Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Picture Books: Summer Holiday Reading 2012 
By Trevor Agnew

 [First published in Your Weekend Magazine, The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand]

2012 has been a great year for Christchurch’s Gavin Bishop. Not only has he had two new books published (Margaret Mahy’s Mr Whistler and Footsteps Through the Fog) but four of his earlier works have also been re-issued.  The most welcome of these is the paperback edition of Piano Rock: a 1950s Childhood. This memoir of Bishop’s early years in Kingston, on the southern shores of Lake Wakatipu, is a reminder that Bishop is a brilliantly evocative writer as well as one of the best children’s book illustrators in the world. (He also won an award for its design.) Here is life in the 1950s, with coal ranges, knitted pullovers, school concerts, steam trains, kerosene lamps, Pixie Town and girdle scones (recipe included). Both young readers and adults will be captivated by Bishop’s ability to recreate the smells, moods, fears and joys of his rural childhood, especially the climactic Guy Fawkes bonfire, where 8 year old Gavin’s imagination runs away with him.

Katarina (1990) is Bishop’s pictorial retelling of the remarkable odyssey of his great-aunt, Katarina (Catherine) McKay, 1842-1935, a Tainui Maori, who in the 1860s made the journey from the Waikato to Fortrose in Southland, to be re-united with her Scottish husband. (Intriguingly Bishop later discovered that the moko he created for the picture of his great-grandmother, Irihapeti, was identical to one she wore in real life.) The illustrations, re-scanned from the original artwork, are powerful and moving, as is Katarina’s life of devotion to her family. As Katarina puts it, “I’ve been too busy looking after my kids to die.”

 Kiwi Moon (2005) is the most perfect blending of Bishop’s story-telling skills and his artistic talent. On one level it is a beautiful tale of Little Kiwi, a rare white kiwi, and his relationship with Te Marama, the moon. The brave bird not only saves his mother from hunters’ dogs but also guides a little lost girl, a Pakeha settler, to safety. Because Little Kiwi only comes out at night, all the illustrations show night scenes, with mono-prints of plants, insects and trees. Interspersed among these are beautifully detailed ink and watercolour pictures of Maori life which tell another story without words.  Fighting between Maori and Pakeha has led to destruction and loss of life. The trees are cut down and fire rages through the bush. Bishop’s intertwined stories reach a connected and hopeful conclusion, making it a beautiful parable of New Zealand’s past (and perhaps) its future.

In Counting the Stars (2009) Bishop continues his re-telling of Maori legends and illustrating them with colourful mono-prints. The four stories tell of the separation of Earth (Papa) and Sky (Rangi), the war among the birds, Kae’s theft of a pet whale and the love of Hinemoa and Tutanekai. Each is vividly told and illustrated.

Peter Gossage has retold fifteen Maori legends in his long picture book career but The Giant of Lake Wakatipu is the first one to be set in the South Island. Using his familiar ‘stained-glass’ style of illustration, Gossage shows how the beautiful Manata was saved from Matau the giant by her lover Matakauri.  As Gossage shows, Matau’s grim fate still projects its mythical power in the pulsing waters of Lake Wakatipu.    

Kiwi Play With Me is a magnificently illustrated counting book created by Lyttelton artist, Helen Taylor. “I’m a little kiwi. Will you play with me?” A kiwi chick, who invites friends to come and play, is joined by one kea, two bats, three frogs and, so on, up to ten kauri snails. Taylor has managed the difficult feat of bringing all 56 examples of New Zealand fauna together in one glorious picture at the conclusion. The elegant shapes and dramatic colours of Taylor’s illustrations are skilfully complemented by her bouncy verse narrative.

Remember that November began life as New Zealand’s contribution to an international anthology of peace stories. Jennifer Beck uses the framing narrative of a young girl’s contribution to a speech contest, reminding her listeners that, on November the 5th 1881, an armed advance on the village of Parihaka was met by passive resistance. The story is told briefly but with power. Lindy Fisher’s dramatic collages use such powerful symbols as the plough and the white feather to reinforce Te Whiti’s famous instruction: “Be you steadfast in all that is peaceful” (An identical Maori language edition is also available.)

Mokena Reedy’s popular Timo and the Kingfish (2000) has been revised, and given handsome new colour illustrations by Jim Byrt.  Timo ignores both safety rules and Maori protocol when he goes fishing out at sea, thus endangering the life of his dog Pou. Fortunately Tangaroa is impressed by Timo’s courage, and Pou has a life-saving talent, so all ends well. This book will be a lively springboard for discussions of the issues involved.  (An identical Maori language edition is also available.)

The Best-Dressed Bear (2002) is another re-issued classic, featuring Diana Noonan’s well-loved teddy bear and his owner Tim.  Tim is a little concerned that he is outgrowing his favourite clothes and he doesn’t want Mother to give them away. Luckily Tim thinks of a solution: his teddy bear can wear them. “But just until he gets too big for them!”
This logical and amusing solution makes both Tim (and his readers) feel warm and contented. Elizabeth Fuller’s delightful pictures add to the pleasure.

Reading (and in the case of the classics, re-reading) these New Zealand picture books has given me enormous satisfaction. These are truly books that can be enjoyed by all ages.
Their high standards of design and presentation mean that there is a skilful marriage of good story-telling and inspired art.  New Zealand’s high reading standards are based on a foundation of good books about our own country, and these nine picture books are exemplars.

Trevor Agnew, Summer 2012

Full Publishing Details:

Katarina, Gavin Bishop, Random House (NZ Classic), 30pp, pb, NZ$19.99
ISBN 978-1-86979-064-6

Counting the Stars: Four Maori Myths, Gavin Bishop, Random House, 48pp, pb, NZ $19.99   ISBN 978-1-77553-017-6

Kiwi Moon, Gavin Bishop, Random House, 32 pp, pb, NZ$16.99
ISBN 978-1-86979-074-5

Piano Rock: a 1950s Childhood, Gavin Bishop, Random House, pb, 120 pages, NZ$24.99   ISBN 978-1-77553-257-6

Kiwi Play With Me: A Kiwi Count-Along Book, Helen Taylor, Puffin, 32pp, pb, NZ$19.99   ISBN 978-0-143-5049-5

Remember that November, Jennifer Beck, ill. Lindy Fisher, Huia, 32 pp, pb, NZ$20
ISBN 978-1-77550-010-0

The Giant of Lake Wakatipu, Peter Gossage, Puffin, 32pp, pb, NZ$19.99
ISBN 978-0-143-50560-0

Timo and the Kingfish, Mokena Potae Reedy, ill. Jim Byrt, 32pp, pb, NZ$20
ISBN 978-1-77550-046-9

The Best-Dressed Bear, Diana Noonan, Elizabeth Fuller, Scholastic, 24pp, pb, NZ$19.50
ISBN 978-1-77543-139-8







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