The Top Hat, the Talent: Donovan Bixley talks at AWF Schools Fest

Donovan Bixley has been published in 28 countries, and is the author of over 100 books, many of them award-winning. He has been drawing, then writing the stories to go with the pictures, since he was eight (his mum was a school librarian) – but it was only in his late twenties that he realised that this may be a way to make a living.

donovan bixley

During this session, Donovan took his lucky Auckland Writers Festival school audience – the NZI Lower room at the Aotea Centre was PACKED – through the genesis of the Flying Furballs series, and the way in which his words and pictures grow out of each other.

When he began publishing, he realised that the rules to publishing implicitly stated that you were meant to write the story first, while months, sometimes years later, the pictures get added to the story. He doesn’t play by those rules.

He carried on to show a bit of live drawing, drawing a plane like that which Claude D’Bonair flies in Dogfight. He combines elements of things he loves drawing: he loves planes, he loves travelling (but doesn’t get to do much of it so likes to draw wonderful settings), and loves drawing animals: at this point he put a cat in the plane. The phrase “flying furball”arose in his head at that point: But “a pussy cat in a plane in Paris” is just an idea – he needed a bit more than just an idea for a series to grow.

FF4booksMany of the cats that star in Bixley’s series are based on his real cats, with their real characteristics. His inventor character C4 is based on his childhood cat – called C4 because he was the fourth cat in a short time, who ended up lasting quite a bit longer than the others on the busy road they lived on. The characteristic there was some odd sleeping habits. Manx is based on their current family cat, the lord of the neighbourhood. And Syd Fishious is based on an old fat cat with bad habits (mostly eating).

The advice that Bixley gave to his young fans was pitched perfectly at their level, and his tips were solid and valuable. He writes his stories (once he has drawn up his character ideas) longhand in a notebook. You can’t press a play button on a notebook. He says, “Writing longhand is a good way to get stuff straight out of your head and onto a piece of paper.”

When Bixley began writing junior fiction it was to combat the concept that when you start reading chapter books, you don’t want as many pictures. Being an author and an illustrator, Donovan doesn’t want illustrations to go away: “Pictures are an integral part of storytelling.”

Having read Bixley’s books, you understand how true this is for him– attending the Lauren Child session straight after, I understood that they had similar approaches to this. You are never without a visual anchor, whilst the story is also enhanced in more subtle ways by the detail of his illustrations.

Bixley showed a few examples in his work of the way that his words and pictures work together. For instance, he uses maps frequently to show where his characters are going. He uses the pictures to extend his words – he draws castles, chateaux, Venice… “A picture says a thousand words in a blink of an eye.”

He also uses comic strips occasionally; “you don’t get confusion during big fight scenes in comic strips – you know who is hitting whom.” And he sometimes adds back-detail on a character through examples of how their character plays out. Major Ginger Tom is meant to be a “hero” – but is he really? Perhaps he may be a bit of a flash boy, say the pictures. This expands the world of the characters – General Fluffington’s schedule isn’t quite as busy as you might be lead to believe. And the world gets bigger yet when he uses newspaper clippings – you get snips of other stories that are happening in the same world, expanding the universe in which the pictures exist.

And you want the readers to want to turn the page: Bixley showed how he created a ‘page-turner’ – the cat flying towards you off the page, to keep the reader on tenterhooks, like with all good action adventures.

By using illustrations in all these important ways, he leaves the words free to do the bits they do: dialogue, moving the plot along, set the tone of the book.

When the formal session ended, there were kids flocking to the microphones, at least 30 kids per mike, hoping to ask Donovan questions. They teased out details such as his favourite book as a kid (The Lorax – it still is), what he wanted to be when he was a kid (a film-maker, but he was too much of a megalomaniac), and what his favourite thing is to draw (octopuses).

If you haven’t yet seen Donovan live, why not invite him to your school through Writers in Schools (NZ Book Council), or via his own website. Check out his work here, and see a couple of details of his latest books below.

Attended and reviewed Sarah Forster on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Flying Furballs: Unmasked!
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781927262931

Fuzzy Doodle
by Melinda Szymanik and Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434061

The Great Egg Stink (Dinosaur Trouble #1)
by Kyle Mewburn and Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775433668

Book Review: Flying Furballs: Hot Air, by Donovan Bixley

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

See our review of Dogfight, number 1 in this series.

cv_hot_air.jpgThe second in the Flying Furballs series from Donovan Bixley is another laugh-out-loud action-packed read, set during the great war between CATs and DOGZ. The mission this time begins when Claude D’Bonair breaks a pigeon-message code:  he and his partner Syd Fishus are off on a top secret mission to supposedly neutral Switzerland.

Like all good secret missions, this one begins with a visit to the tech guys: in this case a canny cat called C-Four, who has a knack for inventing things that even he doesn’t know the real use of. This time, Claude & Syd take away an automatic hammock…but what could it be used for? As they begin their mission & figured that not everything is exactly going to go smoothly, it does come in handy for breaking the odd uncontrolled fall…

As Kyle Mewburn did in the Dragon Knight series, Bixley has made judicious use of the truth as applied to, for example, the types of planes flown in WW1. He also plays a little with the concept of goodies and baddies – we are frequently reminded via our hero Claude that “not all DOGZ are bad DOGZ.” And the secret weapon bears some resemblance to the Germans’ secret weapon in WW1.

Up and down gondolas, through the bellies of airships and into a handy one-seater plane, our heroes don’t have an easy job of saving the day. In fact, it’s not at all clear, once Major Tom gets hold of the facts, that they have. The next book is due in April 2017, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be figuring out who the spy is this time.

Highly recommended for action-loving kids aged 5-10.

Flying Furballs: Hot Air
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 978927262542

Book Reviews: My First Board Book – Colours, and Animals, by Donovan Bixley

Both are available now in bookshops nationwide.

My First Board Book – Colours

cv_colours_bixley.jpgThis is a brightly illustrated board book perfect for a small child getting to grips with Te Reo. Colours are illustrated with clear pictures of a swan, a digger, a caravan and other objects and things that are all associated with being a small fascinated child. The swan is white (ma), the digger is red (whero) – going along the familiar words of the colour song many of those who grew up in the 1980s sang at school.

This is a fabulous book and Sarah our daughter-in-law with her perfect pronunciation reading it to little Quinn, saw Quinn firmly clutch it in her hand, “mine”!

This is a wonderful book to introduce young children to Te Reo, as is Animals, for which my review is below.

cv_animals_bixley.jpgOn the surface, Animals looks like a standard board book for small children but on opening and going through it you realise it is much more.

Starting with the cow, then the horse, sheep, goat, pig and a range of other farm animals all with their Maori names under them.

The pictures are clear and easy for a small child to follow – the trick is in the pronunciation.

It’s really good to see books celebrating the Māori language.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

My First Board Book – Colours
by Donovan Bixley,
Published by Hachette NZ
9781869713447

My First Board Book – Animals
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Hachette NZ
9781869713430

Having a baby? You’ll need (kiwi) books!

By books, I don’t mean books telling you what to do when you have a baby, though a couple of them might be a good idea early on in the pregnancy. Really, don’t look at them later though as it’s a sure way to convince yourself you’ll never be good at this parenting gig. I’m not going to suggest titles of pregnancy/ parenthood books, but Kaz Cooke is amazing and I keep seeing stuff around about Constance Hall’s Like a Queen, and um did you know Emily Writes has a book coming? Anyway.

What is really important, is starting your new bump’s very own library. Your first stop is going to be school fairs – think Spot, Dr Seuss, the eponymous Golden Books. And make sure you have plenty of board books – not only are they tear-proof for destructive-minded toddlers, but they are easier to hold with one hand while breastfeeding. And your second stop – bookshops, of course. Perhaps for Bookshop Day this Saturday 29 October?

All of these essential first kiwi books are available in board book format.

cv_the_noisy_book1. The Noisy Book, by Soledad Bravi (Gecko Press)
Nothing beats it. My boys have destroyed two copies of this – the only notable change in the second edition being a PC-ism of Spinach – it was just ‘Yuk’ now it goes ‘Yuk Yum’. Possibly for the American market?
2. Hairy Maclary Touch & Feel, by Lynley Dodd (Puffin)
Your baby will love touch & feel books, and be disappointed with any books that don’t have this function, right until they are around 2.5 years old. This is a favourite, with lots of fuzzy, soft and velvety dog fur.
3. ABC, 123 and Colours, by James Brown and Frances Samuel (Te Papa Press)cv_my_NZ_ABC_book
These books are gorgeous and genuinely inventive. A may be for Apples, but they are big, shiny Billy Apples – we get relevant letter-meanings, gorgeous countables and the most wonderful artwork in Colours. Just brilliant.
4. Duck’s Stuck, by Kyle Mewburn and Ali Teo (Scholastic NZ)
So you don’t believe that a tiny baby discovers their literary taste literally on the boob? Think again! This book was my bedside book while I fed my little baby to sleep, and is still now a fallback when every other book is rejected. Thank you, Kyle – this is a gift he gave me when still pregnant with number 1, and it’s still going strong.
construction_crew5. Roadworks, Demolition and Construction, by Sally Sutton and Brian Lovelock (Walker Books) – available now in a box set.
These are must-haves for the machine-mad child. This was so popular with my older boy when he was 2 there were thoughts of “losing” it for awhile…
6. The Wheels on the Bus (Hachette), The Great Kiwi ABC Book (Upstart Press) and Old McDonald Had a Farm (Hachette), by Donovan Bixley
Okay, you may think once you’ve seen one version of these classics you’ve seen them all, but Bixley’s richly detailed, characterful illustrations make sure this isn’t the case with these books.
cv_the_big_book_of_words_and_pictures7. My Big Book of Words and Pictures, by Ole Konnecke (Gecko Press)
My first child, age 2, insisted that we made up stories based on the pictures on each of the pages of this book. Every Single Night. It was wonderful, most of the time. But seriously, this is a top-of-the-line word learning book, with a bit of a story on each page to help the tired parent’s mind. This could, admittedly, be a first birthday present.
8. Stomp! By Ruth Paul (Scholastic NZ)
Ruth Paul’s Stomp! is a great first dinosaur adventure, where small turns the tables on big when it’s their turn to lead the pack. Subtle, effective illustrations make sure there’s something to discover on every re-read. And there will be plenty.
9. Piggity-Wiggity Jiggity-Jig, by Diana Neild, illustrated by Phillip Webb (Scholastic NZ)
One of the best rhythmic books out there, this is the first in a series about Piggity, with the slightly awkward name. A huge favourite with no 1 kid, it didn’t really work for no 2, and fair warning it is a little long when you have a small baby; maybe one to jiggle the cot to for a night-time read.cv_kakahu_getting_dressed
10. Kākahu – Getting Dressed; Kararehe – Animals; and Kanohi – My Face, by Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson (Reo Pepi)
Essential first Te Reo titles, teaching the very young some essential first words in Te Reo to begin their understanding of New Zealand’s own language.
11. Colours, and Animals, by Donovan Bixley (Hachette NZ)
A similar concept as above, including Te Reo first words, with Bixley’s usual cast of animated characters, which will be familiar to anybody who has read his Old McDonald’s Farm or Wheels on the Bus stories.
12. Mrs Wishy-Washy, by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Elizabeth Fuller
Mrs Wishy-Washy is an enduring favourite for my youngest boy, though I will admit that sometimes when he has nightmares they appear to include Wishy-Washy and Grandma (possibly related to that one time we left him to go to sleep with Grandma: the trauma!) The words trip off the tongue, and you’ll have it memorised in no time. Joy Cowley is a national treasure.

Now, a disclaimer that will be familiar to anybody who has had the pleasure of being at The Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie when John McIntyre hosts a parents night. Before you buy your library, go to the library – with your child, if they are already born! Every child is different – my boys have very few of their preferred books in common – but all of these books are quality. Writing, production & everything: brilliant.

So here’s the sell: It’s NZ Bookshop Day on 29 October: what better chance to go out and get your little ones some quality kiwi (and translated, in the case of the Gecko Press) books! Most of the bookshops participating will be giving out books to kids who come in-store dressed up, and there are children’s authors popping up in bookshops all over New Zealand. Here’s the event calendar, so get your skates on!

by Sarah Forster

Book Review: The Great Kiwi ABC Book, by Donovan Bixley

cv_The_Great_kiwi_ABCAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

The moment The Great Kiwi ABC arrived in the post it was devoured by my 5-year-old and whipped of to school to be shared with the class.

Bixley’s illustrations always delight. They have a particularly kiwi flavour, with just a hint of nostalgia to them. Frequently Bixley uses themes like farming, native plants and birds and rugby mixed with a cheeky humour and a sense of hide and seek. It’s his trademark to hide themed characters or illustrations on every page, so you require multiple readings to find everything. This was the premise of one of his earlier and most popular books The Looky Book. In our household we’re on to the third version, such is the use that the pages eventually get ripped or ruined from constant turning – overloving, as it were.

Like the The Looky Book, The Great Kiwi ABC is also fun for adults, as they can get just as engaged as their little ones finding all the pictorial treasures. With my older child I get her to try and spell each item or character as she finds them, to hilarious results. Who knew squid could be spelt ‘SWQUEEDDD”? Oh well.

This particular ABC book is for younger readers. Each page is dedicated to a letter, and is a mix of typed words and discoverable characters including a milkshake-making cow (a hilarious concept that Bixley uses often in his work), All Black Lambs (another common them throughout the 50+ publications he’s drawn for) a very cutesy pink and white ski-bunny and a huge salmon pink squid. Vibrancy and humour are Bixley’s signatures and they are here in abundance.

Bixley does write and illustrate for older readers, too. His newest book, Much Ado About Shakespeare, is his own special mission to bring the great bard to life 400 years after his death in a wonderful illustrated literary work. Bixley has been a regular winner of New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, his book Monkey Boy was listed by the International Youth Library as one of their top 200 books in the world.

And as for my 5-year-old’s classmates – they spent all morning trying to find animals and items beginning with the letter ‘C’ on page 4. They found three more than their teacher. One up to them.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Great Kiwi ABC
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781927262719

Book Review: Fuzzy Doodle, by Melinda Szymanik and Donovan Bixley

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_fuzzy_doodleThis book is one to treasure. From the first squiggle to the final page, Fuzzy the doodle leads you on a playful word adventure as he grows…and grows…and grows.

This is The Hungry Little Caterpillar redux, but instead of fruit & picnic treats, Fuzzy craves writing, ink and colour. And as fuzzy eats, he is redefined. The fonts change, the words shine glossily from the page, and eventually the metallics see a royal tinge added to Fuzzy’s fur.

As well as the growth of Fuzzy the caterpillar, this flawlessly rhyming story tells us about the growth of a book, the growth of a writer and artist, and the growth of a reader. The story grows in confidence as Fuzzy ‘hoovers’ up words, sentences and paragraphs. It took me a few reads to understand the brilliance of this book, and I was grateful for this. I do like a good book about books and booklovers, but that story is being worn out: telling it in this way was fresh for me, with a familiar transformation story for the kids to hang on to.

The style of the illustrations is walking a fine line between brilliance and chaos, but of course, Donovan Bixley is one of our most adaptable illustrators – and with him designing the book as well, every splash, whoosh and nibble has been carefully designed to sit on the page just so. Fuzzy Doodle displays flawless interaction between an author and illustrator, and good on Scholastic for putting the money into the printing to make this book shine.

Parent, buy this book and read it to your kids as they learn to read, write and squiggle.
Just remember:

‘Fuzzy started as a scribble,
just a scrawly little doodle,
a smudgey sort of ‘something’
at the bottom of the page.’

He’s been through a lot since, and now he is splendid.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Fuzzy Doodle
by Melinda Szymanik & Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775432500 HB / 9781775434061 PB

Book Review: Flying Furballs: Dogfight, by Donovan Bixley

cv_dogfightAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Since winning the Junior Fiction prize for Monkey Boy at last year’s NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, Donovan Bixley has not stopped working*. He appears to be the busiest illustrator in the country at the moment, because not only can he illustrate, he has proven now that he can also write. Not only that, he can write brilliantly well, and book awards judges agree.

Flying Furballs is Bixley’s new solo series, set in 1916 Europe, with DOGZ standing in as Germans, and CATs as the allied forces. Dogfight introduces young Pilot Claude D’Bonair and his hilarious counterpoint Syd Fishus, seeing them work together – with the help of Manx the flight engineer – to save the hero of the CAT forces, Major Tom, who is missing in action. Claude escapes calamity by the tip of his tail more than once as he flies through the air in this action-packed adventure story.

There are more puns and idioms than you can shake a paw at, and many of the characters have very familiar names. There is Major Tom of course, and the scion of the flying CATs, The Red Setter. There is also a General Fluffington, a Commander Snookums, and Mr Tibbles. Plenty of levity to ensure the adults reading this to their kids are as entertained as the children themselves.

It’s hard not to compare this directly with the series’ that Bixley has illustrated previously with Kyle Mewburn’s writing, and there are similarities in tone and target age group. Both the Dinosaur Rescue and Dragon Knight are also highly recommended. What I think sets it apart is the freedom of space that having a whole book to himself has given Bixley. He can illustrate each page as lavishly as he wishes, with the result that the book is a riot of joyfully drawn (personified) animals.

Five-year-old Dan really enjoyed being read this book, and it was the perfect length to allow us to read a couple of chapters a night and still be finished within the week. He was ready for more as we finished, so I think we will be snapping Flying Furballs up as they come out, for the next few years.

This book is great fun for lovers of action-packed books – adults who grew up on a diet of Tintin, Peanuts and Biggles, with a side of Top Gun, will love it just as much as their kids.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Flying Furballs: Dogfight
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781927262535

*Actually even before then, as by my count, there were upwards of 20 books illustrated or written and illustrated by Donovan Bixley released since the start of 2014. Phew!