Saturday, 25 November 2006

A Present from the Past, Jennifer Beck, Lindy Fisher, 2006

A Present from the Past, Jennifer Beck, ill Lindy Fisher, Scholastic, Auckland, New Zealand, 2006, 31 pages, paperback, NZ$16.99
ISBN 1-86943-744-6

Papa’s Island, Melanie Drewery, ill Fifi Colston, Reed, Auckland, New Zealand, 2006, 24 pages, paperback, NZ $16.99 ISBN 1-86948-594-7

Woolly Wally, Dawn McMillan, ill. Ross Kinnaird, Reed, Auckland, New Zealand, 2006, 24 pages, paperback, NZ$14.99 ISBN 1-86948-442-8

Clever Moo, Melinda Szymanik, ill. Malcolm Evans, Scholastic, Auckland, New Zealand, 2006, 24 pages, paperback, NZ$16.99 ISBN 1-86943-710-1

These four colourful New Zealand picture books fall neatly into two categories: two help young readers to experience some of the emotional impact of past wars, while the other two have some light-hearted fun with our most important animals.

Melanie Drewery’s Papa’s Island is an interesting picture book about a small girl’s messages to her father, an Italian interned on Somes Island as an “enemy alien” during World War 2. “We went to the beach and waved. We could see the island but we could not see him.” They send letters instead. Fifi Colston’s pictures have some historical inaccuracies but they capture the girl’s emotions as she misses her papa, as well as her joy when they are reunited. This book gives young readers an insight into an unusual aspect of wartime New Zealand.

The setting for Jennifer Beck’s A Present From the Past is modern Auckland, where young Emily receives an unusual Christmas gift that draws her into the experiences of her great-grandparents in World War One. At first Emily is doubtful. ‘Surely this battered old box wasn’t the ‘something special’ Aunt Mary had travelled from the other side of the world to deliver?’ The gift is one of the brass boxes of sweets, cigarettes and chocolate that Princess Mary had sent to servicemen and nurses at Christmas 1914. Aunt Mary explains to Emily how this particular box saved a nurse’s life and led to a marriage. Lindy Fisher’s illustrations are artistically splendid and use a wide range of symbols, although sometimes at the expense of the text’s legibility.

It’s hard to know which creature should represent our nation. One light-hearted candidate is Woolly Wally, a merino ram, immensely pleased with his fine fleece, and flock of ewes. “I walk the talk. See me strut!I am so tough! Watch me butt!” he boasts, in rhyming couplets. Wally’s pride takes a fall when the shearers arrive and he is soon “bare and bedraggled, skinny and thin”. Fortunately for Wally, he finds that we are not judged by appearances. Ross Kinnaird’s boldly sketched cartoons capture the spirit of Dawn McMillan’s sheep, even if it’s a little odd to see machine-shearing for merinos.

If not a sheep, then perhaps a cow? Margaret stands out among the other cows in Melinda Szymanik’s Clever Moo for several reasons. She wears spectacles and pearls, sings, reads books and has an alarming allergy. “It’s hay fever,” the doctor said, “You’re allergic to grass.” Malcolm Evans’ droll cartoons show Margaret’s quest for an alternative career. After failing as a model and TV News presenter, Margaret finds a remarkable and highly appropriate job that should make this funny book a popular item in every library.

In fact all four should be in every library. And home.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, on April 29th 2006.

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