Coco Banjo is having a Yay Day.
Author: N.J. Gemmell
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2015
Nikki Gemmell, author of The Kensington Reptilarium and The Icicle Illuminarium (among other titles), has delivered a funny, highly illustrated new book, very much in the style of Diary of a wimpy kid (by Jeff Kinney), Tom Gates (by Liz Pichon) or Eric Vale (by author Michael Gerard Bauer and illustrator Joe Bauer). Facing a situation that most parents know well--trying to find a funny and engaging book for her 9-year-old daughter--Gemmell did what any self-respecting mother would; she went out and wrote and illustrated one herself. The result was the Coco Banjo series.
Coco is a high-spirited go getter with a flare for the eccentric. Her unconventional approach to life shines through in everything, from her own designer version of the school uniform to her intricate system of signal communications to her best friend Narianna (aka 'N'). Coco's free creative spirit is on a collision course with the wonderful wicked headmistress, Miss Temple. Miss Temple is Dahl-esque in her demeanour; she's so evil that she collects the tears of children.
In this, the first instalment in the series, Coco has decided the day is too 'delicious' to waste on school; so she stays home to have a carefree Yay Day, filled with a planned 'feast of fabulousness'. We are introduced to the details of Coco's life through a cleaver combination of text, image and design. We learn about her island home in Sydney Harbour, her best friend N, her globe trotting 'famous fashion stylist' mother and the ex-rocker not-so responsible adult/God-Father in her life, Rick Rogers. All is going well on Coco's Yay Day, when trouble strikes and she must rush to the rescue of her best friend N, who has fallen into a trap set by the school bully, Belle.
This book is a fantastic example of integrated visual and text-based narratives. Gemmell delivers not only a fast, well-crafted story for the reader to get lost in, but she also provides the wonderful illustrations that are integral to the story. These elements are synthesised together, along with fun text and font choices by book designer, Astred Hicks. The design of the fonts and layout, using techniques of onomatopoeia, will support beginner readers in their attempts to decode the words while interacting in a playful way with the narrative itself. Gemmell's simple line illustrations appear on every page of the book. Often these images appear instead of words, forcing the reader to create the narrative with a mixture of text and images.
Random House Australia has a created a set of online resources which are available from its website: http://www.randomhouse.com.au/content/teachers/cocobanjo.pdf. These notes include a great visual exercise on page 5 (related to page 12 of the book). Students are encouraged to plan their own Yay Day in pictures. Exercises such as this would be great to use in the classroom to encourage students to express themselves in simple images. In addition to these fun features, nearly every page has a speech bubble at the bottom of it. These read as a quirky collection of random thoughts that form in response to the narrative developments on each page.
With an increasing number of titles in the emerging reader, illustrated chapter book section of libraries and bookshops, Coco Banjo stands out from the crowd as its content and narrative will be more appealing to younger girl readers. I am sure that boys will fall in love with this series as well.
The appeal of this book will go beyond its intended emerging reader audience. When creating these books, Gemmell wanted to make 'something fun and zippy, that an advanced reader would have a chuckle over (like a comic), but an early reader would find clear and easy to read, too'. Gemmell has achieved this with Coco Banjo. I look forward to reading the next book in the series, Coco Banjo has been unfriended.
Tony Flowers is a doctoral candidate at the University of Canberra in the Faculty of Arts and Design. His research interests are in the visual literacy of narrative illustration. He is also a published illustrator of over 30 books, including the Saurus Street, Billy is a Dragon and Samurai vs Ninja series.