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Giselle Clarkson’s books confessional (Image: Archi Banal)
Giselle Clarkson’s books confessional (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksOctober 18, 2023

‘I could barely even breathe’: Giselle Clarkson on the perils of pubic speaking (not a typo)

Giselle Clarkson’s books confessional (Image: Archi Banal)
Giselle Clarkson’s books confessional (Image: Archi Banal)

Welcome to The Spinoff Books Confessional, in which we get to know the reading habits and quirks of New Zealanders at large. This week: author, illustrator and 2023 Arts Laureate, Giselle Clarkson.

The book I wish I’d written

Jon Klassen’s The Rock From The Sky or Du Iz Tak by Carson Ellis. I’m in awe of their ideas and their execution and it reminds me what is possible with picture books. The fact both these books are written in pure dialog really appeals to me, with the illustrations doing the rest of the storytelling, so there are links with graphic novels there too.

Everyone should read

More Aotearoa picture books. There are stunning illustrated books coming out all the time from local authors and illustrators and I want people to know how rich and incredible the selection is! And all the best ones are a delight to read as an adult too. They’re like really thin coffee-table books so you could easily have a big pile of them, and then you’ll be amazing at choosing presents for the kids in your life too. It’s WELL worth browsing some new releases or asking your excellent local bookseller for recommendations. Some really cool ones that have come out recently are Paku Manu Ariki Whakatakapōkai (Michaela Keeble, Tokerau Brown), Dazzlehands (Sacha Cotter, Josh Morgan) and Lucy and the Dark (Melinda Szymanik, Vasanti Unka).

 The book I want to be buried with

Although there are many books I adore I can’t think of one that feels like a part of me in that way. It would be lovely to think that I just haven’t met the right book yet! But then, even if I found the right book it feels like a waste to be buried with it. I would want to give my (presumably well-worn) copy to someone who would treasure it as much as I did.

Three books Giselle Clarkson thinks everyone should read.

The first book I remember reading by myself

The Rabbit’s Wedding, by Garth Williams. It’s about a little black rabbit who’s sad because he wants to marry his friend the little while rabbit but won’t tell her how he feels. A few years ago I was looking into The Rabbit’s Wedding for one of my comics on The Sapling and turns out it was banned in Alabama when it came out in 1958 because they thought it was making a statement about interracial marriage. They’re rabbits! Reading it as an adult I find the behaviour of the boy rabbit a bit weird and annoying, but the illustrations are nice.

The book I wish I’d never read

I don’t have a strong stomach for body stuff, so I’m not sure what I thought I was getting into when I picked up Bill Bryson’s book, The Body. I liked his book about houses! I guess I thought I’d be in for some facts about the history of underpants or why we still have toenails. But somewhere within the first couple of chapters was a bit about a woman who scratched herself in the same spot for so long that she…argh! I feel ill just thinking about it. I closed the book and put on Paddington 2 to try and get the image out of my brain but even that didn’t work.

Fiction or nonfiction?

Both, but mainly fiction. I like historical stuff. I like bildungsroman-y novels like The Goldfinch, Demon Copperhead and All The Light We Cannot See. I like to be completely immersed for a long period of time in other life, in another place. They’re the sort of books that make me feel a bit disorientated and forlorn (in a bittersweet way) right after I finish them.

The non-fiction I enjoy the most is essays, by writers like Ashleigh Young, Rose Lu and Madison Hamill. We have so many exceptional essayists in New Zealand! This year I also read The McCartney Legacy Vol 1, which is 700 deeply nerdy pages on the first three post-Beatles years of Paul McCartney’s career, so that’s my specialist subject sorted if I ever have to be a contestant on Mastermind.

The book that made me cry

The His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman. There were at least three places where I absolutely sobbed but I won’t say what they are in case there is someone reading this who is a late-comer to the series like I was. It took 26 years of my friend badgering me before I finally read Northern Lights and she was absolutely right about them all along. 

I did try reading Northern Lights when I was in primary school but on the first page I encountered the word “daemon” and never got any further. I’d never read fantasy before and I NEEDED to know what the word meant, but instead of reading further to find out I looked in a dictionary and asked my parents, getting no answers. And then my brother told me it was something to do with computer programming and I gave up.

From left to right: the book Giselle Clarkson wishes she hadn’t read; the book that made her cry; and the author that made her laugh.

The book that made me laugh

In year four the teacher asked me to read aloud to the class while she did other stuff and I got to pick the book. I was really into Paul Jennings and I chose to read his short story ‘Pubic Hare’, about a kid who’s embarrassed about growing pubes before anyone else in his class. He trains himself to have psychic powers so he can transplant his own curly-wurlies onto everyone else in revenge. I’d only just learnt what pubic hair even was and I was up in front of the class bright red and weeping with laughter because I’d know the word “pubic” was coming up and it was so funny I could barely even breathe enough to say it out loud.

Best place to read

The bath. I do this most nights. It sounds more decadent than it is because my house is old and doesn’t have a shower. I started reading in the bath because I’m not very good at relaxing but I feel guilty about running all that hot water and then not using it for very long, so I figured reading would make me stay put a while. I haven’t dropped a book yet.

What are you reading right now?

Last night I finished reading Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. I really wanted to like it but my enthusiasm starting waning about halfway through and I left it sitting with one chapter left for a couple of nights because I wasn’t invested enough to find out how it ended. It wasn’t for me, but I’m looking forward to having impromptu book club chats with other people who’ve read it. I want to read The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff next. Her last book, Matrix, was one I wasn’t sure I’d be into but ended up absolutely devouring!

The Observologist: A handbook for mounting very small scientific expeditions, written and illustrated by Giselle Clarkson ($40, Gecko Press) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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