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Collage of cut-out illustrations showing children's book characters wearing Red Bands. Also an image of a little girl wearing her dad's huge old gummies.
Red Bands, Red Bands everywhere – the little chook in her dad’s gummies is author / illustrator Kat Quin (Design: Archi Banal)

BooksJanuary 23, 2022

The Great Kiwi Gumboot Mystery

Collage of cut-out illustrations showing children's book characters wearing Red Bands. Also an image of a little girl wearing her dad's huge old gummies.
Red Bands, Red Bands everywhere – the little chook in her dad’s gummies is author / illustrator Kat Quin (Design: Archi Banal)

Are Red Bands sneakily advertising to children? Books editor Catherine Woulfe with this special report. 

Red Bands, Red Bands everywhere. On our suburban doorstep right now we have three pairs of the best gumboots in the country and this is completely normal and fine. 

We also have at least 10 New Zealand picture books explicitly featuring Red Bands, most of them published in the last year or so. And that’s … weird. 

The thing is, children’s books have long been a blessedly ad-free zone. There’s almost no branding in them, no product placement, aside from the screamingly overt (I’m talking about those ubiquitous ripped-from-TV books about Lego and Beyblades and My Little Ponies). 

“I’ll always approach drawing recognisable brands or products pretty carefully, for legal reasons but also it’s just a bit weird if your book starts feeling like an ad,” says Toby Morris, kids’ book illustrator and Spinoff creative director. “There’s usually ways to suggest it rather than show it outright. If I’m drawing a character in sneakers I wouldn’t put Nike ticks or Adidas stripes on the sides for example, you just have some kind of squiggles or pattern there so that it feels like sneakers.”

Oh, you’ll see the odd jar of something that looks like Marmite, especially from kiwiana-inclined illustrators like Kat Quin or Donovan Bixley. Sometimes a bag of sugar with Chelsea-pink squiggles. Very occasionally, a plane with a smudgy blue-and-green tail will zoom across a page – it could be a koru? If you squint? But airlines are generally not happy about their logos being used by illustrators. Too much opportunity for crashing and burning, I suppose. 

But Red Bands are a different story. Red Bands are everywhere. In fact, the preponderance of Red Bands in picture books has been increasing over time and for the last few months it’s been galumphing to a crescendo. What is going on?

Chuck your gummies on and come see. 

Illustration of a farmhouse at night – inside a cat licks her paw beside a fire, outside a line-up of Red Bands on the deck.
The great Donovan Bixley, in The Great Kiwi Bedtime Book (Image: Supplied)

We begin with books that feature Red Bands once and incidentally. First up: the aforementioned Donovan Bixley, wonderful writer/illustrator, in The Great Kiwi Bedtime Book and The Great Kiwi ABC. The gummies here are just part of the scenery – lined up on a deck, as you do. Likewise, a couple of years back Giselle Clarkson (get her to Te Papa) dropped a pair of Red Bands into the superb children’s cookbook Egg & Spoon. A single pair. Just kicked off under a table. NDB. 

An illustration of a table set with an amazing cake, a jar of jaffas and a crown. Underneath a pair of kicked-off Red Bands. A peacock's strolling past, the walls and floor are bright pink.
An opening image in superlative children’s cookbook Egg & Spoon, illustrated by Giselle Clarkson (Image: Supplied)

On we stomp, to Kat Quin’s Kuwi and Friends Māori Picture Dictionary, a huge beautiful hardback that came out two years ago and remains a stalwart of the Unity children’s top 10s. Red Bands pop up thrice. Twice with a cute-as kiwi chick in them. Again, in isolation I’d think nothing of it. 

That same year, Craig Phillips stuck a pair of Red Bands onto a character in Let It Go: Emotions are energy in motion.

If this is where it stopped I’d never have got all suspicious. 

Four illustrations from children's books: two are cute drawings with a little kiwi nestled in the top, the other two are a sad-looking boy wearing Red Bands.
Cutie-pie Red Bands via Kat Quin; down in the dumps version from Craig Phillips (Images: Supplied)

But now we enter squelchier terrain. In September, publishers Little Love released Kiwis and Koalas, a hardback written by Sarah Milne, with illustrations by Laura Bernard. In this book the Red Bands are given words, precious words, the one thing you can’t afford to splash around when you’re putting together a picture book. 

“Lily pulled on her gumboots. Her most favourite gumboots! They were red and black, big and heavy – just perfect for stomping through muddy puddles in wintertime and striding past spiky ferns in spring.” 

Four photos of illustrations showing a little blonde girl in a yellow dress and Red Band gummies. A dog features in lots of them. Much skipping and frolicking.
Lily and her most favourite gumboots, from Kiwis and Koalas (Photos: Catherine Woulfe)

Kiwis and Koalas also gives the gumboots oodles of pictures: 12 of them, sprinkled throughout the book, plus an extra pair for the cover. The red and black practically jumps off the page. By the time I put that book down I was pretty sure product placement had finally come for picture books. 

I resolved to look into the matter, and then didn’t. But a couple of months later another Red Bands-orama landed on my doorstep. 

Glenn Jones is an artist who sells kiwiana tea towels and keep cups and fridge magnets and native bird kites. Did he also sell out to Red Bands? I kinda thought so. His very good debut book The Rhyming Pirate stars a pirate who conspicuously wears a single Red Band on his non-peg leg. Again the boot all but kicks you in the face; again it’s on spread after spread, including the cover. 

Three illustrations, all bold and bright, featuring a pirate and his gumboot, and a parrot.
Glenn Jones also makes prints and tea towels featuring high-heeled Red Bands (Photos: Catherine Woulfe)

It was lockdown; I was bored; I dug through the books in the garage and came up with Samantha Laugesen’s Stuck in Poo, What to Do? which was illustrated by Kat Quin (then Merewether) and came out in 2014. My son had loved it. It was entirely focused on Red Bands. It stars a pūkeko posing like an influencer trying to influence small consumers to buy Red Bands. I went to Laugesen’s website and found she was selling the book – and selling actual Red Bands. I finally stomped into action.

Photo of a picture book flanked by a plush toy pūkeko wearing Red Bands, and a pair of kids' Red Bands.
The ‘stuck in poo package’ on offer at (Photo: Supplied)

I bounced the whole thing off a children’s bookseller, who agreed it smelled like capitalists coming for our children. I DM’d Giselle Clarkson and we laughed about illustrators being in the pocket of Big Gumboot (her line) and how actually it would be quite nice for illustrators to get a bit of extra cash, somehow. 

I emailed Skellerup, asking what the deal was – were there any commercial entanglements, was any money changing hands? Absolutely not, they said. All they do is rubber-stamp publishers’ requests to depict the gummies.

But Big Gumboot was not to be trusted. So then I emailed a bunch of illustrators, feeling like an absolute git, asking if they were taking dirty sneaky advertising money. Absolutely not, they said. One said it in all caps, which I deserved.

Donovan Bixley was very cheerful about the whole mucky business: “I can say unequivocally that I have not been bought off by, or am in the pocket, trouser leg, or boot heel of ‘Big Gumboot’ …  although I wouldn’t be adverse to slipping a Red Band into the background … if say … the arrrhhh–hmm … boot was the right fit.

“Maybe Red Bands are happy for the exposure in Kiwi kid’s books,” he added. “I mean, the worst light an illustrator can show gumboots in is covered in muck or standing in a cowpat, and that’s exactly what they’re made for.”

Samantha Laugesen: “I am not in the pocket of Skellerup (wouldn’t that be nice!) but yes, a few years back they bought some books off me to sell in their tent at the field days, I’m pretty sure they sold out which was awesome!”

So why are they all drawing Red Bands?

Well, says Bixley, “They’re just more fun to draw. Most of the time in my books, a gumboot is just a background thing, but … if I want to draw attention to a gumboot in one of my illustrations, weellll …  Red Bands are it. They’ve got that striking red and black design element that makes them appeal to illustrators.”

Sarah Milne, who wrote Kiwis and Koalas, specifically requested the illustrator draw Red Bands. “Pretty simple really,” she told me. “My daughter has always had a pair, as have my nephews. In short, kiwiana + kids = Red Bands.”

Black and white photo of eight pairs of Red Bands lined up against a wall. Above each pair, you can see a child sitting, legs dangling.
The children of Sarah Milne’s extended family, and their Red Bands (Photo: Supplied)

Laugesen: “Quite simply, for us farmers, Red Bands symbolise #farmlife. We wear them, our mothers wear them, our fathers wear them, our grandparents wore them, and with the release of junior Red Bands now our kids wear them! Red Bands rock!

“Red Bands were the inspiration for both my Luke the Pook books (over 37,000 copies sold, yippee.) When junior Red Bands were first released back in 2012/13 I remember going to the local country preschool and seeing the lineup of teeny tiny red bands at the door. I thought, how cool, maybe I could write a story about Red Bands for kids. And so Luke the Pook, the Red Band-wearing pūkeko was born.

“I found Skellerup very approachable, I had already been in contact with them for permission to use an image of Red Bands on a fabric design so I contacted their marketing manager for permission to use Red Bands in my books. I got a big thumbs up. I was lucky too, I was provided with contacts in the big farming supply stores RD1 and Farmlands to get my books on their shelves.”

Glenn Jones: “I think I just consider it as symbol of New Zealand. I remember my dad had a pair when I was little and I’ve just always thought of the red/black colour combo on a boot being a uniquely NZ thing. When I was trying to add a bit of kiwiness to my pirate character in the book but still keep him piratey the boot felt like a nice fit (pun intended).”

Kat Quin: “I felt the Red Band look is instantly recognisable, and I like that it is a longstanding gumboot brand, founded in Aotearoa. Plus, the black and red are great for aesthetics!

“Red Bands also bring back nostalgia for me personally, as I grew up on a Waikato dairy farm, so they are boots that remind me of my dad.”

Small girl in a pair of giant gummies.
Kat Quin at 4 – these are either faded Red Bands or a rare pair of off-brand boots from her dad’s collection (Photo: Supplied)

A final point from Bixley:

“The bigger issue we should really be addressing is, why are so many children’s book illustrators limiting themselves to Red Band gumboots? As creatives it’s our duty to open up children’s minds to all of life’s possibilities – may I suggest they check out the classic white freezing works gummies I illustrated for Marc Ellis’s Good Fullas, or the many colourful kids’ gumboots decorated with flowers and dinosaurs throughout my books. Come on New Zealand – our kids deserve better #gumbootdiversity.”

Investigation closed, and here is what I’ve discovered: Sometimes the world is not wholly terrible. Sometimes what looks like the worst kind of advertising turns out to be simple symbiosis, a circle of life, an organic and mutually beneficial partnership. Red Bands make for better picture books. Picture books sell a truckload of Red Bands. On and on the wheel will turn, perpetually in rubbery motion, a marketer’s dream. And I will continue to read to my kids – and wear my decades-old Red Bands – with nary a twinge, relieved to be proven a cynical old boot. 

Keep going!