Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Best New Zealand Picture Books of 2012

Best New Zealand Picture Books of 2012: 
by Trevor Agnew

New Zealand picture books are like a grape harvest. Publishers try to produce books that will tickle the palates of young readers and their parents. Since tastes vary, there will never be agreement on what is ‘best,’ but the 2012 picture book harvest has been a good one, with many books to savour. 

Margaret Mahy’s stories, both posthumous titles and reprints, have been the most popular. Atmospherically illustrated by Gavin Bishop, Footsteps through the Fog is Mahy’s tribute to the human senses. A family of five children, visiting the beach, are engulfed by a sudden fog, and become disoriented. “The fog’s just swallowed the world,” wails Max, but his sister Anthea leads them all to safety. Although the story never states directly that Anthea is blind, the reader is aware that she has been listening intently on the way to the beach. Now Anthea uses her hearing to find the stream and bridge, her memory to count the perilous steps – all 23 of them – and her sense of smell to locate the gardens and bakery on their way home. All royalties from this book go to Royal NZ Foundation of the Blind. A complete Braille alphabet is included so young readers will be able to ‘read’ the title embossed in Braille on the front cover.

Mr Whistler is a young man who adores music; he even sings and dances in his sleep. When he goes to catch a train, Mr Whistler mislays his ticket and has to strip off his clothes to search for it, right down to “his elegant spotted underpants.”  Young readers take great glee in the dressing and undressing of Mr Whistler, and they also enjoy the superior pleasure of knowing where the ticket is all the time. Margaret Mahy has put some amusing twists at the end of her tale, and Gavin Bishop’s stylish 1940s period illustrations conceal yet another surprise for Mr Whistler.

 A pleasant surprise in 2012 is the return of Whitcoulls to publishing, marked by Read Me Another One, Please!, a well-packed anthology of New Zealand stories and poems, selected by Belynda Smith and Dorothy Dudek Vinicombe. The stories and poems are widely selected and even include some complete picture books, such as Gavin Bishop’s version of Chicken Licken and Dorothy Butler’s Birthday Rain, which will now delight a new generation of readers. Other writers represented include Michael King, Margaret Mahy, Tessa Duder and Joy Cowley. Every one of the 33 offerings has its own illustrations, nearly all in colour. This collection deserves its title and is also the best value of the year.

Naughtiness has always appealed to young readers, and I Love Lemonade, by husband and wife team Mark and Rowan Sommerset, sees the return of Little Baa Baa and Quirky Turkey, whose exploits in Baa Baa Smart Sheep won the 2011 Children’s Choice Award.  Determined on revenging himself, Quirky offers Baa Baa a glass of refreshing lemonade. “It looks a bit like pee,” says Baa Baa, and in a quickfire conversational exchange, the sharp-witted sheep confuses the turkey into having a drink. “Guzzle, guzzle, guzzle,” will be a catch-cry among the young readers who will find an extra (naughty) surprise at the conclusion of this improper tale.

Gecko Press has had such success in marketing English translations of award-winning foreign children’s books that a Ph.D. thesis is being written on their influence. A handsome example of Gecko’s non-fiction picture books is the French Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animals, by Hélène Rajcak and Damien Laverdunt. This large format hardback uses a witty mixture of scientific text and comic book to record the extinction of some 27 species, from the Sicilian dwarf elephant to the Pig-footed bandicoot. The lively presentation includes maps, glossary, time-lines and some droll speech balloons: “Hello, I’m Charles Darwin. I don’t know it yet but I’m going to become a very famous scientist.”  This book is ideal for future famous scientists who don’t know their Dodo from their Moa.

Two of Sweden’s brightest talents combine in the endearing illustrated story The Best Singer in the World by Ulf Nilsson, with pictures by Eva Eriksson. The six year old narrator has the tiny part of Mole in his school play but is tormented by stage fright. On opening night, the play is saved by the thoughtfulness of his young brother, when the pair combine in an unscheduled, very amusing (and slightly naughty) performance, to the delight of audience and readers alike. This may be the best book about singing in the world. It’s certainly the funniest.

 Maori titles are the specialty of Huia Publishers, and their young people’s books for 2012 included Julian Arahanga’s lively war biography Born to Fly  the story of Flying Officer Porokoru ‘Johnny’ Pohe’s flying career. A bomber pilot in World War 2, Pohe was shot down and later took part in the ‘Great Escape’ of 1944, with tragic consequences.  Andrew Burdan has illustrated Born to Fly in the dramatic black-and-white style of the old Commando war-comics. Many key Maori aspects of Pohe’s life are subtly included in the well-researched text and pictures; when Pohe enrolls at Te Aute College, the spirits of Sir Peter Buck, Sir James Carroll and Sir Apirana Ngata are looking down at him. This is the ideal book for people who think they don’t like reading.

The best picture book of the year is Glyn Harper’s Le Quesnoy: the story of the town that New Zealand saved.  A First World War story, it unusually, has a civilian as its narrator. The unnamed French girl is six when the Germans occupy her home town of Le Quesnoy with its elaborate ancient fortifications. “It was a terrible time for us. The Germans took anything they wanted…Anyone who complained was thrown into jail.”  She describes the events of the final week of the war when, rather than shelling the city, New Zealand soldiers used scaling ladders to cross the city walls and force the Germans to surrender. Not one civilian died. Glyn Harper knows how to tell a story and he carries his deep military knowledge lightly as he sketches in the broad outlines of the tale. Christchurch artist Jenny Cooper’s colour illustrations capture the drama of the action, along with the picturesque nature of its setting. The human cost of the action is not glossed over; in the final picture the little girl is laying poppies on one of the 130 New Zealand graves. Le Quesnoy is a well-designed book with its text and illustrations perfectly matched. Handsome and moving, it is an exemplar of the New Zealand picture book.
Trevor Agnew, 20 November 2012
[First published in Your Weekend Magazine, The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand]
The Best NZ Picture Book of 2012:
Le Quesnoy: the story of the town that New Zealand saved, Glyn Harper, ill Jenny Cooper, Scholastic, $20

The Rest:
Mr Whistler, Margaret Mahy, ill Gavin Bishop, Gecko, hb, $34.99

Read Me Another One, Please! selected by Belynda Smith and Dorothy Dudek Vinicombe, Whitcoulls, hb, $29.99

The Best Singer in the World, Ulf Nilsson, ill Eva Eriksson, Gecko, hb, $34.99; pb, $19.99

I Love Lemonade, Mark and Rowan Sommerset, Dreamboat Press, hb, $29.99

Footsteps Through the Fog, Margaret Mahy, ill Gavin Bishop, Puffin, pb, $20

Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animals, Hélène Rajcak and Damien Laverdunt, Gecko, hb, $37

Born to Fly, Julian Arahanga, ill Andrew Burdan, Huia, pb, $25

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