By Camilla During
Gecko Press is a boutique publishing house, the brainchild of New Zealander Julia Marshall. She specialises in publishing foreign children’s books which she then gets translated into English. Marshall is careful to choose “curiously good books from around the world by well-established authors and illustrators”.
Gecko Press publications (which now number over thirty) continue to impress me with both the calibre of the authors and illustrators as well as the unstinting production values.
Wolf Erlbruch’s The Fearsome Five, is a witty story of five ‘unlovely’ animals. Toad, Bat, Spider and Rat are in the depths of self–hate when Hyena chances upon them. He tells them kindly, “It doesn’t matter a jot if others think you’re ugly, it’s what you do that matters. I advise you to do something – anything”. Casually, he brings out his saxophone and starts to play it. The others then rediscover their own individual talents. When they all decide to open a “musical pancake place” their lives are transformed.
However, Erlbruch is too clever an author to resort to cliches. His illustrations are ever- so-slightly macabre and seem to reference Japanese woodblock and scroll prints. The rich tones are in stark contrast to another book of his, the controversial and minimalist Duck, Death and the Tulip.
This is the most extraordinary children’s book I have ever read. Most children’s authors shy away from the most challenging and confronting of subjects, death. But here Death is a fully-fledged character with his own, very individualistic personality.
Duck discovers that Death has been stalking him. This is disturbing without being creepy. The story of their uneasy relationship is told with a complete lack of sentimentality and is, at times, gruffly humorous. Is it also deeply moving and unforgettable. Every home (with or without children) should own a copy of this genre-defying book.
The Chicken Thief, by French author and illustrator Beatric Rodriguez, is a wordless picture book. When a wolf steals a chicken from the clutches of her extended family a chase ensues. The marvellous twist at the end is a welcome surprise, redressing the bad press that wolves have been given over the ages.
Without text, the illustrations have to say it all. And Rodriquez’s whimsical, earth-hued paintings successfully tell the story with imagination and charm.
Another beguiling book is Zou, by Michel Gay. Zou is an endearing little zebra who wants to get into bed with his parents early one morning. The problem is he is only allowed in their bed if they are awake. “How can Zou wake them so they won’t be grumpy?” Every child and parent can identify with this domestic situation, which is lovingly rendered in this warm-hearted story. A perfect book to read with your child in bed while having a lie-in!
If Zou is a read-in-the morning book, The Big Yawn, written by Monika Spang and illustrated by Sonja Bougaeva, should be read at bedtime. When Tiger starts to yawn he begins a chain reaction throughout the zoo. There are swans and pigs and crocodiles and hyenas. There are giraffes and baboons, donkeys and lions. They all catch the yawning bug and hopefully your child will catch it too!