Join Leila Austin on a magical journey through the New Zealand forest, farting your way through a running race, classic cat dramas, and a newly uncovered piece of Aotearoa’s literary history as she reviews four new picture books.
Lost in the Forest, by David Rei Miller, illustrated by Haden Clendinning
This book combines two picture book staples: first, you’ve got one of the most classic storylines of all time about an animal searching for just the right place to make themselves at home for the night, trying out lots of other animals’ homes, then finally realising their original home was the best one all along (see also: The Monkey and the Moonbeam by Jonathan Smith, which I reviewed in January, Meerkat Mail by Emily Gravett, Welcome Home Bear by Il Sung Na, and at least a hundred more than I could possibly list). This book, however, brings a distinctly Kiwi flavour to this well-trodden storyline, which brings us to the second thing: it’s about a New Zealand bird. Let’s be real, who hasn’t written a book about New Zealand birds at this point? We clearly can’t get enough. Our main character—a young takahē called Pip—is lost in the forest, looking for just the right place to settle in for the night, and given that this is the New Zealand bush, his journey includes a bat’s cave and a tuatara’s burrow.
It’s also lovely to see a book about a takahē—the picture book spotlight tends to be heavily hogged by its cousins, the kiwi and kākāpō— with such bold and colourful illustrations
This isn’t a bad book, but I didn’t find it particularly memorable either. I would have loved to see it do a little more to distinguish itself from the crowd of very similar books that will inevitably sit on the shelf beside it. However, it’s also lovely to see a book about a takahē—the picture book spotlight tends to be heavily hogged by its cousins, the kiwi and kākāpō— with such bold and colourful illustrations. And, unlike many books in this category, the text is clear and readable, with no awkward rhyme scheme (hallelujah!). It also gently weaves some education about animal habitats into the story, with a few bonus facts at the end for the extra enthusiastic. This isn’t going to win any prizes for originality, but if you’re wanting a New Zealand bird story for a wee nibling overseas, you could do a lot worse. I expect this one will do a roaring trade in gift shops for many years to come.
Lost in the Forest
By David Rei Miller
Illustrated by Haden Clendinning
Published by Starfish Bay Children’s Books
My Bum’s on the Run!, by Dawn McMillan, illustrated by Ross Kinnaird
An unavoidable fact: everyone needs the toilet sometimes. Another unavoidable fact: Dawn McMillan and Ross Kinnaird’s series about the gassy adventures of a boy in red pants are some of the most beloved picture books out there right now. The series is not only a local best-seller, but an international one, popular enough to make it onto the shelves in Walmart. And yet another unavoidable fact: pretty much everyone has strong opinions about toilet humour in picture books. Not only strong enough to inspire semi-regular grumblings from particular corners of the children’s book community, but strong enough to cost a teacher in Mississippi his job last year after reading the first in the series to his class.
My Bum’s on the Run! sees our main character using the gassy powers of his rear end to propel himself to the finish line in a running race
I don’t personally love fart jokes, but I also think it pays to be careful about imposing our adult taste onto children’s books. It is, after all, a wonderful thing to read purely for joy, however old we are, regardless of whether or not our parents share the same joy. It’s also worth pointing out that a lot of adults quite like fart jokes too. (See: at least half of all stand-up comedy.)
The newest installment in McMillan and Kinnaird’s series, My Bum’s on the Run! sees our main character using the gassy powers of his rear end to propel himself to the finish line in a running race. The rhyme scheme fell a little flat in places, and I’m not sure it reached quite the zany heights of the original, but it delivers plenty of bum-related laughs in much the same vein as the rest of the series. Will adults complain about this one too? Yes. Will your four-year-old cry with laughter and make you read it 79,634 times? Also yes.
My Bum’s on the Run!
By Dawn McMillan
Illustrated by Ross Kinnaird
Published by Oratia Books
In or Out, by Stacy Gregg, illustrated by Sarah Jennings
The latest by the eternally versatile Stacy Gregg, author of the much loved Pony Club Secrets series, is geared towards a much younger audience. Dog is busy building with blocks, painting pictures and playing with toy dinosaurs, but his fun is interrupted over and over by Cat, who, in classic cat fashion, wants to be let in. And out. And in again. And out again. My own cat would find this dilemma deeply relatable. (It did not surprise me to learn Dog and Cat are based on Gregg’s own pets, who have their own ridiculously cute Instagram account.)
Dog and Cat are sweet, expressive, and brimming with personality and charm
The text is simple, effective, and perfect for wee’uns, and the illustrations are colourful and inviting. Dog and Cat are sweet, expressive, and brimming with personality and charm. It’s a lovely fit for a preschooler’s developmental stage, given that the story not only brings us a classic cat dilemma, but a classic toddler dilemma: trying to form a friendship while also being, you know, a bit trying. I’d especially recommend this one for a tot who lives with—and overenthusiastically loves—an animal or two.
In or Out
By Stacy Gregg
Illustrated by Sarah Jennings
Published by HarperCollins
The Uppish Hen & Other Poems, by Robin Hyde, illustrated by Dïne
On Christmas morning in 1934, four-year-old Derek Challis—son of acclaimed author and journalist Robin Hyde—found a typed manuscript in his stocking: a book of poems written, as the note on the title page explained, “SPECIALLY for him by his own mother, who hopes to have them printed with FUNNY PICTURES, ONE FINE DAY.” Sadly, neither Hyde nor Challis would live to see the manuscript published, but Challis cherished his mother’s gift for the rest of his life; more than eighty years later, he could still recite poems from The Uppish Hen word for word. And fortunately for us, almost ninety years later, that one fine day has finally come.
Hyde was at the height of her powers as a writer when she penned The Uppish Hen. It’s from the same wildly productive stretch between 1933 and 1937 when she wrote her treatise on journalism, Journalese, along with three novels and two poetry collections. Much like Hyde herself, the poems exist in a kind of twilight zone between the northern hemisphere and New Zealand. Badgers, starlings, mice, and other mainstays of early 20th-century British children’s literature make their appearances, but in The Littlest Moon, a tūī sneaks in as well, to call goodnight from the “whispery-brown” pines.
Hyde’s poems are delicate, beautifully crafted, and brimming with magic
This book is an important piece of Aotearoa’s literary history, but will children connect with it in 2023? I’m not a child, but I certainly did. It reminded me of curling up with a big book of classic children’s poetry my family owned when I was very young. Of how every now and then I would come across a line that made me shiver, a verse that spooked me so much I could only read it in full daylight on a particularly brave day, or a poem that felt like a much longer story impossibly contained within a few short lines. Hyde’s poems are delicate, beautifully crafted, and brimming with the same kind of magic, with lines like “Nobody ever talks to a snail, when sane;/Especially not in a silvery spider-web rain”. They’re also rooted deep in a child’s world, and full of the kind of small, shining moments that pass most adults by: helping a snail cross the road, secretly listening to starlings singing high up in the chimney, discovering a tiny hidden kingdom of “secret houses, fern hung, cool and tiny” and “twisty stairways built to beetle size,” a place especially for scruffy children and make-believe, where you “mustn’t come…looking neat and tidy.”
If you read closely, there’s an undertone of sadness to the whimsy. Hyde worked hard to provide for Challis, who was born illegitimately and raised secretly in foster care. She spent long tracts of time apart from him, travelling great distances for her work and enduring brutal bouts of mental illness. The Uppish Hen was most likely written during Hyde’s stay at Grey Lodge, a clinic attached to what was then known as Auckland Mental Hospital (now Unitec), where she was recuperating from depression and addiction. You can feel a parent’s yearning for a child dearly beloved and sorely missed, especially in ‘The Dream Child,’ where she conjures a mysterious, magical companion to keep her son company while he sleeps. (There’s probably a master’s thesis waiting to be written here if you’re keen.)
This book is not only seeped in Hyde’s love for her son, but also with the passion of everyone involved in finally bringing it to publication. Dïne’s illustrations fulfil—and far exceed—Hyde’s “funny pictures” brief, adding beautifully to the sense of wonder the poems convey. And, like the poems, they’re full of tiny, perfect details for a child to pick out and enjoy.
Dïne’s illustrations fulfil—and far exceed—Hyde’s “funny pictures” brief, adding beautifully to the sense of wonder the poems convey
But is it relevant to a child in 2023? Well, when I was partway through writing this review, my eight-year-old admitted that while I was out of the house, he secretly plucked the book off my desk and read the whole thing. Two of the poems were a bit sad, he told me, but he liked the rest.
I hope many more kids get a chance to curl up with this one. It’s a gem.
(For more about the life and work of Robyn Hyde, visit https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4h41/hyde-robin and https://nzhistory.govt.nz/people/robin-hyde )
The Uppish Hen & Other Poems
By Robin Hyde
Illustrated by Dïne
Published by The Cuba Press
Formerly a children’s bookseller, Leila Austin can now be found working in the many weird and wonderful libraries of Central Auckland (she managed to find a job that takes her to all of them). She loves fantasy novels, fancy tea, and going for long walks in pretty places.