Reviews: Three Non-fiction Books


This batch of non-fiction reviews is brought to you by Sue Esterman, featuring a collection of New Zealand adventurers, a collection of Kiwi sports heroes and an epic illustrated biography.

Epic New Zealand Adventurers, by Maria Gill and Marco Ivancic (Upstart Press)

This is the most recent book by creative non-fiction writer Maria Gill, and it presents ten stories about adventurous—and maybe seriously risk-taking!—New Zealanders.

Some of them, like Jean Batten and Ed Hillary, are virtually household names, while one or two others are less well-known, for example Cam McLeay and Helen Thayer. I learned quite a lot more about them and their exploits.

And what exploits: solo flying, a solo traverse to the magnetic North Pole, mountain climbing without oxygen, sailing to various places in different kinds of boats, cycling, and even a tractor ride in Antarctica.

Spread from Epic New Zealand Adventurers by Maria Gill and Marco Ivancic

I imagine that young readers might not be familiar with some of the names, but it won’t lessen the impact of the stories.

Creative non-fiction is a good description; the writing is a combination of fact and interpretation. There are comments which sound as though they are quotes from the adventurers, which bring the stories to life. I feel that young readers will enjoy this, as it gives you an idea of the personality of each adventurer.

The illustrations, which are well-conceived and extremely well-executed by Marco Ivancic, add a great deal to each story. They conjure up a real sense of danger, thrills and excitement—the one which grabbed me the most is the tractor balanced precariously above a cracking ice floe. But they are all good.

Spread from Epic New Zealand Adventurers by Maria Gill and Marco Ivancic

One small niggle that I have is that the maps, while helpful in a broad sense, don’t show some of the names of places which are mentioned in the text. So if you wanted to know where Paraa is (it’s in Uganda!) you would need to go searching elsewhere. This might be an adult reaction rather than a kid reaction, though, and it does not affect the stories themselves.

Overall, I think this book is a good introduction to some of our intrepid Kiwi adventurers, and older readers might well be inspired to search for more to read and find out about them.

Epic New Zealand Adventurers

By Maria Gill and Marco Ivancic

Published by Upstart Press

RRP: $28.00

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Good Sports: A Storybook of Kiwi Sports Heroes, by Stuart Lipshaw (Puffin)

What a great collection of heroes in this beautifully produced book.

There are 49 lovely two-page stories, and an illustration of each hero. Some of them we have all heard of, like Sir Peter Blake and Precious Mackenzie; others are a little less well-known, like Honey Hireme-Smiler and Gala Baumfield. And who’d have thought a horse would make this cut? But Charisma is there, with a fabulous painting by Vasanti Unka. (Charisma was the horse ridden by equestrian Mark Todd. He was a remarkable horse, and his nickname was Podge!)

Some pages from Good Sports: A Storybook of Kiwi Sports Heroes by Stuart Lipshaw

What I really like about this book is that many of the people have had struggles in their lives, or hurdles to overcome (pun not intended!), and they have all worked hard to stay positive, work out what they needed to do, and succeed at what they love.

It’s very easy to write a piece about someone famous and focus on the fame, but Stu Lipshaw cleverly works challenges, dreams, determination and inspiration into each story. He also has a very wry sense of humour and I found myself laughing out loud quite often—not least at Danyon Loader’s bath regime if there was no time to get to the pool.

There’s a very strong message running through the book, which is important for young readers to learn: it’s possible to overcome all kinds of challenges if you believe in yourself, and that it’s important to celebrate even the small wins, as really that’s what life is made of. Celebrating the small things “makes our lives a little bit better every day”. We need to chase our dreams, follow our passions. And always give it – whatever it is –  your best shot.

Some pages from Good Sports: A Storybook of Kiwi Sports Heroes by Stuart Lipshaw

The illustrations are by 11 different artists, and they complement the stories well. I mentioned Vasanti Unka, but other standouts for me are Neil Bond, whose illustrations are a little more detailed, Toby Morris, and Taupuruariki Whakataka-Brightwell whose father is the subject of one of her illustrations. The book is full of powerful portraits by these talented people.

This is a book I’ll give to my young relatives, and hope that I will be the one reading the stories to them. 

Good Sports: A Storybook of Kiwi Sports Heroes

By Stuart Lipshaw

Published by Puffin

RRP: $45.00

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My Aunt Honor, by Gillian Torckler and illustrated by Adele Jackson (Bateman Books)

This is the story of Honor Hassett who joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during the Second World War. She was the great-aunt of the book’s author, Gillian Torckler.

Spread from My Aunt Honor by Gillian Torckler and Adele Jackson

I found this book a little awkward as a picture book, particularly on the first read-through. And I think it’s because I am used to picture books as stories, not as fact – and I know there are zillions out there, but in my aging head I still want a story, preferably with a comfortable—if not a happy—ending. This one certainly does not have a happy ending, as Honor is killed by an enemy bomb while working in the hangar. But when I re-read for the umpteenth time, I found that my perspective changed. Whatever I had thought of as awkward initially settled into my being comfortable with a style I was not used to, and I enjoyed the book more each time I read it.

So, the book does work. The story is concise and factual, and the illustrations and speech bubbles on each page give an extra dimension and personalise the story. When Honor decides to join the WAAF, her family and friends are a tad dismissive, and that comes through nicely in the illustrations. As she continues preparing to leave, everyone has an opinion, and Adele Jackson’s pictures show this brilliantly. In fact I think the illustrations make the book work really well. There is great attention to detail, from the 40s-style clothing and those clunky shoes, to the interiors of Honor’s home with an old-school radio and radiogram.

Spread from My Aunt Honor by Gillian Torckler and Adele Jackson

There are a couple of pages of background information, mostly about women in World War II, which are well-researched and provide context for Honor’s work. This will be useful for parents and teachers reading this book to kids, as the story will definitely spark some questions about the war.

This book would be a great addition to school and classroom libraries; I used to teach juniors about a war hero from the school where I was librarian, and we had no published stories about him. So this book, and others from Gillian Torckler (particularly My Name is Henry Fanshaw) are just the kind of book I would have appreciated 20 years ago!

My Aunt Honor

By Gillian Torckler

Illustrated by Adele Jackson

Published by Bateman Books

RRP: $25.00

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Sue Esterman

Bookaholic, bookseller, celebrant, dog-lover, ex-librarian, JP and musician of sorts. I have been a reader for ever, still remember borrowing my first book from Canterbury Public Library when I was about three years old. It wasAnd to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.I particularly love YA and kids fiction, but will give anything a shot if it appeals. So I always have a huge pile of books waiting to be read.