Winter reading for young readers: Why did the Tiger eat the Dental Nurse?
The Kuia and the Spider, Robyn Kahukiwa, Puffin/Penguin, paperback
Just One More: stories by Joy Cowley ill. Gavin Bishop, Gecko Press, paperback
Waiting For Later, Tina Matthew, Walker, hardback
The Kiwi Kid’s ABC, Rebekah Holguin, HarperCollins, paperback
At the Lake, Jill Harris, HarperCollins, paperback
The Lost Tohunga, David Hair, HarperCollins, paperback
The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer, James Norcliffe, Longacre/Random House, paperback
Sacrifice Joanna Orwin, HarperCollins, paperback
Since the 1980s, New Zealand publishing for young readers has been in a golden age, with self-assured writers, confident illustrators and knowledgeable publishers and booksellers. A quick glance at some of the titles available for this winter’s reading shows just how far books for Kiwi kids have come. (The gender bias in favour of males appears to be a seasonal oddity.)
It is incredible that thirty years have passed since that classic New Zealand picture book The Kuia and the Spider first appeared. The children who read it in 1981 are now middle-aged but Patricia Grace’s tale has remained timeless. An old Maori lady sits by her stove, peeling kumara and arguing with a spider about which of them is the best weaver. When their grandchildren visit, the unlikely pair argue about whose descendants are the best.
‘My grandchildren are much better than yours.’
Robyn Kahukiwa’s pictures may be a little simple but the central figure, the old kuia, is as solid and powerful as a statue. She and her spider adversary are the stuff that myths are made of. ‘And they argued and argued and argued for the rest of their lives.’
There weren’t many locally-produced books around for Kiwi kids in the 1980s but there were some magnificent stories in school journals and readers. Gecko Press have raided the archives for some of Joy Cowley’s liveliest stories. Just One More makes 17 of these wonderful read-aloud stories available to a new generation. What was the dragon doing in the library? Can a pirate become a bus-driver? Best of all, why did the tiger eat the dental nurse? Gavin Bishop’s witty colour illustrations add to the fun
Tina Matthew has used a delicate Japanese technique of woodcut and stencil to create Later, a charming picture book about Nancy, a small overlooked girl. ‘Will you tell me a story?’ ‘Later.’ When Nancy finds that nobody in her family has time to spare for her, she climbs a tree and waits till later comes. As the moon rises, Nancy listens to the tree and watches her family, who are soon waiting for her return. ‘I know I’m small, but tonight I feel big,’ she says, having gained a better idea of herself.
Alphabet books are now as much cultural indicators as guides to the 26 letters, so The Kiwi Kid’s ABC is as likely to be purchased by a Swedish tourist as a doting grandparent. Neither will be disappointed. Rebekah Holguin’s sharp-edged illustrations depict Kiwi life, from jandals to rugby, aroha to sausage sizzle, by way of lambs and tuatara.
Brothers sharing a summer holiday at their grandfather’s lakeside home sounds like a Kiwi idyll, in At the Lake by Jill Harris, but relations between brothers Simon (14) and Jem (11) have been scratchy since their father left home to work in Australia. The discovery that their holiday spot now includes a paddock full of relocated houses, with a truculent security guard, only makes matters worse. As well as being an exciting adventure, this well-written novel has a convincing picture of young people coming to understand their emotions, and reaching out to help others.
With The Lost Tohunga David Hair concludes the fantasy-thriller trilogy begun in 2009 with The Bone Tiki and The Taniwha’s Tears. Once again young Mat finds the worlds of New Zealand’s myth and history, past and present, are flowing together, so that a visit to Taupo catapults him into a violent (and sometimes blood-drenched) adventure. The skilful interweaving of legend and reality makes for fascinating reading. As rival magicians struggle for total control, Mat has only his skill with a taiaha to depend on, when the climactic battle erupts in the Rotorua Bath House.
Another book that cried out for a sequel was James Norcliffe’s The Loblolly Boy (2009). Now, in The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer, we have an even more intriguing tale. The loblolly boy – a green-winged flying boy invisible to almost everyone – is currently Ben, who is desperate to return to his original body. The swapping of bodies can be done with a simple handshake but the interloper, now calling himself Benjy, is enjoying life in his borrowed body, making trouble at home and risking expulsion at school. When Benjy refuses to exchange, Ben is trapped as the loblolly boy in ‘an in-between world’. His dream has become a nightmare. Ben’s only ally is Mel, a schoolgirl he rescued from bullies in a very funny encounter. Can they use the services offered by the sinister Sorcerer, or is he manipulating them? The only advice Ben has comes from a supernatural sea captain and a singing gorilla. This is a richly detailed fantasy, one which cries out for another sequel.
Older teenagers (and adults) will find Joanna Orwin’s Sacrifice rewarding reading. Generations after a volcanic cataclysm has destroyed New Zealand, a gathering of the survivors’ descendants agrees on a mission of sacrifice. Five young men will be sent out into the Great Ocean on a double-hulled reed canoe in search of the legendary kum, a vegetable that may be able to raise the people above their grim struggle for subsistence in the swamps. Taka (16) would rather dance but as he learns how to build and navigate the great canoe, he and his four unlikely comrades become a team. They also become aware of the sacrifice that is demanded of them. What they find, when they undertake their voyage, challenges each of them to the utmost. Although Sacrifice is a lively adventure story, it is also a mature, thought-provoking novel.
Would a publisher have had the courage to produce such a book thirty years ago? Would the reading public for such a volume have existed? Books for New Zealand’s young readers have come a long way in three decades.
The Kuia and the Spider, Robyn Kahukiwa, Puffin/Penguin NZ, 32 pages, paperback NZ$19.99
Just One More: stories by Joy Cowley ill. Gavin Bishop, Gecko Press, 91 pages, paperback, NZ$22.99
Waiting For Later, Tina Matthew, Walker, 32 pages, hardback, NZ$27.99 ISBN 978-1-921720-05-5
The Kiwi Kid’s ABC, Rebekah Holguin, HarperCollins NZ, 32 pages, paperback NZ$19.99
At the Lake, Jill Harris, HarperCollins, 192 pages, paperback, NZ$19.99 ISBN 978-1-86950-884-5
The Lost Tohunga, David Hair, HarperCollins NZ, paperback, 368 pages, NZ$24.99
The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer, James Norcliffe, Longacre/Random House NZ, 297 pages, paperback, NZ$19.99 ISBN 978-1-877460-69-2
Sacrifice Joanna Orwin, HarperCollins NZ, 368 pages, paperback, NZ$26.99
This review originally appeared in Winter 2011 in the Your Weekend supplement of The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand.