Janet McAllister on the arts
Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Huia tests the waters by translating picture book classic

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Samoan version of 'Where the Wild Things Are' by Maurice Sendak.
Samoan version of 'Where the Wild Things Are' by Maurice Sendak.

The best picture book ever - according to me and several preschoolers of my acquaintance - is an unpretentious little 1971 Sesame Street Golden Book. It's The Monster at the End of This Book, written by Jon Stone, illustrated by Michael Smollin and presented by Grover: "Hello everybodee."

As with Mo Williams' 2003 Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus, the main character pleads directly with the readers - but instead of stopping the pigeon from doing what it wants (no fun), the readers get to do what scaredy Grover doesn't want them to: keep reading to find the monster. Read it free at smollin.com/michael

Proof of the furry blue best-seller's brilliance? It is both accessible and avant-garde, arriving 30 years before the current trend for self-consciously bookish books. These days, Oliver Jeffers' incredible boy wants to eat books; Lauren Child's storybook wolves want to eat a boy. Emily Gravett's little tantrum dragon just wants to hear the same story again.

The physical book is celebrated: Jeffers' book sports teeth marks; Gravett's has been singed.

In Aotearoa, two recent ever-so-meta works are beautiful, if rather twee. Jenny Bornholdt's A Book Is A Book (Gecko Press and Whitireia Publishing) includes wonderful nostalgic illustrations by Sarah Wilkins - lines on one page are picked up like blades of grass. And The Boring Book by Vasanti Unka (Puffin Books) has another smaller book inside it. It knows it's well-designed but not even the fact that there's a moral - "all things in moderation" - stopped me from buying it for myself.

A more humorous and possibly even more clever bookinabook is one of The Boring Book's fellow finalist picture books in the NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults (announced June 23). Yvonne Morrison's The Three Bears ... Sort Of (Scholastic NZ) features an unseen young sceptic wondering why bears would be eating porridge.

A grown-up supplies the oh-so-modern answers (Baby Bear is allergic to salmon).

Donovan Bixley's illustrations are a little brash for my taste but the ripped pastiche effect is fabulous. A magazine picture of polar bears is slapped across the forest, because how else would they get there from the Arctic?

In other picture-book news, I now know that "weriweri" can mean "wild things" in te reo Maori, thanks to Huia Publishers' recent translations of a remarkable six classics originally in English. Maori only versions makes practising te reo easier than bilingual books, and the audio is free.

Huia are now testing the Samoan waters with 'O le Katepila Matua Fia 'Ai (The Very Hungry Caterpillar) and 'O le Nofoaga 'olo 'o lai Meaola Mata'utia (Where The Wild Things Are).

"Our children deserve to have well-designed, good stories in their own language," says Huia executive director Eboni Waitere, pointing out that Huia also publish well-designed, good, original work in te reo.

I'm particularly grateful for Huia's Oh Hogwash, Sweet Pea! by Ngareta Gabel. It was first written in Maori, then translated into English. It's a contemporary classic, up there with Grover.

- NZ Herald

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