Book review: The Little Yellow Digger Treasury – Betty & Alan Gilderdale

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Apart from the Little Yellow Digger series Betty Gilderdale is probably best known as being a scholar of New Zealand children’s literature, including her ground-breaking study A Sea Change: 145 Years of New Zealand Junior Fiction (1982), which won the PEN Award for best first book of prose. She’s also written numerous research papers, reviews of children’s books, as well as entries in reference publications and a biography, The Seven Lives of Lady Barker. A winner of the Margaret Mahy Medal of the and Lecture Award and past president/Life Member of the Children’s Literature Association of New Zealand There’s even a Betty Gilderdale Award for writing. But to my four year, she’s just that ‘nice lady who wrote about diggers’. And, that’s how it should be. Kids don’t care about a writer’s pedigree. They only care about the story and the characters. What really gels with this story, and the other four subsequent tales, is the ordinariness of them. They are all the kind of events that could really be going on in the paddock next door. Or the neighbour’s section. In fact, “one dismal, wet August afternoon,” writes Gilderdale in her introduction, “we were babysitting our two grandsons…a digger was working in the garden but it got stuck in the mud and another digger had to be set for.” So begins a tale, which was simply a poem concocted by Gilderdale. The reason it works is that it mirrors rhymes like the house that Jack built and I know and old lady, which layer absurdity upon absurdity but never stray from the plausible. Of Course, Gilderdale would have known that, being a pupil of great children’s literature. Still, one could argue that knowing too much could have made the whole thing contrived and stunted. Yet it works so well on so many levels. The original came out in 1993 and almost instantly became a classic, along with Hairy MaClary, because it was simple, narrative and only a little bit clever. It also appealed to boys and girls. Plenty of books appeal to girls but to boys, well – instant appeal. Mud. Diggers. Dilemma. Problems. Solutions. More mud. Hey. What’s not to like?

13 years on from the original release Gilderdale’s language doesn’t feel dated, like other books. “Winnie The Pooh”, for example or Enid Blyton books, all have a particular decade in their setting and script that can’t be shaken, even with updates. But The Little Yellow Digger Series belongs to no era. Best yet, they almost intentionally avoid any references to trends or styles. Illustrator Alan Gilderdale, Betty’s Husband and an accomplished scholar himself, has created pictures that are not interested in any artistic movements. The pictures in this first story also go on to create the stylistic atmosphere of all five books. Yes, the figures are all a bit stunted, faces slightly cliché’ and a bid crude in places but that’s the charm. For their audiences – 2-6 year olds, they are perfect.

They might be classic and timeless but don’t rule out any of these stories being out of touch. My favourite is ‘The Little Yellow Digger Saves The Whale’. This could be a tale stolen straight out of the headlines, told sensitively. Kids like things told straight, so this one doesn’t beat around the bush, telling it straight. Interestingly, the Orca saved by the digger creating a cannel to reload it is named ‘Joe’ by the assisting beach-goers but the Digger and driver are never named. Yet both have very strong personalities, entirely recognised through their actions, which are well intentioned, although sometimes a little reckless.

This collection represents a real ‘gold treasury’ of brilliant, simple and entertaining stories for pre-schoolers and first readers.   Each of the Gilderdale’s books, compiled here, have a slight lean towards the educational – one has an archaeological theme (“The Little Yellow Digger and The Bones”); one is about animals and conservation (“The Little Yellow Digger At The Zoo”, which is about creating a swimming hole for an elephant); and another about the misadventures of digging up unknown plumbing without proper checks (“The Little Yellow Digger Goes To School”); and of course, the aforementioned whale saving. They all stand alone as individually brilliant in their own way but together even more of a create package.   I still have my anthology of ‘Curious George” stories, which is also bound in a yellow hard back by the way. They have always stood the test the time because they are fun, imaginative and vibrant, with simple, clean art. The Little Yellow Digger series is the same. With a slight Kiwi touch, not obvious but still there in the ordinary and familiar like whales and school pools, zoos and sheep and Mayoral visits to schools. All things that might actually happen. Believable and true. And that’s why these will all become classics. World famous right here, in Aotearoa.



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