'Magpies' reviews 'Mummy Monster' and 'Half My Life'
‘My mummy is a monster. She hides it very well.’
The little boy who narrates this picture book makes a good case for his mother secretly being a monster. When she hugs him she has arms like tentacles, and she certainly has eyes in the back of her head.
‘And even though she’s little, that must be a disguise,
for when I am in danger she grows to twice her size.’
The lovely way in which the boy recognises the love and commitment his mother has for him is well shown, even though she clearly is a monster. The rhymes flow smoothly making this a wonderful book to read aloud.
The author’s colour illustrations are colourful and funny. Every aspect of mummy-hood (and monster mummy-hood) is shown, especially monstrous tastes in clothes and make-up. She also introduces and celebrates a range of ‘real’ mothers including ‘funny mummies, yummy mummies, watermelon tummy mummies’ and many more.
As a bonus there are identification diagrams of a Mummy (dangly things on ears, comfy trousers, tissue up sleeve) and a monster (purple lips, big googly eyes, claws on toes). Who could confuse them? Also included is the shocking revelation of what is actually inside a Mummy’s handbag.
As well as writing and illustrating books, Stephanie Thatcher is also a graphic designer and works in ‘motion graphics’. All these talents are on display in this tiny video trailer she created to promote Mummy Monster.
This novel is a compelling story of family relationships and suppressed emotions, told against the background of a young New Zealander discovering her Greek heritage and the reason her father has kept so much of it from her.
Katie, a 16-year-old Wellington schoolgirl, is all ready for a school formal and the netball trials when she is suddenly told she must drop everything and go to Greece with her parents.
As the narrator of her own story, Katie has already warned us that her family is dysfunctional. Katie has regular sessions with ‘Mike the psych’, her therapist. Her mother is tense and protective, while her father, George, who came to Wellington when he was 17, never talks about his native Greece. He is ‘emotionally absent’ and seems angry and resentful about his mother - Yiayia – the grandmother who Katie has never met. In fact Katie has never even seen a photo of Yiayia. Katie and her mother write regularly to Yiayia and George translates his mother’s replies but he has never written to her himself. ‘His shoulders would stiffen and the muscles in his face tighten as he held Yiayia’s letters.’
Thus there are already strong emotional strains tearing at the Papahadjis family, when a bombshell arrives: Yiayia is dying, and they all have to go to Greece immediately.
Events in the Greek village, Leonosis, are brilliantly described. The situation which Katie gradually uncovers is layered and complex. Her new-found family is not what she expected. Almost every character seems to have difficulty in communicating, and it’s not just the language barrier. There are the added pressures of village life, old grievances and festering feuds. Since everything is seen from Katie’s viewpoint, the reader has to be aware of the significance of every word and gesture.
Throughout the opening pages, we have been aware of Katie’s habit of tugging at her hair. Gradually we see signs of something more serious. ‘There are no strings connecting me to my father,’ Katie tells Mike, adding, ‘Not even a strand of hair.’ In fact she is sometimes literally tearing her hair out.
While Katie’s Greek experiences, and the insight we gain into her taciturn father, make interesting reading, the real fascination in this novel is the journey it takes us on through Katie’s mind. Her emotional swings, obsessive tidying activities and constant hair-pulling are a cause for concern, but they are handled positively in the narrative. It is not a spoiler to note that Katie says her time in Greece has lifted her ‘out of a deep hole.’
Half My Life is a well-written story, full of surprising plot developments and alive with interesting characters. The descriptions are sharp and convincing. The tension of the narrative is well maintained and the conclusion is deeply satisfying. While the cover picture of Katie might deter male readers, this is a novel which older teens of both sexes will enjoy.
The charming postcard map of Greece is by Keith Olsen, the writer’s husband.