Red: A Crayon’s Story, by Michael Hall

cv_RedRed is an amazing story, about a little crayon who is called Red, even though he’s blue on the inside. This is a book with layers, subtext and yet more layers, and every layer is wonderful.

The illustrations are simplistic, with large crayons and childish drawings on a clean background. Our narrator is a pencil, who, literally, writes the primary story.

Red can be read on different levels and adapted to be suitable for different ages. The pencil text creates a simple story about a being true to yourself, of self-discovery. To add an older dimension to the story you can add in the type written text, which adds a new dimension to this journey of self-discovery.

“Sometimes I wonder if he’s really red at all.”
“Don’t be silly it says red on his label.”

One of the adorable aspects of this story is the crayons themselves. Michael Hall has named them wonderfully, and presumably put a lot of thought into this with characters like Red’s grandparents who are Silver and Grey or the character that says “Right! He’s got to press harder” is Army Green. Then there is the comedic undertones, as in the crayon Berry who draws a boat that Red creates a sea for it to sail on, who gets the line “His blue ocean really lifted me”.

The big trick with this story is not to put adult context on a child’s interpretation. Where a child reads this story and can develop a sense of empowerment about being who they feel they are, it’s all too easy for an adult translate into our own warped ideas and connotations.

In saying that, this book enjoys poking holes in adult’s ideas and is one of the charming aspects of this story, it is also quite confronting. There are many ways that this book can be interpreted as an adult, from gender balance or homophobia to a more simplistic pigeon-holing most adults have experienced, and put others, particularly children, through. This is particularly powerful within the illustrations. For example “I thought he wasn’t sharp enough” is backed up with the image of a pencil shaving chunks off the crayon in a pencil sharpener. In a childish and literal context of a pencil being sharpened this is perfectly innocent. Yet in the adult context, we can see something being forced and shaped until they fit a mould that is far from true to themselves.

Like all good stories, this one has a happy ending, with our little red crayon being celebrated for being true to himself, and finding out that who he is in the inside is just perfect. It’s a heart-warming moment, and provides a great conclusion to a potentially confronting story.

Absolutely essential reading for anyone with a child that likes to dance to their own drum.

by Alison Sammes

Red: A Crayon’s Story
by Michael Hall
Published by Greenwillow Books
ISBN 9780062252074

Book Review: The Intentions Book, by Gigi Fenster

This book is in bookstores now, and is a finalist in the Fiction cv_the_intentions_bookcategory of the New Zealand Post Book Awards

There’s something not quite right about Morris. Highly intelligent and very good at his job as a metadata analyst, Morris is comfortable in the world of numbers, facts and lists.  But without his recently deceased wife Sadie, Morris finds himself adrift in the social aspects of life, where people expect him to act and react in ways he can’t predict.  Jokes confuse him, he does not like to be touched, he can’t explain his job, and it seems that he cannot cry.

When Morris’ adult daughter, Rachel, fails to return from a solo tramping trip in the Tararuas by her indicated “panic time”, the search and rescue co-coordinator asks the family what she is like; what kind of person is Rachel?  Morris’ son David, and sister-in-law Wendy turn to Morris because “she’s like you.” Morris must turn inwards to discover exactly what he is like, why he is the way he is, and whether the ‘wrongness’ his daughter may have inherited from him is something that may have contributed to her being lost and alone in the challenging Tararua Range.  He begins to ‘talk’ to his late wife, re-examining himself, his childhood and the significant events of his life, in part to see if he can discover any kind of truth that may lead him to his daughter.

The Intentions Book is masterful in that very little happens, in terms of the immediate event – the search for Rachel – and yet it is very difficult to put down.  A brilliant study of character and relationships, the exploration of Morris takes us inside the head of the type of man who is rarely granted the role of protagonist.  The oddness that Morris senses in himself but that he can’t quite explain, becomes clear to the reader through a series of beautifully crafted, gradually unfolding vignettes, snippets of Morris’s childhood, adolescence, and early teens.  The oddness, we see, is not a wrongness, but just a different kind of normal, and Morris begins to find a new kind of peace with himself in a world without Sadie, his anchor.

The tramping theme that permeates the book situates it firmly in New Zealand, and gives the book its title – the intentions book being a notebook in which a tramper details his or her intended route and timeline. However, this tale doesn’t have the slightly self-conscious gloominess that I have noticed in a lot of contemporary New Zealand writing.  It’s very hard to believe that The Intentions Book is Gigi Fenster’s debut novel, and it comes as no surprise that she has had short stories published previously. Fenster’s characters are believable, flawed and engaging, and in the book’s exploration of their relationships with one another in a time of crisis, I think all readers will find a little bit of themselves to explore.

I have only one small, logistical gripe – the ink on the pages of the book blurs when wet, so I would not recommend you read this in the bath!  But I do recommend that you read it, and it is certainly a worthy finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Reviewed by Renee Boyer-Willisson

The Intentions Book
by Gigi Fenster
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864738233