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