Book Review: The Christmas Tree Tangle, by Margaret Mahy

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

Icv_the_christmas_tree_tangle am sadly just a decade too old to have actually grown up with this book, but I wish I had! Mahy is fabulous fun in this tale of a hapless kitten stuck up a Christmas Tree.

It has all the elements we know and love Mahy for: flawless rhyme, rhythm and cadence, a solid story in several acts, and a wicked sense of fun. And the word ‘horrakapotchkin’ – probably my favourite of all the coined words Mahy uses.

The feel of this as you read it is similar to singing the 12 days of Christmas, or I know an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly. First cat, then dog, then goat, then pigs ascend the tree, and as the story builds we have a couplet given to each: The cat splits the night with a woeful wail, the dog barks in the Christmas night, the goat teeters, entreating, while the kitting clings with her claws to the Christmas star.

Spoiler alert – none of these animals are quite as good at climbing as the kitten… but they do make extremely good stepping stones!

Sarah Davis’s illustrations are playful and wild, matching the tone of the book perfectly. The things that befall the animals are hilarious – the cat’s tail gets caught in the teeth of a nutcracker ornament, while the dog is tangled in some pretty strong beads. And the manner in which the child at the end ascends the tree is perfect – using a collection of Christmas-themed helium balloons. (Check out Sarah Davis’s article on The Sapling about her attempts at illustrating the kitten!)

Buy and read this with your children this Christmas (if you can find a copy!): our copy is going under the tree as a Christmas Eve read.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Christmas Tree Tangle
by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Sarah Davis
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 97801437709800

Book Review: Summer Days – Stories and Poems celebrating the Kiwi Summer

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv-summer_daysSometimes a very special book comes in to my possession. Summer Days is one of these. I love the feel of it, the weight of it, the colour, the size, the blue ribbon bookmark and especially the sun-golden page edges. The inside is just as wonderful. Here is summer packaged for Kiwi kids. There are Pohutukawa trees and buzzing bees, jandals and sandy seashore, Jesus in the cowshed and Grandpa on the beach.

Puffin have published this collection for young Kiwi kids just in time for a family Christmas present. Every poem, story and illustration reminded me of the special nature of summer in New Zealand. This is the very best of the very best. Joy Cowley gives us the Nativity in a cowshed with a collection of animals beloved by New Zealanders. Gwenda Turner was a wonderful artist who captured the reality of beach time. She even included the named creatures found on the rocky shore. Margaret Mahy makes a special Christmas Cake, while Brian Turner watches the bees.

It is not easy to select a collection such as this. Keep it simple, keep it local, keep it varied and keep it manageable. Every page was a delight as I found there was enough variety to enjoy the short poems between the longer picture stories. This is a sturdy publication with an embossed hard cover and just the right size to pack for the holiday. It is the details which so delighted me. There are ice-cream cones on the end papers, a bookmark attached, a stitched spine and the final touch is the sunshine yellow edges to every page. Truly, it is summer in a book.

I see this being the perfect family present. It will become a classic treasure on the bookshelf creating heated debate when it has to be passed on to the next generation. My copy is already wrapped and under the tree for my granddaughter. Maybe I need a copy to keep for myself?

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Summer Days: Stories and Poems celebrating the Kiwi Summer
Puffin
ISBN 9780143771593

Book Review: The Haunting, by Margaret Mahy

cv_the_hauntingAvailable in bookshops nationwide. 

Eight-year-old Barney Palmer lives an almost-ordinary life with an almost-ordinary family, with two exceptions. Barney has been haunted all his childhood, and the Palmers are a family of magical blood. Every generation a ‘Palmer magician’ is born; this is seen as both a gift and a curse to the family. When Barney feels a “faint dizzy twist” in the world around him on the way home from school, he knows that he is about to be haunted again…but something is different about this haunting. For one, it seems to be linked to the death of Barney’s great-uncle (and namesake) Barnaby.

It soon becomes clear to Barney and his family that Barney is being haunted by something potentially dangerous. Barney begins to hear voices, has bizarre dreams and begins to look rather ghostly himself; pale-faced and constantly tired. Sometimes his eyes don’t appear to be his own. Sometimes his body feels like somebody else’s. With the help of his sisters – silent, mysteriously tidy Troy and talkative, curious Tabitha – Barney begins to get to the bottom of his family’s history.

My favourite thing about this book would have to be the characters; they feel fresh and bold, and their dialogue is so realistic. Tabitha and Barney both seem to share the role of the protagonist; while Barney is being haunted he feels like a ghost sometimes, observant and silent. On the other hand, Tabitha’s personality is so bubbly and overwhelming that she dominates the story with her note-taking, matter-of-fact commentary and constant stream of questions. I like Tabitha.

Only a few pages in, I could already see why this book had received the Carnegie Medal back in 1982. Margaret Mahy’s use of language is completely unique, and her way of storytelling is so effective. Conversations between the characters seem to crackle with energy, while the story progresses at a satisfying pace. The events of Barney’s haunting are told through the eyes of the children, so there’s this innocence about the way the story is told. (At first Barney refuses to confess that he is being haunted at all; he does this because he is afraid that he will upset his beloved stepmother Claire, who is expecting a baby.) Somehow it makes the scarier parts of the story that more chilling.

Overall, The Haunting is the perfect paranormal thriller – it manages to be a story that readers of any age will be gripped by, as they have been for 35 years now. Margaret Mahy is just one of those authors whose work is really timeless; that word gets thrown around a lot, but her work really does suit the description. I can imagine in another decade that The Haunting would have the same effect on its readers.

Reviewed by Tierney Reardon

The Haunting
by Margaret Mahy
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9781869713676

WORD: The Margaret Mahy Lecture, given by David Levithan

This was a really special experience. I will move mountains to come to all future Margaret Mahy lectures. I’ll admit that the concept of a named lecture often gives me doubts, but I have read Levithan, and I knew I did not want to miss what he had to say.

Kate De Goldi gave the introduction, saying ever since his first novel Boy Meets Boy, “he has energetically reimagined queer experience.” Levithan has now written, edited, and anthologised more than 20 books. “He has peopled the YA stage with self-aware, thoughtful, engaged teenagers.” The highlight of his books for De Goldi is the concept that we are at our best in relationship to one another: change comes only from connectivity. As well as writing his own books, he is a publisher and editorial director at Scholastic US.

Event_Margaret-Mahy-Memorial-Lecture-David-Levithan-1He opened his talk by speaking briefly to the Orlando shooting: “What do we do in response? We raise our voices not singing, but shouting. Not shouting, but telling stories. We must look for people who don’t get to speak, and make their stories part of the collective story.”

Levithan re-read Margaret Mahy’s Memory in preparation for this talk. He was delighted to find that it is still as profound as he remembered it. He took us through one paragraph, about Johnny five years after his sister’s death, which expertly delves into the teenage mind, the mind in hurt and pain and turmoil, which manifests in indifference to his self. He says:

It’s ridiculous to think you can go through the world indifferent to it. I don’t believe in the word ‘apolitical’: if you are absenting yourself, that is a political act. That will make you feel hollow. The cure that literature can offer – the hope that we can give, is empathy. That is the panacaea. Literature can teach you that other people are people too. That is why we become so invested in telling the stories of others alongside ours. We believe in sharing other voices. That, to us, feels like engagement. The device of a book is to take you into that other world.

From the phrase from Memory: ‘It was disconcerting for Johnny that imaginary things can grow, as lucid as if they were true.’

Levithan seized here on the notion of ‘proper imagination.’ The power of the imagination can make things become real. Levithan wrote Boy Meets Boy as an editor, this was the book he wanted to exist. “Before this, all gay characters in novels were under a threat. To make this book shouldn’t have been a radical notion: but it was. And that was why it was important. The characters in the book weren’t defined by who they loved. That space in the pages made it feel like that space existed in the world. That effect, that is what a book can do.”

He carried on – I was typing more or less verbatim: “When you are reading a book, you are bringing yourself into the book. That is a powerful thing – understanding your empathy toward the people. That’s why our literature lives, and breathes, and grows.”

The next sentence: ‘He had always been the victim of stories, not only others but his own as well.’

Levithan says, “I didn’t grow up seeing myself in literature. The way to change this is to write. It is ignorance and indifference to think that stories aren’t at war all around you. We don’t have control of others’ stories, but as those things go wrong, we have control of our own stories.”

Every person Levithan has met since being in Christchurch has told him where they were when the earthquakes happened. This is a way of people gaining control over their own stories: it didn’t only happen to us, it was part of our story.

“Writers of YA literature need to include as many stories as possible. There is a benefit in that YA literature doesn’t need to overthrow eons of history – it has only existed for around 50 years. YA authors need to keep an ear out for stories that aren’t being told. That is part of their mission.” He noted that this isn’t something YA authors do in isolation: they get power through it, but they are nothing without the bloggers, the librarians, the teachers, overcoming condescension against YA literature. “We just need to not care if the cricics are condescending. We understand the power our words have.”

You Give Them Words
Levithan gives a lot of anti-censorship talks, and been on a lot of anti-censorship panels. He has heard stories of writers being pulled into a principal’s office and told ‘you can’t read your book here, or I’ll lose my job.’ His response is: “What is the point of keeping your job if you aren’t going to do your job.” He doesn’t know a teacher who went into teaching without wanting to teach kids things: librarians want to put books into kids’ hands. Parents want to teach their children. “Why do we have to keep fighting for things that are clearly basic equality?”

This part of the narration is abridged, and I sincerely hope that this will be published in full one day. Here is part of his talk called ‘You Give them Words.’

You are here for the inquisitive and the ignored. You are here because of your passion for people: to give them words… the truth is electricity to power them. You know that some of them struggle to rise against the power of their own thoughts. Some only feel their own isolation. Words can take you out of the band that believes in closed borders and closed minds. You give them words to know that all human beings were created equal. You give them words to show them the context. To bring out the meaning. If they do not know who they are, you give them words.

By learning the ways other people have told stories, you learn to tell your own. By telling our own, we become free. You have chosen this path not because it is easy, but because it matters. Thank you for leading us to the truth. Thank you for encouraging when you are not obligated to encourage.

Levithan went on to say: “The important thing is the readers. I am baffled when people talk about books as their own entity. As long asa book matters to a reader, it doesn’t matter where it is in relation to other books. The book is written to matter to a reader: no matter their age. That is what we pour into the book. We need this wonderful conspiracy of teachers, writers, readers etc – to give these kids don’t have access to the books they need.

Jane Higgins asked Levithan a question from the audience about hope in YA literature. He says, “Most YA authors have an ability to change things: the stories don’t have to reflect that hope, it’s not a requirement. I find more hope in a book where it tells you the way out of a problem: most will point towards how to make things better.” Even when things look bleak, you trust the reader to see the larger world and see how to stop the ultimate ending happening. You are hoping the reader gets angry, rather than giving up. His example was M T Anderson’s Feed, which is “scarily prophetic about our dependence on technology.”

I hope you have gained a flavour of this session, through my use of Levithan’s words. Please do read his books, and do your best to see him when he appears again tomorrow.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Margaret Mahy Lecture
9.30am – 10.30am, Saturday 27 August

Boy Meets Boy
by David Levithan
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780007533039

Two Boys Kissing
by David Levithan
Text Publishing
9781922147486

most recent:
You Know me Well
by Nina Lacour and David Levithan
Text Publishing
9781925355529

 

 

 

WORD: Reading Favourites, with David Hill, Jolisa Gracewood and Paula Morris

I’ve seen Paula Morris chair a few sessions at various writers festivals, and was reminded again today why she’s one of my favourite chairs: funny, engaging, doesn’t talk over her panellists, keeps discussion ticking along in a lively manner.

Today she was chairing Reading Favourites, discussing with David Hill and Jolisa gracewood-and-andrew_cMarti-Friedlander their favourite NZ books and how more reading of NZ books can be generally encouraged. Unfortunately Chris Tse was unable to attend – Morris quipped this was either because he was sick or because Hill had offended him.

As today is National Poetry Day, each panelist started with a poem. Hill read Elizabeth Smither’s ‘Two Adorable Things about Mozart’, commenting that “there are certain lines I’d give an index finger to have written”.

Gracewood (right, on the right, photo by Marti Friedlander) read from a “very subversive poetry anthology” in which the names of the poets are not published on the same page as their poems. She read us ‘Telephone Wires’, which turned out to have been written by a 12yo girl in the 1950s. Morris read ‘Going Outside’ by Bill Manhire. The audience hummed in appreciation.

The panellists had been asked to bring along their two favourite New Zealand books. Gracewood showed us her copy of Wednesday’s Children by Robin Hyde, an ex-library book that had been stamped every week in 1951. She said it’s about a woman who wins Lotto and can live as she pleases – a “really magical book” that rewards rereading. She spoke about how Wednesday’s Children has “deep historical reminiscence … [and] continues to be fresh”.

wednesdays childrenIt’s also out of print – which, as Gracewood pointed out, is a problem we need to discuss. Her other favourite book – The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy – is also out of print, although Gracewood hopes that the upcoming film adaptation of Mahy’s The Changeover (one of my personal favourite YA books of all time) will incite publishers to reprint these works. About The Tricksters, Gracewood said “I love it when a book asks you to take on faith that there are worlds alongside ours”.

Hill’s two favourite books were Kate De Goldi’s The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle and Maurice Gee’s Going West. Of the former, he said “The writing is crystalline … I really wept, put the book down and wept … [and] I smiled with delight.” He said that children’s writing has to suggest a world order in which there is still hope, and noted the wonderful respect for adults shown in The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle.

Hill called Gee “the great chronicler of NZ adult life [and] the least show-off writer I know … [with] restrained craft but also a relentless evisceration of personal relationships.” He said that any book of Gee’s makes him think “Yes, that’s it … He’s so good I come away with no envy whatsoever.” I was thrilled to learn from Harriet Allen in the audience that Gee is publishing a new YA novel next year.

cv_Maori_boyMorris’s two favourite books were The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones and Māori Boy by Witi Ihimaera: “they’re both ‘our story’ books”. She said Lloyd writes in the communal voice and gives a great insight into colonialism: “it is really a great NZ novel”. Ihimaera writes as “someone resolutely from outside the centre” – his is a “very important book”.

Discussion then turned to the general problem of why Kiwis don’t tend to buy large quantities of NZ fiction. I liked Hill’s idea that we should have billboards with the opening sentences of NZ novels on them. (eds note: NZ Book Council did this in the early 00’s in bus stops.) Audience members suggested that NZ Book Month should be just about NZ books, and that our school curriculum should feature more work by Kiwi writers – although it was pointed out that this can have a downside, in that forced reading of books at school can put readers off, sometimes for life. (Although this tends only to be the case for NZ fiction: reading a book you dislike at school by a US author, for example, does not tend to put people off US fiction.)

Morris mentioned that she too had been in the Canadian Tales session earlier with Elizabeth Hay, who had spoken about the difficulties of persuading Canadian publishers to back specifically Canadian books – so this is not just a problem for us here. Morris said that our children aren’t making the transition from reading NZ children’s books and YA to NZ adult fiction.

Gracewood and Morris spoke about research they have done for the NZ Book Council into Kiwis’ attitudes to NZ literature. For some reason NZ literature has a distinctly negative aura. Whereas Kiwis support NZ sports teams because they’re ours, NZ literature runs up against the spinach effect: people reading it because they feel they should. Gracewood said “we get excited about supporting our cuddly native birds; what would it take to make NZ books that charismatic piece of literary fauna?”

Reading Favourites was a lively session with a full house and a very engaged audience – so maybe there’s hope for NZ literature yet!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Reading Favourites, by David Hill, Jolisa Gracewood and Paula Morris

Enemy Camp
by David Hill
Published by PuffinISBN  9780143309123

Tell You What 2
edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408442

On Coming Home
by Paula Morris
BWB Texts
ISBN 9780908321117

The Margaret Mahy Lecture, by Elizabeth Knox – WORD Festival, Sun 31 August

Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture, by Elizabeth Knox
An Unreal House Filled with Real Storms

I am a pretty gregarious person. I approach people at events; I call people on the phone. (When left on my own for more than a few hours, I go mad and start serenading my pet rats.) I am a natural networker, and literary events like writers festivals are like catnip to me: I get to talk to other readers, to meet authors I’ve read and discover others I’d like to read, to buy books and get them freshly signed. Having a media pass is even better − I get to interview people, hobnob with celebrities, and tune my curious book-reviewing brain to live events. My usual festival MO is to constantly make myself available for interesting conversations.

When Elizabeth Knox’s lecture ended, I did none of these things. I couldn’t wait to get out of the room. I saw many people I knew, who I enjoy conversing with, but I approached none of them. I headed straight outside into the calming Christchurch cold and towards the cardboard cathedral.

I didn’t know what to think. It was just before 11 in the morning on a Sunday and my mind was in whirring turmoil. What had I just experienced? Some kind of profound and disruptive event of the mind. I wasn’t ready to be around other people, wasn’t ready to discuss the experience we’d all just had. I couldn’t even put it into words in my own head. And why was I striding so desperately towards the cathedral? I am an atheist, and have never, from my compulsory-Catholicism childhood onwards, viewed houses of worship as places of consolation.

Perhaps it was that Knox had spoken so matter-of-factly about experiencing the presence of god in her own life; doing what she had credited Mahy with; “making the supernatural natural”. Perhaps it was because, when Kate De Goldi came back onstage to do the end-of-event wrap-up, she suggested that, rather than ask questions, the audience just file silently out, as from a church. We did. Many of us had been crying.

Either way, I was stymied. It was a Sunday morning and the cathedral was being used for its primary purpose: there was a service on, and I didn’t want to join in. So I walked around outside, touched the cardboard, admired the stark, fresh lines of the architecture, and listened to the singing − borrowed sounds of beauty and calm.

I thought about Knox, about her talking about the experience Mahy had had on her as a reader: “she opened up a room in New Zealand literature that I wanted to hang out in”. And I thought about how the same is true of my discovery of Knox. I was living in England and feeling a bit distanced from New Zealandness. One day in a bookshop I discovered a book that had been written by a fellow Kiwi called Elizabeth: The Vintner’s Luck. I bought and read it.

It was so strange, almost uncomfortable. Was it literary fiction? Fantasy? Paranormal slash? (One of my favourite Knox quotes is a tweet she once sent: “I am a genre-tunneling monster!”) Was it New Zealand literature? It wasn’t set in Aotearoa and it didn’t have that NZ lit feel at all. But in that book I met something, someone, that has stayed with me ever since. Knox opened up a room for me in New Zealand literature that I value enormously. I revisit it whenever I need to be prodded in the mind, pushed off my comfortable perch and forced to fly. Knox’s writing reminds me that the world is strange and that I can be better in it. Ehara koe i a ia, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Knox’s inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture, entitled ‘An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms’, will be coming to national radio soon, and Knox promises to publish it as prose as well. Make sure you go there.

by Elizabeth Heritage, Freelance writer and publisher

www.elizabethheritage.co.nz

Book Review: Tale of a Tail, by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Tony Ross

Available from bookstores on Tuesday 8 April.

When Tom and his mum move to Prodigy Street,cv_tale_of_a_tail the last thing Tom thinks he’ll find is magic. After all, he is – in his mind, at least – a rather ordinary boy; certainly not the kind of boy who stumbles upon prodigies. Little does Tom know, someone else is moving into Prodigy Street. A mysterious man with a mysterious name, and his dog, Najki…

Soon upon moving in, Tom meets Mr. Tomasz, and quickly learns that he and his dog are more than what they seem. Najki has the power to grant wishes with one wag of his tail. While Tom takes Mr. Tomasz’s advice and tries to be careful, he can’t help but make a few wishes every now and them – and every time he does, Najki makes them come true. Tom finds himself having all kinds of eccentric, crazy adventures; whether it’s escaping the Cat Kickers with his friend Sarah, rescuing his mum from the top of a pine tree, or winning a rugby match.

Being friends with Mr. Tomasz and Najki has changed Tom’s life; Prodigy Street truly does feel like a magical place…but can wishes solve everything? What happens when they go wrong? Tom needs to learn that not all magic lasts, but you can never stop searching for it – and finding it again.

Tale of a Tail is a book that will instantly become a favourite with those both young and young at heart. It’s a prime example of late writing legend Margaret Mahy’s best work; clever, quirky and laced with magic of the most unusual kind. Written in a simple yet cunning way, it will have you busy, looking for your own Prodigy Street.

Reviewed by Tierney Reardon

Tale of a Tail
by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Tony Ross
Published by Hachette NZ
ISBN 9781444014228