Book Review of Gus’s Garage, by Leo Timmers and Q & A with James Brown

Hardback available this month from bookshops nationwide.

cv_guss_garageThe most magical picture books tell their story in images, as much as in words. Gus’s Garage, by Leo Timmers, is the best example of seamless storytelling I have seen recently, joining Timmers’ other wonderful books for early picture book readers.

Gus runs a garage, and sure he sells petrol, but what he really does is provide unique fixes for every possible situation he and his various animal drivers encounter. HHe reminded me a lot of my Uncle Jack, an engineer, who had a seemingly insurmountable ability to fix anything his friends brought him.

As Gus fixes problems, his pile of stuff gets smaller. My 5-year-old, Dan, caught on pretty quickly as to what was happening in the book, and was avid in trying to guess which unlikely object from Gus’s fix-it pile was going to be used to solve the drivers’ problems. He was particularly happy about predicting Miss P’s solution for her too-hot car: weld a fridge on top of her car, of course!

Timmers writes in Flemish, and to get the words just right for this book, not only did Gecko get Bill Nagelkerke to translate it; but they asked poet James Brown to adapt this translation to make it bounce along. The book is written in rhyming couplets in pairs, with the second pair as a refrain: ‘Let’s see, I have some bits and bobs. This goes with that. There. Just the job!’

I asked James a few questions about adapting this text, and his answers are below:

Picture books, poetry – same/same right? How closely *do* they relate?
Actually, there are connections. Being succinct, being able to work with rhyme and rhythm – both poetic skills that transfer well to children’s picture books.

In Leo’s pictures there are lots of small details that change gradually as the story develops.
Poets like particulars! I never tired of Leo’s pictures. In fact, I kept noticing more and more. They give you an overall picture of what’s going on very quickly, but then there are all those tiny details changing as the day passes. You really can look at them over and over.

I see Leo Timmers has admired your adaptation of Gus’s Garage – how did you find adapting a translation without understanding the original work? Do you think this gave you more or less freedom with language?
Well, I had a literal translation to steer by, and I looked closely at the language and could see that it rhymed and had a regular rhythm. Except with the refrain, I didn’t have too much freedom. The text had to agree with the images. The refrain was crucial. It had to be right because, well, it repeats, and it had to work for a US audience. Gecko Press gave me good advice – they said it’s got to rollick! So I kept that in my head. If the lines weren’t rollicking, they weren’t working.

Have you ever adapted a work – even in English – to a different form? Were there any similarities in this process?
I don’t think I have. I’ve done a few vague poetic adaptations – ‘Diary Extracts from Scott’s Voyage to Discover the West Pole’ parodies Scott’s diaries and Pooh Bear’s expedition to discover the North Pole. I’ve spent 10 years adapting some badly written museum labels into clear and occasionally engaging English.

What do you think that a well-adapted work, no matter the genre, can give us?
Well, it opens works up to new audiences. I love Yehuda Amichai’s poem ‘The Diameter of the Bomb’, but really I love Chana Bloch’s and Stephen Mitchell’s translation of it – I’d never have been able to read it in Hebrew. Wordsworth’s poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ – the daffodil poem – is possibly an adaptation of his sister Dorothy’s diary entry recording the same event. It depends on if he wrote it independently or used her diary to jog his memory. Her diary entry is good, but his poem is dazzling. Half of Shakespeare’s plays were adaptations of other plays.

Adaptations can show different points of view. Some are better than the original. Francis Coppola’s Dracula movie is a pretty good adaptation. Not sure about all those TV adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, though.

I know you were involved in the fantastic board book series that Te Papa Press put out a couple of years ago – what else is in the pipeline, Children’s books-wise from you? (or poetry-wise!) 
The board books were fun to do. I’ve recently done a few poems for the School Journal and one for [Gecko Press’s upcoming] Annual. I’ve just made some space in my life to focus more on my own creative projects – like my overdue poetry manuscript. I love Edward Gorey – I’d love to do something like him. I’d love to write a children’s book. I need a publisher! I need an illustrator! I need to write something.

While you are all waiting for James’ next poetry collection, pick up Gus’s Garage and put it in your ‘most treasured’ collection of picture books. It’s there in ours, alongside The Magical Life of Mr Renny.

Review and interview by Sarah Forster

Gus’s Garage
by Leo Timmers, translation by James Brown
Published by Gecko Press
PB ISBN: 9781776570928 (avail November)
HB ISBN: 9781776570935

Giveaway: Go to our Facebook page for a chance to win a hardback copy of Gus’s Garage, thanks to Gecko Press.

Book Review: Franky, by Leo Timmers

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_frankyThis is right up the alley of any kid who loves aliens, robots, creating, or having adventures. So, anybody, basically. Certainly that counts my 5-year-old, Dan, in for the full set.

Our hero Sam knows that robots exist – in fact, he knows that there is an alien race of robots on another planet somewhere nearby. His parents don’t believe him – not even his dog does. He has a robot-filled room, and nobody to play with them with: so he creates someone to play with.
Not just in his mind, no siree – he actually creates a robot. He fixes together a vacuum cleaner, a rake, an old transistor radio, a reading lamp and a pair of pliers, and he has a bona fide, rolling, playing, talking robot play friend. Their friendship weathers Sam’s need to disguise and hide his playmate in front of his parents, through adventures with water guns, pretty much the most awesome sandcastle ever, until one day, Franky is quieter than usual. He is looking out the window for something.

Leo Timmers is one of my favourite author/illustrators from the off-shore Gecko Press stable, and I was very lucky to meet him at the 2014 NZ Festival Writer’s Week. His book The Magical Life of Mr. Renny is one that Dan seeks out again and again when he wants to hear and see magical moments on paper, and Franky seems destined to be another. The main element that he engaged with in Franky was the creation of a friend. He was dismayed we didn’t have the right type of old-fashioned Electrolux, but we made do with a plastic bucket, a vacuum cleaner top, and something to hold both in place.
Dan was amazed that the robots that came down in the eventual UFO were so similar to Franky, and he was delighted that Franky could go off with his people, and that his parents had to believe in robots at the end. The final page is just perfect, and Dan and I both laughed at the little mole finding the tree in a love-heart shape. I recommend this for anybody who enjoys a well-crafted, sharply illustrated picture book for a child of any age.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by Leo Timmers
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781927271940

The changing face of Children’s books

Things that go BANG! featuring Leo Timmers

I did a personal best down Courtenay PlaceSONY DSC to see Leo Timmers this morning in his event Things that go BANG! And boy, am I pleased I did. Anybody who loves good children’s books should have been there – I was disappointed to see the Hannah Playhouse only at about half its capacity. I am certain in his home in Belgium he would have filled a venue twice the size of The Embassy, as it is clear he is becoming a household name there, with two TV series’ in the works.

What an extraordinary man. He writes what he says are ‘pure picture books’, likening the concept to Hitchcock’s ‘pure cinema’. He is an illustrator first and foremost – he starts an illustration before he comes up with anything to put it in, and he makes himself conceive a new idea every day. Sometimes they become small books, often they are discarded, never to see the light of day. Other times they will resurface in his mind and he will flesh them out to show a publisher.

Timmers started out as an illustrator-for-hire, cv_crowdoing editorial work for newspapers and children’s magazines, before he found his own voice. He tried illustrating others work, but he didn’t enjoy it, as he didn’t have enough freedom, so he began writing his own books out of frustration, at first with little confidence (though this was resolved when his first complete book, Crow, won a major book award in Belgium). The book The Magical Life of Mr Renny I think shows how far his writing has come. His lack of confidence was partially as he is himself dyslexic – even more extraordinary.

cv_the_magical_life_of_mr_rennyTimmers uses animals in his work extensively, and when queried about this, he said that it is simply to help children find a point of understanding with potentially difficult themes without making these confronting. Also, he finds animals are more fun to draw than humans, and much more exciting to colour! The point at which I just wanted to hug him was when he explained BANG! to us as a pictorial metaphor for the fact that it is more fun to be together than alone.

His work, by his own admission, is driven towards a particular theme – to encourage children to find out who they are as they grow up, and be true to themselves: do difficult things that you believe in. A very admirable aim in life.

I managed to make it to the front of the signing queue, that carried on for an hour due to the care he took in illustrating each book – my lucky sons got a wonderful Mr Renny saying their names. He is a genuinely wonderful author, who cares deeply about his readers – if you have children (especially young ones), please make sure they see Timmers’ work.

Idea + Design + Text = ?, featuring Aleksandra Mizeilinska and Daniel Mizieilinski in discussion with Lynn Freeman


I was not as familiar with the work of Aleksandra Mikeilinska and Daniel Mikieilinski, a pair of Polish artists who were here to talk about their work. I had seen H.O.U.S.E and D.E.S.I.G.N previously, as Gecko Press publications, but their other (translated) works – Maps and Mamoko were unfamiliar, and so wonderful!

Intriguingly they are not only picture book creators, but also game developers, and website creators. They straddle, easily it seems, the physical and digital worlds.

mapsThe two met at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, despite Daniel at least never wanting to be a painter – fortunately they discovered book design at the academy, and as well as doing their own work, they have also been responsible for designing books more generally. They work incredibly collaboratively, with Aleksandra being responsible for telling Daniel when he has gone off the wrong way with things…

Daniel had a lot of interesting things to say about the world of digital publishing. Namely, that paper books just don’t have much in common with e-books. Publishers simply don’t understand this, which is why we get e-book apps, he says ‘that are like the early days of computer games in the library, where you would click on an animal and it would squawk.’ Daniel is much more interested in a new format that hasn’t yet been developed yet for e-books, something between an app and a book, while being something new altogether. They are working on this themselves, and believe more game developers should also work on this – as it has the potential to be a big area of growth. The start of this can be found at

Other thoughts from Daniel:
Self-publishing: ‘Self-publishing is great but selling 1000 copies is not enough to influence the children of your country.’ (Poland is much larger in population than NZ)
Intellectual property: ‘Patents are destroying all that is good in the world and they should be abolished.’ (You’d be unsurprised that he is also not a fan of copyright)
Storytelling: ‘If you are a good storyteller you can influence things as you want to.’ This was the inspiration with Maumoko – which was commissioned by their publisher to be a book that the child could tell the story from, rather than the parent.

Something that the Mizieilienska/is and Timmers had in common was the fact they don’t see illustration as secondary – using the word illustration, Daniel said, implies that the story is in the text. The story is as much in the text in all of their books as it is in the words.

And this is why the joy that can be found in good children’s books is so pure.

by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ

Thank you to the festival organisers for providing a wee festival within a festival for those of us that are admirers of children’s literature. With Leo Timmers, the Mizieilienskas and Gavin Bishop doing the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture that evening, it was a great day for the great many kiwi children’s authors who I saw milling around.

Launch night of Wellington Writers and Readers Week


I was very happy to be invited along to the launch of Wellington Writers and Readers Week. A few of the staff and reviewers for Booksellers NZ will be covering events from the week on the blog as they happen, in the hope of carrying on conversations started by the performers on stage. The week runs Friday 7 – Wednesday 12 March.

Arriving early, I had a chance to chat to one of the coordinators for the Week, Claire Mabey. She was very excited, and happy that all the arrangements for individual writers had been finalised.

The room was bustling by the time the speeches were made announcing the Festival programme for 2014. Looking around, I could see almost every ‘face’ of literature in Wellington, plus a few other special guests like Mayor Celia Wade-Brown.  Kerry Prendergast, who is Executive Chair of the NZ Festival Trust, was not in attendance. A few years ago, just after the first election in which Celia won Kerry’s seat, they spoke one after the other, and things were amusingly tense.

The speeches were led by NZ Festival Artistic Director Shelagh Magadza, who has come most recently from a role as artistic director of the Perth Festival, but started her festival journey here in Wellington as tea lady. Her memories of festivals past included one of being ‘blown away’ by Chris Price at an event during the writers’ festival. Damien Wilkins followed her, speaking on behalf of Victoria University as a sponsor; then Kathryn Carmody came forward and spoke very gracefully, thanking all of her partners in putting together this spectacular line-up.

There is something for everybody in the line-up, frpp_leo_timmersom those who read historical fiction, with Tom Keneally and Elizabeth Gilbert as previously announced; to those who like to learn something that will make them look at life differently, like Dr Marco Sonzogni and Diarmaid MacCulloch. There is also some fantastic illustrators, with Leo Timmers (right), Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielińsky, and Alison Bechdel .

Leo Timmers is running a live drawing workshop, with Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielińsky also showing some of their techniques. Both workshops are for practising illustrators and graphic designers only, making them a truly fantastic opportunity for these people to extend their skills. Get in quickly for these!

The first Writers and Readers week headed by Wellington book industry wonder woman Kathryn Carmody, is bound to be a massive hit. Tickets for Friends of the Festival and Bookmark Pass holders go on sale today, and all tickets are available to the public next Friday 7 February.

For the full programme, head online to

By Sarah Forster