Friday, 23 December 2016

Helper and Helper

Helper and Helper (2017)
Joy Cowley
Ill. Gavin Bishop
Gecko Press
114 pages
Paperback: NZ$23  ISBN 978 1 77657 105 5
Hardback: NZ$30 ISBN 978 1 77657 147 5


In December 2016, Gavin Bishop was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Canterbury: Doctor of Education (honoris causa). Citing his “over 70 books, 40 non-fiction stories and 30 educational readers,” the encomium continued, “Mr Bishop has made a significant, long-term contribution to his own field and to New Zealand’s cultural development and understanding. In doing so, he has made a major contribution to the wider national and international community. His endeavours have brought credit to himself, his family and the University. His achievements in children’s literature are particularly relevant to the teaching and research in the fields of teacher education and educational studies and leadership within the College of Education, Health and Human Development.”

Not only that, but at the ceremony Gavin looked extremely dignified in his red gown and medieval cap, adding considerable gravitas to the already dignified proceedings.

Afterwards, I asked him about his latest book, Helper and Helper (written by Joy Cowley and illustrated by Gavin) and discovered that, although I had just received my review copy, he still hadn’t seen the finished book. He did, however, tell me the story of how Helper and Helper came into being.

 Joy Cowley and Gavin Bishop were at the Taipei Book Fair, where they were both astonished to meet hundreds of young fans of the Snake and Lizard books. The publisher of the Chinese-language editions made a subtle suggestion that the series really needed a third book. “We find that sets of three are very popular.”

That night, Joy Cowley started writing in her hotel room and by the next day, she had completed the framework of what was to become Helper and Helper.



Helper and Helper reunites the animal world’s oddest couple. Snake and Lizard (2007) and Friends: Snake and Lizard (2009) introduced the ill-matched pair of reptilian social workers who give advice to other desert creatures. Of course, Snake and Lizard have their own constant disagreements and misunderstandings, which are a source of great amusement for young readers. Along the way everyone learns something about life. This is Aesop’s Fables for the internet generation.

Joy Cowley has acknowledged that the personalities of the two unlikely companions, Snake and Lizard, are lightly based on herself and her husband. Snake is the clever, controlled one, thoughtful and caring, while Lizard is kind, full of ideas, and exuberantly enthusiastic. Together they make an irrepressible team.

Their patch of the southwestern desert has so many customers with problems that Snake and Lizard have to expand their underground premises. Along the way they have arguments about everything from why their clients should be called patients to whose name should go first on their new signboard.

My favourite story, The Aunts, concerns Lizard’s fifteen aunts who decide to take up residence in the newly-expanded burrow, and Snake’s interesting method of dealing with them. It is a subtle and witty tale, one where the reader sees slightly more than the characters do. This is truly skilful writing, Joy Cowley at her best.

The colour illustrations represent Gavin Bishop at his best. His pictures are an important element of each story, matching the mood and offering extra insights. A good example occurs when a misunderstanding leads Snake to fear that disaster has befallen Lizard. “Snake was helpless with grief.” The accompanying picture shows Snake coiled up tightly in the darkness, mouth open in a wail of despair.

The illustrations also show the various desert creatures sympathetically. Even the menacing turkey buzzard appears, or at least its head does. Its eye is alarming, while the eye of the ancient tortoise, shown in another illustration, is wise and compelling. The rugged desert scenery is beautifully portrayed and the striking endpapers depict the wide range of desert birdlife.

Helper and Helper is continually enlivened – even in the serious moments – by Joy Cowley’s sense of humour and down-to-earth wisdom. She even enables Snake to solve the age-old mystery of the difference between telling lies and telling stories.

Snake says, “Lizard, there is something you should know about stories. They are just a different kind of real.”

Trevor Agnew



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