Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Winter Picture Books 2012
By Trevor Agnew

 These reviews of picture books first appeared in the Your Weekend magazine, 8 September 2012, published by The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand
The Hueys in The New Jumper  Oliver Jeffers, HarperCollins, 28 pages, HB, NZ$29.99
ISBN 978-0-00 742065-0

The Fishing Trip  Beatrice Rodriguez, Gecko, 28 pages, hb, NZ$ 24.99
ISBN 978-1-877579-24-0

Farmer John’s Tractor  Sally Sutton, ill Robyn Belton, Walker Books, 24 pages, hb, NZ$29.99   ISBN 978-1-9211150-94-4

A Mammoth in the Fridge  Michaël Escoffier, ill Matthieu Maudet, Gecko, 36 pages,
pb, NZ$19.99, ISBN 978-1-877579-15-8. 
hb, NZ$34.99, ISBN 978-1-877579-14-1

Oh No. George!  Chris Haughton, Walker Books, 32 pages hb, NZ$27.99
ISBN 978-1-4063-3225-4

The Great Orlando  Ben Brown, Helen Taylor, Scholastic, 32 pages, pb, NZ$21 ISBN 978-1-77543-087-2
Melu  Kyle Mewburn, ill. Ali Teo & John O’Reilly, Scholastic, 32 pages, hb, NZ$33  ISBN  978-1-77543-027-8

The Best-Loved Bear  Diana Noonan, ill Elizabeth Fuller, Scholastic, 24 pages, pb, NZ$19.50   ISBN 978-1-86943-347-5

These eight picture books have every creature from a mule to a mammoth, a hen to a teddybear, as their main characters, but they all have in common a marvellous sense of the potential humour in an everyday situation. It is always a heart-warming moment when you see a young reader spotting a joke in a book for the first time.

In his delightful picture book, The Hueys in The New Jumper, Oliver Jeffers has set up just such a transforming moment; several of them in fact. The Hueys may just be tiny egg-shaped figures with stick limbs, but they are all too recognisably human. “The thing about the Hueys was that they were all the same.”  When Rupert knits himself a sweater, he suddenly looks different. His fellow Hueys are shocked and intrigued. But then Gillespie knits himself a sweater so that he will look different as well. And it’s here that readers’ smiles start appearing, as they get the joke. More are to come.

Appearances can be deceptive, as Béatrice Rodriguez enjoys showing in her series of wordless picture books about the adventures of a fox and a hen, The Chicken Thief (2009) and The Treasure Thief (2011). Their sequel, The Fishing Trip, begins with Fox and Hen at a moment of crisis; there is no food. Leaving her precious egg in Fox’s care, Hen sets off with Crab to catch some fish. The visual aerodynamics of the pair’s battles with vigorous fish, a very hungry eagle and a very, very hungry eel provide some gleeful slapstick fun. Then comes the triumphant return home, and a sudden panic. Has Fox eaten her egg? Once again Rodriguez forces her young ‘readers’ to re-examine the evidence, before they enjoy the happy ending.

Sally Sutton has a great ear for sounds and rhythms, so Farmer John’s Tractor, her verse account of cumulative disasters during a flood is wonderful to read aloud. “It rushes and gushes. It spurts and twirls.” The flood creates traffic mayhem, and soon a series of vehicles are trapped, including a tow-truck and a fire-engine. At each crisis, the chorus reminds us that “Farmer John’s tractor lies locked in the shed.”  Soon Farmer John produces the key and the rusty tractor chugs off to the rescue. Robyn Belton’s water colour illustrations are delightfully rich in detail, such as the procession of piglets that trails after Farmer Jones.

The title sets the scene perfectly in Michaël Escoffier’s A Mammoth in the Fridge.  A French family’s meal is interrupted when young Noah spots the giant beast hiding in their refrigerator. “Whoops!” Firefighters fail to capture the fleeing mammoth, which stampedes down the street and climbs a tree. When the mammoth declines to leave the tree, everyone loses interest and goes home. Even as the sheer ridiculousness of this situation tickles the funnybone, the question arises: what is going on? Escoffier is in full control of his plot and the events that follow make perfect sense. They’re also skilfully illustrated by Matthieu Maudet, who has certainly created the best picture ever seen of a mammoth climbing quietly up the stairs.

Oh no, George! is both the title of Chris Haughton’s very funny picture book and the response to the question repeated throughout it: “What will George do?” Since George has been left at home with some pot plants, a cat and a cake, the answer is no surprise. What is surprising is what follows when George decides to be really good. “I hope I’ll be good, George thinks.

The Canterbury author-artist team of Ben Brown and Helen Taylor has taken a new path with The Great Orlando, a picture book about an ill-treated boy who seeks an escape in magic tricks. His conjuring performance with a dove at his school concert is not only a success for Orlando, but also enables him to deal with his cruel father in a way that young readers will enjoy.  As always, Helen Taylor’s magnificent pictures contain hidden depths

Melu is the unforgettable name of the mule, who stars in the latest picture book written by Kyle Mewburn and illustrated by Ali Teo and John O’Reilly, (the award-winning team who created Kiss! Kiss! Yuk! Yuk!) Melu is always out of step. “When the herd clipped, Melu clopped.” Defying his herd’s advice, Melu leaves the sun-baked hills and sets out for the grassy plains and gleaming sea. There are many barriers in his way but Melu finds that with the help of new friends and their sharing of talents, a new life is possible. This is a cheerful fable, with gentle humour and lively illustrations. 

Best news of all is that Diana Noonan’s classic The Best-Loved Bear (1994) is back as a Platinum bestseller. Battered, balding, tatty and missing most of his left ear, Tim’s teddybear Toby is his best friend. (Elizabeth Fuller’s pictures are a perfect reminder of all the threadbare bears in our past.) Toby is also a source of worry for Tim, when his class holds a best-loved bear contest. Ashamed, Tim smuggles shabby Toby to school in a brown paper bag, but the judge has a surprise for everyone. The children who read this prize-winning book when it was first published are now old enough to be parents and teachers. What memories they’re going to have as they read it to the next generation!

Trevor Agnew
April 2012




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