Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis (Faber)

I read about this book somewhere, and now wish I could remember where it was as it was such a remarkable little read. i've read numerous pieces of it aloud to whoever would listen, such is its cleverness. Written as free verse through the eyes of Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the cat, with many other creatures included. I particularly loved the lesson of the moth. "We get bored with the routine / and crave beauty / and excitement / fire is beautiful / and we know that if we get  / too close it will kill us / but what dos that matter / it is better to be happy / for a moment / and be burned up with beauty / than to live a long time / and be bored all the while."
Lessons in life, new ways of looking at the world, a little gem.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Buzzy Bee's Birthday Party and three other stories by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Richard Hoil

This is just the sort of bright popping digital illustration and story-telling by formula that I instinctively don't like. But that's a personal taste thing, and I wanted to look more closely at this book to make a judgement that's not just whether I like it or not - essential if you have to judge books for awards, as I do at the moment.

When I looked over these four stories again I started to appreciate the cleverness. Joy Cowley is, of course, one of our most lauded writers for children, and is particularly known for the number of books she's written for the educational market, which this fits in nicely with. It's no easy task to use a restricted vocabulary and blend creatively story-telling with teaching facts like the days of the week, counting to ten and the like, but Joy does find ways to twist the tale with cleverness and play, as in the title story where Buzzy Bee carefully counts out his nine invited guests and makes sure he has nine of everything ready for the party, only to discover that there is nothing for him because he didn't count himself. Clever, and I wonder how many children will work that out as they repeatedly count to nine as the story progresses.

From an illustrative point of view this is a fairly straightforward task for the illustrator who isn't required to do more than illustrate the text, there's no sub-plot going on here, as we would look for in a more 'literary' picture book. One requirement is that he depicts the characters accurately as they are all based on classic New Zealand wooden toys - Buzzy Bee, Loopy Lou, the ducklings... The small children enjoying the books might not already know these characters but the parents and grandparents likely to be purchasing the books almost certainly will, and perhaps the toys themselves will be bought along with the books. We do love our Kiwiana here in New Zealand and I think there will be plenty who will respond to seeing their familiar toys on the cover and want to buy.

So I can't go as far as to say this is a literary masterpiece, but I can say it's an excellent example of its genre, with interesting stories to teach basic concepts, and nicely produced by Upstart Press, who are pretty new on the block.

Buzzy Bee's Birthday Party and three other stories
Written by Joy Cowley
Illustrated by Richard Hoit
Upstart Press, 2014
ISBN 978-1-927262-06-1

2-7 years
Each story can also be found as an individual book

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

Set in 19th century Norway when superstition rules and it's hard labour just staying alive. Astri (14) is sold to a horrible old goat herd by her aunt and must leave her little sister Greta behind. She dreams of escaping to go and find her father in America, but it seems she is bound for a life of slavery. She's a smart girl though, and eventually tricks old Svaalberd  and makes a desperate escape along with a dumb girl also held prisoner. In their scrambling escape and attempt to rescue the sister we are caught up in the danger as their every move is precarious and it seems they will be caught at any moment. 

Astri makes sense of the world by referring to old fairy tales, making cleverness from what we might have thought of as only a simple story, but for Astri they are part of her plot for escape and justification for everything she does, and she's not always honourable in her own actions, stealing and playing tricks on people who help her along the way. She's stroppy and determined and will do whatever she has to in order to achieve her goal but the reader might not always find themselves on her side, but you will be compelled to run along with her to see how it all turns out in the end.

There are excellent author notes providing background to the story.

West of the Moon
By Margi Preus
Amulet (imprint of Abrams)
ISBN 978-1-4197-0896-1
Hardback NZ$25.99


Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Riverman by Aaron Starmer

12-year-old Alistair thinks he's pretty ordinary and is startled when a neighbouring girl he was friends with when he was younger, Fiona, asks him to write her biography. She will tell him her story and he is to record it so that if anything happens to her people will know why.  It seems unbelievable at first but Alistair is drawn in to the story, and decides there's an underlying reason for Fiona's behaviour. 

Fiona claims that she has visited a strange parallel universe where she could create her own world by simply thinking of things which then came into being, but that there are many others who also have their own worlds, and some of them are being picked off by someone called the Riverman. Full of mystery and imagination, reality and fantasy collide and it's hard to tell what's real and what's imagined.

There is a great crew of supporting characters too, I particularly loved Charlie, Alistair's daredevil friend who blows several fingers off messing about with fireworks.

This is the first in a trilogy and wonderfully written with strong complex characters and ideas.

The Riverman
By Aaron Starmer
Farrar Straus Giroux
ISBN 978-0-374-36309-3
Hardback NZ$31.50
Fiction for 10-14 years.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Shackleton's Journey by William Grill

It's a hundred years since Ernest Shackleton selected 26 men from 5000 applicants to sail to Antarctica and attempt a crossing of the continent on foot. It didn't quite work out as they planned and this beautiful atmospheric hardback tells the story of what happened on this extraordinary journey.

While we are reading the facts they are accompanied by wonderfully simple Illustrations with coloured pencil in icy shades of blue and white, and earth shades of yellow and brown. The design reflects the subject matter, the crew and the dogs laid out in a grid, lists of supplies, maps, then big gorgeous spreads - a double page of pack ice, isolation depicted with the fainted strokes of blue on white and a tiny boat at the bottom of the right hand page, a blizzard with no text at all, just booming clouds and raging seas.

We learn about many of the individual men, how their skills and ability to improvise and work together, not just doing their work but also in cheering one another along, keeping everyone motivated.

This is such a beautiful way to learn about a subject, incorporating an artful hand with perfectly rendered text and balanced design with plenty of space, right down to the ice flow end-papers and compass-like cover illustration, this is a treasure-trove of this little bit of history.

Shackleton's Journey
Written and illustrated by William Grill
Flying Eye Books
ISBN 978-1-909263-10-9
Hardback NZ$41.50

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee (Picture book)

I requested this wordless picture book from the library after seeing it listed on several 'best of 2014' book lists and I absolutely agree that it's one that should be on the top of the pile.

A farmer - beautifully simple with his black hat, trousers and suspenders, and his white shirt and beard (looking rather Amish), is in his field with his pitchfork, gathering hay. He sees a circus train go by from which a clown baby is thrown - on purpose? practising his tumbling tricks?, either way he is smiling and tells his story in a brief series of movements before embracing then taking the man by the hand. They return to the farmhouse -a simple weatherboard home with a porch, a cow and a few chickens. As the sun sets the only other thing seen in the broad double page spread is a tree on the horizon.
At home we see a series of vignettes as they chat, eat their simple meal, wash in a barrel, where the smiley painted clown face is washed off leaving a rather forlorn face that is somehow magically portrayed with just a few dots. The next pair of illustrations show us the farmer watching the baby sleep with the moon out the window, then greeting him with funny faces as the sun rises through the window, followed by the farmer dancing and jumping until he brings a smile to the little clown's face, then breakfast and all the farm chores.

As the day comes to an end they head, with a picnic basket in hand, to that one tree seen earlier and as they sit the circus train drives across the horizon, greeted with much excitement as it stops and a carriage full of clowns emerges to greet the lost baby. The farmer isn't forgotten though, he gets major cuddles before he leaves, and a hat swap. The farmer walking home looking a mite sad but wearing his clown hat and with a cheeky monkey following behind, and we know that his simple life will never be quite the same again, each has left a bit of themselves with the other.
The superb illustrations, using black Prismacolour pencil and gouache*, are spare and echo the loneliness of the farmer's life, whilst also conveying that a few things is all you need to make a home. I love the colour palette with the farmer's black and white, the clown's red and yellow, the gold of the fields and the sunshine. The red of the clown's hat is echoed in the farmer's long johns and the picnic blanket. The big wide double page spreads seem to give you permission to stop and think about the story, what's happening? what are each of them feeling? Without a single word we are engaged and touched by these characters, and perhaps we will take a bit of them with us after reading too.

* Thank goodness for publishers who include this information in the credits.

The Farmer and the Clown
Wordless picture book by Marla Frazee
Beach Lane Books (imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing), 2014
ISBN 978-1-4424-9744-3 (Hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-4424-9745-0 (ebook)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Tā Daniel Hākari Matariki (Daniel's Matariki Feast) by Rebecca Beyer & Linley Wellington, illustrated by Christine Ross

I reviewed Daniel's Matariki Feast  for New Zealand Book Council's enews to schools The School Library last year, and now it's out in te reo Maori. The translation was done through Te Reo o Taranaki - a charitable trust, and was arranged by the authors who work at Puke Ariki.

I'm delighted that there are New Zealand publishers like David Ling at Duck Creek Press, and Scholastic New Zealand, who produce te reo versions of their picture books. It can't be a very profitable thing to do but our country needs as many of these resources as possible to keep the Maori language alive and well. 
Here's my original review:

Daniel is nervous on his first day at school. The teacher invites him to help in the garden with the rest of the class. Together, they pick pumpkins, talk about the Matariki feast they are going to have, and what the Māori New Year means. Daniel’s Mum remembers her granny looking for the seven stars, and they make her pumpkin cake for the feast. A warm, friendly story about why and how Matariki is celebrated as a time for remembering, sharing and beginning new things. Beautifully drawn illustrations capture the very Kiwi setting and celebrations. Suitable age 4–8. 

Daniel’s Matariki Feast

Written by Rebecca Beyer and Linley Wellington 
Illustrated by Christine Ross

Duck Creek Press, 2014
Hardback, ISBN 978-1-877378-90-4, $29.99
Paperback, ISBN 978-1-877378-91-1, $19.99

Tā Daniel Hākari Matariki
Publication March 2015
Paperback, ISBN 978-1-927305-02-7, $19.99