Book Reviews: New (mainly) factual picture books

Thalia Kehoe Rowden reviews three new mainly factual picture books: two historical stories told from the point of view of animals, and a work of fiction providing an introduction to visiting someone else’s marae.

Bess the Brave War Horse, by Susan Brocker, illustrated by Raymond McGrath (Scholastic)

If ANZAC Day is on your mind, and you’re looking for a new picture book to give children a glimpse of the ANZAC experience, here’s Bess the Brave War Horse.

The true story of a horse and rider from the Manawatū – we’re told in the endnotes that there’s a memorial to Bess near Bulls – this is very much a horse-eye view of war.

Susan Brocker tells the moving story of Bess’ journey all the way from New Zealand to Egypt and back again. We feel sorry for the hundreds of horses swaying below decks on the steamship, and experience curiosity along with her when she finally gets back onto solid land, but it’s sandy and hot, and full of grumpy, smelly creatures with humps!

The illustrations are full of movement and also help centre the story on Bess. Raymond McGrath’s colour palette takes us from rural New Zealand to the dusty desert, and the rough sea travel scenes are particularly immediate. My daughter liked spotting women in hijab in the market scenes, where Bess gives a local child a ride. The broad strokes mean we never get right up close to the action, but are at a slight remove, which feels appropriate for the material and time period.

Susan Brocker is in calm control of the story, always telling it from Bess’ point of view, with just a bit of insight into Guy Powles and their shared experiences of war, from training, to tug-of-war play battles, to the real thing, with shells exploding and bullets flying.

Spread from Bess the Brave War Horse, by Susan Brocker, illustrated by Raymond McGrath

Her language is rich and varied, without being over-wordy:

‘Bess joined many other horses on a wharf shadowed by a looming troopship. Crowds cheered and waved flags as troopers led the horses up a narrow gangplank into the dark hold of the ship.

‘Over four hundred horses were crammed below decks. Bess’s cramped stall gripped her heaving sides. “It’s okay, girl,” her handler said, stroking her sweaty neck. When the ship’s horn blasted a farewell, she snorted with fright.’

The violent war scenes are just one part of Bess’ story. It’s almost more worrying for us when the army plans not to repatriate her. Luckily, all ends well, with Captain Powles pleading and getting special permission for her to return.

The final scene, of Bess with Captain Powles’ son on her back, in a paddock of flower, rounds off Bess’ journey and provides an emotionally satisfying closure to the book. Bess the Brave War Horse is not so much the story of war through a horse’s eyes, but the story of a horse and rider, who happen to go to war.

Bess The brave war horse

By Susan Brocker

Illustrated by Raymond McGrath

Published by Scholastic

RRP: $28 (Hardback)

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A Cat Called Trim, by Corinne Fenton, illustrated by Craig Smith

Another new picture book bringing history to life through the eyes of an animal is A Cat Called Trim.

Trim is a courageous cat born at sea in 1799 who thrives on board a long-distance sailing ship. He’s the first up the mast when the bosun calls for the sails to be changed, and bosses around the other animals. When one day he has an unfortunate accident, Matthew Flinders rescues him, and the two become companions.

The busy, charming illustrations take us all over the world, on land and at sea, and you want to reach through the pages to give Trim a pat or go for a swim.

Australian children may or may not be aware that Trim’s friend Matthew is a famous explorer and cartographer, and a third of the way through the story, he gets ‘orders to explore and chart the unknown southern coast of Australia’. This framing of Australia as ‘unknown’ is problematic, to say the least, though it is of course how Matthew and his compatriots thought of the land.

Early on there’s a scene with a kind sailor called Bongaree, who some research tells me was a famous Kuringgai man from north of what is now Sydney, who sailed with Flinders as he mapped the coast of Australia. But he appears only this once, and his story is not told in the book. In the illustrations, Bongaree is shown mending sails, though his position on board was to mediate with locals as the ship carried out its survey of the coast.

Trim sailed with Flinders in many ships. Little illustrated vignettes tell us which ship we’re on as the story progresses, and the endpapers are detailed maps of the routes. Despite this context, the story comes across as a little disjointed. It covers all of Trim’s life, and perhaps tries to pack in too many small historical stories. Several characters are introduced, even by name, but only appear on a page or two before we’ve moved on – much like Trim, I suppose.

The book, like Trim’s life, has a melancholy ending. Flinders is in jail and Trim disappears. Though in reality Matthew Flinders believed Trim only disappeared because he was killed, Corinne Fenton fudges this and frames his disappearance as characteristic of his independent nature. Narratively, it feels a bit odd that we started with Trim’s perspective but don’t see what’s next for him.

The endnotes make sure we know that Matthew Flinders really did value Trim so highly that there are even several statues of the pair together.

A cat called trim

By Corinne Fenton

Illustrated by Craig Smith

Published by Allen & Unwin

RRP $27.99

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The Marae Visit, by Rebecca Beyer and Linley Wellington, illustrated by Nikki Slade Robinson, translated into te reo Māori by Hōri Rākau (Duck Creek Press)

This short, simple description of a school visit to a marae is a useful book for households who aren’t regularly on marae themselves.

We see things from the perspective of a primary school class of diverse children, who have a lovely visit. They are welcomed by the elders, take their shoes off to go inside, and take turns to introduce themselves. Then there’s fun with poi, rākau and kite-making, a good lunch, and a spontaneous haka while they play, with some impressive pūkana.

The text is in English and te reo Māori on each page, with just one or two sentences on each spread. It’s good to see both languages in the same font, given equal space. I found it jarring, though, that Māori words – like pūkana, pōwhiri, and rākau – had no macrons in the English, which simply amounts to misspelling, and makes it more difficult for English speakers to correctly pronounce these words.

Spread from The Marae Visit, by Rebecca Beyer and Linley Wellington, illustrated by Nikki Slade Robinson, translated into te reo Māori by Hōri Rākau

I would have appreciated a little more detail of the formalities of a marae visit. We see karanga and hongi, but little else on the ātea, though that does serve to put the focus on the child-focused hospitality and fun that makes up most of the day’s activities. Similarly, there’s less description of the physical space than I expected, but it’s nicely integrated.

The story is told in the first person, but we don’t know which of the children pictured is speaking – it’s really the collective experience of the class. No one is named, we just hear that ‘a teacher’ calls the class to lunch, and the kind-faced kuia, kaumatua and ringawera are all similarly unnamed.

The Marae Visit a straightforward, positive introduction to visiting someone else’s marae, from a child’s point of view.

The Marae Visit

By Rebecca Beyer and Linley Wellington

Illustrated by Nikki Slade Robinson

Published by Duck Creek Press

RRP $19.99 (paperback) $29.99 (hardback)

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Thalia Kehoe Rowden
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Thalia Kehoe Rowden is a former co-editor of The Sapling, and a Wellington writer and human rights worker. She is passing on a family inheritance of book dependency to her two small children, and is delighted to be part of The Sapling, as it gives her even more excuses to read excellent children's books. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and ​at ​her parenting, spirituality and social justice website, Sacraparental.