Jacinda Ardern’s care package for the new royal baby includes 15 kids books chosen by author Kate De Goldi. She writes about her selection.
I have a bunch of go-to titles for new babies – black and white board books for first reads, nursery rhyme collections for ever, favourites by New Zealand writers and artists for the priceless experience of text and image reflecting your known world back at you. First books for babies are all about developing familiarity with the object (touching, turning, chewing), being delighted by line and form on the page, and the very pleasing sounds coming from a parent’s mouth. Music, rhythm, rhyme. Then comes the magic of story unfolding and beguiling – and then, and then, and then …
A dozen or so New Zealand books for a royal baby would need all of that, I thought, but something else, too – a proper sniff of Aotearoa, its people and places and practices. These books would give a little prince that other great reading gift – a window on the unknown: kuia, corrugated iron, kete and dairy, hongi, hapuku, palangi, manuka honey, Manu, Humpty and Big Ted…
The board books were easy: a Te Papa trio, which give a rich distillation of the New Zealand story in all its colour and variety. Using objects from the Te Papa collection, the books introduce the alphabet, numbers, and colour in te reo Māori and English. The crowning glory are the by turns subversive and reflective rhyming couplets by poet James Brown. For Jeff Thomson’s corrugated Holden: C is for car/all rusty and crinkly/Too long in the bath/has made it go wrinkly.
Nga Ahua, Shapes is one of several bilingual board books from Reo Pepe that invite gentle learning and interaction: “Rapua nga ripeka/Find the crosses”, says the text accompanying the simplest of pictures: a flying doctor-biplane, a water well, and two figures, one lying injured, the other a medic rushing to help. Ripeka abound in the illustration, and wittily, the figures are Lego pieces.
The impossibility of selecting just one Margaret Mahy picture book was solved by The Word Witch, a collection of Mahy’s joyous verse, which includes several of her picture book classics. The linguistic pyrotechnics blend witches and pirates with the world Down Under, and offer many moments of wonder and reflection for child and adult. There are 36 Kings, 13 Queens and 3 Princes between the covers, so the new royal should be right at home. And the book is illustrated with great verve by David Elliot, one of our very best.
Joy Cowley’s The Duck in the Gun seemed a good book for a child likely to rub shoulders with generals and prime ministers. In this pitch-perfect story a determined broody duck thwarts men’s urge to war and brings forth new life instead. Most satisfyingly, the booby power figures are thoroughly bested by the small and vulnerable. The illustrations are by the inimitable Robin Belton, who also gave shape to Greedy Cat and Mrs Wishy Washy.
Slinky Malinki, my favourite Lynley Dodd pet, showcases Dodd’s astonishing facility with rhyme and shapely story. What child can resist a storybook character who is wicked, fiendish and sly. Who wouldn’t relish getting their tongue around “he pilfered and pillaged, he snitched and he stole.”
Ruth Paul’s propulsive rhythms and rhymes beg for audience participation too. The misjudgements and scrapes of her hapless pup, Flash, are rendered in a wonderfully compressed text with strong beat and crunchy consonants, and a regular chorus to be howled by all: Bad Dog Flash!
A change of mood and setting for Talia, a tender realist story about a young Samoan New Zealander visiting Samoa for the first time with her father. Trish Bowles’ delicate watercolours conjure a Pacific light and a new sensory world. The landscape and characters are particular but the experience is a universal one: navigating one’s way through new people and a new place.
Gavin Bishop’s The House that Jack Built, his revisualisation of the British nursery rhyme in the context of colonial Aotearoa, is both a pungent history lesson and an introduction to the origin myth and symbols of Māoridom. The new edition from Gecko Press gives full throat to Bishop’s vision. It’s both thrilling and disconcerting to be followed through the story of Jack Bull Esq by the watchful eyes of Papatuanuku and Ranginui.
Peter Gossage’s magisterial Maui and Other Legends is represented by The Fish of Maui, an illustrative tour-de-force that uses vividly coloured and brilliantly composed illustrations across the book’s gutter to powerful effect, emphasising the strength and determination of Maui as he rows with his brothers towards their fishing place, then wrenches the North Island from the bottom of the ocean. Perhaps the third royal child will enjoy not just a memorable legend but a young man who has older, sometimes pesky, siblings.
Two titles offered complementary domestic stories – only proper, given the kitchen is the heart of most New Zealand houses. The Kuia and the Spider is a much loved classic that suggests the importance of intergenerational connection and the handing on of cultural practices, by way of a grandmother’s perpetual argument with the (grandmother) spider who lives in her kitchen. Robyn Kahukiwa’s domestic interiors are as compelling as the rhythms of Grace’s story: the spotless bench, the coal range, the kete and mats that signify the weaving tradition. Most beautifully, the disputative grandmothers are made calm and whole by the arrival of their mokopuna.
In The Longest Breakfast we’re in suburbia where a very contemporary dad jostles competing breakfast demands from extended family and neighbours, amid the baby’s persistent but baffling cries of “Toot! Toot!” Text and illustrations capture enchantingly the morning clamour and a familiar family poser: decoding the burblings of a toddler on the brink of coherent speech.
And still more family – the evergreen Kiss, Kiss, Yuck, Yuck is a delicious comic conception, exuberantly illustrated and designed, zeroing in on an interface all children hope to avoid: the torrent of sloppy kisses from the adoring aunt. Andy Apple Sauce, as his unswerving Aunty Elsie calls him, bends himself well out of shape trying to evade the persistent puckered lips, until the day Aunty falls off a camel … Kyle Mewburn has written many fine picture books, but this won out because doting aunts with ruby lips are bound to be a feature in the new HRH’s world.
And finally, to regional Aotearoa, for a story-song about community. So Many Wonderfuls gives both panoramic and close-up views of a seaside town that is probably Tolaga Bay but also every small New Zealand town with its homes, shops, school, park, hall, library and sunshiny beach. Children and adults wander through the pages, working, studying, cavorting and communing. On the final page, young and old are gathered for a fish-and-chip picnic under the stars. Bare feet, smoldering driftwood, ukulele, and a sing-along. Above them, a full moon and the Southern Cross …
Kate’s 1st XV:
- My New Zealand ABC Book; learn the alphabet with art and objects from Te Papa, text by James Brown
- My New Zealand 123 Book; learn counting with the art and objects from Te Papa, text by James Brown
- My New Zealand Colours Book; learning colours with the art and objects from Te Papa, text by James Brown
- Nga Ahua-Shapes by Kitty Brown & Kirsten Parkinson
- The Word Witch by Margaret Mahy; illustrated by David Elliott; edited by Tessa Duder
- The Fish of Maui by Peter Gossage
- Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd
- Bad Dog, Flash! by Ruth Paul
- The Longest Breakfast by Jenny Bornholdt; illustrated by Sarah Wilkins
- The House that Jack Built by Gavin Bishop
- The Duck in the Gun by Joy Cowley; illustrated by Robyn Belton
- Kiss, Kiss, Yuck, Yuck by Kyle Mewburn; illustrated by Ali Teo & John O’Reilly
- The Kuia and the Spider by Patricia Grace; illustrated by Robyn Kahukiwa
- Talia by Catherine Hannken; illustrated by Trish Bowles
- So Many Wonderfuls by Tina Matthews
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.