Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Spring 2012 New Zealand Picture Books
By Trevor Agnew

Mister Whistler  Margaret Mahy, ill. Gavin Bishop, Gecko, 32 pp, hb, NZ$34.99
ISBN 978-1-877467-91-2

The Word Witch  Margaret Mahy, ed Tessa Duder, ill. David Elliot, HarperCollins, 168 pp, pb, NZ$39.99  ISBN 978-1-77554-001-4

The Man from the Land of Fandango  Margaret Mahy, ill. Polly Dunbar, Frances Lincoln, 28pp, hb, NZ$29.99  ISBN 978-1-84780-220-0 
Mangu & Ma  Megan Bowers-Vette, HarperCollins, 18pp, board book, NZ$14.99
ISBN 978-1-86950-995-8

ABC, Colours, Counting, Little Fronds: books for kiwi babies  Matthew Williamson, ill. Fraser Williamson, Puffin NZ, 20pp, board books, NZ$12.99
ISBN 978-0-143-50555-6
ISBN 978-0-143-50554-9
ISBN 978-0-143-50556-3

Kiwi Play With Me: A Kiwi Count-Along Book  Helen Taylor, Puffin, 32pp, pb, NZ$19.99
ISBN 978-0-143-5049-5
Kaha the Kea  Craig Smith, ill. Bruce Potter, Craig Smith Publishing [PO Box 330, Queenstown 9348], 32 pages, pb, NZ$26.    ISBN 978-0-473-21350-3

Slinky Malinki, Early Bird  Lynley Dodd, Puffin, 32 pages, hb, NZ$24.99
ISBN 978-0-149350546-4

The Frog Footy Player  Chris Gurney, ill. John Bennett, Scholastic, 24pp
hb, NZ$18.50, ISBN 978-1-77543-057-5

The Three Little Pigs  Roger Hall, ill. Errol McLeary, Scholastic, 48 pages, pb, NZ$19.50
ISBN 978-1-77543-095-7

 Born to Fly    Julian Arahanga, ill. Andrew Burdan, Huia, 40pp, Pb, NZ$25
ISBN 978-1-77550-004-9

Victory at Point 209  Kawata Teepa, ill. Andrew Burdan, Huia, 40pp, pb, NZ$25
ISBN 978-1-77550-005-6

New Zealand Picture Books for the Young of All Ages
By Trevor Agnew

 In the year Margaret Mahy was born (1936), only four books for young readers were published in New Zealand.  During her lifetime she saw a marvellous blossoming of locally-produced children’s books, much of it due to her inspiration and effort. In the literal sense Margaret Mahy died this year (2012) but, for her readers, she will be alive whenever one of her books is read. Meanwhile, because of the mechanics of publishing, new books by Margaret Mahy will continue to arrive for some time.

Margaret Mahy saw the proofs of Mr Whistler before she died, and they were also on display at her memorial service, where her family insisted that Gavin Bishop do a “product placement” for the forthcoming book. Having a picture book promoted during a funeral was a magnificently Mahyan moment, relished by all present.  

Mr Whistler is the story of a young man with such music in his soul that he dances in his sleep and dances as he dresses in the morning. He also dances while he waits for his train but then he finds he has mislaid his ticket. Young eyes will soon spot the missing ticket but Mr Whistler removes his clothes, item by item, searching for it. “Suddenly people were clapping and cheering. ‘What dancing!’ they cried. ‘What energy! What grace!’” Mr Whistler has more misadventures with his ticket before the train leaves but, thanks to his skilful dancing, all ends well.

Gavin Bishop’s watercolour illustrations add an extra dimension to the story. He has recreated the railways (and men’s fashions) of the early 1950s with loving attention to detail. Mr Whistler’s graceful dance movements reflect the music that twines across every page. The last picture has a bonus for sharp-eyed readers.

The nicest thing ever to happen in Ashburton was the display of David Elliot’s brilliant paintings for The Word Witch, the collection of Margaret Mahy’s poems, edited by Tessa Duder, which has just been re-issued in paperback. This new edition contains a beautifully recorded CD of Margaret reading such favourites as Bubble Trouble and Down the Back of the Chair. Both of these poems have been published as picture books in their own right, illustrated by Polly Dunbar There are plenty more in this rich collection which may yet appear as books.

In fact, The Man from the Land of Fandango is just such a picture book, setting Margaret Mahy’s bouncy words to Polly Dunbar’s equally lively pictures. “Oh whenever they dance in Fandango, the bears and the bison join in, and baboons on bassoons make a musical sound.”  Artists can add a great deal to the stories they illustrate and Polly Dunbar has provided a marvellous framing device for this book. Two children draw their own picture of Mr Fandango, who then comes to life with his light-bulb body, rosy cheeks and stick-like feet. He is a child’s illustration who is free to dance on ceilings and walls, then bounce with kangaroos. The result is a gleeful celebration of the magic of Margaret Mahy’s verse.

Picture books are for all ages to enjoy.  Mangu & Ma [black & white] is a collection of sharply-contrasted black-and-white photos by Megan Bowers-Vette. This ‘first-focus’ board-book, intended for little babies as they develop their focussing skills, has sharp images of familiar objects: buttons, clothes pegs, balls, shells, flowers and, of course, a baby.

A trilogy of board books for slightly older Kiwis to get their teeth into has been written by Matthew Williamson and illustrated by his brother, Fraser Williamson, (known to children for his book and School Journal illustrations and to adults for his milk advertisements). Counting matches numbers with New Zealand birds, from ‘one midnight morepork’ to ‘ten prancing Pukeko.’ ABC provides 26 examples of familiar Kiwi objects including ‘L is for Lolly’ to ‘Q is for quadbike.’ (My favourite is ‘F is for fish. This one is chocolate.’) Colours also uses local examples, so flax is green, pohutukawa is red, paua is purple and you know what is black. Fraser Williamson’s artwork is a delight, and the board books are durable enough to survive heavy use.

Canterbury author and artist Helen Taylor has created a magnificent cumulative story in Kiwi Play With Me. Little kiwi seeks friends to play with and he is soon joined by one kea, two bats, three frogs and so on up to ten snails. Each creature is beautifully delineated and coloured. The concluding picture with all 56 playmates present is a joyous celebration of our wildlife.

Kaha the Kea is a story told in verse (and in song in an attached CD) by Craig Smith (of Wonky Donkey fame) about his youthful encounters with an audacious kea at Arthur’s Pass. Kaha mauls Dad’s Holden Torana and steals Mum’s earrings. Can nothing stop the cheeky kea? Bruce Potter’s splendid colour illustrations provide a very funny kea-stopping conclusion. As well as the CD, there’s also a link to Craig’s kea conservation message on YouTube and an interactive e-book for your iPad.

Another New Zealand creature famed for his impudence is Lynley Dodd’s famous prima donna puss. In Slinky Maliki, Early Bird, the self-centred feline makes an early morning visit to every member of the household. ‘He purred in their ears and he pounced on their toes.’ Lynley Dodd’s witty verse is as skilful as her colour paintings of the grumbling family being roused. The conclusion is irresistibly funny: ‘Slinky Malinki went straight back to bed.’ 

Scholastic’s Kiwi Corkers series of ten poetic parodies of well-known fairy stories is the best picture book value around. The eleventh in the series is by talented wordsmith Chris Gurney who, in The Frog Footy Player, has created a Kiwi version of the classic The Frog Prince.  When Kiri kicks her beloved autographed football into the creek, guess who rescues it in return for a promise of chocolate fish and chance to watch TV? The moral is sound, Chris Gurney’s verses are bouncy and John Bennett’s illustrations capture the fun of the tale.

Roger Hall provides a valuable service with his version of The Three Little Pigs. Not only does he provide an updated story (Mother Pig tosses her three lazy sons out so she can go on a world cruise) but there is a bonus play-script, complete with props list and poster. Errol McLeary’s cartoons look delicious and the wolf, a smooth ‘meal estate agent,’ has all the best lines.

Finally Huia Publishers are offering two picture books ideal for boys who think they don’t like reading let alone picture books. Call them graphic novels, call them manga, call them comics; it doesn’t matter. Get those lads a copy of Julian Arahanga’s Born to Fly and Kawata Teepa’s Victory at Point 209 and even if they’re illiterate they’ll learn how to read just to find out what’s going on in these illustrated biographies of war heroes, Squadron Leader Porokoru ‘John’ Pohe and Lieutenant Moana Ngarimu. Andrew Burdan has illustrated both books in the style of the old Commando Comics (currently being reprinted) complete with speech balloons, well-researched uniforms and equipment, dramatic sound effects (Vrowwwl!, Boooom! Ratatatatatat!) and lively action.
Born to Fly details Pohe’s inspirational career as a bomber pilot and one of the 77 involved in the ‘Great Escape’ from Stalag Luft III.  Born to Fly tells how Ngarimu won his posthumous VC in the North African desert. Both men died too young, and these books will help bring them alive for a new generation of New Zealanders. 

That’s fourteen New Zealand titles selected from the picture books alone. Margaret Mahy would have been proud.


Trevor Agnew
Spring 2012

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








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