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Please, no more poos: the best children’s picture books of 2019

“Successful parenting is about ignoring the bad stuff and focusing unrelentingly on the good,” writes Catherine Woulfe – so let us rejoice in the line-up for best picture book at the 2019 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

There are so many shit books out there for little kids. Books where the rhymes swing and miss, where the story is devoid of both heart and reason or the illustrations are pretty much stills from a TV show. My most-hated trope is where they just drop the word “poo” or “bum” into the text, or make the story about farts. Also I’d like to burn all books based on Paw Patrol.

But successful parenting, allegedly, is about ignoring the bad stuff and focusing unrelentingly on the good – on what you’d like to see more of. Let us rejoice, then, in the line-up for best picture book at the 2019 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

There’s a zing about these five books, a verve, a colourful, fizzing intelligence. They treat their readers – children – like the complex little weirdos they are, and they know that reading to kids should not be a linear experience: there are oodles of question-sparkers and interest-grabbers on every page. The best of these books will grow with a child, too – at four, a child might get a kick out of the bright, splashy spreads in The Bomb; at six they might be interested in the calculations scribbled into the splashes, or start chipping in with their own ideas on exactly how one should hit the water to land the best bomb.

I’ve read all of these to my son many, many times. He is adamant: Puffin the Architect should win. This is mostly because he has a thing for puffins, possibly due to early and repeated exposure to Netflix’s finest, Puffin Rock. But he also thinks the Cars books are solid gold, so. Ignore him. Here’s my take on the top five.

Mini Whinny: Happy Birthday to Me, Stacy Gregg, illustrated by Ruth Paul (Scholastic NZ)

Um, this is a book about a miniature horse and a birthday party, so huge double advantage straight out of the blocks. But I don’t see how this miniature version of Stacy Gregg’s celebrated horse-oriented books – she’s won the Children’s Choice Junior Fiction Award three years running – could possibly beat the other books on the list.

Mini Whinny is the only miniature horse at Blackthorn Stables, which is otherwise inhabited by draught horses, showjumpers, a pretty palomino, and Berenice the moggie. When August 1 rolls around – the standardised birthday for all horses – Mini Whinny gets in a fluffy-maned huff about not getting a birthday all to herself.

In a scene that horrified my obsessed-with-the-rules child, Whinny stays up late then sneakily nicks all the party stuff and stashes it in her own stable.

“Happy birthday to me… Happy birthday to me… Mini Whinny had never noticed before how small and lonely her voice could be.”

There’s a real, gently-done sadness to this spread, before Whinny comes up with a fix. Much frolicking ensues.

Throughout, the cadence and rhyme all trit-trot off the tongue. The illustrations are… not gloriously original or recognisably New Zealand, but neither are they trying to be. Soft and sweet, they pair well with the story.

Puffin the Architect, Kimberly Andrews (Penguin Random House)

A puffin architect wants to design a new home for herself and her two picky pufflings. So she takes them on a tour of all the marvellous houses she’s designed, explaining and sketching clever features along the way.

Platypus the baker lives in a tricked-out riverside burrow with excellent storage solutions for all his yeast and flour. Otter the fisherman has the great storage, plus “furniture that folds away/ check out these fancy brackets”. The designs get objectively more awesome and kid-oriented with every house visit: a pulley-operated bed, secret tunnel systems, treehouses, flying foxes…

“Nope,” say the pufflings, with perfectly-pitched disdain. “Nuh-uh.”

Mummy puffin has rightfully had enough at this point but her little dears remind her that they’re puffins, not giraffes or pigs or platypuses. Can’t she design them a puffin cottage by the sea?

Can she what.

The story is terrific and the language bang-on, but really it’s the illustrations that put this book firmly in my top two. Each house is beautifully drawn in cross-section, so kids can see each design element working, and explore for themselves all the fascinating corners and quirks that aren’t discussed in the text. Each house also makes architectural sense – at least to my sixth form graphics-trained eye – and many extend underground with cellars or tunnel systems, which is a cool way of showing children a whole new perspective.

There’s enough detail here that you can spend 20 minutes on each page, easy. And more than that: you’ll actually want to.

Things in the Sea are Touching Me, Linda Jane Keegan, illustrated by Minky Stapleton (Scholastic NZ)

As previously stated the Spinoff Review of Books is officially besotted with this one – but now it’s sitting on our desk next to The Bomb and Puffin the Architect we have to face hard truths: it could and maybe should dip out.

Regardless! We will keep buying it for every small child we know because it is all kinds of wonderful.

The set-up is simple. During a family day at the beach, a little girl freaks out when things brush up against her in the water. She imagines these things – and Minky Stapleton’s drawn them perfectly – as creepy monster-hands, reaching for her from the deep. Don’t worry, says Ma. Just a wee crab/seaweed/mangrove pod/salp. Phew. We swim out a bit deeper, through changing shades of blue, and onto the next fright.

It’s the kind of book that leads to questions you’ll actually want to answer: what is a salp? Do sea urchins have mouths, though, Mummy? What does “kilter” mean?

For some kids Things in the Sea might also introduce an important new concept. The family, matter-of-factly, has two mummies – well, a Ma and a Mum. It’s apparently the first picture book published in New Zealand to feature non-hetero parents. Surely not, I thought. In 2018? Nahhhh…

But then we asked dozens of people who should know – Little Unity, The Sapling, librarians, kindy teachers, three lots of two mummies – and none of them could think of a predecessor. Can you?

The Bomb, Sacha Cotter, illustrated by Josh Morgan (Huia Publishers)

Layer upon layer of goodness and wonder. Take the inside cover, for example: it’s a child’s scrapbook of treasures, but to an adult’s eye speaks also to the importance of tipuna and links with the land. There are flattened daisies – those tiny ones with the pink tips, that grow in lawns – a feather, a kōwhai flower that a child with a red felt pen has transformed into a mermaid’s dress.

Taped in, too, are old black-and-white snapshots of an elegant, fabulous young woman, and more recent, colour shots of that elegant, fabulous woman, now a Nan, doting on her grandchild. They’re making daisy chains. They’re at the beach. They’re absorbed in each other. They are, of course, the heart of this story, which is ostensibly about the child learning to pull off the perfect manu.

The drawings are intricate: a jetty is wonderfully higgledy-piggledy, perspective is played with, there are physics equations scribbled inside splashes. And listen to the words! Read silently they bop about pleasingly; out loud they’re a delight: “I’m always dreaming of pulling off that perfect bomb. A booming one, a slapping one, a splashing, dripping, soaking one!”

The skins in this book are brown. The landscapes are an if-only green and they teem with tūī and pōhutukawa, kererū and harakeke. It’s Aotearoa as Eden. Lush, gorgeous, laid-back, populated by happy people in baggy boardies dropping sweet bombs.

I think The Bomb should win this category, and I really think it will. Actually, I think it has a shot at the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year.

Who Stole the Rainbow? Vasanti Unka (Penguin Random House)

Thwack! That’s the hot pink hitting you straight in the eyeballs. It’s the first thing you notice: neon is dashed and spackled across every page, most obviously on the big floppy ears and big sniffy nose of the beagle charged with tracking down a missing rainbow.

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Our very serious pink detective traipses across a landscape of saturated green grass and indigo skies, interviewing key suspects: the cloud, the wind, the rain. Small, understatedly charming moments abound. On one page, the only text is: “He searched the crime scene.” Picture: the beagle lying on his back in a field, staring at the sky.

I’m a sucker for recognisable flora in children’s books – a well-placed dandelion can be a stepping-stone for a child between their own back lawn and the world of the story – and here there are neon nasturtiums and buttercups poking up all over. Weather is evocatively drawn. Wind is all fine whorls of hair; rain, a weeping watercolour. There’s a spectacular fold-out spread where the rainbow is rediscovered.

The story is simple and told straight – no place here for bouncy rhymes, but neither are there jarring notes. A factual section at the end sets out how rainbows really happen, explaining refraction and reflection with words and clear diagrams.

It is, most of all, quite stunningly beautiful. But to me Who Stole the Rainbow lacks the complexity, the depth, the magical delicious something – I want to say ‘umami’? – of The Bomb and Puffin the Architect. I’d be surprised if it took out the category.


The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.

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