Christchurch based author and illustrator Gavin Bishop is one of New Zealand’s top writers for children right now. He’s also won a ton of awards for his books, has been honoured with a NZ Order of Merit for Children’s literature and most recently, took out the top prize at the Children’s Book awards (The Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award) for his project Aotearoa: A New Zealand Story.
Over the years he’s illustrated Mahy’s books along with those of Joy Cowley and many other Kiwi authors. If you browse through his work you’ll notice his penchant for bringing history, particularly Colonial, to life. Aotearoa was not only an opportunity to bring our own past to life but to make it shine with elegant, personal , sparkling artwork that almost borders on a cartoon style. That, in turn, really appeals to children and lets them feel at ease with the stories he’s telling.
Carrying on the template he created for Aotearoa and also for an earlier successful book The House That Jack Built (the Kiwi retelling), Bishop places the reader as close to the action as possible. He knows that kids will relate to history if they can wear the clothes, taste the flavours and smell the aromas of history. And so he’s chosen to write about Captain James Cook, not in the usual way but from the point of view of his cook, the one-handed John Thompson.
Thompson is not a man of airs and graces. He’s completely the opposite. Though he may not mind his Q’s he certainly knows his Pease Porridge – a sludgy soup made of split peas, favoured on alternate days to make the provisions of fresh food go further. This is just one fact we learn along the way. Bishop loves to throw in nerdy facts such as how many pigs, bottles of vinegar or sacks of flour are taken on board the Endeavour during its famous journey through Pacific waters in 1768. He relishes in providing these fantastic little details, information drawn from extensive research. Naturally, he also adds a bit of colourful sailor-talk and few sordid recipes like what to do with an albatross and how to serve sheared shark fins, Goose Pie (with a seabird substitute) or make Yorkshire pudding during a heavy storm.
Cook was determined to keep his crew and passengers fit and healthy so Thomson has his work cut out. His stories alone are worth the price of admission but this book is really more of a vehicle to tell the overall narrative around Cook’s famous voyage. Actually, the book tells multiple stories, of social class, hierarchy and race; stories of explorers and the people of the land (we are there during the first encounters with Maori, for example); the story of one of the world’s most famous explorers told through a fresh new lens – just in time for the 250th anniversary of the Endeavour’s journey.
This is a short but surprisingly heavily -packed book. There may only be about 40-odd pages but everyone deserves a re-read, as there are many little jokes, facts or secrets hiding in the illustrations. Children from 8 to 80 will love exploring this book and maybe even trying out a recipe or two – at their peril.
Reviewed by Tim Gruar
Cook’s Cook (The Cook who Cooked For Captain Cook)
by Gavin Bishop
Published by Gecko Press