Writer and writing teacher Eirlys Hunter on the pragmatics of pinning down magic.
I’ve been choosing children’s books for over 60 years, for myself, for friends, for my four children, and now for my three mokopuna who are seven, four and two. I also taught writing for children at the IIML at Victoria University of Wellington for 12 years. I have strong opinions on what makes a good children’s book. Not that children should only read Good Books; kids should be encouraged to be omnivorous. But reading-aloud adults should only have to read books that give them pleasure. An enthusiastic reader can sell almost any book to a child, so the most important person to please when choosing a read-aloud book is the adult who does the reading. If that’s likely to be you, job done. Choose books with images you like and texts that make you smile. This is even more important with toddlers, because if a toddler takes to a book you could end up reading it hundreds of times.
A good picture book text is bloody difficult to write, despite what princesses and celebrities seem to think. Their few words should read like poetry, paying attention to rhythm, assonance, sibilance and all the other language techniques. There must be a story, a reason for turning to the next page. But not a word too many, and each one should roll around the tongue and be a pleasure to say: “The-night-Max-wore-his-wolf-suit and-made-mis-chief-of-one-kind and-an-other, his-mo-ther-called-him-wild-thing … “
Their essential quality is rhythm, yet too many writers jettison rhythm in their scramble to clinch a rhyme. I used to warn my students against rhyme and make them read and clap out their stories to check they were happy with the rhythm, but every year somebody would lurch through a text that was tangled in unnatural syntax and dodgy rhythm in order to wrangle a rhyme word to the end of the line:
He was in such a hurry to tell his friend Joe / That off down the road he did go
I don’t think any of their attempts at rhyming texts ever became books, but plenty of published picture books are difficult to read aloud because they suffer from arrhythmia. Even without the constraints of rhyme, too many picture books ignore rhythm. To be fair, they’re not too hard to identify as they usually also have dull illustrations, are written in banal clichés and tell a hackneyed story – or no story at all so. They come from a cynical production line and there’s no love of writing – or respect for children – involved in their creation. Local examples may feature New Zealand wildlife in some form, or Christmas (not all kiwi/fantail/ Santa stories, okay? Just some), because they have gift potential for grab-and-go shoppers who don’t know better.
Fortunately, you can afford to ignore such books because you’ll find plenty of fabulous titles in every bookshop if you take a moment to read the first few pages. The best are not only compellingly rhythmical but also soaked in what children’s writer Katherine Paterson calls a child’s sense of wonder. Wonder is the opposite of cynicism and world-weariness, and I wish every child could stay steeped in it forever. Margaret Mahy’s stories radiate wonder. Every small person I love has a copy of The Moon and Farmer McPhee, with David Elliott’s glorious illustrations of animals alive with glee, singing and dancing in the moonlight. Also Down the Back of the Chair, and The Boy who was Followed Home, and Bubble Trouble and The Lion in the Meadow, and, and …
As well as rhythm (and rhyme if it’s perfect), and fun with language, there’s another, more elusive quality that many of my favourite picture books share, and that’s an element of mystery. Children’s writers should have a notice saying Not everything needs to be explained pinned above their desks. There’s no explanation for the tiger who rang Sophie’s doorbell, or the elephant that went rumpeta rumpeta all down the road, or the private boat that carried Max to the Wild Things.
Good illustrations also include mysterious spaces for readers to lose themselves in, as well as amplifying the text and providing small children with their earliest experiences of art. The best illustrations are allusive, offering clues that suggest (but don’t dictate) meaning, giving the reading adult the opportunity to help the child decode what’s being represented. “What do you think he’s feeling?” “What is she thinking , do you suppose?”
Choosing a book for a reading child can be daunting. Everyone knows that The Right Book can set a child on the path to literacy and academic success, and will be cited as a major influence when said child solves the climate crisis and becomes ruler of the world. More to the point, the right book can keep a child quietly giggling while you have your umpteenth zoom meeting, or buy peace between siblings squabbling in the back of the car. The worst that can happen is that the child ignores the book, in which case try reading it aloud. Even quite old children love being read to and there can be time for that over the summer, individually, or the whole family together. In an ideal world we’d go on reading to each other all our lives: sharing the pleasure of books, getting to know the characters, waiting to find out what’s going to happen next. On holiday the right audiobook can transform a long car journey for everyone.
When I’m browsing, I start at the New Zealand section of the bookshop. If I don’t buy other local writers’ books, how can I expect anyone to buy mine? And there are shelves full of brilliant local titles that tell our stories in our voices, as well as stories of other times and other places, real and imagined. There are also many gorgeous hardbacks, taonga for extra-special gifts (not for the back of the car) such as Gavin Bishop’s Aotearoa the New Zealand Story, and now Atua – Māori Gods & Heroes (not to mention his very excellent activity book). They’ll repay umpteen re-readings, and spark family discussions; adults will get as much from them as kids.
Even if you don’t believe in literary canons, there are books and stories that are cultural necessities that reading children become aware that they should know, whether it’s Peter Gossage’s Māui and other Māori Legends or Peter Rabbit, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales. A beautiful edition of Alice in Wonderland / Through the Looking-Glass can signal to a nine or 10-year-old, “I take you, and your imagination seriously. You are a reader, and a person worthy of this special book.”
Nowadays, if you’re buying for a bookish child who is older than about eight, they will be able to tell you exactly what to get them as they’ll be waiting for the latest in the series they’re currently living in. They will have looked online and they’ll know which day it’s due in bookshops. If it’s been delayed by supply-chain issues, there’ll be another series that they’ve started while they’re waiting. You can buy them Book Seven. If Book Seven isn’t available, do what I do, and ask a bookseller. What to buy a child who has read everything by Stacey Gregg and Kelly Wilson? What comes after all of Roald Dahl? If you’re unable to physically go into a bookshop and flick through the options, ring up or go online to ask. Along with children’s librarians, children’s booksellers are the world’s experts on “What book next?”
And if the child is your own, and disappears into Book Seven, barely speaks to you and gets annoyed at being forced to engage in family life – go to them. Ask to borrow Book One and read it. Find out about the world your offspring is living in. Which big questions are they grappling with? If the plot is complicated, ask your child to explain. Even if the story seems unoriginal and the characters un-nuanced, don’t criticise. You will, at least, now have a sense of the genre, the humour and the level of tension and complexity that your child enjoys. Armed with that knowledge, your bookseller can steer you both to other authors, other series. And you will have enabled your child to show you some of the world that is presently dominating their imagination.
Quick postscript from books editor Catherine Woulfe:
What Hunter neglects to mention is that she’s the author of The Mapmakers’ Race, a terrific 2018 junior fiction novel about a motley crew of brothers and sisters adventuring over a mountain range. Racing over a mountain range, in fact, and mapping it as they go, and all without any pesky adults – except the awful ones they’re competing against. It’s so good! The stakes are high but not too scary, the story is fast and fascinating, there’s a parrot, and it is properly funny. Most of all: the characters are wonderful. I particularly love how Humph, the littlest, is cute but also has agency and skill – he’s “a good noticer” – and how all the kids look after their sister Francie, who struggles with crowds and loud noises, while also loving her to bits and being constantly awed by her art.
Now there’s a sequel: The Uprising – The Mapmakers in Cruxcia is just as good and it released last month. Highly recommend the set as a Christmas pressie.