Book Reviews: Five Aotearoa Picture Books

Our first post-hiatus batch of reviews comes from Kay Benseman, with her incredibly thorough insights into books with questions, laughs, things to look for, local history and some sticky situations.

Jiffy’s Greatest Hits by Catherine Chidgey and illustrated by Astrid Matijasevich

Jiffy is one of the Bee family’s pet cats (they have several). He is a rascally, nocturnal ngeru with two differently coloured eyes and a penchant for singing at night to draw the attention of his owners. Hōhā! We find him waking his family at all hours, entertaining them in rhyme, based on the author’s experiences with her own cat.

Catherine Chidgey’s first picture book, Jiffy, Cat Detective, introduced this interesting pet. Still, I was confused by the many white cats with yellow and/or blue eyes featured in the illustrations of this sequel. Astrid Matijaswevich has drawn a portrait gallery introducing this big family of odd-looking cats on the inside cover. However, I found it distracting seeing them scattered throughout the book, as they look similar to Jiffy; it wasn’t always clear who was who. But my kiddo loved looking for clues (like a purple cat collar) to determine which cat was Jiffy. The loose line drawings and flat colours suit the story’s chaotic events but combined with the typeface, it looks less polished than Bateman Books publications usually are.

The mentions of cow poo, toilet paper and roaring dinosaurs contributed to the playful appeal for any young reader who loves the uncouth or fearsome. This funny story will especially resonate with anyone who has shared a house with a wakeful cat who has frustrated them with nocturnal activity. The frazzled and sleep-deprived whānau in Astrid’s illustrations were particularly apt and reminded me of Lynley Dodd’s Slinky Malinky in Open the Door.

Jiffy’s Greatest Hits

Written by Catherine Chidgey

Illustrated by Astrid Matijasevich

Published by Bateman Books

RRP: $21.99

The River in our Backyard/Te Awa e Pātata Rawa Ana by Malcolm Paterson (Ngāti Whātua), illustrated by Martin Bailey

The River in our Backyard / Te Awa e Pātata Rawa Ana is the fourth book in Malcolm Paterson’s ‘backyard’ series. Like his previous books, it’s packed with historical facts, pūrākau, storytelling and kupu hou. This publication is the first fully bilingual (te reo Māori and English) book, but it also includes Tamil vocabulary throughout.

The story unfolds through the premise of whanaunga visiting their family in Ōrukuwai on Te Atatū Peninsula in Auckland. Together they explore the rohe in and around the Waitematā Harbour. An illustrated map within the book shows the locations discussed; anyone who isn’t from or familiar with Tāmaki Makaurau may have appreciated finding this on the inside front cover.

It’s great to see picture books representing modern and intergenerational families set in Aotearoa, especially when it is a natural part of the story and not an overt feature. The multilingual families in Malcolm Paterson’s books reflect his lived experience of his own Malaysian Indian and Māori whānau. This is similar to the rainbow family in The Things in the Sea Are Touching Me (by The Sapling’s new editor, Linda Jane Keegan). However, I think introducing the trilingual aspect of this book at the outset of the story would greatly help the reader engage more efficiently.

The River in our Backyard / Te Awa e Pātata Rawa Ana felt more like an educational resource for supporting curriculum-based investigations than a picture book. It is quite a long story packed with information, translations and details. There’s so much great content for children to learn, but it is a little overwhelming. The acknowledgements mention a teacher resource for the book, which was tricky to find on the Oratia website, but after a bit of digging I found the link so you don’t have to.

Martin Bailey’s illustrations are very detailed but not eye-catching, with muted colours limiting the appeal for young tamariki. I was frustrated with the appearance of imagery from the past alongside contemporary forms; it wasn’t communicated clearly that each page showed timeline fluidity. I had to frequently stop reading to answer my kids’ questions about what was happening in each scene. Seeing the influence of history and tūpuna in the everyday is a beautiful way to understand history. Still, I felt it needed more visual cues to limit the confusion.

Each page houses a lot of text, including te reo Māori and English content. I love that the similar typographic treatment of both languages gives them equal mana on the page. I also appreciated the different kupu scattered throughout the conversation, which really reflects many of the code-switching that multilingual whānau have. It’s brilliant hearing pakiwaitara about specific parts of the motu told by mana whenua. I imagine this will be an excellent resource for Auckland kura, families, and any uri o Ngāti Whātua Orakei.

The River in our Backyard | Te Awa E Pātata Rawa Ana

Written by Malcolm Paterson

Illustrated by Martin Bailey

Published by Oratia Media

RRP: $22.99

Ooey Gooey Surprise by Karen Mowbray and Lisa Allen

This is a funny tale of a bold and kind kid, Joe, who attempts to surprise his Pop with a birthday cake he’s baked himself –with terrible results. Reading this with my children prompted a round of recalling our worst kitchen experiments and much laughter. It was lovely to share together, but not a calming book for bedtime!

Ooey Gooey Surprise truly captures the unique quality of chaos that is baking with children, worsened by the lack of adult supervision. My tamariki thought it was hilarious, and they’ve threatened to bake me a surprise birthday cake by themselves #blessed.

Unfortunately, the rhyming is flawed, and it wasn’t easy to find a comfortable flow. I’m not a fan of the ‘Mum-as-boss-despite-blissfully-ignorant-Dad’ trope, and while not central to the story, it would have been refreshing to see more balanced family and gender dynamics.

Each page is illustrated with clear imagery, building a visual sense of the gooey mess that Joe is creating. The simple pastel tones are lovely, and I look forward to seeing what else Lisa Allen creates.

Ooey Gooey Surprise

Written by Karen Mowbray

Illustrated by Lisa Allen

Published by Bateman Books

RRP: $21.99

Have you seen tomorrow? by Kyle Mewburn and Laura Bee

The brilliant Kyle Mewburn has once again written a sensitive story for little ones that prompted kōrero of gratitude in my whānau. Have You Seen Tomorrow? won’t disappoint anyone who has loved Kyle’s other beautiful books; our favourites are Blue Gnu and Hūhū Koroheke.

Told from the perspective of Rabbit, we meet a range of Northern Hemisphere creatures who are called on to help their bunny friend find the tomorrow he dreams of. A place imagined to be more beautiful and wondrous than the here-and-now of today. The animals seek this out through sensory experiences of their environment, which could be a lovely prompt for children learning about their five senses. For my tamariki, we began talking about our hopes for our ‘tomorrow’, the importance of being present and what we are grateful for in our lives today.

This beautiful story is enhanced through Laura Bee’s dreamy, textural pictures that drew me in, despite my tamariki flicking backwards and forwards through the pages to find tiny details and hidden clues. Her work wasn’t known to me, but once I discovered that Laura Bee had illustrated Sarah Milne’s Kiwis and Koalas as Laura Bernard, I appreciated the similarly intelligent treatment of the animal characters, which contributed to the success of this gorgeous book.

Have You Seen Tomorrow?

Written by Kyle Mewburn

Illustrated by Laura Bee

Published by Penguin NZ

RRP: $19.99

A Stick and a Stone by Sarina Dickson, illustrated by Hilary Jean Tapper

In this delightful book, we follow a group of friends on a tramp through the ngahere. I really enjoyed the story, and it quickly became one we returned to reread as a family.

This book is beautifully illustrated by Hilary Jean Tapper, who depicts each scene with a restrained palette. It reminds me of our dog-eared copy of The Baby‘s Catalogue by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. My tamariki pored over each page, searching for small clues and details, anticipating what would happen next in this beautiful adventure.

The easy rhyme makes this a great read-aloud book; the lines felt almost lyrical. Sarina Dickson introduces some great vocabulary to younger children while ensuring the story is accessible. I especially loved the rascally behaviour of a kea, adding some drama to the otherwise simple tale. Any adult who has been responsible for small children on a bushwalk will empathise with a brief but tense few pages of uncertainty (don’t fear, all ends well!). A Stick and a Stone is a wonderfully poetic Aotearoa picture book set in te taiao.

A Stick and a Stone

Written by Sarina Dickson

Illustrated by Hilary Jean Tapper

Published by Hachette

RRP: $19.99

Kay Benseman

Kay Benseman (she/her) is a collector of quirky children's books and kupu hou. In the 90s, she worked in a bookshop and had a 40% staff discount, and her bookshelves have never recovered. With a background in education and the cultural sector, she is now a writer/researcher and Māmā to two curious children. He tāngata Tiriti ia, Kay is Pākehā living on Ngā Rauru whenua in Whanganui.