lisa Vasil, Janet Frame, and Katherine Mansfield.   

As well as being responsible for four children, nine grandchildren, eight cats, and a flock of sheep, Joy Cowley has also produced short stories, adult novels, picture books, children’s novels, spiritual reflections, hymns, poems and over 400 beginner readers.

Although amazingly busy, she is also amazingly helpful to others.  Joy Cowley took time off during the Christmas holidays to answer Trevor Agnew’s questions.

1.  I like that passage about the motorbike because of its very specific details.  In your writing, the descriptions of things like eel catching are often detailed.
Do you do this in order to convince readers?  Does it involve you in lots of research?  Or do you keep one of those mysterious notebooks?

Writers seem to work mainly one of two ways.  Some are auditory.  They write as though they are taking dictation.  Others, like me, are visual.  I spend a lot of time with plots and characters, expanding them, asking questions of them until I know them so well that I can see the details.  Writing, then, is simply a matter of describing what I can see in my mind.

I like reading stories with specific detail.  I think that it is detail which connects with our own experiences and hooks us into a story.  I also try to be selective with description, using it for pacing, for light and shade in a work, and for general leitmotif effect.

Do I keep a notebook?  Yes.  New ideas will gatecrash a work in progress, and without consideration or respect, yell, “Look at me!  Look at me!”  I have found that the most effective way of getting rid of them is to jot them down in my notebook.  The idea might still be active a year later but then again, they might be dead.  It doesn’t matter.  My notebook serves as a clearing station for intrusive material rather than a source of inspiration.

2.     Is humour an important part of your writing/story-telling?  I notice the almost slapstick humour of much of your writing, like Starbright’s taking a solo bungy jump without working out how to untie her feet in ‘Starbright and the Dream Eater’.   How do you feel humour should be used in writing?  Especially writing for children?

You bet!  It is an important part of life.  Yet few writers take humour seriously!  I am appalled at the lack of humour inmost of my early adult short stories and novels.  I can only say that I am glad these works were aimed at adult readers who have choices, and not young people.  In real life the masks of comedy and tragedy are rarely far apart.

It sounds flip to say “the darker the shadow, the brighter the light” but life really is a oneness and the balance seems always there.  Some of the funniest things happen at funerals.  That is the wholeness of being.  Look at Frank Court’s book Angela’s Ashes.  But, for some reason, most writers for young readers tend to focus on problems in a humourless way that presents an incomplete picture.

3.     Does the humour sometimes conceal pain?  The joke about cutting off fingers in ‘Gladly Here I Come’ made me wonder.   Is black humour an effective tool for your style of writing?

I am not aware of using “black” humour or employing humour to cover pain.  I simply try to reflect the world I live in.  At the same time I am very aware of laughter as therapy, especially for children whose authority is not always recognised in an adult world.

Humour has been an important ingredient in my early reading books.  These stories began in the 1960s, when I was working with my son Edward and then other children who could not read.  Many were arbitrarily labelled dyslexic but I noticed that their right/left confusion and disability did not extend to those activities they enjoyed.  Most had simply “switched off” learning to read, unwilling to put themselves at risk of further failure.  Their body language was explicit of a frozen attitude to the printed word.

These children taught me that early reading materials need to be easy, exciting, meaningful.  They taught me that an engaging story was important, even at the lowest levels, and they showed me that no one can be tense while they are laughing.  With the all-important humour, there developed a tendency to put a twist at the end of a story.  This was a bit like pudding after vegetables.  It encouraged a child to read to the end of the book. 

4.  Do you have anyone in mind when you write?  In other words, do you write for a particular, person, audience, reader, when you are working on something?

Not any one person.  I am keenly aware of the age and reading level of my intended audience and this awareness tempers my writing. 

For beginner readers, the focus is the acquisition of reading skills.  This means a very simple graded text with much of the plot detail going into the illustrations, so the page-by-page notes to the illustrator are very important, especially if the illustrator has not had a lot of experience in working at this level.

Books for fluent readers have more language content and here is where I try to push the limits in expanding a young person’s awareness of the richness of the English language and ways in which it may be used.  (“Once upon a mousetime, two little squeaks went cheesing...”) 

It is always a delight to find that teachers have used the book as a springboard for the student’s own creative writing.

5. The spiritual as a part of everyday life seems a regular theme in your work.  I am thinking of the mussels on p.24 of ‘Bow down Shadrach’ or the trees in ‘Gladly Here I Come’.  Then there’s your hymn “Sacrament of the Seasons” (No 77 in ‘Alleluia Aotearoa’) “Jesus comes to me as a springtime tree…”

Your characters even discuss religion, and have spiritual beliefs (e.g. ‘Starbright and the Dream Eater’).  What are your views on the mysterious behind the mundane?

What is mundane?  Everything has a particular beauty.  Everything is a facet of the mysterious.

I have always known an “otherness”.  Most children have that knowing.  I am sure they bring it into the world with them.  For me, at a young age, the knowing had simple self-evident truths: that everything was connected to everything else; that good and bad described how we thought about things and not the things themselves; that there was no such event as death – things simply turned into other things. 

There was also a strong sense of another greater reality somewhere very close.  It was as though this life was a dream and I was very close to wakening.  I remember that as a young child I felt very old.  Not just parent-old or grandparent-old, but as old as a mountain.  I have spoken with many children who have the same feelings.

Naturally, when I was young, I tried to place these feelings where they could be affirmed, but there was no explanation for them in the religious or scientific beliefs of my childhood.  My views earned me beatings from my mother who believed the devil was in me.  (My parents were fundamentalist Christian and their divided world always seemed alien to me.) 

These days there have been huge shifts in spiritual awareness as people discover the metaphysical outside of the old religious structures.  Part of this shift is supported by new physics and by the sudden expansion of knowledge that has come with micro-chip technology.  But we still tend to talk to children about religion in demeaning and meaningless ways, which are remote from their own spiritual experiences.  So, yes, I do write about child-centred spiritual experience.  I believe it is not separate from other life experience, merely an extension of it.
 

6. I was interested in your views on fantasy in the Introduction of ‘Beyond the River’,  where you wrote, “Since the beginnings of communication, people have used fantasy to express truths which could not be contained in a factual account.”  Are you myth-making for the 20th Century?  Are you entering a new science fiction–fantasy field with ‘Starbright and the Dream Eater’ and ‘Ticket to the Sky Dance’?

 I don’t see myself as myth-making for the 20th Century, although I am aware that I belong with a number of writers who are exploring myth.  The stories in Beyond the River were largely inspired by the New Zealand landscape which seems to dictate ongoing legend. 

Starbright and the Dream Eater and Ticket to the Sky Dance were inspired by quantum physics, and they did involve a bit of research.

I’m a lover of plots.  I like stories to work like intricate well-oiled machines. 

Fantasy is not apart from reality.  It is reality pushed to the edge, and it must work logically.  Fantasy should always be real to the reader.  I like to read science fiction but am disappointed when plots are illogical or when they rely heavily on coincidence.

7. What are your views on settings of children’s fiction?  Your New Zealand settings and descriptions in e.g. ‘Gladly Here I Come’ are very sharp, right down to, say, the smell of eels.  There seems to be an American setting in ‘Starbright and the Dream Eater’.  Was this your idea, or the publisher’s idea?

 
I believe that every work needs a sense of place and, because I’m a visual writer, place is always specific and important.  Much of my writing has been set in New Zealand.  Some books have been located in Australia and could not be anywhere else.  The two fantasy novels are set in the USA.  In both Ticket to the Sky Dance (California) and Starbright and the Dream Eater (Wisconsin) we have situations which could not have taken place in a country with a small population.  The only densely populated country, that I know reasonably well, is the United States, so I chose localities there. 
 7.     You were once the editor of the Children’s Page of a newspaper.  What did you discover about children’s reading and writing interests from this experience?
In 1953 I was the children’s page editor, known officially as the NFC lady (News For Children), for the Manawatu Daily Times.  There is a pre-story to this.  My parents suffered poor health.  My mother had schizophrenia and my father’s heart condition prevented him from working.  I was the eldest of five and it was always understood that I would leave school and work to help the family.  We lived at Foxton at the time and I travelled by bus each day to Palmerston North Girls’ High School, where a wonderful group of teachers conspired to keep me at school.  In 1953 they found for me this wonderful job at the paper, plus board with a family near the school.  Half of my wages paid for my board, the rest was taken home to my parents at the weekend.  This was a very happy arrangement.  Every day after school I spent two to three hours in Broadway at the Manawatu Daily Times. 
I had an office typewriter on a small table, in a windowless room that smelt of old smoke and printers ink, and as long as I got my copy to the type-setting room by Friday afternoon, I could do what I liked with the Children’s Page.  Under a bare, fly-specked light bulb, I hammered out an identity for myself as a self-important, middle-aged, world-travelling editor who had a dog called Crackers.  When I was out of the country, Crackers took over the typewriter and gave the readers another, less dignified image of me. We became popular, Crackers and I, and sometimes I would have a high school student a year or two younger than I, coming into the office and asking to see the NFC lady.  Of course, I always said that she was out. 
This was heady stuff for a sixteen year old.  At the end of the year, I was offered a cadetship with the paper, a position usually reserved for males.  More heady stuff.  My rejoicing was short-lived, however, when my parents refused permission.  Reporters were a lot of heathens, as far as Mum and Dad were concerned, and I had already been too much under their influence.  No, I would be apprenticed to our local pharmacist and that was that.
The last day of school was a sad affair but, as I was walking out the gate, my English teacher ran after me.  She had a favour to ask.  Would I please give her my essay book?  She wanted me to promise her that I would keep on writing.  I promised.  And it was largely that promise that made me buy an old typewriter three years later and start writing short stories.  It was another three years before I had anything published.
8.     Why do you visit schools, and take part in workshops?  Is it after-sales service?
It’s not so much “after-sales” as a matter of keeping in touch with source and resource.  My own inner child is overlaid with so much adult that I need to maintain contact with the unadulterated -–the children out there.  When I am researching a book, I talk over issues with school classes.  The results are almost always different from what I anticipate.  For example, before writing Bow Down Shadrach I put this question to children: “If your family pet was very old or sick and had to be killed, would you want your parents to tell you the truth?  Or would you like them to tell you that the animal had run away, or maybe gone to a lovely home where it would be looked after for the rest of its life?”  I imagined that all children would opt for the truth but only older children wanted that.  Almost all five-to-seven year olds wanted the nice story.
Generally, when I am researching likes and dislikes or anything to do with feelings, I ask questions of children older than the reading age of the intended work.  If I’m writing early reading books for five and six year olds, I interview seven and eight year olds and begin, “When you were five…”.   I find that children are not usually able to reflect on their immediate situation but will readily give information from the past.
Also all my manuscripts are trialled in schools before they are submitted to a publisher.  I have a team of great teachers who help me with this.  Almost always, rewriting needs to be done as a result of the trialling.  Sometimes the story is discarded.  I’m never sure of the final seasoning until the dish has been tasted in this way.
9.     How do you keep in touch with the way children speak, their styles of speech and language?  Also, how do you make up languages like Starbright’s private language?
I realise there is such a thing as style but, all the same, I try to give each story an original and authentic voice.  Very often this means leaving behind everything I’ve been taught about “writing” and simply telling the story on paper in a conversational way.  I suppose writers are a bit like actors in this.
Dialogue?  It’s a matter of listening to young people, noting vocabulary, speech patterns and inflections. Young children are still engaged with the novelty of language.  They enjoy taking words to bits and reassembling them in different ways.  They delight in rhymes, rhythm, alliteration, riddles, puns and other word jokes.  They experiment with language and, often, when they haven’t the right word will invent one – as Starbright does.  I confess that I too enjoy inventing words.  A recent addition is “flumsy” which is a combination of flimsy and flummery.  Very useful.
10.  Dreams play a part in some of your stories.  Are dreams important to you?
Dreams are sometimes important to me; more often unimportant.  I do remember them whereas many adults don’t.  Children always remember their dreams and they are always important.  They always want to discuss their dreams.  Which is why dreams play a bigger role in my children’s writing than in my adult works.
 
11.  You often mention your own animals (cats, goose, dog, etc) in biographical notes.  Your stories often deal with animals in trouble (Shadrach, or the turtle in ‘The Silent One’).  How do you feel about animals?
 I have great respect for the intelligence of animals and am grateful for their companionship when it is offered.  Quite frankly, I don’t see a lot of difference between them and me.  I like Mark Twain’s statement: “Man is the highest creation. Now I wonder who found that out?” and I feel deep regret at the way humans see other species through the eyes of their own comfort.  For example, Save whales.  Kill rats.  Life and death and exchanges of energy are natural processes.  It is the selective attitude that bothers me.  Rats are highly intelligent animals, natural survivors.  Cockroaches, snakes, sharks all have bad press yet all are very beautiful.  Where do adults find such unreasoning hate for some of their fellow species?  Not from their childhood, that’s for sure.  But they are usually successful in passing their attitudes on to their children.
 Many children bond with animals.  Pets in a home are as important as parents and siblings.  Sometimes, more so, judging from the letters I receive from children.  I don’t underestimate the love that a child can feel for a pet.  In a world weighted with adult authority and expectation, it can be a great comfort to have a companion who accepts you exactly as you are.
12.  Maurice Gee once said that writing children’s novels is easier than writing adult ones.  Is this your experience?
I do not find writing for children easier than writing for adults.  It would be true to say that I write for children as I write for adults, doing the best that I am capable of, but at the same time staying with the child’s experience of life and language.  In that last point lies the challenge.  Writing for children means being true to readers of a certain age group.  It involves disciplines that don’t come into adult writing. 
When I write an adult story or novel, I can stretch the wings of language to their fullest extent and soar like an Icarus.  With writing for children, there are limitations that tether me to a particular audience.  No expansive ego trips permitted.
On the other hand, a novel for a young reader is usually less than half the length of an adult novel, so it is a shorter course.
I must say that I enjoy the challenges of writing at all levels, but find writing for early emergent reading the most difficult.  Trying to make an engaging story out of a vocabulary range of some twenty words can be like trying to create a crossword puzzle with no black squares.  This year [1998], the writing of an adult novel Classical Music was luxuriously easy, compared with the work that went into some emergent readers written the previous year.
13.  How do you feel about the illustrations for some of your books? 
Do they reflect how you see the characters?
Most often I am delighted with the illustrations, although there have been a few disappointments.  Availability of a suitable illustrator is an on-going problem for writers and publishers.  Many illustrators are booked up five years ahead.  I waited for six years to get the Mexican illustrator Joe Cepeda for Gracias the Thanksgiving Turkey.  Problems also arise when an artist is not available to do a second or third book in a series.  We have four different sets of characters depicted on the covers of the two Shadrach novels.  The third book in the trilogy will probably bring more changes.  Young readers find this disappointing and confusing.

In early reading books, much of the story is contained in the illustrations and I need to write full illustration briefs f

for each page.  Both the illustrator and I are under the same constraints.  We are helping the child to learn to read.  But when I write picture book texts for established readers, I do not dictate to the illustrator in any way.  Rather, I view the illustrator as a co-author who can expand my original idea into something much bigger and better.

 

14.  Did you ever get that motorbike?  When I first asked you that, in Winton in 1984, you were still rueful about the Royal Enfield 147cc your dad had bought you, thirty years earlier.

No.  The year after my father bought me the miserable little Royal Enfield (aye, but he was a canny man) I discovered a new interest which consumed every penny I could earn.  The spluttering bike became a means of transport to the Middle Districts Aero Club at Palmerston North, where I fluttered over the city doing circuits and bumps in Tiger Moths.  Like Toad, my passion changed overnight and two wheels on the ground could not compete with a love affair with flying. 
 
Marriage and children soon grounded me but, even now, I ache at the sight of an old DH-82.  I am filled with nostalgia for a contraption of wood, wire and canvas, with a 48 mph cruising speed, just fast enough to whistle the wind under your goggles, slow enough to fill the open cockpit with smoke from the crematorium.
But I should add that there is a postscript to the motorbike era.  My son James has a beautiful Harley, which I may occasionally ride.
 
December 1998