The American School System: A guide for those from Down Under

Down Under, we grow up reading American books and watching American TV, so the following words are familiar even if we don’t use them ourselves. That said, our language and culture is borrowing more and more from North America. High schools often have faculties now instead of departments, and I’ve heard teenagers start to say ‘math class’ instead of ‘maths class’. New high schools are calling themselves colleges.

The following terms refer to Americans in  high school AND in university.

year 1: Freshman
year 2: Sophomore
year 3: Junior
year 4: Senior

We call Freshmen ‘first years’. At university in New Zealand, a ‘freshman’ is often required to do an ‘intermediate year’, which is the first year of a university course. It’s relatively easy to get into university there, in fact you don’t even have to pass a thing at high school – you can simply wait until you turn 25. But if you want to do a rigorous course such as medicine, you’ll have to do an intermediate year of health science, from which only the top students are accepted for further study.

In New Zealand they are called second years (university), or year tens (high school).

Sometimes Americans might say “I’m a junior” and will have to clarify if that’s high school (age 17) or college (age 21ish).


  • Prices vary between states but it looks to be around $10,000 tuition per year. Plus you need $10,000 (give or take) per year for room, board, fees, books.
  • An out of state school public could be $20,000 a year and up.
  • There is no free option at this time unless you apply for and receive a scholarship or grant.
  • Also, there are government sponsored loans that are easy to get for young first time college students to help offset the costs. They have to be paid back monthly for many years after you graduate, which is the same in New Zealand and in Australia. In NZ it’s called the student loan scheme, and in Australia it is shortened to HECS.
  • All American students can fill out the FAFSA which helps the govt decide how much money kids can get for college.
  • Low income Americans can get  the expensive application fees waived for colleges but that’s about $100 each and doesn’t cover much in the scheme of things.
  • There are also waivers available for the tests to get into college (SATs and ACTs). There are also waivers for low income high school students down under, so they can sit their tests even if their parent(s) can’t pay for it.
  • You’ve probably heard Americans talk quite a lot about SATs. Here’s a confusing thing for us: elementary school SATs are different.
  • You can actually sit for your SATs in many places around the world — they’re held six times per year.
  • SAT stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test. It is administered by the College Board in the USA, and is a measure of the critical thinking skills needed for academic success. The SAT assesses how well you analyse and solve problems. (Some would argue that it tests how well you have already been educated, and how savvy you are at taking tests.)
  • It is made up of three parts: Critical reading/Math/Writing
  • Here’s a site that tells American college graduates where they might get into college based on their SATs and ACT scores.
  • What’s a good SAT score? If you want to get into one of the best schools it seems you need about 1500 or above.
  • But you also need to show that you’re a well-rounded person, and you should be into sports/arts/charity work.


BLEACHERS – For the longest time I thought this was something you’d find in a janitor’s closet. Then I read about some kids kissing behind the bleachers, and I realised the handle of a mop would hardly provide cover, so I took the time to look it up. Turns out they refer to those tiered seats you get on playing fields and lining gymnasiums. I have no idea what we call them, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘bleachers’. Perhaps we call them ‘forms’. They’re not standard equipment, in any case.

pic by Garrett Coyte

JANITOR – But we don’t say ‘janitor’ either. That would sound distinctively American. We just say ‘cleaner’.

GRADUATE – In New Zealand you don’t ‘graduate’ high school. You just get your qualifications (or not) and finish up. You graduate from university.

CAFETERIA – New Zealand and Australian schools don’t tend to have those huge dining hall set-ups. We had to eat a packed lunch outside. If the weather was terrible we were (reluctantly) allowed to eat inside our home classroom, but in year ten, several drop-ins broke windows, so we were all locked out no matter the weather. I have memories of sitting inside a cleaner’s closet with two friends because it was snowing outside. (There were no bleachers in there.)

If students want to buy lunch (which is usually a meat pie because salad rolls are for pansies) they go to the ‘canteen’ or the ‘tuck shop’, but there’s no place to sit down and eat lunch at a civilised table, unless you go to an expensive private school. Even then, such privileges are often reserved for seniors.

‘SIGNING UP’ FOR CLASSES – This sounds more like something you’d do as a university student, but American books tell me that high school students ‘sign up’ for their classes at the start of an academic year. Senior high school students here do have a day in which you have to go in at the beginning of the year and show the timetabling teacher the marks you got, to prove you indeed still want to do the same subjects you’d picked before summer.

Down Under, there is a core of compulsory classes (English, maths, science) and even in senior high school, you have to select your subjects the year before, in the hope you’ll pass your end of year exams and get into them. Therefore, ‘signing up’ for a class is more a matter of visiting your subject teachers on the first day back and letting them know haven’t changed your mind about your subject choices over the summer holidays – or if you haven’t passed your NCEA courses, you’ll be having a sit down with a careers teacher to discuss your options. ‘Signing up’ sounds like there’s way more freedom than there actually is, because even with elective subjects, you’ve still got to choose something. (Maybe that’s the deception.)

CHEERLEADERS – I don’t know of any local high schools with a cheerleading team, and while I appreciate the strength and agility required, to me it is on a par with pole dancing. That said, there is a local gymnastics teacher who offers classes in cheerleading to little girls. (I suppose little boys could join in too, though I doubt it’s full of male participants.) Since pole dancing seems to have taken off lately, it wouldn’t surprise me if cheerleading took off in high schools here in the next generation. We do have cheerleading teams for regional and national rugby games, so the concept is here.

pic by arbron

HOMECOMING QUEEN – I’m so glad we don’t have this tradition. Really. It sounds just awful. We do have end of school celebrations.



PROM –  Some of our schools call them ‘balls’. Others call them ‘formals’. But I’ve not heard proms. What is it short for? There is usually an ‘after party’, which is shut down if the teachers get wind of it, then it moves somewhere else. Traditional high schools still teach their students ballroom dancing beforehand, and retain the ‘invite a partner’ thing, but more and more liberal high schools are deconstructing the idea of ‘partners’, and instead encourage their students to just turn up and have a good time when they get there. This is to avert the need for major stress for students who can’t find a partner, and avoids discrimination of non-heterosexual students, who are still banned from bringing their partners to the school ball at some schools, both state and religious. For a fictional, horror example of a prom, see Carrie by Stephen King.

In Australia, there is ‘schoolies’ week – an huge week-long party which started at Broadbeach. But not everyone is interested in attending that. It receives a lot of media attention every year because bad things happen there too. A lot of Australians have very fond memories of schoolies. In New Zealand, there isn’t a huge organised thing like that, but lots of students get together with friends and stay for a week in someone’s family bach (holiday home) or take a car trip around New Zealand before spending the rest of summer stacking shelves at a supermarket.

pic by Capt Piper

DRIVER ED – Are not usually run through a school in the way they are in America. Until recently, we got taught by our dads. But licences have gotten a little harder to pass, and have now turned into a formal industry. It’s hard to pass the tests unless you get taught by a qualified instructor. So more and more high schools now are taking the American model, and hiring driving instructors through the school. Unlike what I saw in Mr Holland’s Opus, these instructors are not their regular teachers, but contractors who specialise in driving instruction. In a film such as Mr Holland’s Opus we see that some high school teachers earn money over summer by teaching driving lessons. This is because America doesn’t pay their teachers well enough to sustain them over the entire year. Down here, driving instruction is a separate industry, though recently a lot of high schools are providing a driving program through the schools. Some even have their own designated car.

YEAR BOOKS – Most high schools seem to produce year books here, which are either put together by a teacher or by a group of students. Either way, I’ve not ever seen a ‘Student most likely to…’ situation. That sounds rather unkind to me. That’s not to say year books are not unkind, especially if the students collating photos have malevolent intention. Mind you, this is no worse than what goes on online, where ‘friends’ can tag you in the most heinous positions, and then share those photos with the world. I wonder if year books are on their way out everywhere. An online forum would be a less expensive way to share photos and memories of school. Mind you, its very fluidity is also its downfall.


Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd

Slinky Malinki cover

Slinky Malinki is a picture book by New Zealand author illustrator Lynley Dodd.


Sometimes it is difficult not to resent their apparent success, and they are good or evil according to their creator’s feelings. […] Perhaps Kipling was right, and cats are neither for nor against us, but both or neither, as they wish or feel*. As characters they have great possibilities and depths that few writers, with the possible exception of Paul Gallico, have made use of. Their long history of connection with witchcraft has suggested tales of magic cats such as Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel, 1955, or, in a more down to earth setting, Rosemary Weir’s Pyewacket, 1967; and their urbanised versatility (dog stories are more usually about country life) is categorised unforgettably in T.S. Eliot.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
* When creating the character of Slinky Malinki Lynley Dodd absolutely makes use of this historical duplicitousness: Slinky is one thing during the day, another thing altogether come nightfall. The werecat, in other words.

Writing in the 1970s, Blount, in the paragraph above, mentions some mid-century books I haven’t heard of. Here are their covers:

Carbonel Barbara Sleigh book covers
Pyewacket cover



Jennie is regarded as one of the best cat stories of the 20th century. It makes use of the Black Beauty formula — a modified moral tale that’s both exciting and moving. Ideology: “How would you like if if you were the poor cat and a cruel boy teased you?” As in Black Beauty, the reader is to imagine that the cat is actually a human trapped inside a cat’s body.

See also The Guardian list of Top 10 Cats In Children’s Literature. Slinky Malinki is one. Can you guess the others?


Most of the cats one knows are typecast in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, 1939. They are Gumbies, or Jellicles, Rum Tum Tuggers or Macavities or like one or other of his feline varieties: Criminal, Ole Thespian, Railway, Conjuror, Oldest Inhabitant, Pirate, or just the kind that sits about for ever. Their psychology is placed, wittily and firmly, among the humans whose lives the cats share; the only difference is one of size and shape, though even appearance is doubtful, from Growltiger, baggy at the knees, to Bustopher Jones with his well-cut trousers of impeccable black. The message is that these are cats we should be proud to know, described in verse so pleasing that it demands to be said, from the Rum Tum Tugger’s jogging perversities to Growltiger’s Kiplingesque ballad and the intricate jazz rhythms of Mungojerrie and Rumpeltazer*.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

*For a full list of cat tropes from this book, see the entry at TV Tropes.

The Criminal Cat Trope

TV tropes calls this character type the ‘Diabolical Mastermind‘.

Lynley Dodd, too, has created a cast of cat characters which closely align to the cat characters typecast by T.S. Eliot. You’ve got Growltiger with Scarface Claw — the other main cat, and a wonderful nemesis for Hairy. Slinky Malinki is, of course, a modern Criminal, related to the Macavity (who sneaks about) and Mungojerry (who plans naughty things) from T.S. Eliot.

This is a crime story for the very young.

Criminal cats are not a fantastic invention for the sake of literature, either. The siamese breed in particular is smart, and some of them seem to have evolved a collecting instinct, much like a butcher bird.

Slinky Malinky irl

Tonkinese cats can be ‘quite obsessive’ too, and here’s one who has a penchant for male underwear. (Tonkinese are a Siamese-Burmese cross.) There must be quite a history of cats thieving, or at least lurking about looking like they’re thieving: consider the English word ‘cat-burglar’.

For a parallactic insight into the cat’s reasons for thieving from neighbours, see comedian Tom Sainsbury channel a cat, which he calls Gingerbread.


The character arc of Slinky Malinki


but at night he was wicked

Although Slinky is perfectly nice during the day, he is transformed by the ‘magic’ of night…


…by some primal instinct to hunt. But because he lives in the suburbs and not in a wild forest, his hunting ground is the domestic realm of human neighbours.


There is an unseen opponent in this story — young readers know that Slinky is not supposed to be taking those things, and that the things belong to people. For the reader, the opponents are the owners of the stolen items, who will get him into trouble if he is caught. For Slinky, his opponent is probably some unseen creature of the night. Slinky is an adrenalin junkie.


This thieving is a habitual thing rather than a once-off, so I’d say his ‘habit’ is to wait until nightfall when all the humans are asleep, then break into people’s homes and drag stolen items to a hidden place at his owners’.

Big Struggle

CRASH went the bottles,

BEE-BEEP went the clock,


went the dogs on the block.

These words are accompanied by an image of chaos — the legs of the human family members have caught him in a compromising position, tangled up all of his stolen gear. Here it looks like Slinky has been fighting with the stolen goods themselves; he is tangled up in wool and has a glove on his head. You could argue that the main opponent in this story are the alluring goods that he can’t help but steal. The items are almost personified.

Here we have a startled teddy bear face to contrast with Slinky’s malevolent eyes. The bear seems to be looking at the reader for help.

slinky malinki teddy bear


We see from his face that Slinky is feeling ashamed of himself.

This is a black and white shot from the app, but you can see the repentant look on his face.
This is a black and white shot from the app, but you can see the repentant look on his face.

New Situation

The final page: ‘NEVER again did he answer the call, when moon shadows danced over garden and wall. When whispers of wickedness stirred in his head, he adjusted his whiskers and stayed home instead.’

The image on the final page reminds me very much of the image from a now out-of-print book by Kenneth Grahame (of Wind In The Willows fame), in which Bertie the pig escapes from his sty, breaks into the farm house and eats all the Christmas goodies. He is found the following day in a state of overstuffed bliss.

Bertie's Escapade last page_700x877



More picture books than you might think start with the horror genre and modify the symbolism and tropes for little kids. Stories which manage to achieve this are surprisingly popular. Kids love happenings that take place at night — this is an opportunity for the carnivalesque. The horror genre is really great for making use of symbol, because it is one of the most highly symbolic genres (along with Westerns and sci-fi, which are less common in picture books.)

There is something reassuring about the perfect mixture of scary things and familiar: Here we have a dark, scary sky and a cat that’s ‘blacker than  black’ creeping about stealing familiar, and sometimes humorous, items.

slinky malinki milk bottles

On the front cover Slinky holds a glove in his maw. If this were a straight horror story, that glove would likely be a disembodied hand. Take as an example the 1963 movie The Crawling Hand. These days, the disembodied hand is more often seen in horror comedies, as it is here.

Bloody Knuckles 2014
Bloody Knuckles 2014


In Slinky Malinki we also have the trope of the Werebeast, which is associated with a number of subtropes. Slinky’s night-time personality shift comes with nightfall and is psychological rather than outwardly manifested.

Kinks and Curlicues

The illustrations make use of classically horrific line work, with the kink in the tail and the spindly branches on the trees. Even the native New Zealand flax seems sinister as it looks as if it might reach out and grab any passerby.

The Moon

Lynley Dodd has used the technique of connecting symbols to the setting, to great effect.

Sometimes a story is not actually magical, but something is infused with a supposed supernatural set of forces.

The moon plays a prominent role of course. First, the illustrator needs a light source, but more importantly, according to folklore (and modern hospital workers), strange things happen when there’s a full moon. In one image we even see Slinky carrying a perfectly round balloon (as well as a slipper and a sausage link), and the blood-red balloon partially obscures the moon. This makes Slinky seem as if he is at one with the moon, and like he might be carrying a moon replica in his very own mouth. The moon, we gather from this picture, is the reason for his personality transformation.

Other examples in which the moon is almost magical but not quite: Melancholia, Moonstruck, A Walk On The Moon, Once Upon A Time In The West.

Because we all know a cat or two, cat stories tend to take place at night, when cats are most active.

Orlando's Evening Out by Kathleen Hale


One day I look forward to delving in deeply to Lynley Dodd’s perfect scansion, but for now I’ll point out the following techniques, also used by T.S. Eliot:

Added Alliterative Appeal: Lots of picture book authors make use of alliterative names, but Lynley Dodd’s names would have to have some of the best mouthfeel in the biz. They’re more like Awesome McCool Names.


An Affair Of The Heart by Frank Sargeson

“An Affair Of The Heart” is one of New Zealand author Frank Sargeson’s best-known short stories.

The Stories of Frank Sargeson contains An Affair Of The Heart

Was Sargeson essentially misogynist? Frankly, I think not as there are positive women characters in some of his stories – including the wrenchingly sad one in An Affair of the Heart. But women-as-controlling-bitches is one recurrent motif.

Review by Nicholas Reid, with introduction by Janet Wilson

I’m lucky coming from New Zealand in that there is a pretty good gender balance when it comes to reading ‘The Local Canon’. Along with Sargeson (and Shakespeare) we read a lot of Patricia Grace, Fiona Kidman, Janet Frame, Keri Hulme and Katherine Mansfield. But as Reid points out, students of New Zealand English may well come away feeling a bit icky about Sargeson’s mid-century attitudes towards women. Whatever you conclude about Frank’s corpus, this short story is one of the most positive in its view of femininity. For this reason, I recommend it.


The narrator is a grown man who has ‘not been what people call a success in life’. He looks back on the days when he would go with his mother and brother to the bach (holiday house) at the beach. There was an old woman, Mrs Crawley, who lived there all year round with her daughters and son, Joe, who she favoured. Once, the narrator’s mother sent them some Christmas cake. It was revealed later that the girls hadn’t received any of it. Joe had eaten it all.

‘An Affair of the Heart’ is a story of two linked sections. The first half finishes with ‘It certainly made us a bit sorry to think that we wouldn’t be seeing the Crawleys that summer, but I don’t think we lost much sleep over it. I remember we talked about sending a letter. But it never got beyond talk.’

The second half begins: ‘What I’m going to tell you about happened last Christmas.’

In the first section, the narrator makes references to the fact that it was a long time ago and that circumstances are different now. ‘It was all very interesting and romantic to me and my brother.’

At the end of the first section is a small intermediary piece which bridges the large time gap between childhood and the present. ‘Anyhow, the next thing was our family left off going to the boy. My brother and I were old enough to go away camping somewhere with our cobbers…’

The second section is full of nostalgic references: ‘The bach was much the same…’ The second part is written in much more recent times, when the narrator visits the beach. He calls in on Mrs Crawley. She says she is waiting for Joe. There are much luxurious Christmas items laid out for his arrival. To satisfy the narrator’s curiosity, the narrator asks the bus-driver what sort of person Joe is. The bus-driver reveals that Joe has recently stopped coming altogether and that only one daughter bothers to keep in touch with Mrs Crawley by writing.


There are two levels in most of Sargeson’s work:

1. Social – this has endeared him greatly to leftist reformers

2. Existential – concerned with people more than ideas. His view is sourly compassionate. At times he probes more deeply than he perhaps realises. An Affair of the Heart leaves no room for anger or judgment. Mrs Crawley’s love for her son, though it eventually destroys her sanity, carries its own terrible justification. Truly hers is an affair of the heart.


Sargeson uses  male narrators of limited education, simple vocabylary and sentence structure and is often retrospective, with the narrator looking back to events and people of his youth.

are introspective and capable of considerable compassion

His tolerance extends to all lost men, cranks and sexual perverts. It is the self righteous whom Sargeson most condemns. He is on the side of the ‘down and outer’. In subtle ways he criticises society and its hypocrisy and narrowness.

Essentially lonely men; not men without emotions but men who suffer from a sort of impediment of feeling or who cannot establish a relation where their emotions can be adequately expressed. Incapable of being articulate about a feeling unless it is one which has a gregarious discharge; anger for example, or laughter. The softer feelings they must always keep to themselves, or express obliquely through action.

formed in the hostile environment of the industrial working-class or the subsistence farm.

Frank Sargeson is New Zealand’s first NATIONAL writer. In Katherine Mansfield’s work, for instance, we are not conscious of anything New Zealandish.


  • Sargeson has found the perfect language to express each character’s feelings. Is not British nor American English. It is easy, subtle and free of mannerism.
  • The special quality of the language lies not only in the bold colloquial tropes or the occasional local usage but informs every intonation and every element of the spoken idiom.
  1. sea-eggs – sea urchins, kina in Maori
  2. kumaras – red-skinned sweet potato, with an English plural suffix
  3. pipis – cockles
  4. tea-tree bush – a shrub or small tree native to New Zealand and southeast Australia (Melaleuca lanceolata)
  • The language spoken by Sargeson’s characters is not the only language spoken in New Zealand, and these are not the only characters.
  • The sentence structure must be no more elaborate than his characters’ and no more subtle.
  • The spoken language is Sargeson’s chief instrument; if he were interested in characters of another kind, his method would have to be modified.
  • The stories are told in first person, from the point of view of semi-articulate characters.  This technique illustrates how Sargeson’s method enables him to give us simultaneously:
  1. the development of the story
  2. evocation/description of its setting
  3. information about characters only indirectly portrayed
  4. emotional reactions of the narrating character to the whole
  • He uses punctuation not to reinforce the logical and syntactical divisions of the thought but to mark the places where in fact the narrating voice could have paused.


The reader realises more than the narrator does because the reader is given clues. Sargeson is a fan of this technique, which can actually make him seem a bit pompous, but as Reid points out, Sargeson was a gay man in the era of antigayness, so he had no choice but to write with smoke and mirrors:

Much depends on Sargeson, the middle-class writer, knowing and perceiving more than the various working-class or hobo characters he invents to tell his tales. This technique is pushed as far as it can go in the longest story (really a novella), That Summer, where, by story’s end, we really have to believe that the invented narrator has been extraordinarily thick, and has not seen what’s under his nose. Such a relief to meet a story where the irony is more self-referential and, as a result, more self-critical, such as the masterly Gods Live in Woods.

Nicholas Reid


Frank Sargeson was friend and mentor to Janet Frame.

Rare Interview With Author Janet Frame

This is a radio interview, transcribed and published in Landfall 178 (Volume forty-five, June 1991) between Janet Frame and Elizabeth Alley.

janet frame

Elizabeth Alley: In the autobiography you seem more willing than in the fiction to open some of the doors about yourself and your life – to correct some of the myths that surround you.

Janet Frame: I wanted to write my story, and you’re right of course, it is possible to correct some things which have been taken as fact and are not fact. My fiction is genuinely fiction. And I do invent things. Even in The Lagoon which has many childhood stories, the children are invented and the episodes are invented but they are mixed up so much with part of my early childhood. But they’re not quite, they’re not the true, stories. To the Is-Land was the first time I’d written the true story. For instance, Faces in the Water was autobiographical in the sense that everything happened, but the central character was invented. But with the autobiography it was the desire really to make myself a first person. For many years I was a third person – as children are. ‘They’, ‘she’… and as probably the oppressed minority has become, ‘they’. I mean children are forever ‘they’ until they grow up.

EA: For a long time you really were quite reluctant to discuss anything that had to do with the genesis or meaning of your work.

JF: Well I write, you see. I don’t tell about my life. I just write and that is my telling, but in order to set down a few facts and tell my story, this is my say.

EA: Tell me about your title, ‘To the Is-Land‘. Is this something to do with your feeling about the truth of words? And the way that you always prefer to take the very literal meaning of words?

JF: Yes, and it arose from my meeting with the word ‘Is-Land’, in an early story I was reading, one of those Whitcombes stories, and my refusal to accept that it was Island, that it really wasn’t Is-Land. Of course, looking at it n ow I chose the title ‘To the Is-Land‘ for obvious reasons, because of the obvious double-triple meanings. I assumed that words meant what they said, and everyone about me seemed to assume that they did. It was just a gradual process of learning the depths of words, I suppose.

EA: Words were always revered in your house though, weren’t they? As ‘instruments of magic’ I think you described them.

JF: Certainly, I think so. I was thinking of that knowing I was coming here to be interviewed by you. I was having a cup of tea at that little place next door and I took out the bus timetable to read. And I remembered that everyone at home always had something to read.

EA: When did you first discover you could make words work for you?

JF: Oh I’ve never discovered that… I’m still working at that.

EA: But it was a conscious search in your life, wasn’t it, to make the power of words into…

JF: Well yes, as I was writing the autobiography, much was revealed to me about my growth that I hadn’t realised. You’ve referred to my description of words in our family as ‘instruments of magic’. Spoken words, in childhood, arrive from ‘on high’ — as high as the sky — you can’t reach out to grasp them and play with them, they travel from room to room and in a magical way come in from outside the ouse. They can be anything — bombshells, globules of honey or small utilitarian hinges, hooks… You can see how words might become a most desirable property. Also in our family the spoken words were far from ordinary — my father’s recitation of the places he passed on his daily train-journeys; and my mother’s reciting of poetry.

EA: Did you perceive this as something missing?

JF: Yes, simply again, no one had told me I had imagination. I think I probably did have. I wasn’t even aware of it, but in a way like a material possession because I saw that anyone who did have imagination — I wasn’t looking outside into the world of New Zealand and its writers because I didn’t know about them — but I perceived that anyone who did have imagination was revered. It was something to be treasured, and anyone at school who had imagination was always spoken of with awe.

EA: I wonder how much the material deprivation that you were exposed to in your childhood caused this search for the imagination. Did you feel that there was something extra that you wanted to look for?

JF: I don’t think so. If so, very slightly. I think it was the excitement and importance of the poetry, reading and words, and when I began to write poetry I enjoyed it very much.

EA: Somebody once wrote of you that your art was — I think he called it ‘born from a predicament.’ Do you think that a different kind of writer would have emerged from a different kind of environment, or is it something that was going to be there regardless of the kind of circumstances in which you lived?

JF: I don’t for one thing know what kind of a writer I’m supposed to be. For myself, I think it was inevitable, whether I was materially deprived or not, that I should try to write. Simply because it was part of my background.

EA: Thinking about this aspect of imagination still, do you think the fact that you’ve chosen to lead a fairly solitary life — that you need that to be able to continue with your writing — means that you need to draw on a more heightened sense of imagination than if you were leading a life full of experiences and activity and crowded with people all the time?

JF: Well, I think a writer needs to lead a solitary life. When I saw that, you have to be in isolation to do your work. After you’ve done your work, well that’s another matter. The work is the response.

EA: You talk in To the Is-Land about the arrival of literature in your life. You describe it as ‘the other world’s arrival into  your world. The literature streaming through it like an array of beautiful ribbons through the branches of a green growing tree’. What precipitated that?

JF: Well, it was my discovery of poetry and prose. My mother always recited poetry. But then I discovered it for myself, reading for myself, and the discovery was mostly through school books of course. We had a shelf of books, there was The Last Days of Pompeii, John Halifax Gentleman, a book which we called God’s Book because it was full of swirling Blake-like pictures of heaven and hell. And the dictionary, packed tight with words. And the Bible which in my early years, the Wyndham days, had a special place. Every Sunday (and often on other days) Mother who was a devout Christadelphian insisted we read from the Bible, and when she (who knew many of the passages by heart) began to read I was convinced she had been there, and that impression remained. Her calm belief that Jesus Christ was ‘among us’, her reminders that any person could be an angel or even Christ in disguise made daily life extraordinary and exciting. Later, when we lived in Oamaru, the influence of religion diminished, for me, and was replaced, possibly, by the influence of words. I had an abiding memory of Bible-reading days, of the red-letter Bible which I used to pore over, trying to see significance in the lines in red print — ‘And seeing the multitudes he went up on to the mountain‘ — certainly that was red print material, but other lines were a mere group of and, went, saw, and verily…

EA: In some of your earlier novels I suppose what the critics call the dark side, the pain prevails. But in To the Is-Land it’s the joy and humour and the fun that is prevalent. And really, humour and satire have always been very important to you, haven’t they?

JF: In To the Is-Land I wrote the story of my life. My story, and this is me which comes out. There is pain, things happen, but whatever comes out is ordinary me without fiction or characters.

EA: How do you react to the critics who so often talk about that dark vision, that’s too narrow to share:

JF: Well, a novelist is subjected in reviews to the blurring of the fine distinction between the writer’s work and the writer’s life. Extreme views based on the content of a book might even pass judgement on what is assumed to be the outlook of the writer herself. In a sense this is agreeable, proving the successful reality of the book. For example, reviewers of The Adaptable Man referred to my desire to live in another age, the age of St Cuthbert. And also spoke of my interest in gardening and my knowledge of plants.

EA: Which is not true, is it?

JF: Well, I’m interested I’m not passionately interested in gardening. I’m interested in everything, but I’m not a gardener. And there was a character who was a gardener, an intense gardener. When I visited the United States, someone in California took me round Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens and pointed out every plant.

Others talk of my pessimistic outlook on life, and my habit of bringing disaster to the characters. This was in The Adaptable Man, referring to the close of The Adaptable Man where one character is left almost totally paralysed, able to view life only through a mirror. The critical references to me and my supposed personal views, I think they’re simply a failure of the art of literary criticism. Well, they’re an impurity of response which I suppose is natural, but who said literary criticism should be natural? The critic reminds me of the film The Fly, where the scientist, immersed in his experiment, doesn’t realise that a fly has accompanied him to the cabinet. When he emerges, his work finished, he’s part-man, part-housefly. I mean the critic has the sort of little impurity, but the writer works within the limitations or framework of her personality, although the outlook and the view over the territory of time and space and human endeavour is endless. But writing also is a kind of job. You ask about the dark side. Well, if I’m a plumber and I find there is a certain amount of work to be done in a certain street, exclusively with, say, the pressure of the household water supply, then you can’t assume that I’m not qualified also to fix your sewer or install a shower, or a swimming pool. If, as a writer I happen to work in a street where a few disasters occur, this is no foundation for the belief that I’m interested only in disasters. Similarly, if I write of a dark side, it doesn’t mean that I’m not interested also in the whole view. You must be.

EA: What about those critics who say that ‘the range of emotional experience of your characters is limited’. Is the full emotional range of experience something that you’re not really all that interested in expressing amongst your characters, or do you feel in fact that it is expressed adequately?

JF: Well I wouldn’t say that I have successfully expressed many things. I’m still trying, but I wouldn’t exclude any experience, any human experience from a book. Sometimes I think what is called the dark vision isn’t necessarily so. I’m an optimist. For instance, this man who is totally paralysed in The Adaptable Man and views life through a mirror, I think that’s a triumph. It sounds a bit twisted perhaps, but it is a triumph. There are people who survive. It’s a triumph of survival.

EA: How do you see the characters in your fiction? Are you quite objective about them? Is there a quality of detachment, or do you get quite involved with them?

JF: I’m interested in watching how they develop and how they feel and so on.

EA: Because if we can look at another character, in Living in the Maniototo, Mavis says ‘the writer knows that his want should fill the world, that to write you have to be at a terrible point of loss and stay there wanting to write, wanting in not out — certainly it’s a rat and mouse life’. Now accepting the fact that you say your characters’ opinions are not necessarily your own, it would still seem that that could be quite perilously close to your own experiences.

JF: I would think that — the bit about the rat and mouse life, that’s obviously not too well written that bit, but the bit about the point of loss. I think that’s good. I think that is right, correct. I think that it is important because so many people want to write and just don’t have that point of loss. Really, if you want to write you have to be desperate to write. It’s no use just spending your life saying I’ve always wanted to write a book. Still, I know there are circumstances which prevent… there are ‘mute inglorious Miltons’, I think they do happen.

EA: Someone once suggested that you were your own best character. But from what you’re saying, you’d totally refute that, I would think?

JF: I think so, obviously I am writing the book, so… It’s all in me. But not necessarily so because there are some surprising, I mean factual, characters about. Even if one didn’t invent any. For instance I chose to come on the bus this morning, rather than a taxi, because I like to watch the people on the bus and hear the conversation and it was much more rewarding time spent with nothing sticking to the surface. Whereas when I did arrive I had all these little events that had happened in the half hour / 20 minutes on the bus.

I don’t mean I will sit down and write about them. They are there, you see, and they will emerge when the time is ripe and fit into the pattern of things.

EA: Fitting into the pattern of things is quite important for you, isn’t it? A lot of your characters seem to be quite concerned with fitting in.

JF: That’s quite interesting. I don’t mean fitting into the patterns of affairs, but the whole of writing is expressing an emerging pattern and shape. And the satisfaction of when the shape is concluded, although there is the frustration of knowing it may not be quite right, or something is amiss. It’s something that emerges and this is for me the real joy of writing. I mean it’s not publication or anything else, it’s just as one is writing a pattern grows and everything seems to fall into place – very exciting, very exciting just to see it. If it’s a novel I see it happen. When I say ‘see’, I sort of perceive it, I can see it from beginning to end and it’s there. And so it’s the seeing it and seeing it’s there which is the motivation to write it. You sort of live through it, it’s like playing a record player and speeding it up like that and it’s there. Of course, you have to go through the awful task of sitting down and plodding, plodding, till you get to the end. With your life sustained by the, I suppose you would call it, ‘the vision’.

EA: What are the sparks that feed that imagination that are important to you?

JF: It’s everything that surrounds me. The thing which prompts you to sit down and write must be something which haunts you. You would savour it even without knowing, then it comes to mind, it comes to mind again, and you look at it and — I would give the example of again The Adaptable Man. He was very vague. He went to the window and he looked out and there was a patch of blue in the sky. He said ‘what wouldn’t I give to be in Sussex.’ Then he said ‘rinse whilst I’m gone’. And I hadn’t heard anyone say ‘whilst’ and it was that word that prompted me to write the whole book. I mean, the book was about a clergyman, and I did put a dentist in, I think. But I never saw that dentist again. It wasn’t an invented dentist, but it was the word.

EA: So, were you ‘haunted’ in the same way when it came to writing the autobiography? It must have been rewarding to be able to leave the invention of fiction for a while, for the truth of autobiography?

JF: I was anxious to finish it so I could get on with the novel [The Carpathians]. Again I wanted to have my say about my life because I have been rather disconcerted by some details which have been incorrect. I can’t escape from this desire to shape. The fact of writing it, and expecting people to read it, is rather an arrogance.

EA: I recall that you once talked about your novels as being explorations and this was really how you liked them to be seen.

JF: Well, I said that because I don’t (and it looks as if I’m justified in saying this) think that I’m very successful at creating characters, and my novels are explorations in the sense that I talked about the pattern; it is seeing what pattern emerges. I might have a view of the whole novel, everything that happens, but in the actual writing it’s like an exploration. Again, this is for me the enjoyment. It’s just the ideas which come. Sometimes they’re quite frightening because I know I won’t be able to put them down, just because of my lack of skill, you know. One always hopes for improvement.

EA: Were there any problems turning back to fiction after writing the autobiographies? You don’t make very strong distinctions between the genres of fiction and autobiography.

JF: Well, I am always in fictional mode, and autobiography is found fiction. I look at everything from the point of view of fiction, and so it wasn’t a change to be writing autobiography except the autobiography was more restrictive because it was based in fact, and I wanted to make an honest record of my life. But I was still bound by the choice of words and the shaping of the book, and that is similar to when one is writing fiction. I think that in writing there’s no feeling of returning to or leaving a definite form, it’s all in the same country, and within view of one’s imaginative home so to speak, or in the same town. They are different and each has its own interest.

EA: I wondered if writing your own story, having your own say, as you said at the time, helped to clarify the way people behave. By writing to find and to manage the characters of your fiction, in that qualities of their characters and personalities had become clearer to you?

JF: Well, the writing of the autobiography clarified for me things about my own life, and about the people I grew up with. But strangely enough I have always felt I have insight into how people operate, and saying this rather startles, even alarms me. Because I always feel people are so transparent in their behaviour. I suppose the fact is that to be interested in writing novels, you have to have a passion for reading people and their behaviour, and their lives. You are sort of an everlasting observer, and it’s not really a conscious decision. From as far back as I can remember, I have spent my time watching and listening, and wondering about what I watched and listened to. It seems a natural way of life. I do acknowledge though, that my insights aren’t always accurate. I tis just that I have grown so used to watching people and reading people, and reading faces and hearing what people say, and reading their natures; people who write do operate in this way.

I remember an occasion when I was at Yaddo in New York and we used to dine together, at dinner and breakfast. I think it was at dinner, we were all sitting round and there were some very brilliant writers sitting there, and I looked around and I could see everyone was talking, and I could see their faces were absolutely full of knowing what others almost were thinking, and someone made a remark, an observation, and there was a rather shy young novelist, a very good novelist, sitting opposite me. I could see everything I was feeling. There was a sensitivity; you don’t do it consciously, but when you’re writing you remember all these things that come to you and you choose what you want to choose.

EA: Have you got a retentive memory for holding that sort of material?

JF: I think so. Yes.

EA: So you don’t have to write down the store of memories from the past? They just come back naturally in the process of writing?

JF: No, I don’t need to write these things down. I have often been rather alarmed that I don’t keep notebooks because I always wanted to be a writer, and the ideal writer keeps notebooks. Virginia Woolf kept notebooks and she was my heroine for a long time. She still is, and Katherine Mansfield kept her diary, her notebooks. But I, since I have been grown up I haven’t kept a notebook, but I do write titles of stories, I am always looking, seeing stories, and someday I will write them all down.

EA: Did The Carpathians start that way? Did it just start as a title?

JF: Well, it started as a title, ‘ Housekeepers of Anceint Springtime’, which I felt was too much for a title. It became The Carpathians as I was writing it. You know, when I was writing it I felt as if I were in a whirlpool, and after I’d written it I wanted those reading it, I felt those reading it, to be wort of within this whirlpool, not lost. Everything was to be renewed, rebuilt, selves, thought, language, everything. It was a death but only in the sense that death is a horizon to be travelled beyond, it wasn’t hopeless.

You see in the first part of the book Mattina is collecting detail, and her object is to sort of perfect her love, and the second part of the book is where she carries all this detail away, sort of everything reaches this horizon and is sort of broken into pieces like a whirlpool, her identity; she has become two-dimensional and three-dimensional, she even has these experiences which are repeated in a kind of so-called novella (the ‘imposter’ novel), and so she finds herself sliding along on, probably going down into, the whirlpool. But there’s this sense of unease, I did feel it when I re-read it. I felt this particularly at one point. I felt what on earth’s happened, everything’s gone, it’s like a death, but it’s not a death, it’s not really gloomy.

EA: There is a wonderful twist at the end of the book, when the structure is revealed, when that enigmatic note from the person who signs himself JHB in the frontispiece is revealed. Can you tell me a little about how you arrived at that structure?

JF: It is part of the whirlpool. But I had a basis in real life for the characters. That has changed of course, and mixed with, on a palette, you know, with other things.

EA: The last part of the book written from New York reads quite differently from the rest of the book.

JF: Yes, well the first book was a collection, Mattina’s collection of detail and what happened to her there. Perhaps in a sense I didn’t build up enough of her relationship with her husband to make it so desperately important that she sort of achieved this perfect love. I was not directly concerned with my own memories in any part of that. Mattina’s memories of New York are not my memories of New York. But obviously they are chosen from a selection of observations that I made, but I didn’t have the experiences that Mattina had in New York. I just had to invent her memories, I haven’t written any of my own memories of New York, and as for returning to New Zealand because I belong here.

EA: Does the way you use memory change at all?

JF: I think so. I use less of my own memories than I did. I wrote the first volume of my autobiography for many reasons, one reason was that I wanted to get rid of the memories of the past up to a certain stage, to the time I was 40. Then I was really freeing myself from  memories.

EA: The Gravity Star really exists, doesn’t it?

JF: Yes. I wrote about it in the front in the note. The quote is from The Dominion. ‘A survey of distances to galaxies has revealed something that at first could have seemed implausible – a galaxy that appears both relatively close and seven billion light years away’. If that is true (whatever truth is), if one accepts that, then one sort of accepts total impossibilities unreasoned, yet one remains as one is. Well it’s a possibly of something new really.

EA: Did the book grow out of that report?

JF: Yes. That and the idea of The Housekeepers of Ancient Springtime. ‘Housekeepers’ is my word, but I was reading a poem of Rilke’s, ‘The Orchard’, and he wrote of ancient spring-time, Puamahara of course is not Levin, but I drew on the locality of Levin and the orchards that are out of town just before you read the Tararuas, the Carpathians. And the coming of the blossom each year, and so on, and the memory flower I invented.

EA: I was fascinated by the way you’ve used Mattina as the wealthy New Yorker coming to look at small town New Zealand life. And that by bringing her in as an outsider you really allowed us, the readers, to see this through her eyes. It was a total standing-off, an objective way of looking at things.

JF: Well you see, the technique of the stranger’s point of view is an old tried technique going way back to fairy tales. The stranger comes in and sees the view, it has been much used in all literature, especially in our literature which is full of journeys. Writing of Mattina and her view, or what I imagine her view to be, I would have betrayed my faith int he process of writing if I’d really given my own view of life in a small town. I wrote what  I imagined her view might be. I stress this because novelists are always confronted by a reading public that supposes all views are the writer’s views. I meet this constantly with critics who ought to know better, but who suppose that the character’s thoughts are my thoughts but in reality of course they are the thoughts of the character.

EA: Imagined thoughts.

JF: Yes.

EA: But is there still a certain amount of interaction between you and the characters before they find their place in the story?

JF: Depending on one’s skill. One is full of faults in the writing. Depending on one’s skill, one tries to imagine a character who has her own life, her own thoughts and feelings. Naturally, I draw from what I’ve seen and observed and people I have seen, but it’s always a mixture.

EA: You say that your characters don’t express your views, but do your characters sometimes say what you would like to say?

JF: Oh, yes. They sometimes do when, after they have spoken, I realise, well I wish, I might like to think like that. Fictional characters of course are a mixture of what I have observed and what I’ve imagined. But often, like other writers, I use characters to exploit the tricks of the trade — novels that feature novelists writing novels, but they are becoming a bit of a bore. Unless there’s an urgency in what is being written. I do have a great interest in the actual writing of a novel, in the technique and possibilities, but there are many many ways of doing it. I have allowed myself the fun of putting novelists in because they have so much to say, and of course they can take all points of view, but I do realise that’s not the only way to write a novel.

EA: You’ve mentioned the interior novel, the story within the novel which you call the imposter novel. Is there a sense in which you see the novelist as an imposter?

JF: No, I don’t think so, except that the imposter Dinny Wheatstone – her type of imposter demolishes herself and leaves her free to absorb any character which comes along – in that sense, the writer is an imposter.

EA: The imposter novelist Dinny Wheatstone says at one stage in her part of the story, ‘I have seized control of all points of view’.

JF: Yes, well that happens to a novelist, a novelist must seize control of all points of view.

EA: ‘And the words take charge of the telling’, she goes on to say.

JF: I feel that words take charge of the telling, refers to the delinquencies of language, or rather, the delinquent use we make of language. I refer there to ordinary everyday life, how often it’s not that the words are failing us but we fail them. And the extreme words can play executioner. Even the smallest words because they can persuade us, the use of them can persuade us into action that we might not have taken.

EA: And does that apply too to the structure of the story, that you can find that the use of a certain word indicates a path that the story might now take?

JF: Yes, or one tries if one is standing back and writing a novel to take control over the words and not let the words, one has to be watching them, always watching them in case they either escape or in case they go in the wrong direction. You have to have, I think, a writer has to have control over them. But there is a lot of reference here to words in everyday life.

EA: But then language has always been as important as that to you, hasn’t it?

JF: Yes, there is so much about language and about a lack of language that I wonder if the answer is music.

EA: Do you ever find that words have taken their own momentum, I mean you talk about needing to have control, but are there ever times when you decide to go on impulse and see what happens?

JF: I think when I’m writing and I write the first version, I don’t like to be held back by any wondering about what things are. I just go ahead and get it down, whatever the words are, they are there, but in the second version I find words that have intruded. The imagination however is free to go on, it is always free to, as I’m in the country I’ll say, graze. As I said before, I think it is essential to be in control of the writing because the words are the instrument, I mean you are playing a musical instrument, you must be in control of it. There is a comparison with music. In writing the hope is always that the imagination will come home to rest in invisible places. The bee comes home and leaves on each word traces of honey that we’ve never had before, that sort of thing.

EA: I remember you saying it was Frank Sargeson who gave you advice about using language and peeling down to the dead wood, peeling off the dead wood.

JF: Yes, well it was Frank Sargeson who used the phrase ‘dead wood’ when he was talking to me about writing a novel. I quote him, he said ‘a certain amount of dead wood is necessary’, he said it like that you see. But I’ve never agreed with this. A work of writing must be wholly alive and essential, yet if one pursues a metaphor of the dead wood, one can become convinced that dead wood is necessary and simply be persuaded by a metaphor.

I think that’s extraordinary. I thought about that, and I thought, well, dead wood is necessary in trees and so on, and I almost became convinced it was necessary in novels and again that is an example of the way the use of words can control actually our thoughts and our actions. But it made me think since then, I disagreed heartily with him when he said you need a certain amount of dead wood. Possibly because that was the only time I had shown him a story, I showed him a story called ‘An Electric Blanket’. He didn’t think much of it, you know. I really think poems are the highest form of literature because you can have no dead wood in a poem. I am not really quite sure what he meant, but when he spoke of it, he said in a novel dead wood is necessary. I had this image of just a hunk of dead wood.

You have asked me before, you know, if writing ever becomes easier. Well, each time it’s different, but I always feel that the many obstacles to writing. I am sure each writer has different obstacles, but you see there are so many before one writes, one has the theme in view and there are distractions and so on. When I had the Sargeson Fellowship, not having to housekeep and so on, I was able just to write out what had been in my mind for some time but hadn’t been able to be plucked because of the obstacles. Not only obstacles outside but I make obstacles for myself, of course. You have to have courage to write and I get very scared of what I see the book is going to be about, and I am frightened to face it. So it is rather good for me to be in that position of capture where I’ve got no excuses.

EA: I would like to come back to this question of the characters of The Carpathians again for a minute. The position of the characters in a novel reminded me of a painting to a certain extent, and the way that characters are placed in a painting. There is this sort of visual sense of the placement of the characters and how they will move.

JF: Yes, at the preliminary, they are being reduced to destruction, they’re being reduced to two dimensions. It quite scared me you know, that.

EA: And did you get over that?

JF: Well I found it very chilling, but I was quite surprised that it had its effect on me. Normally when I write a book, there’s usually only, say, I’m lucky if there is one sentence or one paragraph or one short scene that moves me. I read the book and I feel it, but I can usually concentrate on one sentence which I think well, yes, that’s all right. But here it wasn’t the book, it wasn’t what was in the book itself but what sort of surrounded it, like the jagged peak of the paintings of the Tararuas, which I remembered, which I felt after I read it.

EA: You’ve used surreal elements in your work for a long time, haven’t you, and The Carpathians reinforces this theme very strongly. Is surrealism becoming a stronger interest now?

JF: Well, perhaps it is. I would define it as what is beyond the real, the invisible beyond the real. But I don’t really think that that is surrealism. That’s my notion of it. It becomes like staring at an x-ray of the real and visible. That’s what I’m interested in.

EA: A way of taking the reader into more richly imagined experience?

JF: Possibly, yes, yes, finding more, as you said, more than meets the eye. I am interested in the crossing of incidents and so on.

EA: Are you saying, do you think, that we basically lack imagination, and that we should all really learn to look much more beneath the surface?

JF: I do feel that while not lacking in imagination we sometimes recoil from using it, or we are denied the opportunity. I think as I said before the proper use of imagination is a form of courage, daring to explore beyond horizons.

EA: And how far does the writer dare? How far can you push that dislocation from reality? Is the writer bound by limits of readers’ expectations?

JF: Possibly, but I wouldn’t think so. I wouldn’t feel bound. I am glad you mentioned readers, because you see readers are so important; if one is going to be published, the reader reads the work. It is a kind of courtesy to readers that I don’t think I always indulge in. I just write for myself and in that I possibly agree with some of the critics.

I do my best. It is just the best of my ability and I fail in some ways, and succeed in others. It is the best I can do.


Pamela Gordon talking about Janet Frame at Radio New Zealand

Nickety Nacketty Noo Noo Noo by Joy Cowley and Tracey Moroney

Nickety Nacketty Noo Noo Noo is a picture book with strong Scottish influence, written by Joy Cowley — one of New Zealand’s big name children’s authors.

As a child of the 80s, I grew up reading Joy Cowley, whose books were purchased as class sets, and whose work could be found on the shelves of any primary school library. As a child who grew up in Motueka and Nelson, Joy Cowley was also a local writer, and though I didn’t realise it at the time, provided an essential local balance to this kid who was in love with Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. The Terrible Taniwha of Timberditch, published in 1982, is one book that left a lasting impression on me, mainly because it was terrifying!

This particular picture book is not distinctively New Zealand in flavour, unless you consider that ‘Scottish’ is New Zealand’s most commonly listed heritage across the population. In Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo, Cowley has drawn upon a Scottish poetic tradition to create an otherworldly story populated with ogres and so on.

nickety nacketty


A ‘wee wishy woman’ is kidnapped by an ogre, who takes her to his lair. She is ordered to cook for him. So she happily cooks the stew and watches him eat it. But the wee wishy woman turns out to be a trickster, and has cooked the stew with glue. She manages to escape because the ogre is all gummed up, unable to chase her.


This story is a rhyming poem for children written in the tradition of a traditional Scottish poem such as The Wee Cooper O’Fife.

The Wee Cooper O’ Fife

There was a wee cooper who lived in Fife
Nickety nackety noo, noo. noo
And he has tae’n a gentle wife
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
Alane, quo’ Rushity, roo, roo, roo.

She wouldna card and she wouldna spin
Nickety nackety noo, noo. noo
For shamin’ o’her gentle kin
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
Alane, quo’ Rushity, roo, roo, roo.

She wouldna bake and she wouldna brew
Nickety nackety noo, noo. noo
For spoilin’ of her gentle hue
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
Alane, quo’ Rushity, roue, roue, roue.

She called him a dirty Hieland whelp
Nickety nackety noo, noo. noo
If you want yer dinner go get it yourself
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
Alane, quo’ Rushity, roo, roo, roo.

The cooper’s awa tae his wool-pack
Nickety nackety noo, noo. noo
And lain a sheepskin across her back
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
Alane, quo’ Rushity, roo, roo, roo.

I’ll no thrash you, for your gentle kin
Nickety nackety noo, noo. noo
But I will thrash my ain sheep-skin
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
Alane, quo’ Rushity, roo, roo, roo.

He’s laid the sheepskin across her back
Nickety nackety noo, noo. noo
And with a good stick he went whickety-whack
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
Alane, quo’ Rushity, roo, roo, roo.

Oh I will card and I will spin
Nickety nackety noo, noo. noo
And think nae mair of my gentle kin!
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
Alane, quo’ Rushity, roo, roo, roo.

She drew the table and spread the board
Nickety nackety noo, noo. noo
And “My dear husband” was every word
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
Alane, quo’ Rushity, roo, roo, roo.

All you who have gotten a gentle wife
Nickety nackety noo, noo. noo
Just send ye for the cooper of Fife!
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
Alane, quo’ Rushity, roo, roo, roo.

Another example of such a song is Rissetly Russtley, performed here by Pete Seeger.

A closer look at the lyrics of both songs makes me think Joy Cowley may have been slightly annoyed with this tradition, which is written from the ‘ogre’s’ point of view. These are songs sung by a man complaining about how his wife doesn’t do the housework properly and doesn’t keep herself pretty enough. Although the songs are obviously hyperbolic, there is nonetheless a long history of husbands complaining about their wives (and vice versa, if you listen to R&B sung by American women from the mid 20th C). Cowley may have wondered what it might look like from the wife’s point of view. In that sense, the children’s story is a feminist tale.

I married a wife in the month of June,
Risselty rosselty, now now now!
I carried her off by the light of the moon (in a silver spoon)
Risselty rosselty, hey bombosity, nickety nackety,
retrical quality, willaby wallaby now now now!

She combed her hair but once a year,
Risselty rosselty, now now now!
With every rake she gave a tear,
Risselty rosselty, hey bombosity, (etc.)

She swept the floor but once a year,
Risselty rosselty, now now now!
She swore her broom was much too dear,
Risselty rosselty, hey bombosity, (etc.)

She churned the butter in dad’s old boot,
Risselty rosselty, now now now!
And for a dasher she uses her foot,
Risselty rosselty, hey bombosity, (etc.)

The butter came out a grizzledy gray,
Risselty rosselty, now now now!
The cheese took legs and ran away,
Risselty rosselty, hey bombosity, (etc.)

(Peggy Seeger)
The butter and cheese is on the shelf,
Risselty rosselty, now now now!
If you want any more you can sing it yourself,
Risselty rosselty, hey bombosity, (etc.)


Since this is inspired by traditional works of art, some of the features of a classic (or at least ‘old’) book have been employed, namely the decision to place illustrations within a ‘frame’ rather than extend them to the edge of each page. In effect, you end up with a border of white around each illustration. Sometimes there is a separate ornate border, and I’m guessing the patterns in those might be based upon some traditional Scottish architecture or something. Since modern printing technologies no longer require illustration plates to be surrounded by a border of white space, visual interest has been added with decorative illustrations of vegetation which extends off the page. Here, the pot extends beyond the border:



Published 1996 by Scholastic


Typeset in 20/24pt Times. The later reprinting of the book has a different font on its cover. I’m always interested to see how publishers vary their covers from printing to printing, but of course we’re never told why! (I suppose the font might have had a limited licence?)

Unlike many  picture books, the pages of this book are numbered, on pages where the illustration doesn’t obscure where the page number would go.

Joy Cowley is herself New Zealand European, and like most of us from New Zealand (including many Maori), has some Scottish blood in there somewhere.

Tracey Moroney seems to more commonly go by Trace Moroney. Her website is here.


The world of this picture book could be set in the same ‘world’ as Julia Donaldson’s Room On The Broom, which includes supernatural creatures who, like their fairytale equivalents, can be outwitted by savvy young humans. The blues and greens of Tracey Moroney’s colour scheme are somewhat similar to the style chosen by Axel Scheffler six years later.


Julia Donaldson, like Joy Cowley, sometimes makes use of traditional poetry as inspiration for her picture books. The Highway Rat is a good example of that. (See The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes.)



Though I’m sure it’s way harder than it looks, we might try taking a traditional poem from Scotland, turning the story on its head and make use of the rhythm and rhyming conventions to create a story for a young, modern audience.

Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd Picture Book

Scarface Claw is a wonderful animal villain.

Honestly, for a close-reading I could have picked any of Lynley Dodd’s Slinky Malinki series (or from the even-better-known Hairy Maclary series set in the same world). I find it impossible to pick a favourite. But if I have a favourite character, it is probably a tie between Slinky Malinki and Scarface Claw. Although I grew up in New Zealand I’m a little too old to have grown up with them. Still, I have collected the entire series and enjoy reading them to my daughter, over and over again. Every New Zealander who has ever read a picture book will be familiar with these animals. Teachers will be able to name all of them. If there’s an archetypal New Zealand picture book series, this is it. For a read-along experience, Penguin has partnered with Kiwa Media and turned some of the Hairy Maclary books into apps. While not created from the ground up for a touch screen, the app versions do offer word highlighting, which can be useful to an emergent reader perhaps.


Most readers will already know from previous books that Scarface Claw is ‘the toughest tom in town’, introduced thus in Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. This book focuses specifically on his toughness, presenting a range of scary scenarios that are not the least bit daunting to Scarface Claw. Finally the reader finds out that there is ONE little thing Scarface Claw is scared of **SPOILER ALERT**: Scarface is scared of his own reflection.

Scarface Looks Into The Mirror


The most amazing thing about Lynley Dodd’s books how nice they are to read aloud, over and over and over again. Actually, I think the weakest in this regard is the first and most famous Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. I’ll admit I sometimes get ever-so-slightly tired of the repetition of that, which may be as much a comment on how many times I have been called upon to read it aloud. Hairy Maclary is a book which builds on itself, which is excellent for child literacy and speech development and so on, but taxing on an adult reader. For a repetitious book, Hairy Maclary is still excellent. But it is in the subsequent books that Lynley Dodd’s poetic language really shines. To borrow from culinary-world, the mouthfeel is wonderful. It’s all to do with the scansion.


Font is also important. The reader is given clues on how to read with use of all caps:


is the roughest

and toughest

of cats?

The boldest,

the bravest,

the fiercest of cats?

Wicked of eye

and fiendish of paw

is mighty,



The poetry has a distinctive meter, and if you tap the rhythm on the table you’ll see how scary it sounds, sort of like the narrative poems of yore, a la The Highway Man (though this is different again).

Something that may pass unnoticed until it is pointed out is that the animals do not talk. There are many picture books about animals, which I would divide into two distinct types: First are the anthropomorphised animals who are human stand-ins. This is of another kind, in which the animals are actual animals, thinking and behaving as humans expect animals might. This requires a good understanding of animal behaviour, and it’s clear Lynley Dodd has a history of living with pets.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to complexity of vocabulary for young readers, and apparently Lynley Dodd’s work has sometimes been criticised for including words beyond the comprehension of her audience. Another school of thought believes that children should be exposed to vocabulary beyond their comprehension; this is exactly how they learn. I fall into the second camp, and I doubt Dodd would have achieved such perfect rhythm and meter if she had limited herself to words from a children’s dictionary. In the end, does it matter if children don’t know the exact meaning of some words? The illustrations and the language are more than enough to compensate.


As with pretty much every picturebook, a lot of the story’s success rests upon the facial expressions of the characters — or animals.

Who needs talking animals, when so much language is exchanged in the eyes?

Booksellers New Zealand Blog

In this particular story, even the scary black spiders have big, expressive eyes. As for Scarface Claw himself, this is not a truly scary creature — few creatures really are in picturebooks, which are often read right before bedtime. The young reader is instead encouraged to laugh at Scarface, and also to emphasise with him; children will be familiar with the feeling of being scared of some things and content about others. Here, the contentedness of Scarface is achieved via the closed eyes. Plus, isn’t it always funny to see a cat licking his leg? There’s something graceful and private about it, and when the reader sees Scarface in a more vulnerable moment, empathy is encouraged.


scarface claw content licking leg
Scarface Licks His Leg

The real gem illustration occurs on the penultimate page. After seeing Scarface in a variety of relaxed poses (and scary ones, in previous books) the reader sees for the first time Scarface looking both terrified and adorable. He now has big eyes and flat ears. I accidentally skipped this page when reading to my daughter, who realised a page had been missed. She knew the word that went with it, too. “Where’s the page with EXCEPT…?’ she asked. This was an interesting exercise, borne of nothing more than two pages being stuck together, because I realised just how important this penultimate page was to the story, which could have worked without it, but wasn’t nearly so good.

Another technique Lynley Dodd uses in a number of her books is an intriguing object only just visible on the page — it’s usually someone’s tail, propelling the reader forward to the next page, where fans will know exactly whose tail it is; the next page need only confirm it. In this book, the reader sees Scarface Claw’s tail dangling down from the wall. On the following spread we see Scarface himself, in repose:

Scarface Relaxes Fencetop


The technique isn’t limited to tails — the reader sees the leg of the oh-so-vital mirror before seeing the mirror itself, a good three pages later. So this technique doesn’t necessarily need to be used on consecutive pages, but can foreshadow well in advance.

To go with the ominous rhythm, horror elements have been included judiciously into the illustrations. The picture of Scarface Claw at night outside in a lightning storm features trees with curved, finger-like branches which I have since learnt to associate with Tim Burton. But overall, the book’s scariness is tempered by insertions of comedy. The dogs are supremely comical with their ‘lolloping and leaping’, and their tongues hanging out, with Hairy Maclary grinning like a muppet.


This is one of Lynley Dodd’s later books, first published in 2001 by Puffin. Dodd has said that it takes her a year to write and illustrate each book. My softback edition places the colophon at the back of the book. The back side of the front cover very cleverly doubles as both a promotional poster for other books in the series and a checklist of cats which my daughter loves to name before the story begins. As far as she’s concerned, it’s a part of the story.

slinki malinki and friends
Slinky Malinki And Friends, inside the front cover

This story leaves a big impression at only 160 words.


Scarface Claw may have been inspired (consciously or not) by the American Little Golden Book classic The Large and Growly Bear. Like Scarface Claw, the Large and Growly Bear is an outwardly fierce creature who takes great delight in scaring the creatures around him. The climax is that he is scared of his own reflection in a pond. I expect this plot comes from something even older — probably a folk or fairy tale. I simply haven’t found it yet.

Some people are terrified of mirrors, mostly because of superstitions related to reflections and the dead. This fear is called spectrophobia.

For an example of a picturebook that is written around the technique of ‘tails first then turn the page’ (or whatever it’s actually called) see the Australian classic I Went Walking, which doubles as a book for toddlers as well as an early reader for slightly older children.

I Went Walking Cover

I Went Walking Tails First

When a character is scared of something a child doesn’t find scary, this is a sure source of humour for a child, and is utilised by other writers, too. In series one, episode eleven of Lake Campbottom, the character of Gretchen fails to be frightened of all sorts of nasty things, but is then terrified of a cute chipmunk with big eyes.

scary chipmunk


3 Retro Picturebooks

Kate De Goldi and Kim Hill discuss three ‘animal’ picturebooks on Radio New Zealand.

Blue Moon Bird by Sabrina Malcolm

This picturebook is really charming. Sabrina Malcolm is principally an illustrator, possibly best known to New Zealanders via her collaboration with Melanie Drury on Koro’s Medicine.

De Goldi was drawn to it but at first couldn’t work out why. Then she realised it was probably the slightly retro feel. The illustrations have a palette and design influenced by the 70s. That’s deliberate of course. Even the toys are retro. The pictures are intricate. The MC has red hair of course, like all good heroes and heroines!

This is a very simple, modest, unassuming story with a very alluring opening, echoing people as various as Roald Dahl, but other authors right through storyland history. The story is incredibly compacted.

The text is very beautifully designed throughout, incorporated into the visuals.

The middle page spread is particularly beautiful.

The story is about loneliness and friendship. Shaun Tan explored those same ideas with The Lost Thing (in an entirely different way, of course).

The writing is very economical. The pictures star, but the writing is also very good. There’s a lot of momentum.

This is an adventure a boy has all by himself. The adult caregivers are mentioned but never actually there, so the young readers know the boy has safe harbour.

Blue Moon Bird would be a lovely story to read to an under 5.


Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham

Mal Peet is an English author and illustrator best known for young-adult fiction:

Elspeth Graham is Mal Peet’s wife. They have collaborated on two beautiful picturebooks which have been illustrated by some wonderful artists. Elspeth does a lot of work on books for young/learner readers, and does a lot of research for those books. She comes up with an idea that entrances her for one reason or another. For Cloud Tea Monkeys she got very interested in merchants who took long, dangerous journeys to find foodstuffs. She and Mal go for walks. She talks passionately, then he picks up the ball and then writes the story. They didn’t meet the artists at all. These days it’s much more likely that you’ll have had discussion with your artist.

These stories are beautifully written.

The sentences are of varying lengths. The word choice is excellent, and unusually for a picturebook, the colon and semi-colon is used beautifully as well. (It’s a triumph!)

In terms of a story to grip, first of all it paints a place, a child, a culture and then the line, ‘Inside the house, the mother coughed.’ Twice, because this is going to be really important to the story.

The illustrations are by Juan Wijngaard, who is Dutch, born in Argentina, and studied art in Britain but now lives in California. He has also illustrated the work of some brilliant authors such as Jan Mark and William Mayne.

Cloud Tea Monkeys is enchantingly old fashioned (which is by no means a criticism). This is old-fashioned in quite a different way from Sabrina Malcolm’s work — the illustrations in this book are reminiscent of Arabian Nights. There are little line drawings throughout, but they are framed on the opposing side of the text, which is very much like books from the 50s and 60s.

Mysterious Traveller by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham

The artwork in Mysterious Traveller is equally beautiful. P.J. Lynch is an Irish artist.

Again, the story is alluring in the Arabian Nights kind of way. A baby is left by travellers who get caught in a sandstorm, found and raised by a man. She eventually becomes his eyes.

Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham wanted to write picturebooks that were longer than usual because they grew sick of having to read nine picturebooks every night before bed. Kim Hill hesitates before calling these picturebooks because the text is so thrilling. [This includes some assumptions about picturebooks!] These fall somewhere between chapterbooks and picturebooks. It probably would take a couple of nights to read a single story.

The words on the tongue are a genuinely sensuous experience.

These are gift books — books that will be read over and over again.

Well done Walker Books for bringing us back to that kind of book, and well done to Mal and Elspeth for insisting on it.

3 New Zealand Books For Junior Readers

Kate De Goldi and Kim Hill discuss three books on Radio New Zealand.

The Queen and the Nobody Boy by Barbara Else

This is the second installment, following The Travelling Restaurant, which is hysterically funny.

Sequels can fall down a bit but this is very good, if not a little more taut in its storytelling than the first.

Queen Sibilla is about to come of age and everyone hopes she’ll come into her magic, though there’s some anxiety around this. The story is told from the point of view of a young man. – Hodie, the odd-job boy. He’s a boy of character and sensibility and kindness. He ends up doing good against his better nature. This is a story of a growth of nature.

Else has a very arch way of poking fun at the inflated egos of people of status. For a fantasy writer she is very good at describing the material. There’s a lot of food in here too.

Highly recommended, especially for junior readers.

Guardian Review.

Here is the official Fontania Website.

The New Zealand Art Activity Book

This is allegedly for kids, but adults may want to keep it. Strongly reminiscent of a previous book about creative writing in the classroom. [If anyone knows what that book is, let me know!]

This book tries to jump would-be artists out of their comfort zones when it comes to making art. Exercises on every page narrows the process to give readers a specific way in to a project. There are ways of translating noise into art, ‘taking a line for a walk’, ‘sticking two pencils to your hand’, and other activities that wake up the kid inside the adult, or actual kids. You’re asked to cut things out of the book, so De Goldi recommends buying two — one to keep, because you don’t really want to cut bits out of it.

This book is full of fantastic ideas. Published by Te Papa Press.

A Winter’s Day in 1939

A really riveting first novel. Set during WWII. There are all the coordinates of people being taken away to camps. Adam and his family live in a part of Poland that was once the Ukraine. Their father has been given land as a reward for services to the army. He’s done good things with the land.

The story includes wonderful detail about living from the land. Readers will learn so much from that.

The story is not complicated, though there is a lot going on.

A device used is italicised, interpolated narration to explain what’s going on in the wider world of the war.

The story is told through the view of Adam, the second child in the family, and pretty immediately they are the victims of what’s going on between countries. Their farm is taken from them and so begins an enormous journey across a huge amount of the USSR. The author makes the reader wonder what it might be like to lose absolutely everything. Every now and again she reminds us clearly and sweetly that this is from a boy’s point of view (rather than an adult’s) because he’s feeding a rabbit.

The soviet labour camp is just dire, but their capacity for survival blows you away. There are many tales about children surviving through war, and this one can stand proudly beside them.

There is a big surprise at the end which will make you sad. The family eventually comes to New Zealand. This is the author’s father’s story blended with facts from other people’s lives. He had kept documentation. There is much attention to material detail. The relationships are fascinating, with the boy having a difficult relationship with his father.

There are small and big kindnesses from the people they eat.

There’s a strong sense of the family coming from the land, with the land being their life blood, which is surprising in a story with a backdrop of war.

Highly recommended for anyone between about 8 and 12, or even adults. Would be good to read aloud.

What Is Your Concept Of Childhood?

If we compare Americans and French, it seems as though the relation between childhood and adulthood is almost completely opposite in the two cultures. In America we regard childhood as a very nearly ideal time, a time for enjoyment, an end in itself. The American image of the child…is of a young person with great resources for enjoyment, whose present life is an end in itself. With the French…it seems to be the other way around. Childhood is a period of probation, when everything is a means to an end, it is unenviable from the vantage point of adulthood.

– Childhood In Contemporary Culture, Wolfenstein (1955)

I am neither American nor French, so as an adult who grew up in New Zealand, I’m wondering about my own view of childhood. Is it possible to fit neatly in the middle, viewing childhood as neither particularly good nor particularly bad? I certainly had worries as a child. I distinctly remember that one of my greatest fears at the age of five was to arrive home from school to find the gate shut. Dad had built that tall gate several years previous, to keep me in, after I ran off  ‘to see the lions’ at the age of two and a half, wearing nothing but a nappy and a bib (I’ve heard that story many times), but I feared that if I ever came home from school and it was shut, I’d never ever get into the house again. I don’t know quite what I thought. Perhaps I was expecting permanent banishment. In fact, I never thought that far. My fear was irrational. So every morning before I left for school I told mum to leave the gate open for me.

Mum remembered the gate almost all of the time. Except for once. When I got home it was shut tight and I couldn’t reach it. I screamed and hollered so loudly that the mother from across the road came and rescued me… and changed my pants. How humiliating. I suppose my own mother had got caught up at the shops or something. I wasn’t permanently banished. I don’t remember worrying so much about the gate after that, though.

These days I worry about bigger things, but I’m better able to cope with those things, so the worries seem neither more nor less significant than that simple childhood fear of abandonment. Childhood would be blissful, perhaps, if we could approach it with the carefree spirit of adulthood, knowing all that we know as grown-ups.

I do find it interesting that different cultures have different general concepts of childhood, because the American view of childhood as bliss, and its depictions in certain stories, has never sat right with me. It’s nice to know that this is due in part to my culture, and not to some terrible repressed memories I must’ve had, colouring my relatively pessimistic view forever after!