Book Review: The Little Yellow Digger Treasury, by Betty & Alan Gilderdale

cv_the_little_yellow_digger_treasuryAvailable at bookshops nationwide.

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
ISBN 9781775433736

Scholastic editors talk about their favourite projects

We asked the Scholastic team which title (or more) they are most proud of and the reasons why. Their entertaining answers:

Penny Scown: One of the books that probably had the most cv_roccoimpact on me was Rocco, which we published in 1990. It was the best manuscript that had ever crossed my desk at the time – and it launched Sherryl Jordan’s stellar international writing career. Rocco was also picked up in hardback by Scholastic US, and we are about to publish it as an e-book, 23 years later … In addition, we are still publishing Sherryl Jordan, with two titles having recently come out – Ransomwood and The Freedom Merchants.

Lynette Evans: Being the new kid on the block herecv_she'll_be_coming at Scholastic, many of my favourites are works in progress. However, She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain (The Topp Twins/Jenny Cooper) is a standout for me because it was a quintessential toe-tapping team effort involving collaboration between publishing team, musicians, illustrator, designer, printer and international affiliates from go to woah. It was a delightful assault on the senses, both aurally and visually, from soundtrack through to concept roughs and to final art. It bucked and reared at times… but the final product is a pick-me-up magnet for kids of all ages.

Frith Hughes: For me it’s seeing the ongoing success ofcv_best_loved-bear_20 books – the classics that are 20-odd years old and still selling strongly to a whole new generation of NZ children. I’ve loved being involved in the redesigns of The Best-Loved Bear (Diana Noonan/Elizabeth Fuller) and The Three Little Pigs (Gavin Bishop) as well as celebrating the 20th birthday of The Little Yellow Digger (Betty & Alan Gilderdale) last year – all three are picture books I read as a kid!

Book review: Magical Margaret Mahy by Betty Gilderdale

cv_magical_margaret_mahyThis book is in bookstores now

Magical Margaret Mahy by Betty Gilderdale is a little gem of a book. It tells the story of the brilliant woman responsible for the magical and imaginative stories we all know and love. Margaret has always been one of my favourite authors, so I was thrilled when Penguin announced they were publishing a non-fiction book about Margaret that was especially for children.

As all books should (in my opinion), it has a picture of a map at the beginning. It looks like something straight out of Peter Pan or Treasure Island, with curled, worn edges, a compass that points north, exotic birds, mermaids, and a pirate who points his hook at a spot marked X – where a penguin sits atop a treasure chest! It looks terribly exciting and full of adventures waiting to be discovered.

A closer look and the reader realises that the map is in fact New Zealand. The exotic birds are the kiwi and the kea, the smoking volcano is White Island and the spot marked X is Governor’s Bay, where Margaret lived for more than 40 years. Hmmm but why was there a penguin sitting on the treasure chest?

I wasn’t puzzled for long – the first chapter reveals all. Gilderdale tells the tale of a group of children assembled in a school hall, waiting in anticipation for the person whose books they’d been reading all term: “What would she be like, this author who wrote about clowns and pirates, witches and wizards?” You can imagine their delight when out of the car stepped not a woman, but a giant penguin! “‘The problem is,’ [Margaret] said to anyone who might be listening, ‘that penguin flippers were not made for turning pages.’” Gilderdale retells this exciting and unusual school visit marvelously, and the reader gets a real sense of just how imaginative and remarkable Margaret was, and how much schools relished her visits.

In chapters two, three and four Gilderdale writes about Margaret’s journey from imaginative child to famed children’s writer. Margaret was inventing stories and worlds from an incredibly young age. Gilderdale has included the well-known story of little Margaret sitting “beneath the kitchen table listening to the thump-thumping noise of her mother ironing above her” and telling her the story of the Fox and the Little Red Hen.

I really enjoyed the way in which Gilderdale describes events in Margaret’s life in the same fantastical and adventurous style of Margaret’s stories. Even Margaret’s birth is described as an exciting journey by her Grandfather: “I am informed that you happily arrived this afternoon, quite punctually, after a rather long journey … what a lucky girl you are to have landed safely on a new planet.”

Gilderdale cleverly weaves together the connection between stories of Margaret’s life and how these experiences influenced Margaret’s writing. For instance, when Margaret was at school she was invited to a fancy-dress party. Her mother made a deep impression on her by suggesting that instead of a fairy — which surely a lot of other girls would go as — Margaret should go as a witch.

Margaret acted so admirably at the party that “for a long time afterwards she was nicknamed “The Witch”. Gilderdale observes that witches feature prominently in Margaret’s writing, for example The Witch in the Cherry Tree and The Boy with Two Shadows, but “her witches are not really threatening or wicked – the first one likes cakes; the other goes off on holiday”.

I did feel that parts of chapters five and six let the book down. Chapter five includes a long-winded explanation of how the publishing industry works, including a dry section detailing authors’ struggles with income tax and royalties. Likewise, Chapter six gets bogged down with explanations of how the television industry works and problems it runs into because of budget restrictions. As this is supposed to be a book for children, I’m not sure that these were needed – they’re not very exciting!

However, the book was really enjoyable overall. As well as being a great resource for children who want to know about Margaret’s life, it’s a generally fabulous read. As Gilderdale says in the last chapter of the book, “A ‘good’ children’s book is enjoyable for adults as well – a good book is a good book whatever age it is intended for”.

Reviewed by Stephanie Soper.

Magical Margaret Mahy
by Betty Gilderdale
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780143568810