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As well as being the award-winning author of the Little Yellow Digger series, Betty Gilderdale is a scholar of New Zealand children’s literature, in fact, her ground-breaking study A Sea Change: 145 Years of New Zealand Junior Fiction (1982) won the PEN Award for best first book of prose. She has been a winner of the Margaret Mahy Medal and Lecture Award and is a Life Member of the Storylines Children’s Literature Association of New Zealand There’s even an annual Storylines Betty Gilderdale Award for writing. But to my 4-year-old, she’s just that ‘nice lady who wrote about diggers’. And that’s how it should be.
Kids don’t care about a writer’s pedigree. They only care about the story and the characters. What really gels with this story, and the other four subsequent tales, is the ordinariness of them. They are all the kind of events that could really be going on in the paddock next door. Or on the neighbour’s section. In fact, “one dismal, wet August afternoon,” writes Gilderdale in her introduction, “we were babysitting our two grandsons…a digger was working in the garden but it got stuck in the mud and another digger had to be set for.” So begins the first tale, which begins the series.
The reason it works is that it mirrors rhymes like ‘The House that Jack Built’ – layering absurdity upon absurdity but never straying from the plausible. Of course, Gilderdale would have known that, being a pupil of great children’s literature. The original came out in 1993 and almost instantly became a classic, because it was simple, had a strong narrative and had the type of twist that appeals. It also appealed to boys and girls. Mud. Diggers. Dilemmas. Problems. Solutions. More mud. What’s not to like?
Twenty-three years on from the original release, Gilderdale’s language doesn’t feel dated, like many other children’s classics: the likes of Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, or Enid Blyton’s books. The Little Yellow Digger series belongs to no era. The books’ illustrator, Alan Gilderdale, Betty’s husband and an accomplished scholar himself, has created pictures that don’t chime with any particular artistic movement. The pictures in this first story also go on to create the stylistic atmosphere of all five books. For their audiences – 2-6 year olds, the style is perfect.
My favourite of the stories in this bind-up is The Little Yellow Digger Saves The Whale. Kids like things told straight, so this one doesn’t beat around the bush. Interestingly, the Orca that was saved by the digger while creating a channel to reload is named ‘Joe’ by the assisting beach-goers, but the digger and driver are never named. Yet both have very strong personalities, entirely recognised through their actions, which are well-intentioned, though sometimes a little reckless.
This collection represents a real ‘gold treasury’ of brilliant, simple and entertaining stories for pre-schoolers and first readers. Each of the Gilderdale’s books, compiled here, have a slight lean towards the educational – one has an archaeological theme (The Little Yellow Digger and The Bones); one is about animals and conservation (The Little Yellow Digger At The Zoo); and another about the misadventures of digging up unknown plumbing without proper checks (The Little Yellow Digger Goes To School); and of course, the aforementioned whale saving. They all stand alone as individually brilliant in their own way, but together create a fantastic package.
The Little Yellow Digger series has stood the test of time because the books are fun, imaginative and vibrant, with simple, clean art. With a slight Kiwi touch, not obvious but still there in the ordinary and familiar like whales and school pools, zoos and sheep and Mayoral visits to schools. All things that might actually happen – and that’s why this bind-up is a welcome addition to our classics.
Reviewed by Tim Gruar
The Little Yellow Digger Treasury
by Betty Gilderdale and Alan Gilderdale
Published by Scholastic NZ