A Range of New Picture Books from Aotearoa

July 26, 2018

Thalia reviews four new picture books from Aotearoa: a whimsical gumshoe story, two books introducing our wildlife taonga to children, and a sensitive portrayal of the grandparent-grandchild relationship, and the Vietnam War. 

 

 

Detail from the cover of Whose Home is This? by Gillian Candler, illustrated by Fraser Williamson

 

Whose Home is This?, by Gillian Candler, illustrated by Fraser Williamson

It’s not often I think a picture book is flawless, but I’m going to declare today that all three in this series qualify.

 

Whose Home is This? is the third in Gillian Candler’s and Fraser Williamson’s set of gorgeous guessing-game books that help children develop their scientific observational skills, coming after Whose Beak is This? and Whose Feet are These?

 

For each of the 12 native animals featured in each book, Williamson has created two lush, vibrant paintings. The first is a circular peek at a nest or other habitat, and the text below asks, for example, ‘Whose home is this, made from twigs and grass, among the flax bushes by the shore?’ Children can have a guess, and they’ll get some of the answers right first go, but most of us will be surprised by a few. We turn the page for the answer, a second, full-page painting of the creature in its home and context.

 

The pictures are gorgeous: life-like without trying to be photographic, with thoughtful and varied composition. The colours are inviting and the order of animals provides contrast. A rocky coastal landscape is followed by a bright underwater paradise; a carefully-woven nest in a tree comes after gloopy mudflats.

 

The pictures are gorgeous: life-like without trying to be photographic, with thoughtful and varied composition. The colours are inviting and the order of animals provides contrast.

 

Gillian Candler knows just how much to tell us, and when. The question on each guessing page describes the home in one clear, but information-packed sentence: ‘Whose home is this, high up in the trees above the river where the whitebait run?’

 

The next page in each set tells us the answer in the same format each time, starting with the Māori name for each creature, then using the English name if there’s a difference, and giving a couple of sentences of habitat or behaviour information: ‘It’s Kōtuku’s home. White herons build their nests high up in the trees by the Waitangiroto River. This is the only place in New Zealand where they raise their young, but kōtuku may be seen in other parts of the country when they are not breeding.’

 

Here is page nine, asking the question, followed, below, by page ten, telling us the answer. Can you guess whose home this is? Don't scroll down too fast!

 

 

 

If my children (three and six) had to choose just one page as their favourite, I think for both of them it would be the index spread at the end, where circle details of the answer pages are captioned with the Māori and English names. My three-year-old gives me instructions for how we are to perform these pages, lately wanting me to ask her ‘Kei hea te kekeno?’ (Where is the kekeno/fur seal?), so she can answer ‘He kekeno tēnei.’ We must complete all twelve before we’re allowed to open another book. This is the absolute limit of our family's reo Māori, and it’s helped hugely by the way the book is presented.

 

Any book can be made interactive by its readers. The strength of books like the ones in this series is that their structure is inherently interactive, inviting children to use their brains, and become co-creators of the book.

 

Any book can be made interactive by its readers. The strength of books like the ones in this series is that their structure is inherently interactive, inviting children to use their brains, and become co-creators of the book.

 

For me, these books have it all. They’re beautiful, interactive, thoughtfully written, include respectful use of te reo Māori, and increase children’s scientific skills and knowledge. Get hold of all three.

 

 

Whose Home is this?

by Gillian Candler

Illustrated by Fraser Williamson

Potton & Burton
RRP: $15.00

 

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Who Stole the Rainbow?, by Vasanti Unka

What a delight to be surprised by the palette of a picture book! Children’s illustrators are a marvellously varied bunch, but it’s a long time since a book has struck me as so fresh and unique in its approach to colour.

 

Vasanti Unka has subtitled her book ‘a mystery thriller’ and she has a lot of fun bringing a gumshoe dog in to solve the puzzle of the disappearing rainbow. Inspector Beagle conducts a scene search (lying on his back in a field of flowers, staring at the sky), questions witnesses and interviews suspects (the cloud, the wind and the rain), before having a brainwave at a milk bar.

 

The story is quirky and fun, with lots of clever touches, such as the flat-screen TV that’s branded ‘SAMESONG’. There’s some wonderful rhythm and vocabulary in the text. The opening sentence is:

The sky was grey

but the sun was smiling
when a razzle-dazzle rainbow
beamed a big HELLO!

 

Isn’t that fabulous?

 

Unka is the designer of the book, as well as the author and illustrator, and she brings her A-game to all three roles. The composition of the pages is excellent, with a great use of the wide double-page spreads, interspersed with one-page scenes. The climactic ending is offered on a fold-out page for extra drama.

 

Spread from Who Stole the Rainbow? by Vasanti Unka

 

The variation in font and lettering is spot on, too, with more of her wonderful neon pink, in key places. My one niggle here is the lack of dialogue tags, which works fine for adult readers, but not at all for listening children who can’t decode the visual cues telling us who is saying what. Reading to my kids, I had to add extra words in to explain who was speaking, or point to each character to say their lines.

 

Unka goes all-out on her conceit of the meteorological mystery as a detective story, including collaged police files of the statements of the perpetrators and sentencing reports. If you like this aspect of the book, you’ll be a big fan of the total package. I am unconvinced, though, about importing the crime thriller genre into a picture book for young children. This will be the first time most young readers encounter a police drama, so the hilarity and cleverness of Unka’s text is lost on them, and the idea of interrogating teary suspects may be upsetting to some.

 

Unka goes all-out on her conceit of the meteorological mystery as a detective story, including collaged police files of the statements of the perpetrators and sentencing reports.

 

A final fold-out spread explains the real story of how a rainbow forms, which was comforting for this scientific mama, though some may feel it undermines the modern myth she has so carefully constructed in the rest of the book.

 

This is a striking, skilfully -produced book, and particularly enjoyable for adults and older children.

 

Who stole the rainbow?
by Vasanti Unka

Published by Penguin Group

RRP $20.00

 

 

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Kārearea, by Annemarie Florian, illustrated by Terry Fitzgibbon

My six-year-old son’s absolute favourite thing of a recent road-trip was the number of falcons (mostly the introduced ones, sadly) we saw. We are pretty much the perfect audience for Annemarie Florian’s latest book, introducing the smaller, rarer native falcon, the kārearea.

 

There are some great details in here, and even my bird-obsessed son learned a few things. We both enjoyed the story of how some vineyards are building structures for kārearea to nest in (with links for more detail included in the back matter). Elsewhere Florian explains the important point of how kārearea evolved nesting habits that protected them from predators in the air, like the now-extinct giant eagle, but which now let them down, in an era of introduced ground-dwelling mammal predators.

 

 

We both enjoyed the story of how some vineyards are building structures for kārearea to nest in

 

 

Unfortunately, much of the interesting detail in the book – from how they catch their prey, to their breeding habits – is obscured by strangely complicated sentences, full of words and metaphors that aren’t well-suited to a picture book for primary-school aged children, as in this section, about the grapevine habitats, which uses the imagery of corporate property development:

 

‘Within plantation forests and adjoining farmland, rock ridges and pockets of upturned tree roots and branches are suited to falcon nesting, especially when they’re alongside stands of taller trees. Kārearea are seizing upon these situations to exercise squatters’ rights.

 

And some vineyards have actively encouraged the birds to invest in their grape real estate. They’ve interspersed the vines with an avian property development – a detached low-rise apartment that can be occupied within each grape-growing expanse.’

 

The illustrations are a mix of painted bird compositions overlaid on photographic backgrounds, and the combination of styles made each element less appealing to me rather than more. Terry Fitzgibbon’s use of space and page composition are very good, but are let down by the text placement, which often relies on half-transparent shading behind the letters to stand out from the artwork.

 

The book seems unsure what it is, and what should have been edited out, in both the writing and the illustration.

 

As well as beautiful endpapers, a double-page spread precedes the title page, and has the following components: a partial globe, showing the Southern Hemisphere; a koru motif in the background; a moon, stars and rainbow; a text talking about the journey of homo sapiens from Africa; an ornately carved waka, with a Polynesian woman with moko kauae pointing past waves and seabirds to the land of the Long White Cloud. She is topless, but with her arm obscuring oddly high breasts. It’s too much.

 

This is the only human to appear in the book, so I’m not sure what’s gained by having her here.

 

After an interruption for the acknowledgements and title page, we have a four-page focus on how Aotearoa used to be ‘bird central’, and dozens of birds are introduced, fleetingly, by their Māori or English names, but often not ones we are familiar with. I had to look up both fernbirds and kaki – which I now think is meant to be kakī, the rare black stilt – and had to do quite a bit of googling to find that kaoriki is the extinct little bittern. Perhaps it would have been sensible to have some kind of captioning or glossing for people who aren’t familiar with all of these names – or to omit this section entirely and get straight to the kārearea, who doesn't appear until page nine.

 

As in her previous books on kiwi and wētā, Florian’s text combines prose and poetry on some pages, in different fonts, which will appeal to some readers, though I find it confusing to read aloud to children, especially as rhyming sections are often on different pages, interrupted by prose. The poetry was lost on my children, having to compete with the factual sections. It could stand alone for much more impact:

 

Nest scraper

Bowl shaper

Raise your chicks unseen

 

The forest, felled

The land, now farmed 

Too late, for what might have been

 

Taken as a whole, this is a confused book with a great deal to say, but no sure direction about how to say it.

 

  

KĀREAREA
by Annemarie Florian

illustrated by Terry Fitzgibbon 

New Holland Publishers 

RRP: $25.00

 

 

 

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My Grandfather’s War, by Glyn Harper and illustrated by Jenny Cooper

Australian publisher EK Books specialises in ‘issues’ books, from kids who are grieving, to kids wearing glasses. The perennial challenge with this genre is making sure the story isn’t at the mercy of a worthy message. My Grandfather’s War is one of the most successful of their books, with a strong, clear story arc, sympathetic, rounded characters, as well as an exploration of topics not discussed often in picture books: the Vietnam War, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

Glyn Harper, of course, is an experienced teller of war stories, and he brings a sure hand and matter-of-fact tone to this one, of Sarah and her grandfather: ‘I call him “Grandpa” but his real name is Robert.’

 

Grandpa lives with Sarah’s family, and they’re very close. Jenny Cooper’s warm illustrations show familiar scenes of the walk/scoot home from school, working on homework together, tyre swings, cricket, and waltzing-by-standing-on-top-of-Grandpa’s-feet.

 

But one topic is never discussed in Sarah’s family: the fact that Grandpa walks with a limp, and is sometimes very sad, because of a war in a place called Vietnam.

 

But one topic is never discussed in Sarah’s family: the fact that Grandpa walks with a limp, and is sometimes very sad, because of a war in a place called Vietnam.

 

Sarah tries to do her own research on the Vietnam War, but when her search comes up with nothing, she resolves to find out from Grandpa himself. What follows is a sad, but healthy, conversation about the many hard things about being in Vietnam, and coming home, including the political realities – that it was a war they couldn’t win, in a place whose people didn’t want them there.

 

I wasn’t entirely convinced by a couple of moments in this key interaction. I would have expected Sarah’s opening question to be something like, ‘What happened to you in the war?’ rather than the more sophisticated ‘Why did you go to war?’ and I don’t quite believe that she would feel ‘very proud’ of Grandpa putting on his medals, when her only understanding of the war, from this conversation, is that it was sad, tragic, and pointless.

 

But there’s enough nuance in the book to allow for readers to have their own conversations together, and relate the story to their own families, politics and experiences – as soldiers or occupied civilians. The ending is realistic and satisfying. Grandpa isn’t magically cured, of course, but his relationship with Sarah is strengthened, and she understands her family history better.

 

But there’s enough nuance in the book to allow for readers to have their own conversations together, and relate the story to their own families, politics and experiences – as soldiers or occupied civilians.

 

It’s also worth noting that the characters, and the extras in the illustrations, are all people of colour, making a high-quality addition to the very small cohort of such picture books in Aotearoa and Australia.

 

This is another beautifully designed book, where text and illustration complement each other well. Cooper is at the top of her game, and every page is just right.

 

My Grandfather's War
by Glyn Harper

illustrated by Jenny Cooper

Exisle Publishing

RRP: $25.00

 

 

Buy Now

 

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