'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Saturday 3 April 2010

Review: Cautionary Tales for Boys and Girls

Title: Cautionary Tales for Boys & Girls

Author: John Hay-Mackenzie

Illustrator: John Hay-Mackenzie

Publisher: Pier 9 (Murdoch Books) A$29.95RRP

Format: Hardcover

ISBN: 9781741965162

For ages: 6-12

Type: Picture Book/Poetry

About: A modern, stylized blend of the Struwwelpeter cautionary tales and Roald Dahl’s nonsense rhymes, John Hay-Mackenzie’s first children’s book features a dozen rhyming poems that introduce us to a collection of quirky, puppet-like characters with patchwork bodies and button eyes.

Each smile-eliciting character has a particular predilection for nose-picking, brattish behaviour, crossing the street without looking, throwing stones and having a rude ‘tude. And of course, the subsequent behavioural consequences aren’t very pretty.

The first thing that struck me about Cautionary Tales, other than these adorably quirky characters, was the design and style of this book – the textured, embossed cover, the design layout and colour; if there’s one thing both adults and children share, when it comes to books, is a love of unique style

Of course, cautionary tales are always fun to read but they’re even more fun when dipped in a big vat of retro oddity and whimsy. From the circus style font to the peculiar illustrations and retro, rhyming prose, this is a book that teeters on the border of ‘strange’. And oh how kids love strange! Look at Dr Seuss – I’m positive he was absolutely considered more than strange in his day.

Of course, as I frequently rant on about – rhyme is notoriously difficult to do well and it’s rarely written or edited faultlessly. Hay-Mackenzie’s rhythm does sometimes falter, but this is rescued by the book’s whacky sense of fun.

The illustrations are colourful and eccentric – framed for posterity in specialised frames like a Rogue’s gallery. But what really sets this book apart is the propensity for laughter. Kids will delight in the naughty, precocious, selfish, temperamental and sometimes socially inept characters, that all get their comeuppance in the end (something adults will love!). I also love how the characters have everyday names – like Eric, Fred and Mary Rose.

Many a children’s author will tell you to avoid any moralistic preaching or patronization when writing a children’s book. Cautionary Tales is packed with morals but, happily, it simply makes fun of them whilst still making the idea of consequence accessible to subconscious little minds.

Author website

This book is available online

Cautionary Tales was one of my 6 Younger Reader ‘nominations’ for the Clayton’s Night Awards run by the ACT branch of the Children’s Book Council of Australia. This night mimics the announcement of the nominees for the Book of the Year Awards, and I was the ‘judge’ in the Younger Reader category.

See my other nominations and their reviews here.