Saturday, 28 April 2012

Best Books of 2011 for Younger Readers

The Margaret Mahy Treasury, Puffin/Penguin, 256 pp, hb, NZ$45

The Call of the Kokako, Maria Gill, Heather Arnold, New Holland, 36pp, hb, NZ$29.99

501 Great Kiwi Jokes ill. Donovan Bixley, Scholastic, 112 pages, pb NZ$10

Old MacDonald’s Farm ill. Donovan Bixley, Hodder Moa [Hachett], 24 pp, pb, NZ$19.99

There’s a Hole in my Bucket ill. Jenny Cooper, Scholastic, 32pp, pb, [includes Topp Twins CD] NZ$26

Mind Your Gramma! Yvonne Morrison, ill. Nikki Slade Robinson, Scholastic, 24pp, hb, NZ$21

Rahui Chris Szekely, ill Malcolm Ross, Huia, 36pp, hb, $20

Battle of the Birds, Lee Murray, Taramea Publishing, Coromandel, 155 pages, pb, NZ$19.99

The Best New Zealand children’s books of 2011

It may be heresy but even though I have been a judge of the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a best book. Every reader is different and their judgement of what is best won’t agree with mine. The seven books I have selected certainly all meet high standards of writing, illustration and design. I think they are all marvellous books but the proof of ‘best’ remains in the reading.

Take The Margaret Mahy Treasury, for example. With eleven stories, and seven artists, it would take a brave reviewer to pick the best. A Lion in the Meadow came first, which makes it special and The Witch in the Cherry Tree fires the imagination. I love Jam because Margaret drew a crocodile in my daughter’s copy, while everyone who has ever worked in a library adores The Librarian and the Robbers. The Boy Who Was Followed Home has that perfect ending, and who can resist the rhythm and rumpus of A Summery Saturday Morning?
‘Bad dogs, bad dogs chase the cat,
Chase the cat, chase the cat.
One dog’s thin and the other dog’s fat
On a summery Saturday morning.’

The Call of the Kokako is not only 2011’s most beautiful non-fiction book for young people, it is also the most informative. Writer Maria Gill and artist Heather Arnold, who produced the award-winning Rangitoto (2009), have developed a unique style of combining appealing artwork and imaginative text. Their fresh approach has been classily supported by their publishers with a high quality hard-covered book, which captures every aspect of the Kokako. This endangered bird, with its striking blue wattles, “clinging to existence with just one claw,” is superbly presented in eye-catching colour portraits, along with its forest habitat, natural enemies, maps, Maori legend, and a ripping (true) yarn about how conservationist Geordie Murman saved ten kokako from the loggers.

Let’s be honest. The jokes in 501 Great Kiwi Jokes are not great. Instead they’re those awful gags and puns that kids adore. (‘Which months have 28 days? All of them.’) You buy this one because it helps a good cause – Cure Kids – and endure the jokes as your youngster tries them all out. Take time, however, to look at Donovan Bixley’s (donated) illustrations which are brilliant.

Donovan Bixley’s work is seen at its best in his picture book Old MacDonald’s Farm, where he has used the traditional song as a framework for a display of Kiwi culture. In one exciting day on the farm, every familiar Kiwi object from a turkey in gumboots to Buzzy Bee appears. The double page colour spreads are striking (and witty) but so is the careful detailing which allows the reader to follow each animal’s preparations for the Show, from pig’s mud-pack to the dog’s baking. (ANZAC biscuits of course.) If you look very carefully at MacDonald’s sheep trailer, you’ll see ‘DB rules’ carved on the side planks. Donovan Bixley rules indeed.

Jenny Cooper is a talented and under-appreciated illustrator, who has been creating crazy animals for years. Her pictorial version of There’s a Hole in My Bucket has an irascible duck and a passive-aggressive billygoat engaged in a never-ending duel of wits. The accompanying CD features the Topp twins, and the combination is hilarious.

A picture book that adults laugh at? A picture book about grammar? A funny book about grammar? Yvonne Martin has pulled off the hat-trick with Mind Your Gramma!, an amusing book which will make grandparents laugh as much as the grandchildren they’re reading it to. Yvonne Morrison has created some delightful moments of mutual misunderstanding between the generations, as Gramma tries to correct her granddaughter’s grammar.
‘Gramma asks me about my day, and I say, “Me and my friend played soccer.” She says, “My friend and I played soccer.” I say, “At your age?” Gramma sighs…’
Nikki Slade Robinson’s illustrations capture the warm relationship between the pair and help make this the year’s best example of good book design.

“Sometimes in the holidays, we go and stay with our relations. They live in the country. I love it there.” Chris Szekely’s Rahui begins with a richly evocative description of long summer holidays in a small coastal Maori community. “But best of all we go to the beach! I love it at the beach.” Malcolm Ross’s magnificent paintings show children playing on the sand, fishing, swimming and boating. Then the story’s mood changes. Tragedy strikes the community when a cousin, Thomas, drowns. We see the surviving children at the tangi. “A rahui was put on the beach. We couldn’t play there any more. Or fish. Or eat kina. Or swim.” When a year has passed, Thomas’s headstone is unveiled. “The rahui was over. But our love remains.” The combination of the child’s simple voice and Ross’s richly evocative paintings produce a moving acceptance of life’s joys and sadness.

Some of the most important fiction works in the world are the ‘bridge-books’, the junior novels that introduce young readers to the joys of longer fiction. Without young novels like Battle of the Birds, the future of reading is grim. Lee Murray has taken a strikingly fresh approach to an over-familiar topic. Her jaunty heroine, Annie, carried back in time by a giant eagle, finds herself in an ancient Maori society where she can speak to and understand both the birds and the people. The conflict among the birds, stirred up by the evil Haast eagle, Te Hokioi, and his fellow birds of prey, threatens the very survival of humans in Aotearoa. Annie, whose arrival has been foretold in tribal legend, now has to battle to unite the rest of the birds to resist Te Hokioi.

The appeal of this story is that nobody speaks in the high language of traditional fantasy. The birds, in particular are cheerfully conversational, “Why not join me for lunch? I’ve got some huhu grubs in.” Annie and her young Maori friends show great initiative, even inventing balloon flight, as they try to save the gentle moa and the other birds. Books as lively and exciting as Battle of the Birds reward young readers with a lifelong passion for books. And that is certainly the function of the best books.

Trevor Agnew Dec 2011

FULL PUBLISHING DETAILS:The Margaret Mahy Treasury, Puffin/Penguin, 256 pp, hb, NZ$45
ISBN 978-0-14330627-6
501 Great Kiwi Jokes ill. Donovan Bixley, Scholastic, 112 pages, pb NZ$10
ISBN 978-1-77543-035-3

Old MacDonald’s Farm ill. Donovan Bixley, Hodder Moa [Hachette NZ], 24 pp, pb, NZ$19.99
ISBN 978-1-86971-230-3

There’s a Hole in my Bucket ill. Jenny Cooper, Scholastic, 32pp, pb, NZ$26 [includes Topp Twins CD]
ISBN 978-1-77543-046-9

Mind Your Gramma! Yvonne Morrison, Nikki Slade Robinson, Scholastic, 24p, hb, NZ$21
ISBN 978-1-77543-041-4

Rahui Chris Szekely, ill Malcolm Ross, Huia, 36pp, hb, $20 ISBN 978-1-86969-470-8
[Maori language ed. ISBN 978-1-86969-471-5]

Battle of the Birds, Lee Murray, Taramea Publishing, Coromandel, 155 pages, pb, NZ$19.99
ISBN 978 0 473 18928 0

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