Saturday, 4 May 2019

A Place of Stone and Darkness

A Place of Stone and Darkness

Chris Mousdale
Puffin (2019)
415 pages
Paperback, NZ$30
ISBN 978 0 14 377312 2

In A Place of Stone and Darkness, Chris Mousdale has created not one but two worlds, each with their own unique civilisation, language, customs and technology. Already an award-winning illustrator, Mousdale now demonstrates his skill as a storyteller by describing the consequences of these two races encountering (or rather re-encountering) each other. Surprisingly the first dramatic meeting takes place underground.

An adventurous young cave explorer, Ellee Meddo, is investigating a secret cavern created long ago by her ancestors. Accidentally plunging into a deep well system, Ellee risks her life to save and resuscitate a half-drowned boy. When the narrative viewpoint moves to the boy, as he regains consciousness, we find that he believes a strange feathered creature is jumping up and down on his chest.

A Prologue explains that thousands of generations earlier, a newly arrived group, the Toppas, had arrived and slaughtered almost all species of birds. One group, the flightless Striggs saved themselves by the desperate measure of moving underground and hiding in caves. Evolution produced a highly specialised civilisation with the skills needed to survive underground, far away from the murderous Toppas.

On page 6, a picture gallery of the main characters shows the Stiggs, all looking like tall intellectual parrots who have developed digits at their wingtips. Sidfred is Ellee’s inventive brother, while Kass is an eager young organiser, impatient with the more cautious, older leaders.    

The reader now understands that Ellee, of course, is a Strigg, one of the evolved birds. The boy she has just saved from drowning, is a Toppa from the terrifying world of Uptop, a young human named Blue.

Over the years bits of Uptop technology have ‘found their way’ underground and been preserved in the Merzeum (Museum) sometimes with amusing results. (A gramophone and clockwork technology both play a significant part in this story.) Because he is fascinated by Toppa technology, Sidfred has mastered the Toppa language and, therefore, he can communicate with Blue.

Unfortunately Blue is still suffering from shock and can’t recall much. This means that the Striggs (and the readers) learn only gradually a little about the Toppas and the current situation in Uptop.  

Pollution from the surface is contaminating the Striggs’ water supplies, killing their crops of morra (mushrooms) and harming their health. When Blue’s presence is revealed to them, the leaders are faced with a terrible dilemma.  On one wing, they feel they cannot kill Blue but, on the other wing, if Blue returns to Uptop, it seems certain that he will tell of the birds living underground. Then the Toppas will come down and slaughter them all.

With time running out, Ellee, Sidfred, Kass and a slowly recovering Blue mount an expedition. They will try to ascend the dangerous well-shaft, to reconnoitre the surface and report back.

What the four find on their arduous quest is a dramatic surprise and makes the second part of this novel an even more exciting adventure.

A high level of imagination has gone into creating the Strigg world, complete with its customs, ceremonies, religious observances, songs and mythology. Their language and figures of speech are skilfully created, so that they make perfect sense. Striggs don’t tell their visitors to sit; they say, ‘Take a perch.’ There are even sayings, such as ‘Busy Striggs have their wings full.’

Mousdale has also made full use of his illustration skills, by providing intricate endpaper cave-maps, and a selection of coloured illustrations as well as two more maps (not a spoiler). The splendidly dramatic cover picture, which shows Ellee as an alarming silhouette, gives us a good idea of Blue’s view of the Strigg world.

Well designed and beautifully presented, A Place of Stone and Darkness is a strikingly fresh and enjoyable novel, unpredictable and constantly surprising.  

Note: Bright readers will have worked out the heritage of the Striggs by their distinctive dancing customs. An extra hint is that the scientific name of New Zealand’s Kakapo parrot is Strigops habroptilus.

Trevor Agnew   4 May 2019

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Clotilde Perrin and Eric Veillé visit Christchurch

Clotilde Perrin and Eric Veillé visit Christchurch, May 2019

Visiting children’s book artists always have the difficulty of trying to address two groups – the children who read their books and the adults who buy them. Touring French picture book artists Eric Veillé and Clotilde Perrin dealt with the problem with Gallic aplomb. Their first Christchurch session was held in the book palace known locally as Scorpio Books. A wide range of felt pens and paper had been provided to enable enthusiastic children to be initiated into the craft of picture-book making.
Unfortunately no Christchurch children had made it to the central city venue by the starting time of 3.30 pm.  Undaunted Clotilde and Eric dragooned a large contingent of teachers, librarians, booklovers and grandparents – some qualifying for inclusion in several of these categories – to take up their pens and have a go.

Both artists showed the draft illustrations they had used in beginning two of their recent books Eric’s Encyclopedia of Grannies and Clotilde’s Inside the Villains (both published in NZ by Gecko Press). Clotilde showed how she prepared her pictures, complete with carefully designed flaps and openings, as maquettes (preliminary sketches).  

Eric displayed a huge array of pictures of Grannies and explained that he drew them with a felt pen, scanned them into his computer and then chose the ones he likes best. Colouring follows. Asked how he chooses them, Eric replied, ‘Sometimes, I know that it is a good picture, when it makes me laugh. I laugh out loud as I am drawing it.’
Using an easel, the pair took it in turns to create a picture, inviting their ‘students’ to follow suit on their sheets of paper. Clotilde began by drawing an eye which rapidly became part of a furry head and finally turned into the hungry wolf, the villain occupying the cover of her book. Clotilde’s brushwork was quick and confident and soon she had used watercolour to create a thoroughly convincing wolf.

Eric then showed how to draw a Grannie. Even though his illustration was quite small, his ‘students’ produced reasonable copies.

Then came the surprise. Clotilde used a Stanley knife to make a semi-circular cut in the wolf’s belly, following which she glued Eric’s Grannie picture on the back of her wolf picture. Finally, she lifted the flap to reveal Grannie inside the wolf’s stomach. It was a lovely moment of revelation when we could all appreciate their combination of skill and imagination.

Later Eric added a highly ambiguous speech balloon for the wolf, ‘I love the Grannies of Christchurch city.’

The photos show Clotilde and Eric at the Scorpio Bookshop, 2 May 2019
Trevor Agnew, 2 May 2019

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Where Dani goes, happy follows Rose Lagercrantz

Where Dani goes, happy follows   
Rose Lagercrantz [author]
Eva Eriksson [illustrator]
Gecko (2019)
181 pages
Paperback   978 1 77657 226 7  (NZ$20)

This young novel is the sixth in the series My Happy Life, about cheerful Dani and her determination to maintain her friendship with Ella, who has moved to Northbrook. Once again Dani’s cheerful enthusiasm sweeps the story along making this the perfect series for young readers who are moving from picture books to novels.
As always the reader is enabled to spot signs that Dani has missed, such as her classmate Cushion’s interest in her.  (Cushion’s name is Alexander ‘but only when things get serious.’)
Cushion would like to sit next to Dani but she prefers an empty desk so that Ella can sit there if she comes back. Cushion tries admiring Dani’s artwork.
“Nice!” he said at last.
“Ugh!” Dani mumbled.
Dani’s father is sad and visiting his mother in Rome, so Dani is staying with her grandparents for a week. Then Dani has the bright idea of visiting Ella on her birthday (while wearing her Best Present headband). Her grandparents arrange for Dani to travel by herself to Northbrook by train. Dani copes well with the big adventure but when she arrives at the station, there is nobody to meet her. There has been a misunderstanding.
As usual Dani meets (small) disasters and as usual she has a rollercoaster ride of emotions before her father’s ex-girlfriend Sadie and Sadie’s sister Lisette (a police constable) arrive to help her sort things out.
Lisette makes an interesting comment, ‘This little girl needs a mother,’ which could be a good title for the whole series.
Dani now learns that her father and Sadie have broken off their engagement and there is a touching scene where Dani, sick in bed, is being nursed by Sadie. Almost unable to speak, Dani can only think the words she would like to say to beg Sadie to make up with her father.
You can change your mind, Dani wanted to say. But she couldn’t. She had no voice left.
Rose Lagercrantz is a brilliant and witty writer, so after six books, we feel that we know Dani and Ella very well, and look forward to their next (mis)adventure, which had better involve them being flower-girls.
Eva Eriksson’s charming illustrations which appear on almost every page emphasise the personalities involved.
The translation from the Swedish is by Julia Marshall.

Trevor Agnew  26 Jan 2019

I am so clever Mario Romas (Gecko)

 I am so clever   Mario Romas
Gecko (2019)
48 pages   Ages: 4 to 7
Paperback   978 1 77657 249 6  (NZ$20)
Hardback    978 1 77657 248 9  (NZ$30)

Wellington’s Gecko Press (guided by its resident genius, Julia Marshall) does the English-speaking
world a service by producing their attractive English language editions of award-winning books from overseas. A whole army of authors and illustrators are thus made available to our young readers. 

The picture book, I Am So Clever, is the last book of the talented Belgian artist and writer, Mario Romas, who died in 2012. It is the sequel to his I Am So Strong (2007) and I Am So Handsome (2007), continuing the egocentric adventures of the Big Bad Wolf.
As usual the wolf is in the forest, spreading alarm among its inhabitants. He meets Little Red Riding Hood.
But tell me, little raspberry, where are you going with your basket?’ asks the wolf.
The joy in reading these Mario Ramos books is the stylish, suave speaking style he gives to the wolf. Planning to eat both the little girl and her grandmother, the wolf suggests that Little Red Riding Hood should take a lingering walk through the woods. ‘Slow down and listen to the birdsong. And look at all the flowers.’  
A series of comic misadventures sees the wolf dressed in Granny’s frilly nightie but locked out of her house. He then has droll encounters with various story characters, who all mistake him for Grandma. A short-sighted huntsman, the three bears, a questing hero, the three little pigs and the seven dwarfs all make the same mistake, irritating the embarrassed wolf.
When he finally confronts Little Red Riding Hood, she responds, ‘Grandma, that wolf mask is fantastic! That big furry head, those rotten teeth, the huge bulging eyes – did you do this just for me?
Just as in Ramo’s other Wolf books, the unexpected and funny conclusion sees the wolf getting just what he deserves – humiliation.
Ramos’s bold colour illustrations are a delight, with lots of fascinating detail. A rabbit finds the huntsman’s missing spectacles, and the seven dwarfs find it too hot to work.
Hi ho! Hi ho! Off to the creek we go.
It’s far too hot to work a lot. Hi ho! Hi ho!
This book was first published in Paris in 2011 as Le Plus Malin.
The English translation is by Linda Burgess.

Trevor Agnew 26 Jan 2019

Thursday, 28 March 2019

The Magic Desk

The Magic Desk
Aaron Moffat, Olympia (self-published)
Paperback, 309 pages
ISBN 978-1-78830-029-2

This week I was impressed by Adele Redmond’s well-researched article about a children’s novel, by Aaron Moffat (2018), 
The Magic Desk

In her article, which was originally posted on 26 March 2019,
Adele Redmond interviewed a variety of experts in several fields and exposed the book as deeply troubling and racist propaganda. The publication of this news item quickly had one good result – Moffat’s intended public reading to children at a Christchurch school was immediately cancelled.

Reading The Magic Desk:
I was asked to read this book late in 2018, and I was disturbed by its contents.

The Magic Desk by Aaron Moffat is an unbalanced, badly-written story peddling white supremacist views to young readers.

Timothy arrives from the United Kingdom and finds New Zealand is a topsy-turvy land where things are different from England and therefore wrong. 

A magic writing desk gives Timothy visions of moments in history. The two main dreams concern Maori and Irish history.

Timothy’s Maori dream is inspired by a book Tales from Maoriland – presumably A.W. Reed’s benign Tales of Maoriland (1948) which gives an idyllic view of Maori life.

It is odd then that Timothy’s dream of Maori life, presented as fact in The Magic Desk, is a brutally non-idyllic one where he is threatened with being eaten, beheaded, burned alive, having his heart cut out or being tossed off a cliff as a sacrifice.  
Of course, in a cliché worthy of G.A. Henty, Timothy is then saved by the chief’s daughter, who wants to marry him. Why does she want to marry a 12-year-old? 

Everyone in this dream keeps kneeling and bowing, and there is no resemblance to any period of Maori history.  In fact the society shown is non-Maori in almost every way.
Yet Timothy then uses the ‘evidence’ of his dream to argue against Aroha’s view of Maori history. This is doubly dishonest.

Most of The Magic Desk is set in Backwater Primary School, and readers might expect a more balanced account at school, but the teachers here present an  equally false view of Maori history. The worst part is Mr Birtwistle’s weird rant about the Moriori as the original inhabitants exterminated by the Maori.  That myth of the Moriori as a separate race who arrived before the Maori was debunked long ago. Michael King untangled the confusion of myths and distortions and showed that the Moriori were the Maori who settled the Chatham islands. Nobody has taught anything like Mr Birtwistle’s nonsense in New Zealand schools for 50 years. 

Aroha certainly objects but nobody in the story ever offers the true version of events.

There are continual references to the Maori as ‘savages.’ Yet never an alternative viewpoint.

Surely the Backwater Primary School is more ‘savage’ with Timothy being attacked every day for no reason? Every day Timothy is subjected brutal violence? Kicks to the head that nearly knock people out are serious. But Timothy has no concussion and no physical results.

Timothy’s regular beatings on pages16, 32, 38, 135, etc, are repetitious and pointless. Although a psychiatrist would be interested in the sadistic nature of the beating and kicking on pages 134-5.

The second ‘dream’ of history is taken straight from white supremacist propaganda, specifically the recent fraudulent inventions about Irish slavery in Barbados. This is propaganda disguised as a novel for children. This distortion of indentured labour has been thoroughly debunked. It is not true; it as a modern invention by people with a racist agenda.

There are plenty of websites exposing this cynical faking of history.

I also find it alarming that a young character commits suicide. (page128)  
This crudely-handled scene seems gratuitous and dangerous in a children’s novel.

The Magic Desk is a badly-written novel, concealing a racist agenda, disguised as a treatment of bullying.

Readers should be made aware of this book’s true nature before they borrow it or buy it.

Trevor Agnew  (28 March 2019)


Saturday, 16 February 2019

BEST New Zealand Books for Young People, published in 2018

Reservoir Road Book Awards for 2018
BEST New Zealand Books for Young People, published in 2018

A. Picture Books: 

Cook's Cook  Gavin Bishop, Gecko

Oink  David Elliot, Gecko

Who Stole the Rainbow?  Vasanti Unka, Puffin

B. Maori Language Picture Books:
Nga Whetu Matariki i Whanakotia [The Stolen Stars of Matariki]   Miriama Kamo, ill. Zak Waipara, tr. Ngaere Roberts, Scholastic

Te Hinga Ake a Maui i Te Ika Whenua o Aotearoa [How Maui Fished up the North Island]  Donovan Bixley, tr. Darren Joseph, Upstart

C. Non-Fiction:
Mozart: the Man behind the Music  Donovan Bixley, Upstart Press

Kate Sheppard: Leading the Way for Women  Maria Gill, ill. Marco Ivancic, Scholastic

Eliza and the White Camellia  Debbie McCauley, ill. Helen Casey, Mauao

Why is that Lake so Blue?  Simon Pollard, Te Papa Press

D. Junior Fiction:
Finding  David Hill, Puffin

Dawn Raid  Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith, Scholastic

The Mapmakers’ Race  Eirlys Hunter, ill. Kirsten Slade, Gecko

E. Senior Fiction:
Ash Arising  Mandy Hager, Penguin

Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas  Michael Bennett, ill. Ant Sang, Penguin

Cassie Clark: Outlaw  Brian Falkner, OneTree House

Slice of Heaven  Des O’Leary, Makaro Press

Reservoir Road Book Awards for 2018:
The unrepresentative panel of elderly judges selects the best books published for young people in 2018. 
Their criteria is simply whether a book would encourage the panel to get on their bike and ride from Reservoir Road, Sawyers Bay to the Port Chalmers Public Library in order to borrow it.

Finding the Books:
Any New Zealand bookshop can get these books for you. (If it can’t, it’s not a bookshop.)
Any New Zealand public library will lend you these books.
Either way, you are helping the writers, illustrators and publishers, and encouraging them to produce more good books for young people.

Trevor Agnew   17 Feb 2019

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Chinatown Girl

Chinatown Girl
The Diary of Silvey Chan, Auckland 1942
Eva Wong Ng
Scholastic, 200 pages, paperback, NZ$18
ISBN 978 1 77543 577 8 

 Reviewed by Trevor Agnew

Image may contain: 1 person

Surprisingly, the best account of NZBC (New Zealand Born Chinese) children adjusting to life within their two cultures is a work of fiction. Chinatown Girl by Eva Wong Ng has just been released in its second edition with an eye-catching cover. It is rare for young adult novels to be re-issued but Chinatown Girl has captured readers of all ages as it introduces them to life in war-time central Auckland, as seen through the eyes of Chan Ngun Bo, known to all as Silvey Chan. The oldest reader I know of is in his nineties and he declared that it brought back all his memories of Auckland’s Chinatown in the 1940s.

Silvey is an ordinary twelve-year-old Auckland girl. She has just been inspired by Anne of Green Gables to start keeping a diary. Her first entry is 1st January 1942  and the first words are ‘Anyone reading this without permission risks blindness or worse: YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!’

Silvey is part of a tightly-knit Chinese community. As she works on her family history project for school, Silvey, who was born in New Zealand, learns about life in China, and why her family members came to New Zealand. Meanwhile events around the world have their effect, with the fall of Singapore and the arrival of American troops.
The diary is rich in tiny historical details, such as the tricks the schoolchildren play on their teacher on April Fool’s day, or Silvey watching Ah Yeh (her paternal grandfather) rolling his own cigarettes from a tin of Silver Fern.

Chinatown Girl is also a great introduction to city life in the 1940s, with Lofty Blomfield, five shilling postal notes, sugar rationing, and air raid rehearsals. The bag is to hold a cork to put between our teeth, and cotton wool to stuff in our ears to stop us going deaf if a bomb explodes. Modern readers will find school life in the 1940s a very strange world, while Silvey also has to cope with Chinese School at least twice a week.
In the same way that she attends two schools, Silvey is aware of the two ways of looking at events and people: the way of China and the way of Sun Gum Sarn (New Gold Mountain: New Zealand). She emerges as a lively, intelligent observer, able to cope comfortably in both cultures.
The diary’s emphasis is domestic but there are small excitements (Silvey’s accident with a fish hook) and more dramatic moments (a burglary followed by an identity parade) to make Silvey’s account of daily life at 45 Greys Avenue into a real page-turner. The official celebration of Double-Ten (October the 10th) 1942 by the New Zealand Government is an important event for the Chinese in New Zealand. Silvey’s parents make it clear to her that Prime Minister Peter Fraser’s announcement is a turning-point in NZ Chinese history Nevertheless when she attends the Chinese National Day Banquet she still notes that we…listened to lots of boring speeches.’

Readers of all ages will find much to delight them. For example Sylvie’s mother represents the older generation’s determination to eventually return to China. Thus she insists on showing Sylvie how to kill hens - because she will need to do it in China. 

Despite the shortages and fears of wartime, this is a delightfully readable account offering many insights into two cultures.

NOTE: Teachers will find useful background material in the school bulletin compiled by Eva Ng and Jane Thomson. Amongst Ghosts: Memories and Thoughts of a New Zealand-Chinese Family, (Learning Media, Wellington, 1992, ISBN 0 478 05523 4), which includes an account of the lives of Eva’s parents.

Trevor Agnew
8 February 2019

Below is the original
2005 cover of the first 
edition of Chinatown Girl: