Book Reviews: Three New Picture Books

A notorious witch, some butterflies, and a fantail that can’t stay still. Reviewer Holly Walker enjoys a trip down memory lane with BadJelly, but will her daughter come with her?

Badjelly the Witch, by Spike Milligan (Penguin NZ)

Badjelly the Witch! Special 45th anniversary edition! With the original radio play!

I was very excited to introduce my four-year-old daughter Esther to Tim and Rose and Binkle-bonk and Dinglemouse and Jim the Giant Eagle and the rest, but alas, she couldn’t get past the witch part. When I finally managed to convince her to let me read this to her, we got as far as the little robin warning Tim and Rose that “there is a wicked witch in there, her name is BADJELLY, she catches little children and turns them into sausages and eats them!” before she very firmly closed the book and told me she’d had enough thank you.

No amount of persuading since has convinced her to look at it again, and when I asked her what I should say in my review she said “very bad.” Consider yourself warned.

No amount of persuading since has convinced her to look at it again, and when I asked her what I should say in my review she said “very bad.”

So, you might find yourself reliving this classic on your own, but really that’s perfectly fine. It more than stands up after 45 years. Milligan’s original handwritten text is delightful, full of eyes in the OOs and Ys with antlers like stags. The larger illustrations are also brilliant, including the classic portrait of Fluffybum the cat, drawn of course from his best side: behind.

Fluffy Bum the Cat, copyright Spike Milligan

In the story itself, the language is constantly surprising and charmingly punctuated: They came to a big big mountain, but it had a big white beard on. “What a silly mountain! Why has it got a beard” said Rose, a little mouse popped his head out of a hole and said ‘He’s got a beard because hes lost his razor” (sic).

Milligan’s madcap delivery in the radio play brings the story even more alive, barrelling through it in much the way I imagine he told it to his daughter Jane at bedtime all those years ago. The music too, transported me straight back to where I first heard it, in my grandmother’s floral-carpeted lounge.

Milligan’s madcap delivery in the radio play brings the story even more alive…

Turns out I had retained more of these sense memories of Badjelly the Witch than plot details, so I was surprised when God showed up and ensured the witch’s ultimate demise. This made me mildly grateful I didn’t make it that far with Esther – we haven’t talked about God yet in our house and this would have produced a lot of difficult questions.

Like all wicked witch stories, Badjelly is slightly problematic from a gender perspective, but at least Milligan acknowledged this in the dedication: “to Badjelly the witch who comes out of this worst”.

Milligan himself, the comic genius who would have been 100 this year, comes out best. Recommended for ages 5-100.

beautiful mess

badjelly the witch

By Spike Milligan

Published by Penguin NZ

RRP $28.00

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Flit the Fantail and the Flying Flop, by Kat Merewether (Scholastic NZ)

Flit the Fantail chick is not allowed to fly. That’s the first line and premise of this simple but charming story.

Ma and Pa fantail fly off to find food for Flit and leave him in the nest with clear instructions to stay put. But Flit can’t resist going after a tasty midge, and he ends up flopping onto the forest floor. A cast of helpful native birds show up to help him back up to his nest, but none can quite manage it on their own. Perhaps by working together the birds can get Flit home before his parents return?

Some ‘New Zealand flora and fauna’ picture books can feel a bit generic. At first glance, I worried that Flit the Fantail and the Flying Flop might be one of these, due to Merewether’s cute, slightly cartoonish illustrations. However, the alliterative, onomatopoeic text makes this book something quite delightful.

…the alliterative, onomatopoeic text makes this book something quite delightful. 

My almost-ready-to-read four-year-old was riveted from the first page, laughing out loud, and learning as she went. The words are often arranged on the page to help illustrate the meaning (for example, the letters of the word “fall” descending), and I was astonished when my daughter, looking at the book and, hearing me read “Flit’s puku is too plump,” asked “which word is ‘plop’ Mum?”, correctly anticipating Flit’s next failure.

flit the fantail and the flying flop

Merewether clearly knows her young audience well, and loves helping them discover the joy of language. By the end I was even coming around to the illustrations. Recommended for ages 3-6 (great for early readers).

flit the fantail and the flying flop

By Kat Merewether

Published by Scholastic NZ

RRP $17.99

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Secret World of Butterflies, by Courtney Sina Meredith, illustrated by Giselle Clarkson

Picture book Secret World of Butterflies is a tie-in with the Auckland Museum exhibition of the same name, which has just opened this month, and will run until May next year.

Poet Courtney Sina Meredith and (The Sapling’s own) illustrator Giselle Clarkson were inspired local choices for the commission and they’ve done a lovely job. The text is simple: each lushly illustrated page presents an interesting fact about butterflies. Gentle partial rhyme from line to line or page to page holds the text together as a whole. At the back, each page is reproduced in miniature in a ‘Fun Facts’ section with more detailed information put together by Auckland Museum staff.

Gentle partial rhyme from line to line or page to page holds the text together as a whole.

If you’ve got a butterfly lover, this book is a great opportunity to extend their knowledge beyond the magic of metamorphosis into the remarkable habits of butterflies themselves. Especially impressive in my house were the fact that some butterflies drink crocodile tears (they actually tickle its eyes until it cries so they can feast on the good stuff), can taste with their feet, and a page illustrating what butterfly vision probably looks like compared to what humans see. Information about the colour and consistency of a butterfly’s first poo also produced a giggle.

Pages 3-4, Secret World of Butterflies

I thought even more could have been made of the source material – the first page, for example, simply says butterflies can be big or teeny, but it was only by turning to the back that I learned that the biggest is the size of a chihuahua. This seemed too good to potentially miss, though I can see that the detail has been relegated to the back to keep the main text appealing to young children.

Clarkson’s illustrations are the real highlight of Secret Life of Butterflies. Richly detailed, colourful, scientifically accurate, but still consistent with her cute trademark googly-eyed style, these butterflies are full of personality. Recommended for ages 3-6 (though older children may enjoy the fun facts at the back).

elastic island: jewel lagoon

secret world of butterflies

By Courtney Sina Meredith

Illustrated by Giselle Clarkson

Published by Allen & Unwin NZ with Auckland Museum

RRP: $22.99

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Holly Walker
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Holly Walker is a writer, reviewer and children's advocate. From 2011 - 2014 she was a Member of Parliament for the Green Party. Her essays and reviews have been widely published, and her first book The Whole Intimate Mess, a short memoir about motherhood, politics and women's writing, was out from Bridget Williams Books as part of the Texts series in 2017. She is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing. Holly lives in Petone with her partner, and her two daughters.