Reviews: NZ pictures books to let young imaginations take flight

Books about errant road cones, moving true-life stories and rugby-playing dogs star in the latest New Zealand children's picture books.


Books about errant road cones, moving true-life stories and rugby-playing dogs star in the latest New Zealand children's picture books.

Coney by David Minty and Greg Parker (Minty Books, $19.99

Comedian Rhys Darby perfectly sums up my own thoughts on this one: “Finally a book about road cones!  This sweet adventurous tale will have you smiling in no time, plus it answers that age-old question – how did the road cone end up on a lamp post?” Given the number of recent news stories about road cones, and the fact that they really are everywhere, it was only a matter of time before an imaginative soul crafted a picture book about them. 

In David Minty’s story, Coney loves roadworks but one day, as his crew head home, their truck hits a pothole and he is thrown from the truck. Experiencing memory loss, he tries his darndest to make it back to the roadworks rather than becoming …  a(nother) lost cone.  It’s an original, quirky and wryly funny story with colourful illustrations, comprised of bold shapes and the types of flora, fauna and scenes you’ll find on a road trip around Aotearoa.

It’s also the sort of book that will spark discussions with young ones – it is recommended for three to seven year olds – and get them thinking without feeling like they’re being overtly encouraged to talk about thoughts and feelings.  I don’t like to gender things but I imagine it will have particular appeal to young boys who may be “reluctant readers.”

Oh, and if you’ve spotted “campaign advertisements” around your neighbourhood advocating for – heaven forbid – more road cones, it’s part of Minty’s campaign to promote the book. 

The Book That Wouldn’t Read/ Te Pukapuka ka Kore e Pānuihia  by Tim Tipene and Nicoletta Benella (Oratia Books, $25.99/$22.95)

Speaking of reluctant readers, Tim Tipene’s latest book takes all the tropes about why some youngsters don’t read and spins them on their head in an amusing story that begins with the bold declaration: “I don’t like reading.”

It’s library time at school and our young protagonist is determined to do whatever he can to get out of reading until he comes across a book with a strange and enticing title: The Book That Wouldn’t Read. It’s just enough to pique his interest so he picks it up and finds he’s in a magical world where the book takes him to places he never knew he wanted to be.

The words change shape and colour; they even run across the page.  Unexpected places and mythical animals suddenly appear.  It even urges him to look out the window and daydream!  Again, it’s clever stuff that turns all the negative stuff reluctant readers might hear about themselves into something positive. 

Nicoletta Benella’s illustrations, including text-based ones where words change shape, add fun and momentum to the story. Her creature creations are great, echoing the emotions that our young friend experiences, and the page where the book  belches is particularly amusing. It helps the story gallop along apace and ends with a whole world of possibilities laid out for young readers – who may well be urged to give reading another go by this delightful book.

Tawa Tawa 1st XV by Hannah Abrams and Joni Dawson (Bateman Books, $21.99)

Author Hannah Abrams wrote Tawa Tawa 1st XV after meeting new friends at a dog park who meet at the same time every morning. When one of the owners, a chap named Steven, gave all the dogs a rugby position based on their attributes, the idea for a picture book took root.  So, the stars of this pukapuka are based on a collection of real-life dogs in all shapes and sizes, with varying abilities.

By and large the rhymes work and Abrams well describes the mannerisms and traits of the various dogs. The whole thing is tenderly rendered, quiet and thoughtful while simultaneously being action-packed. It’s a beautiful book, aided by Joni Dawson’s watercolour illustrations which lovingly capture the dogs and the reserves they play in. Indeed, Dawson’s illustrations are so good that this could also be part art book as well as one that celebrates our canine companions, our national game and our landscapes.

The Flight of my Life by Jennifer Somervell and Margery Fern (Tales from the Farm Publications, $21.95)

Also based on a real-life story, and also lovingly remembered and told, The Flight of My Life starts on a typical Sunday afternoon on the farm. But, when Margery’s older half-brother, Michael, lands his topdressing aeroplane, it becomes more adventurous than any of the family expected – especially for Margery.

While her older sisters say she’s too young to fly with Michael, the eight-year-old is thrilled when he picks her for … the flight of her life.  Young readers have said that the book made them feel as if they were up there in the cockpit with Margery and that it’s a book for adventure lovers and those who also love “fun, cool facts.”  That’s because the latter part of the picture book is packed with information about the “real” story, topdressing and the planes flown, female pilots and even instructions on how to fly a plane.

This is the fourth book that the sisters have published based on their own childhood adventures growing up on a New Zealand dairy farm in the 1970s. Others include tales about blowing up a cowshed, dealing with old trucks and their quirks, going eeling and their observations of farmyard pigs. It makes for authentic stories, with many examples of rural ingenuity and can-do attitudes. 

It’s a slice of life that, perhaps, many urban kids might not recognise, but will enjoy reading about and imagining, while rural kids will love seeing their world truthfully written and drawn.

My Aunt Honor by Gillian Torckler and Adele Jackson (Bateman Books, $19.99)

Gillian Torckler and illustrator Adele Jackson did much research to capture the spirit of WWII Britain and the vitality of lead character, Honor Hassett. Honor was Torckler’s great-aunt and a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) who became an aircraft engineer at RAF Warmwell in Dorset.

The attention to detail and care shines through in this non-fiction biography with Jackson’s thoughtful and detailed illustrations and Torckler’s text with its “girls can do anything” (and they did) message. The myth that women stayed home knitting socks or writing letters, or were miles away from the frontlines, is explored as is the worry and concern of family and friends who plead with Honor to stay safely at home.

By highlighting the active service role of women in WWII – Honor was a Spitfire mechanic – it helps to return the many women who were part of the war effort, and gave their lives for their country, to their rightful place in history.

However – and this is a spoiler alert – Honor did not go on to live “happily ever after” once WWII ended.  I found this jarring but that is the nature of war.  My own parents, children in WWII Britain, tell tales which seem to have a similar joie de vivre element to them, but then end suddenly and tragically.  Torckler herself says:

“It was important to me to show the humanitarian side of war, and to highlight the fact that those who died in war zones are not only “military people” they are real people who have parents and siblings, they are loved. They love. I also wanted to show that women also served in roles other than nurses, air raid wardens or drivers.”

So, this makes My Aunt Honor more suitable for older and/or more reflective readers. The book concludes with facts about other servicewomen from New Zealand and around the world, keeping with the style and format of Torckler and Jackson’s book My Name is Henry Fanshaw: The true story of NZ’s bomber squadron.

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  • Reviews: NZ pictures books to let young imaginations take flight