BooksMade possible by

Week-Long New Zealand Kids’ Books Special: Bob Kerr’s Imaginary Newspaper

Sarah Forster reads a newspaper set in the kids book by Bob Kerr, Changing Times.

Bob Kerr’s Changing Times: The Story of a New Zealand Town and its Newspaper  is easily one of the cleverest books I have seen all year. He’s a wonderful artist, and his book is the result of working on it for 10 years.

It’s entertaining, multi-levelled look at New Zealand’s history, using fiction to explain reality. This is something that Bob has always had a talent for – check out his classic 1990 book After the War, which won him the Russell Clark Award for best illustrator in New Zealand.

It tells the story of The New Zealand Times, an imaginary newspaper which Kerr evokes so vividly that you feel sure it truly existed.

The proprietors are the McPhersons, who leave Scotland and sail to New Zealand with their printing press. When their young son first sights New Zealand, he says, tellingly, ‘Whose land is that?’

They’re led by local Māori into the township, and the first issue of their newspaper is produced on March 1840 – their very first news article is an account of Waitangi Day.

Each page spread is set up using a variety of frames to tell the stories, with cut-outs showing the – real – news that the family records via the newspaper. This technique makes this a very good story to share with children from an early age, while offering great depth for an older reader.

As Kerr says, ‘The references to The Treaty, the Taranaki War, Parihaka, and later the Tainui settlement are all taken pretty well word-for-word from reports at the time. I don’t think of myself as a qualified historian, rather as a visual storyteller encouraging readers to look further into our history.’

As well as a story about newspapers and the way they developed, this is a story about the fictitious McPherson family. Like the newspaper, Kerr brings the family to life. We learn about Emily McPherson, who became one of the first female doctors in New Zealand, and Danny McPherson, shipped out to WW1, never to return.

Some of the drawings of buildings in the book are taken from real buildings that once existed – the Majestic Theatre, for example, was in Willis Street, Wellington, and has the same distinctive front. McIntyres Bookshop is certainly a nod to John and Ruth McIntyre at the Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie.  But the book could be set almost anywhere in New Zealand.

‘I wanted readers in Riverton to think that I had based the town there and I wanted readers in the Hokianga to think that this was about them,’ says Kerr. ‘Provincial towns usually grew on the coast around a harbour – Whakatane, or a rivermouth – Whanganui.’

Changes in society dot the later parts of the book. The railways close, the Post Office closes, the Majestic Cinema closes…Finally, the death knell of the newspaper is sounded, with the headline, ‘Global Media Buys Times.’ It’s time for Matt McPherson – the descendant of the first McPhersons, and who tells the story throughout – to deliver the newspaper for the last time.

The final page shows Matt’s parents saying, ‘I’ll miss the old times.’ Matt looks up from his laptop, and says, ‘Times change, mum.’

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.