Your guide to kids' lit

by Ann Packer / 07 April, 2011
Even the most literate parents can find themselves all at sea when it comes to finding good books for their kids.
A FAMILY OF READERS: THE BOOK LOVER’S GUIDE TO CHILDREN’S AND YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE (Candlewick Press, $35.99) is a succinct and entertaining overview of every aspect of kids’ lit, from board books through to teen genres, from those in the know. Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of the prestigious American publication The Horn Book Magazine, and its executive editor, Martha V Parravano, invited leading artists, authors and book designers, including Maurice Sendak and Margaret Mahy, to contribute their personal pointers and favourite reads. A chapter entitled Thirteen Ways to Raise a Nonreader spells out just how not to do it.

Too new to be listed in A Family of Readers’ recommended reads, BEING BILLY (Puffin, $21) is a breathtaking debut by Phil Earle, whose CV includes caring for multiply abused adolescents and selling books. There’s no earnestness, though – the Billy we meet on page one is certainly damaged, but he’s by no means doomed to the lifelong detention he seems to be courting from Ronnie, aka the Colonel, one of the “scummers” who run the home where Billy’s mum deposited him and his younger twin siblings years earlier. Realistic, gritty and ultimately redemptive.

Des Hunt does it again in THE PECO INCIDENT (HarperCollins, $19.99). His signature blend of keen kids, scientific truth and stunning geography is tightly tuned in this eco-thriller set on the Otago Peninsula, home to the albatross and the hoiho penguin. Danny and his city cousin Nick take on dead birds, dodgy tourists and the devastating possibility of a bird flu outbreak – in spite of sporadic mayhem caused by Nick forgetting to take his Ritalin.

In print at last is the legend most of the capital’s children will have come across before hitting intermediate school, THE TANIWHA OF WELLINGTON HARBOUR (Puffin, $19.99). Moira Wairama sets down in separate English and Maori versions the tale told to her three decades ago by Tipene O’Regan. Taniwha Whataitai and Ngake live in harmony in their ­prehistoric lake until a bored Ngake breaks free to create the entrance to the harbour. Bruce Potter’s watery illustrations beautifully capture the essence of Ngake’s bid for freedom and Whataitai’s desperate efforts to locate his lost friend.

“Rats in the bach. Eels in the drains. Keas in the kitchen. Mozzies when it rains …” WHEN GULLS FLY HIGH (Puffin, $30), the second book of poetry for young New Zealanders by Peter Bland, is quirkily illustrated by his daughter Joanna Bland – kids will love her scribbled style while parents will appreciate details such as the torn-out Edmonds Cookery Book recipe for brown honey scones. It’s a pleasure to share such intrinsically New Zealand insights into blackberrying, eroded hills, wind, bush and sea – seen through a child’s eyes.

That divine little zebra Zou is back in Michel Gay’s ZOU AND THE BOX OF KISSES (Gecko, $19.99). He’s off to camp, and his mum and dad have a gem of an idea to help with the inevi­table separation anxiety – they fill a box with paper kisses. (“You can tell Mum’s kiss, because of the lipstick.”) Feeling obliged to share his bounty with other tearful zebrettes, Zou finds he’s made a whole lot of new friends. Adorable.

Wellingtonian Trina Saffioti based her tale of one of the stolen generation of aboriginal children on the life of her mother’s grandmother. STOLEN GIRL (Magabala Books, $23.45) eloquently describes the girl’s simple life before and regimented existence after she is abducted to a boarding school to train as a domestic. Norma MacDonald’s soft, warm watercolours follow the girl as she whispers her birth name to herself, dreams of her mother’s shy smile and plots her escape.

Ann Packer has been reviewing children’s and young adults’ books for 20 years. This is the first of a new monthly column.
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