Book Review: I Can’t Sleep, by Stephanie Blake

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_i_cant_sleepMy son has recently re-discovered Simon the rabbit (or is that Poo Bum?) and all six of the books that we have are currently on the ‘read every night’ list. Alex likes them because they have the words poo and fart in them, and because Simon is a little bit like him. Set in his ways, prone to stubborn fits of determination, but ultimately brave and clever!

This year’s instalment in the series is I Can’t Sleep, and it is a sweet story of sibling dependence. Simon’s brother’s name has changed from Gaspard to Caspar, which made doubt my memory, but other than that, this is one of my favourite books in the series.

Simon and Caspar have played all day, building a ‘STUPENDOUS’ hut, and they are settling down to sleep, but suddenly… Caspar recalls that he has left his toy rabbit outside! Oh no! Simon tries to explain why blanky needs to stay out there overnight, but Caspar gets more and more upset. This is shown in a comic-book style of illustration, with several frames showing the build-up of frustration. Finally, Simon gets his Super-Rabbit cape and goes outside to get it.

Will the blanky be there? Will the monster get Simon before he gets back inside? Will their parents hear him as he is going out the front door? You’ll have to read this one to find out.

I like this instalment in the Simon series for its empathy. Simon is forced to think of somebody other than himself for a change, and manages to work it to his advantage, with Caspar left in awe of Simon’s bravery. The sort of ‘face your fears and do it anyway’ theme is frequently seen in picture books, but empathy isn’t as prominent as a theme, so well done to Blake for doing it so relatably.

ICan'tSleep_TreeAlex & I also realised that the design of this book is very clever. He likes to select his favourite pages by colour, which as the reader I hadn’t noticed was different for each page. Something that kids who aren’t focused on the words will see, of course. Then, we spotted that the words on most pages are in the shape of a tree or bush – in my favourite spread (above), mimicking the illustration on the right-hand side. Clever!

The son who loves them is off to school for his first visit next week: he has been reading and reading I don’t want to go to School, and I think he might be ready.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

I Can’t Sleep!
by Stephanie Blake
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571642

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Book Review: The Ice Sea Pirates, by Frida Nilsson

Available from bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_ice_sea_piratesAre you ready for an adventure on the high seas (without Captain Feathersword?) Pick up The Ice Sea Pirates, and you are in for a treat: Siri’s adventure holds drama, unexpected sub-plots and exotic frozen worlds at every turn.

The Ice Sea Pirates is a sea opera, if you will. It has big, crazy plotlines writ larger than life that all coalesce to tell a story of essential humanity, within the bounds of a classic adventure story. Siri and Miki live with their Dad on a small island in the far North, where the sea freezes in winter. Their Dad is elderly and still suffers from the impact of a fishing accident many years earlier, so the girls need to help to get food. When they are searching for berries on another island, they are separated, and so starts Siri’s wild adventures across the wilds of the Northern Seas.

Siri knows exactly who has Miki: the Ice Sea Pirates, lead by Captain Whitehead, who shares his loot but captures young children wherever he sails. Everybody knows the stories, and most know somebody who has been lost to the Captain. But it takes a 10-year-old with a heart of gold (or at least guilt) and a mind of steel, to decide to go after them and get her sister back. She gets hired to work in the galley of the Pole Star, befriending Fredrik, the chef on the ship.

One of the strongest aspects of this book is the complex way in which friendships and relationships are described convincingly from the point of view of a 10-year-old. Fredrik’s sister was taken a decade or more ago by the Captain, and so after laying his story on Siri, he throws his lot in with her. But there is calumny, and they are separated, Siri being locked in a storehouse to ensure she misses the ship as it sails. She cautiously accepts help from a wolf-hunter of dubious moral integrity, before ending up back on the sea, then ashore again, this time becoming a surrogate mother to a merchild. Her next friendship is with the lonely boy Einar, who just wants to feed his family.

Siri’s inner life grows with every encounter, and she learns about herself and humanity through her adventures through the world. She learns to identify nastiness without a word spoken, and learns the way in which adults build up their stories to protect themselves from the truth. She also, once we reach our final destination through sheer bloody-minded tenacity, learns how quickly children can be taught through cruelty to do the same.

The illustrations from David Barrow are just perfect, and well-placed to enhance the mood of the story. The book bears quite a commercial cover for Gecko, but one that matches well the tone of the plot inside. It is dark, in tone and plot – the ice cracks with every page – so keep that in mind as you purchase.

This is an invigorating read, which delivers all the tenets of excellent story-telling, and the final scenes are unexpected and well-paced. I highly recommend it as a family read for older kids, and as a wonderful read to extend children aged 9+ with the appropriate emotional maturity. I reckon we’ll see this translation winning prizes worldwide.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Ice Sea Pirates
by Frida Nilsson
Illustrated by David Barrow
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571468

AWF17: Pakeha Oral Poetry, with Glenn Colquhoun

I first encountered Glenn Colquhoun as a school performer, so it was a pleasure to sit in on a schools session with him. His self-deprecating humour and judicious use of the F- word made him a hit with the students, and added to the already-great reputation as a speaker that meant he needed to move from the ASB Theatre to the bigger Lower NZI Room.

glenn colquhoun
Glenn was the first poetry writer in New Zealand to sell 5,000 copies of a poetry book, with his collection Playing God (Steele Roberts, 2003). I’m sure that Hera Lindsay Bird has now well and truly joined him on that parapet. Glenn is a medical doctor, children’s writer, poet, and an astonishing speaker and thinker.

Have you ever thought about the way in which the poetry traditions of the Pakeha and Māori differ? Glenn has, and he is here to bring them together. He noted that the Pakeha tradition is “a written poetry taught in school, while the other is sung, chanted and intoned. Performed with the body, punctured in the skin.” He was inspired by this to write oral poetry, sung poetry – and so he promised to sing to us, “Not that I can sing.”

Glenn says, “If you look at a written poem, inside it is a sung poem. Like when I look into your ear, there are three bones from a reptile inside it.” He suggests picking up the study of oral poetry in schools to teachers – why not do a close reading of KaMate?

Glenn explored the traditional song-formats for Europeans, and has written a series of songs about characters from European history that intrigued him, writing them into a combination of Māori and European formats.  He wrote these oral poems to tell his European stories, his migration stories. “My experience of Māori is that they are waiting for pakeha to sing them their songs. When you sing a song you reveal something right at the heart of what you are.”

Glenn then invited students up to choose a character from his set of around 20, for him to sing about, bribing them with chocolates (these are teenagers after all).

Ernst Dieffenbach was the first to be chosen by a student. Dieffenbach was one of the first scientists to live in New Zealand. He surveyed the land for the New Zealand Company. He collected rocks, flowers, plants. He renamed the plants, he named stones; he was the first Pakeha to climb Mt Taranaki – and he kept a pet Weka which followed him around like a chicken. He was also one of the first Western doctors in New Zealand – he treated people after a battle on the Kapiti Coast, where Glenn now practices. Glenn’s interest in Dieffenbach was extended when he realised he was treating descendants of those treated by Dieffenbach after this battle.

Dieffenbach also wrote the second grammar of the Māori language – and Māori thought he was the strangest Pakeha they’d ever seen, collecting rocks and hiring them to carry them for him. Glenn has written a sea shanty for him, in the form of a haka: he calls it a ‘Shaka’. Listening to Glenn sing is a pretty unique experience – his daughter is right in thinking the tune doesn’t always hold, but he really can sing. And he does so from the heart.

The second character chosen was a skeletal character called William Strong, the Master of the Orpheus, which stranded in 1860’s on the bar outside Manukau Harbour, within about 500 metres of land. None of the sailors and soldiers could swim, so 60-70 soldiers died that day in the worst maritime disaster in New Zealand’s history. These soldiers were intended to support the NZ government in the Māori Land Wars, so one would assume there wasn’t anybody on shore prepared to help. Anyway, 17–18 years after the Orpheus drowned, as the story goes, a whole skeleton washed up on the beach: it was identifiable as William Strong, because it had a captain’s jacket on. This song was a pure sea shanty.

All of his characters have stories that are tied with New Zealand history, and they form part of a collection he is working on called Myths and Legends of the Ancient Pakeha. Colquhoun says, “We can look at our written poem and find the oral heart of it, yet our poets have rarely ever crossed over.” This is what he is doing: he wants to make the poetic forms talk to each other.

Students at the high school sessions were a lot more hesitant in coming forward for questions, but there was an excellent question from a person who writes their own spoken word poems. Glenn’s advice to them was to play – play around, like a kid does playing with toys and telling stories: “If you use your imagination, the thing is alive. Tell the stories of your own life, be playful.”

The final song was Glenn’s choice, and it was a song about Jackie Price, a Pakeha man who married a Maori woman, but turned out to be a rogue. He stole a lot of sealskins, and as punishment he and his wife were stranded deliberately on the Solomon Islands in Foveaux Strait (with the expectation they would die there). Price created a coracle and made it back to New Zealand, and we joined in with the chorus, urging Price on through the Foveaux Strait.

I’ll leave you with Glenn’s final words: “If you want to write, don’t ever let it die. Don’t let anybody tell you it is a frivolous thing to do. It is more important than accounting. Don’t give up.”

If you have the opportunity to see Glenn: do it. He is on three more times at the festival: at the Gala Night – True Stories Told Live on Thursday night; at Walk on High on Friday night; and with Dr David Gellar and Sue Wooton talking Matters Medical on Saturday.

Attended and Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Glenn’s latest book is:

Late Love
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492892

 

AWF17 Schools Fest: The creative mind of Lauren Child

Lauren Child is such a rock-star, that there are whoops as her name is announced at her session for Intermediate students at Schools Fest for the Auckland Writers Festival. Her series include Ruby Redfort, Clarice Bean, and Charlie and Lola, and each of them are for different ages and audiences.

lauren child

Child is here to talk mostly about a character called Ruby Redfort, the star of her just-completed teen fiction series. Ruby is a brainy 13-year-old American school kid. She is a code-cracker who gets recruited as a secret agent by spy agency Spectrum – but, of course, she has to keep this completely secret. She has a double-life. Ruby Redfort is set in 1973: before technology, to stop the roadblocks that happen in current-time thrillers (cellphones, google) having an impact.

To tell us about Ruby, as it happens, is to take us through all of her other characters, pulling out elements of their character and the story structure that led to Ruby’s character. You get the sense with Child that she needs to take in a spectrum of things for her writing to occur. The dialogue and banter in the Ruby Redfort series, for instance, was inspired by the books of Raymond Chandler and the movies of Alfred Hitchcock.

Ruby Redfort covers.jpgThe character and books about Ruby Redfort came from the Clarice Bean books, because Child wanted Clarice to be excited by getting into a series of books, as she grew up. She thought Clarice would be getting hooked on books in this way, and invented Ruby Redfort as the heroine from these – which led to her writing the books.

When describing Clarice, Child says she is intended to be an ‘every-child’ kind of character, with an annoying younger sister who mirrors Child’s own. One of Clarice’s personality features is the tendency to float off – and Child says, ‘That’s where ideas come from. I do an awful lot of staring out of the window. Letting yourself go, and absorbing what is happening, helps you to come up with really good ideas.’

Child’s love of writing and drawing began through her love of comics – and, like Bixley, she often draws first, then adds the words around the images, drawing her writing into shapes. Also like Bixley, Child suggested several things to get the keen illustrators in the audience engaged: copy what you love, to better understand how the images work. For Charlie Brown, for instance, the characters are clean lines – Charlie and Lola is similarly, simply drawn.

Child’s usual process is that she draws everything in pencil, then colours and cuts the images out. Then she collages her images together. Charlie and Lolawas created using spotty paper, and a wood-look piece of paper, with photos of real food to fill the bowls.

One of the most notable characteristics of the Charlie and Lola books is the way in which they use words to illustrate – using words in patterns, to give the pages more energy and to keep kids on their toes while reading them.

Ruby Redfort’s life with her family is rich, and her parents are rather silly with it. Child likes to create a moneyed background for her books, because it widens the possibilities of the settings. She is inspired by architecture books for settings: a house built on a waterfall, a house on stilts. Child used an all-American ‘everyplace’ as a setting for the Redfort books because of the sense of space that is available to you in the USA. You can be in a bustling city then a desert in a matter of minutes – while in the UK, you don’t drive for long without a building, or a town, or village interrupting you.

A key aspect of the Ruby Redfort books is their use of code. Child doesn’t write the codes – she has a genius mathematician friend who does. There’s a touch code, a braille code, a smell code, a sound code. Codes allow Redfort to lead her double-life. Redfort also gets plenty of gadgets – inspired by Bond.

To write Ruby Redfort, Child spent a lot of time thinking, “What would I do if I were in her shoes?”. This meant fleshing out her world with friends, and an essential for Redfort is a loyal group of contemporaries. And because Redfort is tough, she knew parkour (Child got to meet parkour’s creator!) and what to do in the sea with a shark.

Child’s fascination with tricky situations arises from having seen the JAWS poster when she was nine: it made her never want to go swimming in the sea, ever. She learned from this that an image can be extraordinarily powerful.

f18466a7a69f22d678388adc9e3e4ef6The session with Lauren Child was well-received by the audience, despite its twists and turns and angles. Child is a bit of a genius, I suspect, and her presentation was quite idiosyncratic. But it was a pleasure to be there, and it’s with pleasure that I’ll be picking up a few of her books for the kids (they are already obsessed with Charlie and Lola). Go along on Sunday morning at 10am and you won’t be disappointed.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Her most recent book:

ruby redford blink and you die.jpgRuby Redfort: Blink and you Die
by Lauren Child
Published by HarperCollins
9780007334285

Book Review: My Pictures After the Storm, by Éric Veillé

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_my_pictures_after_the_stormThis has become a repeat read bonanza in our household. It’s clever, hilarious and subversive. It also has the most pick-up appeal of almost any book we own. The lion after the storm is rumpled and grumpy – just as we all are after being out in the Wellington wind.

Each spread is a set of identical groups of objects, tied by the simple language at the top, where the verso page of each is simply ‘My Pictures’, while the recto page says… After the Storm; After the elephant; After the hairdresser. Sometimes the changes aren’t obvious – at one point we are encouraged to find the changes ‘After correction’.

So while reading it to your child you are building language and encouraging their understanding of change and the different things that can cause it – no matter how far-fetched. One of the changes is ‘After the Baby’, showing the disarray a life (and a page) is thrown into as baby arrives, to the horror of the older child.

Each spread is also a found poem, occasionally rhyming across the page. So before/after the hairdresser we have ‘a lion-tamer unconcerned / a lion-tamer nicely permed; a seal having fun / a seal with a bun.’

And did I mention it is funny? Every page has something to chuckle at. Sometimes it’s a discovered element you didn’t notice the last 10 times; sometimes it’s simple slapstick. I mean, what does a pig look like after being stomped by an elephant? Of course it’s a piece of ham!

Éric Veillé is a French writer and illustrator, with only one title previously translated into English (The Bureau of Misplaced Dads, which sounds brilliant). I hope to see more from him translated by Gecko Press.

Both of my sons love this book and request it regularly: it’s one of the very few that will hold both of their attention equally, though the older one gets frustrated when his brother doesn’t get it in the same way he does! It is a valuable book in the same way The Big Book of Words and Pictures is: it takes a couple of well-worn concepts, and plays around with them, resulting in an unexpected, brilliantly executed book with humour and heart.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

My Pictures After the Storm
by Éric Veillé
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571048

Book Review: Spot the Lot! by Lonely Planet Kids

Available bookshops nationwide.

cv_spot_the_lot.jpgIf anybody knows how to do a good kids’ travel companion book, it is the writers for Lonely Planet Kids. Spot the Lot is, quite simply, the perfect book to keep your kids entertained, no matter where you are travelling.

Spot the Lot! gives its owner a variety of different places that they may be going on a holiday, or on the way to their holiday. An airport, airplane, ferry, skifield, country town, city…all of these are covered. And while you are at these places, you have to keep an eye out for 12-20 things that can be found at the destinations. These have weighting from 5 points for something like a log in the country, to 50, for a tyre mark on the ground. This makes it competitive if that is how your kid rolls.

My 6-year-old, Dan, was seriously the target age and personality type for this book. I brought it out just before we left for our holiday in July, and we still regularly take it with us on outings. He was disappointed not to go skiing in August, mainly because he didn’t get to see the things on that page! While we were on a seriously scary plane trip over the Cook Strait, on an otherwise “boring” car trip from Punakaiki to Greymouth, even in Greymouth town itself, there was something in this book to keep Dan entertained.

And when there is nothing else around, there is a page of seek-and-finds, with all of the same items we’ve been hunting for in the holiday destinations, hidden amongst a colouring-book page. Even my 4-year-old will pick this up and try and find these; and he’s not an activity book type, so this is high praise indeed.

This is an absolute must-have for any child with a keen interest in the world around them, to take on holiday.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Spot the Lot!
illustrated by Thomas Tlintham
Published by Lonely Planet Kids
ISBN 978760341022

Book Review: Shooting Stars, by Brian Falkner

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_shooting_starsThis story follows some well-worn tropes, but is filled out with a compelling back-story and some brilliant set-pieces from the assured pen of Brian Falkner.

Wild boy Egan has been raised by his mother, through her fear of his father, entirely in the Coromandel bush. Moma has taken inspiration from a variety of philosophies – Christian, Confucian, Hindu and more, to instill in Egan a Code of rules to live by. This Code forms the centre of all of the actions that Egan takes, and as he writes in his diary – the book is in diary format – he records the codes he had cause to reflect on that day.

When Moma goes missing near to Christmas during Egan’s 15th year, Egan is dismayed but determined to find her – he knows she would never voluntarily leave him alone. With the help of a letter and money from the lock-box in their hut, he goes to find an Uncle in Auckland. He has been living with no running water, no internet, no electricity for his entire 15 years, so to say this is a cultural clash is putting it mildly.

Brian Falkner really knows how to write action. He’s been doing this well since his junior fiction-writing days, so it is no surprise to see this continue. The thing that I felt this book lacked a little was emotion. Egan’s mother is his entire world right up until he meets J.T., a hunter, near the time of her disappearance on Christmas Eve. When she disappears, this is forced to change so quickly that Egan doesn’t seem to sit down and mourn. His actions are rational, and though this seems to be put down to living by the Code, it stretched my credulity a little.

When Egan is in Auckland, he has to learn quickly how to live in a city, sleeping in the Domain. He has his stuff stolen by street kids early on, then after a few heroics ends up part of the crew that tried to steal from him. He continues to live in the Domain, but falls in love with Reggie, the only female member of the teenage homeless kids. He has just settled into his new life when somebody in the crew betrays him, and his past catches up with him – or rather, his mother’s past.

One of my favourite parts of the book were the short stories scattered throughout it, written by Egan in the style of the author whose book he is reading at the time. This is exactly how any young writer starts out – in fact it could probably be said to be how any young writer should start out – and neatly encompasses Falkner’s reading/writing philosophy. The absence of books in a significant house later on in the story is a neatly set up harbinger of doom.

The other fun aspect of the book is when Egan meets the “real world,” as the media calls it when he becomes a media superstar. His observations are priceless – heading to Maccers for lunch, he is impressed they even give him a toy.

While this isn’t as strong for me as Falkner’s last published book, Battlesaurus: Rampage at Waterloo, which won the Book Award for Young Adults in last year’s NZCYA; it is a rattling good read that keeps you turning those pages to see how things will end. Recommended for age 11+.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Shooting Stars
by Brian Falkner
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775433606