Various Authors/Illustrators
Lopdell/Random House | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

REVIEWING children’s books is unusual for me. I don’t have kids of my own, and I can’t pretend to be down with what the kids are into. Nor can I really claim to know what makes a good kids book. Reading some of these books, I couldn’t help but have my sensible, logical adult brain get in the way of fully accepting the story or wondering how children would react to them. No doubt some kids will like them and some won’t. I do, however, have some children’s books in my library because I like them as books, as stories. And I really like some of these.

First up is Stanley Palmer’s To The Harbour ($34.95), a work initally knew nothing about. I knew Palmer is an artist and print maker, but I had never been that drawn to his work. However, reading this book, I was completely pulled into his world. He successfully paints, both literally and lyrically, a post-war New Zealand unknown to me, though often romanticised (by myself and others), that it is both of its time and timeless. Apparently Palmer wrote it in 2006, and made the prints around the same time. The success of the story is down to the authenticity of the language, reviving colloquialisms of his childhood, and the boys-own adventure tale. It had the ring of autobiography, being as it is a number of vignettes about a week long camping trip on the Manukau harbour.

The illustrations are charming, and have encouraged me to revisit his other work. They certainly help paint Palmer’s world, but with such evocative text it’s a little disappointing that they don’t add much to the story, tending to just illustrate a sentence of text. The colours are muted, suggesting a certain fading of the past, or sombreness about the loss of innocence. Unlike most children’s books the people are depicted almost anonymously, letting us put ourselves in the picture. It certainly brought back to mind my own youthful adventures. It’s a lovely read, though not an entirely happy one, which I recommend for you as much as for your kids.

Random House are currently republishing a number of classic NZ children’s books. The Magpies ($24.95) is the third of these and is due for release in mid-April. It’s a short, simple book featuring Dick Frizzell illustrations of Denis Glover’s iconic poem. The poem itself is short (six verses), and somewhat depressing, what with it being about the Depression, and, in Bill Manhire’s words, “about how precarious our purchase on things can be and how relentless and implacable the natural world is.” The poem doesn’t scream the Depression, merely economic downturn, meaning there is a timelessness to it. The fact that it ends rather bleakly makes me question its suitability for younger children, but then it is real, and eventually everyone has to learn that life has its ups and downs.

Anyway, the real reason for this book’s existence – and republication – is Frizzell’s paintings. They are gorgeous, celebratory, cartoonish, evocative, and delightfully colourful. In short they’re Dick Frizzell paintings. They expand on the text; creating a wider story for the poem to hang on, with each verse illustrated across a double-page spread.

What really makes this book so wonderful is the clever design. The famous Magpie refrain, and the magpies themselves, are hidden behind a half page within each double-page spread. It is a superb way to treat the chorus, and it reinforces Glover’s meaning.

I’m happy to accept that this is a classic, a classic poem and a classic book – and one not just for kids. I’m not so convinced about the earlier two Random House classics though.

I won’t deny Gavin Bishop’s artistic abilities, but Mrs McGinty and the Bizarre Plant ($19.95) didn’t really do it for me as a story. Maybe I was trying to read too much into it, or not enough. A lonely, miserable woman buys a plant, a magical plant, which grows so big her neighbours decide they like her. I didn’t find it a particularly interesting story, and I can’t quite work out what the moral is, assuming there is one – people are fickle, maybe. It didn’t grab me as a story children would want to revisit, but I’m happy to put this down to that sensible, logical adult brain of mine. The illustrations are typically lovely Bishop – all fine detail, and quiet palette, and won him the 1982 Russell Clark Medal for Illustration. I did like the recurring Edmonds Building with its iconic ‘Sure To Rise’ logo, and its subtle comment on the magical plant, and Mrs McGinty herself.

David Elliot’s The Adventures of Sydney Penguin ($24.95, two stories in the one book) seems to owe a debt to Bishop’s layout ideas – not that I’m an authority on such matters. Both make good use of the page, using different layouts to enhance the story, not relying on the standard one image/one piece of text per page.

Elliot does rely on the old animal anthropomorphism thing though. I’m not entirely sure why, but then the stories are so fanciful that it probably doesn’t really matter. Call me a curmudgeon, but I do get annoyed when writers get basic science wrong. With both stories set in the “cold southern oceans” I was pleased that we didn’t see any polar bears – or mammoths or sloths or sabre-toothed squirrels. I can kinda live with the penguin and whale as best friend’s idea – kinda (it’s about accepting people’s differences and that kind of stuff, right?).

Both ‘Sydney and the Sea Monster’ and ‘Sydney and the Whalebird’ reminded me of the fanciful (and not particularly good) film Wild Wild West, in that they all involve an anachronistic construction of fanciful machines. Both stories are fine, not amazing, but I would imagine them to be pretty exciting for children – especially the first few times. And, of course, there’s a redemptive quality in the fact that Sydney is a troublesome individual who has a habit of messing things up, but always saves the day and makes amends for his earlier mistakes. How lovely. Yeah I’m a cynic.

In August Random House are to republish Katarina, another Gavin Bishop story. Based on the true story of Bishop's great aunt, and her journey from the Waikato to Otago to join her Scottish husband in the early 1860s. It sounds like it’ll be a fascinating read, and one worth checking out.

As I said I’m not exactly an authority on children’s books – I always take wild stabs in the dark when buying books for my nieces hoping that they’ll like them, though I’m never sure. While I’m happy to whole-heartedly recommend both To The Harbour and The Magpies, I can’t be sure kids will like them, so flick through all of these titles yourself, buy the one(s) you like, ignore everything you’ve just read, and just think of the children.