Writer and writing teacher Eirlys Hunter on the pragmatics of magic.
I have 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 years old. I also taught children’s writing at 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; children should be encouraged to be omnivorous. But adults who read aloud 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 satisfy when choosing a book to read aloud is the adult reading. If that’s probably you, the job is done. Choose books with images you like and texts that make you smile. This is even more important with toddlers, because if a toddler likes a book, you could end up reading it hundreds of times.
Good picture book text is pretty darn hard to write, despite what princesses and celebrities seem to think. Their few words should read like poetry, paying attention to rhythm, assonance, whistling and all other language techniques. There must be a story, a reason to move on to the next page. But not a word too many, and everyone should roll around their tongue and be happy to say: “The-night-Max-wore-his-wolf-costume and-made-head-of-a-kind-and-another-his-mother-called-him-wild-thing… “
Their essential quality is rhythm, but too many writers abandon the rhythm in their race to get a rhyme. I used to warn my students about rhyming and have them read and clap their stories to make sure they were happy with the rhythm, but every year someone would go through a text tangled in unnatural syntax. and a fishy rhythm in order to dispute a word rhyme at the end of the line:
He was in such a hurry to tell his friend Joe / That he went on the road
I don’t think any of their attempts to rhyme texts ever turned into books, but many 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 drab illustrations, are written in mundane clichés, and tell a well-worn story – or not at all so. They come from a cynical production line and there is no love of writing – or respect for children – involved in their creation. Local examples can feature New Zealand wildlife in one form or another, or Christmas (not all kiwi / fantail / Santa stories, okay? Just a few), as they have gift potential for take-out shoppers who don’t know any better.
Fortunately, you can afford to ignore these books because you will find plenty of fabulous titles in every bookstore if you take the time to read the first few pages. The best are not only irresistibly paced, but also imbued with what children’s writer Katherine Paterson calls a child’s sense of wonder. Wonder is the opposite of worldly cynicism and weariness, and I wish every child could remain imbued with it forever. Margaret Mahy’s stories radiate wonder. Every little person I love has a copy of The Moon and Farmer McPhee, featuring David Elliott’s glorious animal illustrations living with joy, sing and dance 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 Prairie, and, and …
Along with the pacing (and rhyme if that’s perfect) and fun with the language, there’s another more elusive quality that many of my favorite picture books share, and that’s an element of mystery. Children’s writers should have a notice saying It doesn’t all need to be explained pinned above their desks. There is no explanation for the tiger that rang Sophie’s doorbell, or the elephant that went rumpeta rumpeta all the way, or the private boat that carried Max to Wild Things.
Good illustrations also include mysterious spaces readers can get lost in, while amplifying the text and giving little children their first artistic experiences. The best illustrations are allusive, offering clues that suggest (but do not dictate) meaning, giving the adult reading the opportunity to help the child decode what is depicted. “How do you think he’s feeling?” “What is she thinking, are you thinking?” “
Choosing a book for a child who reads can be intimidating. Everyone knows that The Right Book can put a child on the path to literacy and academic success, and will be cited as a major influence when said child resolves the climate crisis and becomes the master of the world. Specifically, the right book can make a kid laugh while you have your umpteenth zoom meeting, or buy the peace of bickering siblings in the back of the car. The worst that can happen is for the child to ignore the book, in which case try to read it aloud. Even older children love to be read and there may be time for this in the summer, individually or with the whole family together. In an ideal world, we would continue to read to each other all our lives: sharing the pleasure of books, knowing the characters, waiting to find out what will happen next. On vacation, the right audiobook can turn a long road trip for anyone.
When I browse I start with the New Zealand section of the bookstore. If I don’t buy books from other local writers, how can I expect someone to buy mine? And there are shelves full of brilliant local titles that tell our stories with our voices, as well as stories from other times and places, real and imagined. There are also many gorgeous hardback books, taonga for extra-special gifts (not for the back of the car) such as Aotearoa the New Zealand Story by Gavin Bishop, and now Atua – Māori Gods & Heroes (not to mention his very excellent activity book). They will reward countless re-readings and trigger family discussions; adults will get as much from it as children.
Even if you don’t believe in literary canons, there are books and stories that are cultural necessities that children reading realize they should know, be it Māui and other Maori legends of Peter Gossage 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 worthy person of this special book.
Nowadays, if you buy for a bookish kid over the age of eight or so, he’ll be able to tell you exactly what to get him as he’ll be waiting for the last in the series he’s currently living in. will have looked online and they will know what day it is due out in bookstores. If this has been delayed by supply chain issues, there will be another round they started while waiting. You can buy them Book Seven. If book seven isn’t available, do what I do and ask a bookseller. What to buy for a kid who has read everything about Stacey Gregg and Kelly Wilson? What comes after all Roald Dahl? If you aren’t able to physically walk into a bookstore and browse the options, call 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 yours and disappears in book seven, barely speaks to you and gets annoyed at being forced into family life, go to them. Ask to borrow the first book and read it. Learn about the world your offspring lives in. What big questions are they asking? If the plot is complicated, ask your child to explain. Even if the story doesn’t seem original and the characters unscrambled, don’t criticize. At least now you will have a sense of the genre, the humor, and the level of tension and complexity that your child enjoys. With this knowledge, your bookseller can direct you both to other authors, other series. And you will have allowed your child to show you a part of the world that currently dominates their imagination.
Editor-in-chief Catherine Woulfe’s quick postscript:
What Hunter forgets to mention is that she’s the author of The Mapmakers’ Race, a terrific 2018 junior fiction novel about a motley team of siblings venturing into a mountain range. Running over a mountain range, in fact, and mapping it as you go, and all without pesky adults – except for the terrible ones they’re competing against. It is so good! The stakes are high but not too scary, the story is fast-paced and compelling, there’s a parrot, and it’s downright funny. Above all: the characters are magnificent. I especially like how cute, the smallest Humph is also agency and skill – he’s a “good scorer” – and how all the kids take care of their struggling sister Francie. with the crowd and loud noises, while loving him in pieces and constantly being impressed by his art.
Now there’s a sequel: The Uprising – The Mapmakers in Cruxcia is just as good and it came out last month. I highly recommend the set as a Christmas press.
The Uprising – The Mapmakers in Cruxcia, by Eirlys Hunter (Gecko Press, $ 22.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.
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