Children’s author Jennifer Somervell seems to be on to something good. Her rural stories for youngsters aged about four to nine garner rapt attention, as evidenced at Hawea Flat School last Thursday.
But how did it all start? “My roots are in southern Hawke’s Bay, near Takapau, a tiny little place, 500 people when I grew up, with eight brothers and sisters — six from the second family and three from the first,” she said.
“We had a small dairy farm, about 120 acres. It was what we call the old fashioned family farm. The stories came out of a storytelling tradition in our family. My father was good at it. I guess The Day They Blew Up the Cowshed is the best example. When he wanted to get rid of a cowshed it was obvious to him that the best way to go was to blow up the concrete of the old one. And so a wonderful adventure unfolds for us as we watch this drama happening, where an expert comes and lays down gelignite. That was one of my father’s favourite stories, but he had a string of those,” she said.
“And so as he was getting older and I’d left the farm, I thought, well, we need to capture those stories, they’re so valuable, and they are our heritage and we’re going to lose them, and so I began recording. I recorded my father one night when he wasn’t aware that I was doing it. I wrote a poem, it sat in files for years, [I wasn’t] really sure what I would do with it. Then I noticed that the nephews and nieces loved these stories, and I thought maybe there’s a picture book in there somewhere. And then I discovered my sister was painting. That’ when there was the realization that we could do this together. So she made a commitment and illustrated it; self-published it was. She took a year to paint it,” Somervell said.
Somervell and husband Ken live in Oxford, Canterbury, and send out emails to schools countrywide. When they get a bite, they target all the other schools in the vicinity and proceed. Ken takes time off his very flexible job as a mediator and a resource management commissioner and off they go.
The schools are sent the books in advance, the children read them or have them read to them and then, when she and Ken arrive, the kids act out the stories under her direction, with him supplying projected visual aids — and a great time is had by all.
How many books are there and why did they think the stories were so popular? “We’ve got five books, going on for six. We’ve reprinted The Day We Blew Up the Cowshed four times; sold over 4000 of that; that’s very good for a children’s book in New Zealand.”
Why did she think they were doing so well? “They’re hitting a note with rural children, but we’re now bringing them into city schools, and they’re hitting a note there too. It’s quite exciting. Yeah, I love it. I think it’s a culture that needs more of a voice, our country culture, because I hear librarians say to me, ‘We need more of these kinds of books. There are valuable for our children’.”
The day after their visit to Hawea Flat they received news that their latest book, Uncle Allan’s Stinky Leg, won first place for humour and interior design in the United States-based Purple Dragonfly Book Awards. It also won honourable mentions in best illustrations, picture book six and older, historical fiction and best cover design.
“So we are feeling very chuffed!” she said.
The books can be purchased at Paper Plus Wanaka and online at talesfromthefarm.co.nz