(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksSeptember 18, 2023

What makes Dazzlehands such a riot to read?

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

The new picture book from Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan is another delight for parents and kids alike. Books editor Claire Mabey reviews the English language edition, with some help from her five-year-old son.

They’ve done it again. Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan’s latest picture book – about a glam pig who has much more to offer than your standard oink – is a beautiful blast. This is the fourth collaboration between writer Cotter and illustrator Morgan (Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Rongowhakaata), and shows yet again that in the vast universe of picture books their stories shine ultra bright.

Dazzlehands (Ringakōreko, te reo Māori language edition) is just as affirming and just as spectacular as their previous books (The Bomb, The Marble Maker and Keys, all of which are also published in both English and te reo Māori editions), and to be honest, this one had me at the title. It’s not “jazz hands”, it’s something more glamorous, maybe even heading towards the unhinged.

Fellow elder millennials may resonate with the idea that jazz hands seemed to be a regular motif within cringe comedies of the 90s-early 2000s. Joey from Friends is partially to blame (the one where he gets asked to teach choreography when his fake resume is taken seriously); then Kirsten Dunst’s cheerleader movie, Bring it On, cartwheeled in with the horrific “spirit fingers” scene; and after that the singing, dancing, jazz-handsing teens of the TV show, Glee; plus the American Office (Dwight doing jazz hands). All of this to say: the name hit me in the nostalgia bone and I could not wait to see how jazz was going to transcend into dazzle.

For the kids, Dazzlehands is steeped in familiar but terrifically updated territory: the farm. The language initially mirrors the perennial Gecko Press bestseller, The Noisy Book, as we begin with Farmer (we’ll come to him soon) trying to coax his familiar cast of animals to say what we all expect: “A cow goes moo. A chicken goes cluck. A pig goes…”

Little readers will immediately feel at home here, particularly because Farmer is cleverly set up as a conduit for the young audience. He wears bright blue and green trackpants with a matching 80s-style shell suit top; he has a lush curly mullet with the sides shaved; and yellow aviators stick out of his chest pocket. He’s fresh and young and he quickly becomes exasperated with his pig.

“Pigs don’t go Dazzlehands!” shouted my son on our first read, the beginnings of outright hysteria lacing his giggle. He immediately got the gag and from there on in we were laughing. The danger with contemplating a children’s book is the illusion of simplicity. Disrupting the collectively understood language of our animals might seem like a crisp joke, but everything in this book is designed to hook the readers in, hold them in thrall and move them along at the same time. Sacha Cotter is a genius at rhyme married with rhythm and this is where Dazzlehands comes alive.

“Cross hands, floss hands, work it like a boss hands. Bursting with the razzle, gotta liberate these dazzlehands.”

The language is fun, the rhyming is impeccable (there are too many books that don’t rhyme well enough – this is not one of them), and it rockets along with a musicality that begs for physical response. There’s nothing kids love more than permission to go nuts, move their bodies, hurl their voices. Not only does Pig enable word-tastic anarchy, but Farmer’s eventual meltdown perfectly mirror’s a child’s arm-flailing indignation: “Noooooooooo! It’s oink! They’re hooves!”

The layout of the pages emphasises the comedy of the confrontation, too. Pig, poker-faced behind his sunglasses, is persistent af: “Dazzlehands. Dazzlehands. Dazzlehands.” You can imagine a comedic actor going to town with this unequivocal, deadpan dude, bringing the audience to near-chaos, either screeching in support of Farmer, or starting to get that pigs, actually, can really dazzle.

The journey of the book is less emotionally impactful than The Bomb, which I can’t read without getting a voice wobble towards the end, but it makes for a loud, pink companion piece to affirm the idea that we all have the right to defy convention and veer away from the standard conception of what we’re meant to do and be. We’re allowed to stand out from the crowd and celebrate our inventions and our sparkle. This is what we’re coming to both love and expect from Cotter and Morgan: books that honour the humour, the madness, the effervescent shine and bravery of children and the adults (and animals) that love them.

Inextricable from the joyous, raucous words are Morgan’s idiosyncratic illustrations which are visual texts of their own. There’s a book within the book; perfectly paced moments of white space; changes in texture to mirror the shifts in the story; a chorus of flamboyant characters à la The Muppets when things really let rip; and an overall style that is texturally interesting in that you can see the grain of a pencil here, a crayon there. Morgan is as whackily inventive and fantastical as the stories demand: he makes the world sing.

Altogether, Dazzlehands is a bold, funny, cool farmyard flip that is a riot to read aloud. My son and I have read/performed it many times now and it’s still going strong for both of us, which is the ultimate attestation that the Cotter and Morgan magic has cast another very successful spell.

Dazzlehands by Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan is also published in te reo Māori as Ringakōreko (HUIA, $22) and can be purchased from Unity Books Auckland (English language version) and here (te reo Māori); and Unity Books Wellington (English) and here (te reo Māori).

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