Sacha Cotter sent me these photos of her son with dad Josh; the baby hunts down his favourite book wherever they put it. I can’t find the words to say how much I love these photos. This is why we write children’s books. It is utterly magic.
Children’s books are extra necessary while families are living in bubbles with children, but for me children’s books are an endless source of comfort and delight. They are always an essential part of my life. I am thinking of the joy I get reading Margaret Mahy picture books from The Three Legged Cat to A Summery Saturday Morning. Or Barbara Else’s The Travelling Restaurant. Kate De Goldi sent me a list of classics one summer and I had a heavenly time reading my way through the books. Every classic was a comfort. An uplift. But a book that offers supreme comfort is Kyle Mewburn’s Hill and Hole. A joy. As is this list.
forgive quality of some of the book covers – not always easy to find at the moment
Arrgh – it was so hard to choose!!! There are so many books I could have chosen!!
I almost chose a baby book that our 9 month old is currently obsessed with (a brightly coloured book called This Little Piggy by Jarvis). We put it up on his book shelf in a different spot each day and even though he is still only commando crawling and can’t even pull himself up to sitting, he is still able to peek up, flail his arms about, find the book and pull it down each time!! So cute! We must read it to him ten times a day at least! Ha ha.
But…I think I’ll go with A Magical Do-Nothing-Day by Beatrice Alemagna. Perhaps more fitting for the current situation.
When I read the picture book On a Magical Do-Nothing Day I feel comforted and cosy and warm and also full of wonder and excitement all at the same time! On a boring, rainy day a child reluctantly goes outside expecting to find even more boringness. At first the child is unimpressed with the wet outdoors, but over the course of the story, without really realising it, the child begins to notice all the mystery and joy and adventure of being outside. I feel a special sense of connection with this story because it reminds me of my childhood and because spending time by myself outside, alone with my thoughts, is what I like to do to re-energise and appreciate the little things.
Kate De Goldi
The Blue Cat by Ursula Dubosarsky, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2017
This astonishing book begins with an epigraphic poem both mysterious and menacing: the final two stanzas suggest the act of horrified witness at the heart of the book:
his body shakes
when he’s asleep
with secret anger
dark and deep
nothing we can do
i only know
the cat is blue
The book’s subject is grave and devastating but – as with all this writer’s novels – our lens is that of a child who only partially understands what she sees. We are in Sydney in 1942 and ten-year-old Colomba (the little dove) tries to stitch together the particulars of her life: the navy ships in the harbor, time gone backwards by an hour, a foreign boy newly arrived at school, her Cassandra-like friend, Hilda, impenetrable adult pronouncements, and a sleek blue cat that comes and goes. Dubosarsky’s writing is limpid but freighted; meaning reverberates between the lines. Beneath the apparently simple story surface are radiating mysteries. I find this book continually compelling and comforting – for its reminder of the terrors and hilarity of childhood perception, its complex expression of humanity, and its proof that great writing for children deploys the full cupboard of literary arts.
Elena de Roo
I am picking the Emily books by L.M. Montgomery because they transported me to another time and place (Prince Edward Island in Canada in the 1920’s) when I was eleven and staying at a kind elderly relative’s place for the school holidays. She had the whole hardcover set of three (Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest) on her book shelf and most afternoons while I was there, I’d sit curled up in a comfy arm chair and devour their musty smelling pages and delicious language, and dream.
‘Emily had slipped away in the chilly twilight for a walk. She remembered that walk very vividly all her life—perhaps because of a certain eerie beauty that was in it—perhaps because “the flash” came for the first time in weeks—more likely because of what happened after she came back from it.’
Margaret Mahy wrote hundreds of wonderful books, but for me, her finest writing is to be found in two short stories from her only young teenage collection, The Door in the Air and other stories.
Both ‘The Magician in the Tower’ and ‘The Bridge Builder’ are profound meditations on the nature of transformation and death, but lightly and compassionately told in breathtakingly beautiful language. I read and re-read them during a time of great family grief, and nearly thirty years on am still overawed by their power to provide comfort and wisdom. Aroha nui, Margaret.
A book that’s given me comfort recently is The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders, illustrated by Lane Smith. It is a beautiful fable about a village, Frip, plagued by goat loving creatures called gappers. A little girl named Capable brings her community together with kindness (even though her neighbours have been less than kind to her in the past.) It’s a lovely little tale about the dangers of being selfish.
I’ve always enjoyed and hugely admired Maurice Gee’s Under the Mountain. The story of identical twins who become aware of a strange, evil breed of creatures called The Wilberforces living furtively in Auckland, and how with the aid of an old guy with strange powers, the twins are hurled into a series of astonishing adventures, which leads to Auckland’s volcanoes dramatically erupting, is a totally engrossing story – plus the twins are so convincing. It made a pretty good TV series, as well.
The book I have chosen is Jillion (by Toitoi). The stunning illustrations draw you in, and there is such a variety of stories and poems. If I feel like a quick read, there’s plenty of tiny poems and flash fiction. Or if I feel like getting stuck into something chunkier, there are longer stories and articles. There is writing that makes you think, wonder and laugh out loud. The talent from these young New Zealanders is awesome and inspiring.
This book (s) always delights me; all the varied characters, the acceptance of difference, acceptance of the bizarre wonder of the world.
“What day is it?” asked Winnie the Pooh.
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favourite day,” said Pooh.
I love The Man Whose Mother Was A Pirate (Margaret Mahy). The beautiful artwork paired with the exciting, humorous storyline and poetic prose is delightful.
The book I have chosen is All The Ways To Be Smart by Davina Bell and illustrated by Allison Colpoys.
It is a great book to dive into as we all are finding new ways to be creative and keep learning while at home. It explores all the different ways you can be smart, like being, “Smart at rhyme and telling time, and building cubbies, making slime.” The illustrations are energetic, with lots of popping colour and flourishing lines – it’s a beauty!
I loved, and still love, the stories about Rupert Bear, which were collected into Annuals. Rupert and his mates went on wondrous adventures and visited amazing places. They got into some tight spots at times, but they always came home safely.
I am Not a Worm! By Scott Tulloch
I absolutely love this book by the very talented author/illustrator Scott Tulloch. The conversation between caterpillar and chameleon is hilarious, as caterpillar tries to convince chameleon he is not a worm. The expressions on the caterpillar’s face as his temper explodes is priceless – you can almost hear him shouting out of the book! With stunning illustrations, witty dialogue and a surprise ending, this book has me and my son in fits of laughter every time we read it. Enjoy!
My go-to book for solace reading is very old. It’s Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter (1909). When I was young, in the 1950s, my life wasn’t happy at all. I found comfort in reading this story about a girl who endured a poverty-stricken life with her cold-hearted mother – but came out on top because of her own efforts and the help of others. It’s available free at several internet sources, including here.
(note from Paula: PRH has postponed arrival of Clare’s fabulous The Midnight Adventures of Kiwi and Ruru)
Guess How Much I love You (Sam McBratney) says beautifully and simply that there is nothing bigger than the love I feel for my special people – and that there really is no way of properly describing that immense feeling. It just simply ‘is’…
(And never is that more important than now!)
I’ve picked Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan’s The Bomb (Huia, 2018). I remember my joyous reaction on reading this book for the first time not long after it came out. How quintessentially New Zealand it was, what energy there was in the story, and yet what patience too with the familiar childhood dilemmas of insecurity and fear over doing something for the first time, and how beautifully it was all resolved. Pictures and text working so seamlessly together. Such a feel good book.
And just before lockdown I was lamenting the fact that I didn’t own my own copy. I wanted to read it again, and share it with others. But inertia reared its head and I put off buying it. How lovely it would be in such strange times to be reminded of these simple New Zealand pleasures like doing a bomb, of summer fun, and where our biggest problem is finding the courage to dive in. Of course the silver lining now is that it is a purchase I can make to help my beloved local bookshop when the lockdown is lifted. And I feel like that reflects the spirit of the book.
I’m more likely to read a children’s book for inspiration than comfort or solace but to comfort a child I’d go straight to A A Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Such a predictable choice – I hear you sigh. I know, we’ve all seen too many ‘Pooh and Piglet’ memes.Yet I will be a fan forever – that bear is as silly as me.
Maybe as an alternative – something more contemporary – I’ll tell you about a picture book that’s sitting on the floor near my desk, A Lion in Paris, by Beatrice Alemagna. I’ve been raving about it to my illustration students in the Zoom classroom. I wanted to show my students the book because it’s been rendered so sensitively in a mix of pencil, paint and collage. It exudes warmth and empathy. The skewed perspectives are apt.
The book is about a lion who is bored of living in the grasslands so he goes to Paris. As the Lion wanders the city, he wonders if people will be terrified of him but nobody even sees him. The lion, wanting to be noticed, becomes despondent. He looks in the river. The river is smiling up at him – its really his own reflection. Everything changes for the lion. At the Louvre a girl looks at him endearingly – its actually the Mona Lisa. The dreary city is transformed, ‘…smiling at him with all its windows.”
The text and illustrations poignantly capture the feeling of aloneness, the strangeness of new surroundings and then of finding one’s place and one’s self in the midst of this. There is a perfect big, happy ‘ROAR near the end.
Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer
Charlotte Sometimes is a book I loved in childhood. I haven’t met many people who have read it but everyone should. As well as having an enticing title, it combined some of my favourite genres – time travel, family and boarding school stories – underpinned by themes of identity, war, death and loss. The first time I read it, some of those themes went right over my head. I didn’t get all the World War One references and I didn’t know about the Armistice or the 1918 flu epidemic. But I did know that I loved the story of Charlotte and Clare, their school life, and their desperate efforts to get back to their own time and their own families. Now I read it with a poignant sense of what time takes away from us in its passing, but I’m comforted also by a sense that there is a pattern to our lives and that we find ways to get through the hard times.