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

Donovan Bixley talks Much Ado about Shakespeare

This week I asked Donovan Bixley a few questions about Much Ado about Shakespeare, his literary picture book, which launches on Thursday 10 March at the Auckland Pop-up Globe.

1. The world is celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare this year: was that what inspired you to create your Shakespeare book, or was it just happenstance that it fell this way?

cv_much_ado_about_shakespeareFunnily enough, I began working on Much Ado About Shakespeare almost immediately after my 2005 book, Faithfully Mozart. I had this grand idea that I was going to do illustrated biographies of my 3 favourite artists in the 3 main arts: Leonardo da Vinci in the visual arts, Mozart for music, and Shakespeare for literature. As it turned out, it was much harder to find just the right publisher who got the idea of a picture book for adults. I’m so pleased that Much Ado About Shakespeare has found a home with Upstart Press, and the 10 year delay worked out perfectly to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Interestingly, as you can imagine, the publishers and I have always had a problem with the term ‘adult’ illustrated book, or picture book for adults. For this book Upstart have invented a whole new genre – ‘the literary picture book’.

2. I know you have just returned from Taipei after launching Much Ado about Shakespeare – what was the reaction from the Asian market?

I had no expectations about the Taipei International Book Exhibition (TiBE). Shakespeare is such an English language phenomenon, that I really wondered what Asians would make of a book about his life. My Taiwanese publisher were fully behind the book, which really put me at ease. I had the great pleasure of talking on the main stage at TiBE, where I had a wonderful response from the audience who loved the fact that I had brought this historic figure to life in such an interesting and visual way. The Taiwanese have their own cultural heroes which children are forced to study at school, so they really connected with this universal issue of making these figures relevant and appealing to a modern audience. I was even asked if I could do the same for some of the Taiwanese literary icons. I was signing books for 2 and a half hours and was delivered gifts from fans – so I’m pretty sure they liked it. If the response at TiBE is anything to go by (and considering that Shakespeare is a huge part of our everyday langauage), then I think English readers are really going to love the wordplay and visual puns within the pages.

3. Have you got special materials that will go out to bookshops to help them promote Much Ado about Shakespeare, or any other publicity exercises planned within NZ for it?


Well if you mean, am I going to grow a cavalier beard and sing ‘hey nonny nonny’ in tight hose? – then no. However, Upstart have arranged a full array of publicity including TV and radio as well as a grand book launch at The Pop-Up Globe on the 10th of March. I hope to share my love of Shakespeare at some of the literary events I am attending during the year, including: The Auckland Writers Festival, The Marlborough Writers Festival, The Tauranga Arts Festival as well as various tours about the country.

4. Do you love Shakespeare and have a personal favourite play?

I don’t claim to be an expert on Shakespeare – you could spend a lifetime at university studying just one of his plays! – but I have spent time in the theatre as a poster designer, set painter and designer, as well as on stage. I think most people who’ve been involved in the theatre can’t help but love Shakespeare. My real interest though is the love of the man behind the legend. I’m interested in how great figures like Mozart and Shakespeare are so different from us, but I’m actually more interested in how they are the same as us. They laughed and cried and had money worries and personal tragedy. As an ex-teenage goth I do have a dark streak – one of my favourite lines is from Hamlet “now is the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion to this world”. But as a children’s book creator, I think my humorous nature wins out, and my favourite play would have to be Much Ado About Nothing. I have to say that I’m thrilled that over he last 10 years, no one nabbed my great book title Much Ado About Shakespeare.

Link through for a review by Sarah Forster.

Book Review: Much Ado about Shakespeare, by Donovan Bixley

Available in bookshops from Thursday 10 March. 
I devoured this book as soon as I received it. Donovan has done an inimitable job of telling everybody about the life of Shakespeare. The subtitle says it all: The life and times of William Shakespeare: a literary picture book.

Donovan has form for this type of work – though for the last 10 years, he has been illustrating new editions of nursery rhymes and reworking fairy tales, as well as working with Kyle Mewburn on their Dinosaur Rescue and Dragon Knight series’ and writing his own graphic novel for kids’ – his only other illustrated book aimed at (mostly) adults was Faithfully Mozart (Hodder, 2005, finalist in the Montana NZ Book Awards).

Deeply researched yet entirely approachable, this is Shakespeare as he has never been seen before. Donovan takes us with him through Shakespeare’s life, showing us the (probable) motives behind some of his most famous lines. His opening line gives you a sense of the tone of the book. “Shakespeare has never been sent to the naughty corner of history, or locked in a mouldy cupboard to be rediscovered by future generations.”

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon, to a father who was rising in society: though he was one of 23 glove makers in a small town, he became Mayor when Will was four, earning Will the right to a free education. Donovan makes it clear that it was impressive to survive at all in Shakespeare’s era. He somehow dodged the plague in the year of his birth, and again at least three times in London. He married young, at 18, then had three children (including twins), before joining a travelling troupe of actors and heading off to London.

Donovan points out the sketchiness of certain details of Will’s life – both sketchy in the sense that not a lot can be ascertained from records, and sketchy in that he partook of pretty well every vice known at those times. “One story places Will in the nearby town of Bidford, where our aspiring teenage poet drank so much that he passed out under a local crab-apple tree. By the eighteenth century, this hallowed tree had become a tourist shrine known as ‘Shakespeare’s Crab.’”

2016-03-01 13.13.27Donovan’s illustrations are lively and full of action. He draws the fashions and the livery of the times in the most sumptuous colours, as well depicting the grimmer side of London life in all its soot-covered debauchery. There are topless barmaids with their nipples covered by jugs, with Shakespeare’s leading man Richard Burbage – who loved a good brawl – appearing as an avenging angel in the background. There are men making-up as women, and men on the rack. One of my favourite images in the book, for the cleverness, is of Will as a horse-handler for the wealthy patrons of the theatre. (left)

As well as the full-colour illustrations, there are sketches, some of the men in his Acting Troupe – led by Richard Burbage, some of Elizabethan torture devices. Donovan shows that he can bend to work with historical accuracy, mimicking the sketch style of the period in some cases.

Donovan notes that one of the reasons that Shakespeare did so well in his life is through his wise investments, in property and chattels. While he had patrons, many others frittered away money unwisely – perhaps this nous was learned at his father’s knee, while scraping up dog poo to help with the tanning process for his father’s gloves. Whatever it was, it ensured that just as he became a national icon during his life, his family was well furnished upon his death.

Before reading this book, I owed my knowledge of Shakespeare to having visited The Globe in London and being involved with the Shakespeare Globe Centre of NZ here in Wellington. I have read most of his plays, and studied and performed in a few at school. But I would never have imagined a biography of Shakespeare could have this level of accessibility. Every high school should pre-order a class set, as context for their inevitable study of Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello… and the rest. And every Shakespeare lover should get a copy of Much ado about Shakespeare forthwith. It’s that good.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Much Ado about Shakespeare
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781927262023