Book Review: Mr Postmouse Goes on Holiday, by Marianne Dubuc, translated by Greet Pauelijn

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_mr_postmouse_goes_on_holidayWhen I was a little boy I used to read (or at least I had read to me) Richard Scarry’s wonderful series, especially What Do People Do All Day? and the Huckle stories. These were fantastic books with animals, dressed as humans, at the heart them. In every tale, they lived, dressed and talked just like we did but the most wonderful part was Scarry’s exploded and cut away drawings, which allowed you to see inside buildings, cars, firetrucks and even submarines. Coupled with exquisite details but a relaxed style, you really got inside the lives of these characters – to dream and imagine what they were like and let your mind wonder beyond the stories.

Reading French Canadian author/illustrator Marianne Dubuc’s new book, Mr Postmouse goes on Holiday, I felt just the same way I did reading Mr Scarry. Along with my six-year-old daughter, we poured over the brightly coloured, charming and detailed water colour illustrations, almost forgetting to actually read the story. Actually, it’s not hard because Dubuc has intentionally placed the text, single sentence blocks, in amongst her drawings, as if she wants you to discover them. Perhaps those who are a bit eye-sight challenged may have to grab their specs but the learner-readers in my house hold took great delight in picking their way through the 10-point font size, as if there were treasures to uncover. And on that point Dubuc’s language is simple enough for new readers, years 1 & 2, especially. The translation from French is clean and intelligent. No clunky sentences or odd phrasing to stubble over. It remains compelling enough to move the story along and keep the pages turning.

The plot is very simple. What does Mr Postmouse do when he goes on holiday? He continues to deliver the mail of course. Sound like a few parents you may know, who just can’t switch off their work phones when they go to the beach? This a return of Dubuc’s characters, the Postmouse family, this time as Globetrotters bouncing around the planet dropping off packages to their friends on the way; sailing on ships with opera shows on board; toasting marshmallows over a volcano; flying in hot air balloons and visiting Eskimos at the Pole. In amongst the narrative illustrations, Dubuc drops in a few visual jokes which the adults and caregivers will appreciate. For example, there’s a scene where they all stay at a campsite. While family pitching tents in the foreground, two children are dropping bread crumbs as they approach a house made of candy. In the trees, there’s a squirrel with sunglasses and a troupe of Boy Scouts on a trek. In the desert scene, there’s a snake living in a palatially appointed four room cactus apartment, whilst another serpent is sneaking around in the branches of an apple tree and a little Postmouse is taking a luxurious a dip in the hotel’s oasis, blowing water spouts like a Blue Whale.

I’d not come across Montreal based Dubuc before but I’d be keen to explore here repertoire further now. She has books, including Here Comes Mr Postmouse and the Lion and The Bird, in over 20 languages for many different age groups but, clearly, she really enjoys producing material like this. You can feel the joy in every page. You can see why she won the 2014 Governor General Award, a Canadian literary award for English-language fiction, for outstanding illustrations for her book The Lion and the Bird.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Mr Postmouse Goes on Holiday
by Marianne Dubuc, translated by Greet Pauelijn
Published by Book Island
ISBN 9781911496045

Book Review: Princess Cora and The Crocodile, by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Brian Floca

cv_princess_cora_and_the_crocodileAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

“Dear Grandmother,” goes the blurb on the back of this new book by Newbery Medallist* Laura Amy Schlitz, “Nobody listens to me. My mother and father won’t let me have a pet and Nanny says I don’t even want one. But I do. And I’m sick and tired of everything. Please help me. Love, Princess Cora.”

Yep, Princess Cora is in trouble. She’s totally constrained by her parent’s desire for her to be the best Princess ever! That means an eternal diet of study, physical training, etiquette schooling and absolute hygiene and cleanliness—at all times! Her life is full of exercises and regimes intended to prep her for her role as Princess. But she’s sick of running in circles around the dungeon gym. And she’s absolutely sick, sick, sick of taking three baths a day! There’s no time for play, getting grubby, reading comics—just being a kid. And she’d love a pet—a dog, a cat anything. Actually, she doesn’t really want one but she’d love the opportunity to decide for herself.

So, Cora writes to her fairy godmother for help.

However, she doesn’t expect that help to come in the form of a crocodile—a crocodile who does not behave properly (just like that rumbustious Cat in the Hat, it seems!). She becomes so frustrated that she falls under the spell of that wicked crocodile who sneaks her away from Princess duties for 24 hours. It’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for junior royalty! Well not quite. But things do get a little crazy but by the end both Cora and her parents learn a lesson. All things in moderation, in balance, a mix of what needs to be done and a time for play. A mix of the clean and the dirty. It’s a lesson for all of us. And uniquely told. How they get there, exactly, I’ll have to leave to you, dear reader. All I can say is – don’t trust a crocodile – ever!

With perfectly paced dry comedy, I found this to be a absolutely delightful adventure. A real balance between rebelliousness and responsibility. My 6-year-old could tell the difference, even offer a few cautious gasps here and there. But, on the other hand, there’s a lesson for us parents, too, to allow time for climbing trees, getting dirty, inventing, making mess and having fun! While Cora’s alter ego wreaks utter havoc inside the castle, our obliging royal helicopter parents must reconsider their ways. Before it’s all too gone. Sound like a bit of a comment on modern parenting?

As beginner’s chapter books go, this one is nicely meted out, with 8-10 pages per chapter and liberally interspersed with large, clear water colour style illustrations, courtesy of Caldecott Medal* winner Brian Floca. His simple pen and wash drawings have a slight likeness to some of my favourite English illustrators from the first half of the 20th Century (even though they are Americans). Personalities such as EH Shepard and W. Heath Robinson could ever so carefully sum up the middle classes with simple gentle humour. They always portrayed their people with pointed noses and flushed cheeks. Floca does the same with his. It’s like a throwback to the days of the Winnie the Pooh books or Enid Blyton—a time when a child’s life was less cluttered by electronica and there was more room for the imagination to grow. I’m not saying that Schlitz and Floca want to move back to that time entirely but it’s a move in that direction. As respected producers of children’s books they know what works and draw their inspiration from a classic period of children’s writing.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Princess Cora and The Crocodile
by Laura Amy Schlitz, Illustrated by Brian Floca
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9780763648220

*The John Newbery Medal and Randolph Caldecott Medal are awarded annually recognise the preceding year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children”. They are awarded to writers and illustrators by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA).

Frankie Potts #3 and #4, by Juliet Jacka, illustrated by Phoebe Morris

If you haven’t read the Frankie Potts series yet, then you’re definitely missing out. 7-10 year olds I’m talking to you. Funny, awkward, sometimes challenging and always a bit batty. Wellington writer Juliet Jacka knows how to engage her audience – and more importantly, she does it with a local flavour.

Frankie Potts & the Postcard Puzzle 
cv_frankie_potts_and_the_postcard_puzzleThis is part three in this mystery and detective series. Frankie Potts has red hair, a super dog called Sparkplug and a mate called Mac. They love mysteries. And with a family like Frankie has there is always a mystery.

The family has hidden secrets. So, when Frankie finds a postcard sent to her mother saying “dearest Tania I do think we should give it another try, don’t you? Gideon xxx” Frankie’s methodical brain goes into over drive. What could all this be? A long lost lover? Does Father know? To solve the mystery Frankie and her gang jump on the bus to Giggleswick to search for Gideon.

What they find is going to unleash a horde of family secrets. All is revealed at a family dinner with the Marvellous M, Frankie’s Grandma and her menagerie of animals which includes a parrot called Firefly who says “Potamus-otamus-hippo-whatamus”.

Frankie Potts & The Wicked Wolves
cv_frankie_potts_and_the_wicked_wolvesThis is part 4 of the series. Frankie has found her long-lost grandad, Sparkplug’s girlfriend Tinkerbell has just had 7 puppies, her grandmother the wonderful The Marvellous M has entered a competition with her dogs, and Frankie’s mother is expecting twins. On top of that, blue-faced dancers the Wicked Wolves have come to the village of Tring.

Initially, it’s all very exciting but Frankie can smell a rat. Something’s not right. There’s a mystery afoot. Who are these Wicked Wolves? How come Marvellous knows them? Why does she want to fight them?

In the meanwhile, there’s puppy chaos at Frankie’s house and Grandma M is planning to give half of them away. Frankie must make sure that they go to good homes. She’s not happy about this at all.

To add to this, Ralph Peter-McGee, Frankie’s arch-enemy, has his eye on her favourite pup Kettle Thomson. Can Frankie stop Ralph getting the pup? And why are those Wicked Wolves sniffing around the puppies? Set against all this is the inaugural Tring Talent Contest. The show is rapidly approaching, and Frankie has some serious detecting to do. But maybe not all the clues are quite as they seem …


My own 8-year-old loves these gentle mysteries. She found the writing easy and simple to follow and the story engaging enough to stay up and read the whole thing in a single Friday night. Mixed with Phoebe Morris’ clever and quirky black and white drawings, some including paws across empty pages, she was quietly giggling away to herself at times.

Moreover, the story was memorable. There are hints of the old-fashioned English children’s books like Famous Five here. Children have some freedom to roam and think for themselves. There are no mobile phones or iPads or any other modern trappings, unless they are essential for the plot.

But to my daughter, the gentle uncluttered plots and strong, likable characters were the real appeal. Frankie has flaming red hair and an insatiable appetite for solving mysteries. Plot-wise they are bizarre enough to intrigue and simple enough to remember. My daughter had no trouble reciting the whole thing back to me on the walk to school. A winner, at least in our household.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Frankie Potts & the Postcard Puzzle
by Juliet Jacka and Phoebe Morris
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143770206

Frankie Potts & The Wicked Wolves
by Juliet Jacka and Phoebe Morris
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143770459

Book Review: The Lost Kitten, by Lee, illustrated by Komako Sakai

Available in March from bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_lost_kittenThe Lost Kitten is Lee’s first story, but Sakai has over a dozen books on offer, with most of them on initial release in Germany and the UK. She has won awards around the world, including the Japan Picture Book Prize, a Golden Plaque at the Biennial of Illustrations in Slovakia, and a Silver Griffin in the Netherlands. Her style is a cross between photographic realism and messy charcoals. A sort of soft focus treatment. It’s a delightful way of approaching what is really a very simple tale.

This thirty-six-page book is the simplest of stories, so readers must inject their own personality and interpretations between the words. Lee offers no background or clues about the identities of these characters. They are as thin as the chalk and wash on the page. To make them three dimensional you have to add your own personality. Sometimes, it’s what’s missing that gives you the substance.

The plot is: a small kitten, the runt of the litter, is abandoned at the door of Hina and her mother. They slowly fall in love with the kitten who is not expected to get well, but she does. Then mother leaves and the kitten runs away. Hina sets out to find her new little friend. It was here that my five-year-old, reading the story for the first time, started to add her own interpretation of the facts. What if she can’t find the kitten? Or…? And so, the magic unfolds slowly over the next pages as we read further, discussing scenarios and discovering more of the plot on every page.

The book’s simple language works well for early readers – about year 2 – and for caregivers who love to read out loud. It’s the kind of simple hardback that will make a wonderful gift for a young child. But remember, it’s not just the book you’ll be giving: you must also be around to read it, to make it more than just words and pictures on the page. Then you’ve found something really special.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Lost Kitten
Written by Lee, Illustrated by Komako Sakai
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571260

The Girl Who Beat ISIS, by Farida Khalaf, co-written by Andrea C. Hoffman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_Girl_who_beat_ISISIt’s the Northern summer of 2014. Most teenage girls in the West are planning beach holidays, buying swimwear, nagging their parents about sleepovers or signing application forms to work at McDonald’s and KFC. But it’s not like that everywhere. Elsewhere a ground swell of jihadi rebellion swirls like a tempest above a mountain. Spurred on by the publicity around Al Qaeda and the success of the Arab Spring it forms into its own self-styled “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL or ISIS) and unlike the many other similar groups, it is amassing unstoppable support and undeniable power to do immense harm. In a very short time many of ISIS’s fighters will sweep through north and central Iraq, once the contentious lands under Saddam Hussein and now in the power vacuum left after the departure of invading UN and American liberating forces. They progressively overtake much of the northern territories, including the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and despite backing from the USA, and superior numbers, the official Iraqi forces are overwhelmed.

As Westerners, we follow these distant events in the news. We listen to ill-informed ‘experts’ trying to make sense of this highly complicated conflicts as if it’s all some simplistic chess match. The reality is much, much more complex. In Northern Iraq one 18-year-old girl, Farida Khalaf, also tries to follow the events. She also watches the news. She also listens to the experts. The difference is that the ‘events’ are happening only a few miles from her front door. In fact, her father, a soldier in the Iraqi army, is directly impacted. Although he candy-coats it, he cannot disguise the horrors or the imminent threat occurring just over the border in neighboring Syria.

Khalaf, through German-born journalist Andrea C. Hoffmann, describes her home, in Northern Iraq, and her home life as a complete paradise. But she’s not naive, or dim. She speaks in a clear and concise voice about her dreams to be educated and to succeed as a teacher in her peaceful village of Kocho. Her dreams are supported by her family and her father. In her world, girls have opportunities, partially inspired by Saddam Hussein’s education programme. There is not really any animosity of support for any political movements. Her family are Yazidi, members of a 700,000-strong Kurdish minority who follow a faith based on pre-Islamic traditions. But in the eyes of the puritanical ISIS (or ISIL) this equates to devil worship and therefore it is perfectly rational that these people must be enslaved or worse, exterminated.

I was quite impressed how calmly this rationale and position was delivered. What results, though is an incredibly harrowing story. Hoffmann has crafted an almost neutral account from a series of meticulous interviews with Khalaf. She chooses not to inject her opinions or values into the text. Only Khalaf speaks, so you get a real sense of her voice in this first-person narrative, talking directly to the reader. But make no mistake, that is as gripping as it is appalling. This is not the plot of a Hollywood movie. No soundtrack or happy endings. But there are plenty of many extremely dangerous and heartbreaking moments.

ISIS arrive in Kocho to round everyone up and force them to convert to the jihadis’ brand of Islam. Those who refuse – like Khalaf’s father and oldest brother – are killed, and the unmarried women and girls, including Khalaf and her best friend Evin, are taken to the slave market of Raqqa, in Northern Syria. Girls of 13 or 14 are quickly purchased by high-ranking rebel fighters. At 18 and 24, Khalaf and her friend might be older and less desirable but are, nevertheless, sold. Khalaf risks her life constantly, fighting off rape attempts. She is beaten relentlessly for trying to kill herself. She tries to escape many times. All this while dealing with epilepsy.

I researched ISIS’ ritualized system of sex slavery and was shocked to learn to what extent they went. It is reported that in their own ISIS publications, slave “owners” are encouraged to pray before raping a girl. Girls are then forced to take contraceptive pills, in order not to break Islamic legal injunctions against sex with pregnant slaves, and they are made to pray as Muslims. In the book Khalaf notes that her friend Evin tries to appeal to her captor’s humanity, debating the sensibilities and moralities of this policy, but it proves futile. This is one of the only times when she chooses to debate policy or dogma.

What is so tragic is the normality of this horror to the people of Northern Syria. Even as they are sold in the slave market, there are shops around them selling food and football shirts, as if there is no difference between slavery and any other form of commerce. It is just part of life, and life has no value.

But eventually, after many more adventures, far worse than what I’ve described above, Khalaf is reunited with some of her family in a bleak refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. You would think this was then end but even in freedom there is pain. As an escapee she is stigmatised by her own Yazidi community and tormented by guilt over her inability to stop the rapes and all the resulting “dishonour” to their families. Her community tries to ostracise her, and with little medical and psychological support her only option is to try for resettlement in Europe.

Periodically, I found the story is almost unreadable. I had to put it down several times, as I watched my own children coming and going, arguing about petty things – unaware of what has happened to Khalaf. I almost thought that this is a story I should never share. It was too painful. I don’t wish to shield anyone but I do wonder if this is a book for young adults. Should they be shielded from things like this or will they be empowered and driven to do something about it in the future? If knowledge is power, then there is a powder keg between these pages.

As Europe argues over what to do with the Syrian refuges or how to combat ISIS or ISIL or even if anything can be done, Khalaf waits, in hope that she can find some kind of peace and perhaps opportunity to resume her studies to become a teacher. But she can never return to her homeland. That dream is gone. She can never erase her memories, her experiences. Her testament is a chilling document of how expendable and cheap lives, especially the lives of women is in this part of the world.

Review by Tim Gruar

The Girl Who Beat ISIS
by Farida Khalaf, co-written by Andrea C Hoffman
Published by Square Peg
ISBN 9781910931028

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

Book Review: The Death Ray Debacle, by David McGill

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_The_Death_ray-debacleDear Reader, the facts I am about to relay to you are true. Are you seated comfortably? Good. Then I’ll begin. Only one or two names have been added to embellish the story.

First of all, inventor Victor Penny is actually real. Or at least he was. By day he ran a bus company. By night he was an amateur scientist working on a top secret, government-sanctioned ‘death ray project’ during the years leading up to the Second World War. And it worked -sort of. He managed to create an electricity bolt powerful enough to set fire to a match box. Who knows, given time it may have become something more but his funding ran out, just before he got there. Major funder Auckland University were not convinced of the project and pulled their support. The dismissed his ideas as “heretical”.

The British Government actually went on to use his research material to fully develop radar and put it to use during the Battle of Britain and save England – just in the nick of time! Penny also went on to develop a electric gyro compass, which allows submerged submarines to navigate, and a prototype laser-type device. He also invented an early parabolic microphone, which went into service at Radio New Zealand. Most New Zealanders still haven’t a clue who he was.

Now before you claim I’m just quoting the plot from Herge’s Tintin adventure The Calculus Affair or an episode of the long running Dan Dare Adventure comics there is bona fide evidence that Penny did all this. The work undertaken at his Takapuna home was so successful that it copped the attention of intelligence agencies from the competing powers around the world, leading to a real-life spy drama. Novelist-historian David McGill has taken all this for the bones of his novel The Death Ray Debacle.

In this book he traces the story through the eyes of a young detective who’s following up on the assault of Penny by members of the German Club, located in a 1935 variant of Auckland’s CBD. At the time, the Auckland German Club was aggressively spying on locals, compiling lists of Jews and those of German origin to be rounded up for military service. When word got out, a police officer from the UK arrived. Penny was moved to Wellington and set up shop under 24 hour guard on Matiu/Somes Island. Every night a soldier slept in the same room.

McGill paints the scene skilfully, right down to the manky beer-stained carpets of the hotel lounge bars and the screech of tram car wheels on wet tracks. You can smell the damp tweed of the working men and the heady perfume of the society ladies. He provides many 360 degree views of the city as it was at the time, as a back drop to the story. If this is ever made into a film the director will need not look any further for an accurate chronicle.

There are moments in the book, however, when detail starts to bog down the action. But overall, it’s a fast-paced action spy story. The ending builds to a great climactic finish, making the journey all the better for the effort. This is McGill’s 53rd book, so he knows about meticulous research and has a pretty good nose for a story. The debate as to whether the tale should have just simply been reported, as opposed to made into a work of fiction, is really a matter of preference.The way it is told gives McGill licence to give Penny a voice, and the New Zealand Police too, through various characters. These are people you usually don’t hear from in historical works, so that gives another dimension to the story. Long overdue, but welcome.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Death Ray Debacle
by David McGill
Published by Silver Owl Press
ISBN 9780992262228