Book Reviews: New in Aotearoa Picture books
Time for another batch of picture book reviews to keep you abreast of the latest developments in the world of Aotearoa illustrative goodness. Editor Briar has examined new releases from Donovan Bixley, Susan Brocker and Raymond McGrath, Melinda Szymanik and Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, Kat Quin, and Sarah Johnson and Deborah Hinde. Read on for all things batty and sleep and chilly and more!
The Great Kiwi Bedtime Book by Donovan Bixley (Upstart)
Donovan has long established himself as Aotearoa’s resident master of vibrant, detailed illustration that makes for fun exploration for little readers – and The Great Kiwi Bedtime Book is no exception. We trail through the land and watch all manner of critters getting heavy-lidded eyes and curling up under blankets or in the arms/wings/etc of equally sleepy parents.
The writing is fairly simple, with pepperings of alliteration and internal rhyme from time to time. It’s a bit erratic, which can be distracting, but the effect is still. Donovan’s strength is, of course, in the illustration. There’s so much to look at, even as the view grows dusky as the sun sets on paddocks and beaches. That shifting colour scheme is, incidentally, one of my favourite touches in books designed for bedtime—the gradual deepening purples and deep blues, just like a real day winding to an end. His characters are dynamic and cute without being cutesy, if that makes sense, with big eyes and just the right amount of anthropomorphism.
Whether or not it will persuade little ones to sleep is probably a question of the reader’s delivery. The fact that it wraps up with a kiwi whānau waking up to live their nocturnal lives might distract some from the whole idea of going to sleep—but hopefully the result is more likely that tamariki will be inspired to make like a pony and get into PJs.
Honestly my one main quibble with the book is the very last page—not even page, really, but the end paper after the kiwi gang have said ‘Pōmārie’. It’s filled with 24 little beds with different animals (mostly) asleep in them, and varying good night messages accompanying them. Why—why—is the seahorse in a bowl on a bed when the eel, dolphin, whale, octopus and jellyfish are all happily under sheets and/or duvets?
That mystery aside, Donovan, you’ve done it again.
The Great Kiwi Bedtime Book
By Donovan Bixley
Upstart Press RRP $20.00
Mrs Chippy the Cat by Susan Brocker & Raymond McGrath (Scholastic NZ)
Look, does a season ever go by without a ‘based on a true story’ animal adventure picture book? No. Do we get sick of them? A little bit, sometimes. But is this one worthwhile? Yes, yes it is.
We have the fame cachet—Mrs Chippy was the cat of the Endurance, as well as a particularly remarkable tale of adventure, if not (spoilers!) survival. I suspect that ultimately, the recurring theme between all of the books in this genre is that they have animals, usually pets, in places that they shouldn’t be.
And there’s always something extra fascinating about Antarctica (or the Arctic, for that matter… something about polar regions), and if the success of Joanna Grochowicz’s nonfiction for older kids is anything to go by, the youth of today are just as intrigued as those of yore. Maybe there’s a fun unit for Year 6-ish kids in looking at Mrs Chippy the Cat in alongside Shackleton’s Endurance?
But back to the book currently in question. There seems to be a trend towards reasonably realistic watercolour style illustration in a lot of the books that fall into this animal adventure genre. This book eschews that trend, with Raymond McGrath’s illustrations looking distinctly cartoony and feeling spirited and lively. The story felt enhanced by the illustrations, rather than just accompanied by them, and I think that kids will appreciate the shivery blue skin of some of the poor beleaguered sailors.
Of course, we need to talk about Mrs Chippy himself. He earns his keep on board as a mouser, and even if his nonchalant presence drove the huskies a little loopy before they made it to shore, he found a place in the hearts of the hardened blokes on board.
This story manages to stay true to its roots and capture some of the unthinkable difficulties of Shackleton’s journey while peppering in fun and humour to keep young readers from getting scared off. The information page at the back does clue readers into the less than happily ever after experienced by Mrs Chippy and the ship’s crew, which could be upsetting to some younger or particularly sensitive tamariki.
All in all, a fun twist on a sometimes oversubscribed genre with a history lesson wrapped into it to boot!
Mrs Chippy the Cat
By Susan Brocker & Raymond McGrath
Scholastic NZ RRP $20.00
BatKiwi by Melinda Szymanik & Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Scholastic NZ)
I’m not quite sure what I expected when I picked this book up, but I can say, hand on heart, that a kunekune pig doing a ‘small wee’ to put out a bushfire did not occur to me as a possible plot point. But here we are – and that pig’s take on emergency services is only one of the quirky problems and solutions faced by the inhabitants of this particular forest.
Kiwi wants so badly to help, to be a hero. In his neck of the woods, there seems to be a fairly regular demand for support in dire situations, whether it’s egg-thieving stoats, overly ambitious baby skinks, the aforementioned forest fires or a kererū getting their wings stuck between karaka tree branches. There’s kid-friendly humour, of course, like pig wee, and then there’s the knowing wink at adult readers—a kererū who has bumbled into the branches of a tree known for its tempting fermented berries? A public intoxication charge must be on the cards.
The appearance of Bat to enable Kiwi to become the hero he wants to be comes at just the right time. While I struggle to imagine how even a bat-propelled kiwi would deal to a stoat or forest fire, freeing up the drunken kererū with that long beak is a perfect use of his capabilities. There’s something I particularly like about Bat and her willingness to put her wings to work to support a forest friend to fulfill his heroic potential. She’s Kiwi’s very own Batmobile, really, and I hope that D.C. doesn’t sue me for that.
I really love Isobel Joy Te Aho-White’s illustrative work, and have done so ever since the release of Santa’s Worst Christmas from Huia back at the end of 2019. She’s done a beautiful job of visually developing the world that Melinda Szymanik has created, from the relieved eyes of the skink māmā to the gruff face of the kunekune to Kiwi’s sweet koru-patterned cheeks.
All in all, it’s a fun story, bringing the nighttime bush to action-packed life. Melinda’s writing is always dependable, and Isobel continues to be one to watch as she goes from strength to strength as an early-career illustrator.
By Melinda Szymanik & Isobel Joy Te Aho-White
Scholastic NZ RRP $20.00
Kiwicorn’s Flurry of Feelings by Kat Quin (Illustrated Publishing)
Kat Quin has developed an avian empire, and it’s amazing to see. As a bookseller with a great deal of international visitors (in ‘normal’ times), I think that we had more enquiries about her Kuwi books than anything else. This past weekend, I had a trio ask for ‘that series about the kiwi’, and when I suggested that they might mean Kuwi, and showed them an example, I was correct. Kuwi and Kiwicorn alike have fans all over the world.
Kat’s work is dependably sweet and cheery, both in content and visual style. Even in a book like this one, where we’re exploring different emotions, there’s still an undercurrent of pep and perkiness that I think is really valuable for the demographic I’m guessing she’s shooting for here. I’m thinking it’s pretty squarely in the pre-school bracket, rather than those developing their own reading skills in earnest.
The text is simple but effective, with plenty of fun alliteration rather than going down the forced rhyme route that some picture book authors seem convinced they have to try. Spoilers: you don’t have to rhyme, and unless a professional book person with no reason to preserve your feelings commends you on your ability to rhyme, you probably should see if your story works without it.
There are a lot of different books out there dealing with emotions and wellbeing these days. It’s wonderful to have a range of options, jumping from the books that develop a story around a specific emotion or challenge (I’m thinking Aroha’s Way or Hare & Ruru as examples) or ones like this or How Do I Feel? that act as an emotional dictionary. There’s real value in variety, to ensure that different kids get what they need to unpack their own emotions and to better understand the feelings and experiences of those around them. And who better to lead little ones in their journey to understanding their feelings than sweet little Kiwicorn? Kat knows what she’s doing, and our kids are all the luckier for it.
Kiwicorn’s Flurry of Feelings
By Kat Quin
Illustrated Publishing RRP $20.00
Enough: A story about community by Sarah Johnson & Deborah Hinde (PictureBook Publishing)
Enough: A story about community has such a valuable message, and one that hasn’t necessarily been explored in a great many picture books to date, certainly not local ones. That in itself will ensure that it gets into plenty of hands and libraries, I imagine, which is great news.
At the heart of the story is Hana, a kōtiro with a real drive towards helping those in her neighbourhood to ensure that everyone has enough—or as close to it as she can get, which might be at times ‘nearly enough, sort of enough, almost enough’. Hana’s decision to tackle these challenges on her own becomes, unsurprisingly, too much for a wee girl to handle. And when the community realises this, they rally to support her in supporting them. It’s aroha and āwhina, all that good stuff.
Deborah Hinde’s illustrations make good use of the spreads, packing plenty into the pages. She’s created a street and community that could be a slice of all kinds of places in Aotearoa, and I really appreciated that—I was particularly keen on the quiet, almost dusky street scene on the cover of the book. There’s also a great diversity among the people in the book, which is always good to see.
While as I’ve stated, I really appreciate the message and concept of the book, I wasn’t totally sold on the text. The wording is a bit weird—on the page, it looks like it wants to rhyme, but it doesn’t… apart from the random occasions where there is rhyme all of a sudden. It felt to me like it needed a bit more finessing, and a commitment to either rhyming or not—when in doubt, go for not. The syntax also felt clunky at times.
On balance, the importance of the message pulls the book up. It’s a valuable addition to any bookshelf and can start some great conversations about sharing and community. I just wish that the text was a little more certain of itself.
Enough: A story about community
by Sarah Johnson & Deborah Hinde
Picturebook Publishing RRP $20.00
Briar Lawry is a book person based in Tāmaki Makaurau. She's a writer and editor, but she's mainly a school-based teacher trainee and a casual school librarian – and she's a bookseller at Little Unity (part of Unity Books Auckland) on weekends. She's as exhausted as you think she is, but she loves it. She's got a BA in English, a GradDipArts in Māori Development, and she studied publishing at Whitireia. In 2020 she was one of the judges for the NZCYA Awards, and she's also part of the team of editors of The Sapling.