14 December 2009

An Advent of Christmas Books - The Christmas Book by Dick Bruna

The Christmas Book
By Dick Bruna
Methuen (1964), 1982

Dick Bruna has been illustrating picture books for more than 60 years! His first picture book was published in 1953, and, according to my copy, The Christmas Book was first published in 1964, reprinted five times, then a new edition in 1976, again reprinted numerous times, with my copy printed in 1982 - and of course much more has probably happened to this simple little book in the years since then.
I was given my copy, as a Christmas gift when I was pregnant with my son in 1985. So this is a special book in our house, patched as it is with sellotape and with discolouration on the white pages. The Christmas tale is told fully but simply, and accompanied by the simplest drawings possible. A treasure.
Read about Dick Bruna here. I was interested to read that his father was a publisher, his company one of the biggest in the Netherlands. He's probably best known for his Miffy books about a little rabbit.

10 December 2009

An Advent of Christmas Books - Suzy Goose and the Christmas Star by Petr Horacek

Here's a lovely new hardback Christmas picture book from Walker Books. The author/illustrator is Petr Horacek who has a great website here. He's a young guy, originally from Czechoslovakia, but now living in England after meeting and marrying an English girl.
Suzy Goose and the Christmas Star is about a goose and her friends are excited that it's Christmas - definitely a Northern Christmas as there is snow everywhere (and the white background is excellent for ensuring the text is readable over the full-page illustrations). They have decorated a beautiful Christmas tree but Suzy wants a star for the top of the tree so decides she will go up into the sky to fetch the bright star she sees there. She jumps, slides and tries everything she can to get up to the star, and suddenly realises that she is lost.
Suzy walked and walked and walked.
She was tired.
"It's Christmas Eve, I can't reach the star
and I'm very far from my friends,"
she thought.
The pages are filled with whiteness with the solitary goose looking very sorry for herself, but then 'Ding, Honk, Ding, Honk' she hears the sounds of her friends and follows the noise until she finds her way home again (back past all the obstacles she used to jump from before). And when they all look up at the tree again, the star is now in perfect position at the top of the tree.
It looked magical!
"Happy Christmas," honked Suzy Goose
with all her friends.
I love the illustrations. The backgrounds are thick with texture, crayon rubbings, snowflake shapes embedded with inky blue watercolour skies. The main features - the animals, the tree, the star, have been drawn in loose pencil sketched lines, coloured and cut out then applied to the background. This brings them to the fore of the pictures and they often have an added sheen of the paper's texture.
The story is told simply, with all the drama in the illustrations. Pages are sometimes a single double-page spread, on others the pages are divided into panels showing Suzy's progression.
I hadn't heard of this author/illustrator before but I'll be looking for more of his books, I so love his style. There are other Suzy books and many other titles and illustrations shown on his website.
Suzy Goose and the Christmas Star
By Petr Horacek
Walker Books, 2009
ISBN 9781406320657

09 December 2009

An Advent of Christmas Books - The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski and PJ Lynch

I have two copies of this beautiful Christmas story. The first, acquired from a sale of withdrawn library books, is a large landscape format hardback with illustrations that go right to the edge of the pages, with a panel around 2/3 the left hand page for the text, and an additional small illustration at the bottom. This format does show the illustrations at their best, the textures of wood and clothing, skin and hair beautifully detailed in each panel.
The new copy has come to me as part of the P.J. Lynch Classic Christmas Collection in a boxed set with A Christmas Carol and The Gift of the Magi (which I'll review at a later date). It's smaller and portrait format, the illustrations just over half the size of the earlier edition, and with a pale relief effect as a border for each page (see picture). The illustrations are still beautiful, but when you compare the two the larger format is so worthwhile for the extra detail you can see.
I also take issue with the covers - the earlier cover depicts Jonathan Twoomey teaching the boy how to carve. A warm, focused, intimate moment. The new cover shows the mother, son and Jonathan on the snow-strewn street holding hands. Surely this gives away the end of the story, the happily ever after shown on the front cover.
The story, briefly, is about Jonathon Twoomey, a wood-carver known as Mr Gloomy, for he's always grumpy and never smiles or laughs. None of them know about the loss which has made him so unhappy. A widow and her son move to the village and she asks JT if he will carve some figures for her from wood - a nativity scene that they loved but have lost. They later ask if Thomas can watch JT carve. As the days go by they come again and again and slowly the relationship warms, and of course if you've seen that second cover you know the result!
It is a beautiful and touching tale, with quite a long text, worth settling down for a long read to enjoy the story and examine the illustrations as they deserve.
Much as I love a beautiful box set of books, such a treasure, I think I'll keep going back to my battered ex-library copy for the full experience.

07 December 2009

An Advent of Christmas Books - The Night Before Christmas

A tiny review for a tiny edition of an old story.
This book has been letterpress printed by Graham Judd who, as well as playing bass in a band with my husband, is a talented printer. It's a tiny treasure and I'm going to hang it from my Christmas tree, and get a couple more copies to go in some presents.
This book is a wee gem, just over 2"tall.

Here are the final pages:
If you'd like to get some copies yourself contact Graham at GTO Printers - www.gtoprinters.co.nz

06 December 2009

An Advent of Christmas Books - The Twelve Days of Holidays by Yvonne Morrison and Jenny Cooper

Christmas books aren't all sweetness and light. Just as I'd rather listen to Silent Night than Jingle Bell Rock, I'd also rather read a Christmas story which has a fair dose of tradition. Today's book has only the merest tinge of tradition and I won't be giving it to anyone as a gift this year!
The nod to tradition is that it is modeled on The Twelve Days of Christmas (and you could certainly sing it to that tune); but instead of gifts, each day sees a very stressed mother yell another order at her daughter, accumulating day by day.
'On the twelfth day of holidays, my mother said to me:
Be good and you can stay up... go and bug your father ... I can't wait till school starts ... have you fed the dog yet ... elbows off the table ... write to your grandma ... don't break your new toys ... go, wash your face ... help me wash the dishes ... play with your sister ... tidy up your bedroom ... and please will you turn off that TV!' On the thirteenth day she's sent off to Gran's.
There is a good deal of humour in the illustrations - created using lead pencil and watercolour. The whole family looks slightly mad and have Jenny Cooper's familiar big heads, seen in a number of other books she's illustrated (Shut the Gate, On a Rabbit Hunt, Peter & the Pig, The Reluctant Little Flowergirl and others).
Perhaps I took against this book largely because of the way the mother is depicted - with her mouth is wide open, yelling, in all the early illustrations, and downturned, sad and worn out, in the latter pages. Now I know as well as anyone that Christmas is a stressful time, but there's more to the holidays than kids watching TV all day, and mums can have a good time in the holidays rather than yelling at the kids constantly. Look out for the cat - he doesn't get a mention in the text, but the cat is involved in every scene (except the one featuring the family dog), and is a real character and far more worthy of our attention than the ever-present TV.
Read about Yvonne Morrison on the Christchurch City Libraries great author resource here, and they also have an interview with Jenny Cooper here. Yvonne has also written a number of other Christmas titles for children - Brian the Big-Brained Romney, A Kiwi Jingle Bells and A Kiwi Night Before Christmas.

The Twelve Days of Holidays
Written by Yvonne Morrison
Illustrated by Jenny Cooper
Scholastic New Zealand
Paperback, 2009
ISBN 9781869439163

04 December 2009

An Advent of Christmas Books - A Right Royal Christmas by Lucy Davey and Donovan Bixley

A new Christmas title from Scholastic New Zealand. Lucy Davey has had a number of cby Scholastic, probably her best-known would be the series about Fifi la Belle, a snooty Siamese cat from Parnell (illustrated by Christine Ross). These aren't particularly to my taste, a bit too much like Lynley Dodd's Hairy Maclary books, but not quite up to Dodd's standard in the rhyme department. This Christmas book, however, is lovely, and in the style of a classical princess tale, without the contrivance of trying to insert New Zealand details in at every opportunity. Sometimes it's quite a relief to have a NZ picture book that isn't obviously Kiwi.
It's Christmas time
and the royal princess wants to have her parents to herself, but the King and Queen love to invite all the waifs and strays in to the palace to share the day with them. Each time the doorbell rings the princess answers it and tells the visitors that there's no room at all, but then her parents invite them in anyway, until the palace is truly overflowing with guests and the princess opens the door to a young couple with a baby nearly due (sound familiar?). The princess tells them there's no room but kind Queen Alice finds them room in the stable. When Princess Claire is sent out later with some food, she finds them with their newborn baby, and discovers that she can find pleasure in sharing Christmas day and all it's joys with others after all.
The rhyming text is full of alliteration and deliciousness - 'Crackers and cranberries, custard and cake; turkey and trifle and plum pudding bake: pumpkin and parsnips, piles of peas; plumps of pavlova, and trayfuls of cheese.'
Donovan Bixley uses a combination of drawing by hand and coloured in Photoshop, a technique frequently seen in picture books these days. I've no objection to computers being used for illustrating purposes, as long as it's not obviously a computer effect, and Donovan has done a great job her
e in the main, apart from some backgrounds which have the characteristic fuzziness of computer effects. This seems most obvious in less detailed pages where the spaces have a surreal glow that would never be accomplished with brush and paint. The characters of the little princess and her warm and patient parents draw you to them, they, along with their quirky visitors, are depicted in the timeless way of fairytales, with long dresses, robes and crowns, but with a distinctly modern sparkle in the eye. The chaos of the castle is brightly festive with classic fairytale touches. I particularly love this illustration from the beginning of the book, with echoes of the princess and the Pea in the multi-layered bed.
Children will love to listen to this story read aloud, and wish they could indulge in the glorious feast. Let's hope they also pick up on the positive message about sharing.
You'll find printables to colour in from this and other Lucy Davey books on her website here. I discovered on her website that she also writes songs for kids too. Check out Donovan's great site here too.

A Right Royal Christmas
Written by Lucy Davey
Illustrated by Donovan Bixley
Scholastic New Zealand, 2009
ISBN 9781869438449

03 December 2009

An Advent of Christmas Books - Lucy and Tom's Christmas by Shirley Hughes

This book is an old one, no longer in print but available second hand. My copy has my son's name inscribed in the front, dated Christmas 1988 and this is the perfect book to share with an excited two-year-old child, as mine was back then.
Shirley Hughes has an extraordinary talent for depicting children in all their round rumpled goodness, and the ordinary household with its mess and domestic clutter.
'Christmas is coming! Lucy and Tom are helping to stir the Christmas pudding. As they stir they each make a wish.' And so begins the series of events leading up to Christmas day. There are cards both received and handmade by the children, decorations and a nativity scene to set out. The glorious mish-mash of gifts they have chosen - a brooch for Mum, a rubber in the shape of a dog for Dad to take to the office... there's a list of each child's chosen presents for the special people in their lives - now wrapped and hidden well - in a different place each day by Tom - Shirley Hughes is a master of the child's idiosyncratic behaviour that we will all recognise.
This is one of my favourite pages which captures the warmth of the kitchen, child on a chair to reach the table, and carol singers at the door.

The Christmas tree is bought and on Christmas Eve they all hang the decorations and arrange their parcels beneath it before the children go to bed, to wake early as all small children do on Christmas morning, before opening presents on Mum and Dad's bed.
This is an English Christmas so there's snow, and a big group of extended family for roast turkey, pudding and crackers, and then the presents from under the tree to be opened, and a lovely page depicting a baby playing with the paper rather than the present, and eventually falling asleep amidst it all. There's a walk with Grandad for grumpy Tom, then a warm family evening with games and lights on the tree.

I love the way the story slowly moves through all the rituals of Christmas, each thing with its own special time to be enjoyed. I do think children rather thrive on knowing what's going to happen, and enjoy looking forward to things as much as actually doing them, the suspense is all part of the event. More than anything it's the warmth of the family which shines from every page. Perhaps for some readers this book will also encourage them to develop their own family rituals around this special time of year.

You can read about Shirley Hughes here, and see some examples of her artwork at The Illustration Cupboard (along with a huge number of other extraordinary illustrators of children's books).
By Shirley Hughes
Puffin Books, (1981), 1987
ISBN 0140504699

02 December 2009

An Advent of Christmas Books - Dear Father Christmas by Alan Durant & Vanessa Cabban

This book was new to me, but it's a reprint, originally out in 2005. I hope the original came out in hardback because the paperback I have has a very thin cover and if this book gets the amount of handling the content warrants it will soon be falling to bits.
I wasn't familiar with the British author Alan Durant but found heaps of info about him here and see he has a huge stack of books to his name. The illustrator is also accomplished and you can read about her and some of her books for Walker Books (she writes as well as illustrates) here.
Dear Father Christmas immediately reminded me of The Jolly Postman and its Christmas version, and perhaps that smaller, more robust format was more suitable for a book with so many surprises enclosed for every few pages there is an envelope with a treasure within - a letter, mini advent calendar, a Christmas decoration and more.
A soft and friendly looking Father Christmas smiles out from the cover, with a gold-embossed envelope in his hand, inviting you in. The story follows young Holly and her correspondence with Father Christmas which begins on 1st December when her little brother leaves his Christmas list on the fireplace but Holly writes a letter instead. Her letters are full of questions about Father Christmas, where he lives, who his helpers are, how he manages to get right around the world on Christmas night. Father Christmas patiently replies and answers her questions in a perfectly plausible way (well, I AM a great believer in the joys of Christmas!), each time reminding her that she hasn't supplied her wish list yet. When she finally does it's for a very special gift and Santa does manage to deliver.
Holly and her family and home are beautifully rumpled and her letters suitably decorated with childish drawings. Santa's abode is also perfectly magical and cheery. Children will love to open each envelope and read the contents - and put it back safe and sound again for next time.
This duo have also produced other titles in this format - Dear Tooth Fairy and Dear Mermaid.

Dear Father Christmas By Alan Durant
Illustrated by Vanessa Cabban
Walker Books (2005), 2009
ISBN 9781406305586
Paperback $19

01 December 2009

An advent of Christmas Books - Cowshed Christmas by Gavin Bishop and Joy Cowley

December is here and the countdown to Christmas is underway. We usually have an advent calendar in our house, but not this year. I also have a slowly growing collection of Christmas books so I thought I'd combine the two and provide a review of a Christmas book each day rolling up to the 25th of December.

Firstly, a new one recently out from Random House:
Cowshed Christmas
Illustrations by Gavin Bishop
Story by Joy Cowley
ISBN 9781869790738
Paperback $24.99

The cover invites you in - a cow and a dog are peering around the corner of the shed at something, and we'll just have to open the cover and see what's inside.
As I read the book aloud I knew it felt familiar, thank goodness for Kate De Goldi, talking about this book on Radio NZ on Saturday, who identified The Highwayman as the root of the repetition and rhythm.
This is a very New Zealand Christmas book; we meet animals one by one as they each bring a gift - and both the animals and the gifts have a very Kiwi flavour. It's not just a cow - it's a jersey cow, there's a collie dog, and bantam hens. They bring pavlova, gumboots, a football, jandals, a kiwi on wheels, pohutukawa flowers and a dripping hokey pokey ice-cream is carried by a kune kune pig. And finally on the last page we see a rather Maori-looking mother and infant. 'Little baby Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Little baby Jesus by the stable door'.
Each page is simple in its content, the uncomplicated animals and their gifts outlined in black, produced with Gavin's trademark printmaking technique. Whilst the figures are simple the technique provides texture, and Gavin's talent with watercolour inks renders each page a glowing colour-washed delight, with spatters and stars that take the simple figures and create artworks of each spread. Each animal has a spread devoted to them, followed by the growing band of animals outside the cowshed door.
You could almost sing the text and children will want to join in on the the repetition, and love the story again and again even though we all know right from the start what the ending is going to be. A delightful, timeless and very New Zealand Christmas book to add to your collection, or start one for a child.
Find out more about the author and illustrator:

11 October 2009

Banquo's Son by TK Roxborogh

Launched this month with celebrations in Dunedin and Auckland, was Tania Roxborogh's Banquo's Son, a follow-on novel to Shakespeare's Macbeth. After Macbeth killed Banquo his son fled - this is Roxborogh's take on what happened to that son - Fleance, and begins 10 years later.
Firstly I must say that I'm not an expert on Shakespeare, I'm familiar with the main works, refreshed recently as my daughter has been studying Hamlet. I was rather dreading beginning the book after reading in the author's notes that she had tried to use the speech of Shakespeare's time, but I didn't find it a problem, the text was reasonably formal but without too much specialised language (though I did have to look up 'reivers' - which wasn't in my Oxford dictionary so I didn't feel too bad not knowing the word myself, good old Google provided the answer though), with an occasional slip into modern colloquial language ('the night could not be for real'). I thought the tone quite consistent and not hard to read at all.
A brief run-down of the story - Fleance is 21, he's spent the last ten years in the care of the couple who picked him up after his father's murder, living in England. He's taken a fancy to young Rosie (this name seemed a bit out of place - was it common in those times?) and they seem destined for marriage. However Fleance is being haunted by his father and feels the call to revenge his murder. When pressured to make a commitment to Rosie, Fleance upsets everyone by choosing instead to leave for Scotland, without telling anyone what he must do as they don't know that he is Banquo's son. On his mission he meets Duncan, nephew of the current king who is dying. They make friends and Duncan takes him in to his household, also hoping that Fleance might make a good partner for Duncan's sister Rachel.
I won't got into more detail of the storyline for fear of spoiling the book for those who haven't read it yet. Kings die and are succeeded, battles are fought and sides must be chosen, duty being the strongest movtive for any choices made. The witches, so influential in Macbeth are back again, wielding their strange power, and not everyone is who they appear to be. There's betrayal, and romance, battle and friendship, and duty, duty, duty.
Although there are some fierce battle scenes and strong male roles I still felt a feminine cast over the whole story - or perhaps I was influenced by knowing the author - and that her main feedback was from students at the girls' school where she teaches.
I did enjoy the read, the twists and turns in the tale, mildly distracted on occasion by the typos that should certainly have been picked up in the editing and proofreading process. With a bit of luck there will quickly be a reprint and they can correct the errors.
There's been quite a bit of chat online and in print since the book was released, some negative, some positive.
The Fountainhead is a student of Roxborogh's and gives insight into the experience of joining the ride towards publication. Writers House, New York agent Josh Getzler has picked up the book and there are rumours of film rights. There's a good review from Otago Daily Times and an interview on CDM online magazine. NZ Book Month reviewer Lisa Scott talked mainly about the potential for Shakespeare sequels on screen (and calls Rosie 'Rose'), NZ Listener said nice things in this week's issue, which made up for Nicholas Reid in Sunday Star-Times. The book has its own blog where you can read all the comings and goings, and last I heard it was at number 3 on the fiction lists and sold 3000+, off to a great start.

23 September 2009

Aunt Concertina and her Niece Evalina

Written by Paula Green
Illustrated by Michael Hight
Random House
ISBN 9781869790110
Hardback $34.99
I so love it when publishers go the extra mile and produce a book in hardcover. It’s the sign of a book that you’d expect to have a long life with many repeat reads and this is certainly the case with Aunt Concertina. This is a sophisticated picture book with extensive and complex text, written in prose but with poetic elements at every turn, making it a delicious, and lengthy, read-aloud. Aunt Concertina loves to spend time in junk shops adding to her collections, but her niece Evalina wants to go on adventures. Whilst out shopping they find a kite which takes them off on their adventures around the globe. Each double-page spread is a work of art in itself – as you’d expect coming from a fine artist of Michael Hight’s pedigree. Fine artists don’t necessarily translate into great illustrators but in this case he’s done a fine job of taking the text beyond the words themselves and create a complex international panorama with familiar places and things waiting to leap out from every page, along with pieces from old maps, all created with the glorious depth of colour and texture of oils. I particularly love the kite which has a personality of its own. Many of you will remember this duo from their fine poetry book Flamingo Bendalingo, one of my all-time favourite poetry books (and one of the few by NZers for children) and this is another treasure to add to your library.

07 September 2009

Old Hu-Hu by Kyle Mewburn, illustrated by Rachel Driscoll (Scholastic)

A treasure appeared in my mailbox today - Old Hu-hu written by the irrepressible Kyle Mewburn. If you've ever met him on an author visit you'll know he's full of life and bursting with enthusiasm for his chosen career of writing books for kids. On his website he talks about being inspired to write this book by the death of his cat. Even though she was very old and getting sick it was still very sad. He also thought a lot about his grandfathers who were always telling stories, and says that he thinks Old Hu-hu looks a bit like one of his grandads. Kyle thinks Rachel's illustrations are brilliant and I'm inclined to agree, though I always have an unquiet murmur in the back of my mind when I see animals with human characteristics (have you ever seen a hu-hu bug with a moustache?). But I'll forgive this as the overall emotion and depth of the book is taken to a new level with Rachel's beautifully crafted illustrations. Scholastic are one of the few publishers who include info about the media used for the illustration and design of their books (just look on the copyright page) and in this case they say 'Illustrations created in pencil, paint and tears'. A labour of love I'd say, from both the author and the illustrator. Also mentioned is the typeface used - it's called Old Hu-Hu and I'm guessing it was created specifically for this book. I'll check that out to confirm. Considering the subject matter of the story it is a book that requires sharing with an adult who can talk through any questions and emotions that might result from a book about death. There are not many books on this topic and I think it's been dealt with beautifully... with not a mention of God or Heaven in sight.

03 September 2009

Piano Rock by Gavin Bishop wins design award

Congratulations to Gavin Bishop and Sarah Elworthy for their design work on Piano Rock. A 1950s Childhood (Random House) which took the Scholastic New Zealand Award for Best Children's Book in the PANZ Book Design Awards last night. Well deserved for this delightful treasure of a book with its fabric bound spine and its small size such a comforting handful. It's a pity that children's books were not up to taking out any of the other awards. Read about all the other winners here.
Here's my review, written for Storylines Booklist last year.

Piano Rock – A 1950s Childhood

By Gavin Bishop

Random House, 2008

Hb ISBN 9781869790103

This small hardback book is a treasure to behold, before you even open the covers, with its decorated fabric spine and silhouette illustration on a duck-egg blue background. The pattern of the spine is repeated on the endpapers and the pages littered with prints and classically coloured illustrations that help set the story in its time and place – Kingston, Southland, 1949-1954. This is the true and elegantly told story of the years Gavin spent as a young boy, with all the adventures a lad should have – building huts, eating scones and roast mutton, catching eels, going to school on a horse, Guy Fawkes Day and more. A glossary at the back explains some of the language of the day like Box Brownie, linoleum and Guy (which causes great trauma in the story). A book that will be enjoyed by children (perhaps 8+) and adults alike, conveying a true picture of life in the ‘good old days’.

You can also hear Gavin talking about his books on Storylines new video interviews - Literature Live

01 September 2009

My Brown Bear Barney 21st birthday edition

Firstly, humble apologies for neglecting this blog for a whole year. I won't bore you with my excuses, just promise to do better.
So on with the show - and what a show the Auckland Storylines Festival Family Day was on Sunday. One highlight was celebrating the 21st birthday of Brown Bear Barney. My how the years have flown and there will be a new generation of children who read this when they were small, who will now be able to share it with their own young ones.
Barney is beloved largely because he is so ordinary - Dorothy Butler and Elizabeth Fuller between them have conjured an ordinary day in the life of and ordinary family - just what young children enjoy seeing in the pages of their picture books - something that reflects their own lives a little.
Children and their parents and grandparents all gathered to enjoy cake and numerous bear-related crafts in the Aotea Centre on Sunday, with Dorothy and Elizabeth there to celebrate, and a new edition from Penguin, complete with birthday balloons on the front cover.
Sorry to be negative, but honestly the new book is a flimsy wee thing with the lightest of covers. Surely such a long-term classic warrants a hardback that can continue to be enjoyed by another generation of children. And perhaps there could have been mention that the book was a recipient of the Storylines Gaelyn Gordon Award for a Much-loved Book.