An interview with Rhys Darby: The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty (Book 1)

Funnyman Rhys Darby has teamed up with Scholastic in a fun new fiction series for kids. He talked to Christchurch City Libraries about his debut children’s book and reading interests, his passion for cryptozoology and his connections to Christchurch.

Rhys Darby. Photo credit: Dean B. Cornish
Rhys Darby. Photo credit: Dean B. Cornish

You may know Rhys Darby as a comedian and as an actor from Flight of the Conchords or Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and much more — and now he’s become a children’s author as well. Rhys generously gave his time to chat on the phone about his foray into children’s books with the October publication of The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty (Book 1), which he’s also illustrated.

The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty

Darby joins other comedians like David Walliams and Australian Peter Helliar who have written children’s books. By Darby’s own admission, he has childlike sensibilities and this lends itself well to his writing.

“My comedy is very childlike.”

First, a little bit about the book…
The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty is a mystery comedy adventure in the format of a journal. Rhys describes his book as a cross between Indiana Jones and Spike Milligan.

“Loaded with unmistakably quirky and random Rhys humour, 12-year-old Buttons McGinty pens top secret scribbles in a collection of extraordinary notebooks, as he and his friends enter a universe unlike any they’ve seen before. Buttons has been shipped off to Ranktwerp Island Education Fortress for Gifted Lame Unruly Minors, a.k.a. R.I.E.F.G.L.U.M., a boarding school on a remote island, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and Antarctica. His parents are missing under strange circumstances and there are bogus baddies and a burly bigfoot on the prowl.” (Scholastic press release)

Darby says the main character, a flame-haired 12-year-old, is a young spirited version of himself and that he used to dream about going on adventures as a kid but back then he could only go on such adventures in his head – lucky he had a big imagination. Darby’s three years spent in the army from the age of 17 also comes through in his children’s book with his use of Morse code and the military-like operations going on in the story. Darby describes the setting as like “an Alcatraz for kids.”

Who is the book for?

Darby kept his two young sons in mind (ages 8 and 12) when writing his book. He says he wrote it for anyone with a sense of humour. “It’s for reluctant readers or for fans of my work” and what’s more, he adds, “I wrote it to amuse myself – it had to be fun for me to do it.” It’s hard not to read the book without hearing his distinctive comedic voice in your head, making it feel as if he were reading it to you.

Aside from a bit of Morse code, the book is full of funny asides, drawings, lists, maps and speech bubbles. Darby says that breaking up writing like this makes reading easier and more appealing. The story is written with a sense of immediacy. Button’s journal writing addresses the reader and makes you feel as if you are there figuring out the mystery alongside him.

Rhys Darby’s interest in cryptozoology is evident in the book when a mysterious caged creature is snuck onto the island. He describes cryptozoology as “things unclassified by science that people don’t think exists – a pseudoscience.” “I’m a fan of the unknown,” he says and he co-hosts a long-running podcast on cryptozoology called The Cryptid Factor with the likes of wry Kiwi documentarian David Farrier.

Rhys, why cryptozoology? What sparked your interest and do you have any favourite creatures?

“You’re opening a can of worms asking about my interest in this but yes, ‘hairy humanoids’ like the Yeti, the Sasquatch and other upright walking things that seem to be human which aren’t human, like the Australian Yowie and also including human reptilian creatures and sea serpents like the Loch Ness monster.”

(Check out his recent podcast on the Yowie)

Abominable Science!BigfootyetiBigfoot

“I remember reading when I was a kid an Usborne book called Monsters, seeing that in the library – Pakuranga Library – and one of my favourites featured all the creatures that may exist and sparked my interest in the unknown. We haven’t solved all the things on the planet that need to be solved.”

What role did libraries play in your life?

“I was a big library goer, mum would let me choose 5 books – it was a ritual. It was a safe quiet place. I remember going to my school library at Elm Park Primary and getting obsessed with car magazines.”

When we spoke Rhys was planning to visit his old primary school to read to the kids there.

The Buttons character in your book is named after your mate Leon ‘Buttons’ Kirckbeck (from your projects the Cryptid Factor and Short Poppies)? Tell us more about the name ‘Buttons’ you chose?

“‘Buttons’ sort of alludes to someone who is very good at knowing how to push the buttons, being a bit of a tech whiz or having a knack for machinery – like in the movie Gravity when Sandra Bullock is trapped but just knows how to go in and tinker with things to save herself.”

Meet Buttons…

Meet Buttons McGinty, from Rhys Darby’s debut children’s book.

Rhys, your children’s book is mainly available through Australasian distribution and there are a number of ‘down under’ references and slang in the book. You’ve got a great line in your book about Buttons trusting someone “as much as you trust a cheap pair of jandals.” What made you choose to ‘keep it local’ in your book?

“Since I have international pull I am in a position to keep and draw attention to our unique Kiwi ‘voice’ – like Taika Waititi does. Wouldn’t it be great if like, in the same way we accept the English world of Harry Potter, that we just accept things and it became like that on the other side of the world?”

Rhys has even managed to retain his kiwiness in the recent Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as the voice of a villain called Hypno-Potamus).

“I trust him about as much as I trust a cheap pair of jandals” – quote from Buttons McGinty.

(Rhys obviously loves jandals – so much so he wrote a song about them!)

What did you learn from writing your first children’s book?

“To keep the humour coming in and not so much fantasy or action and also to keep it light so it’s not too dark, like the territory that Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll get into.”

Obviously Book 2 is underway since Book 1 ends on a cliff-hanger and loose ends – and you hope to write up to 4-5 in the series once you see how this goes. What about a film adaptation?

“My dream would be that maybe the book series would get made into a movie and when I’m writing it I imagine it and am visualising it all.”

You’re so multi-talented… What drives you and motivates you?

“I have a creative brain and get bored easily if I’m not doing something creative and I enjoy entertaining.”

Is there nothing you won’t take up or try out? Conversely, what’s something you want to try your hand at – if you could wave a magic wand and just do it, what might it be?

“Nothing too dangerous like jumping out of a plane since I’ve got kids now and I don’t know when my luck will run out. I’ve had the opportunity to climb Mt Kilimanjaro – for charity – and ‘nearly died’. I was so sick so although I’ve since been asked to Everest, I’ve turned it down. But if I could wave a wand, I’d like to go back in time and be an explorer – like being in Cairo exploring tombs in the 1920s, just doing archaeological digs. And also I’d like to visit the Victorian days in England – like the gloomy time period of Jack the Ripper and perhaps solve the riddle of what happened.”

You’re already really interesting and diverse, but can you tell us something about yourself that we might not know?

Rhys (age 44): “Well, I like to skateboard. I have eight skateboards and got Tony Hawk to sign my son’s skateboard when I was working with him.”


Reading Pleasures

The Explorers GuildWhat are you currently reading?

“I’m the sort of person with a stack of books on the bedside and read bits here and there but currently The Explorer’s Guild by Kevin Costner the actor (and Jon Baird) – it’s part novel/part graphic novel. It’s set around WWI and it’s a bit of a tome – it’s not an easy read but I like the idea of it. (A worthy but challenging read).

We know you like Spike Milligan and, as well as the non-fiction you’ve mentioned, what else did you read as a kid?

“I wasn’t a great reader when I was a kid but I did enjoy graphic novels like TinTin (because he was an adventurer) and Asterix – funny and involved time and I learnt about Romans ruling.”

Cigars of the Pharaoh - Hergé, pseud., 1907-1983Asterix and the Laurel Wreath - Goscinny, 1926-1977

You must be a fun dad! What are your children’s current favourite reads or things you like to read to them?

They are enjoying Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney and David Walliams.

Dog ManOld SchoolThe World's Worst Children

 


Canterbury Connections

This Way to Spaceship

Rhys Darby spent some formative years living and studying in Christchurch. He attended the University of Canterbury, trained at Burnham Military Camp and did his early performances as a comedy duo in Lyttelton.

In your earlier autobiographical book This Way to Spaceship, you tell a funny story about being in the 1996 Christchurch Christmas Parade dressed as Mr. Blubby, a mascot to help advertise some sickly jelly concoction, but kids threw the jelly drinks at you and tipped you over. What other memories do you have from your time here?

“Christchurch was a time of awakening for me. I had my first girlfriend there, I had my first comedy gig there and went to Burnham Military Camp. I like going back to the places I remember and finding new places, visiting the park and visiting Canterbury University and also Lyttelton where I started with my friend Grant (Lobban) and my performing began (Rhysently Granted).”


Talking to Rhys Darby is a delight and a volley of conversation that can go in any direction. One thing that struck me was his way of thinking. “Just imagine” he says often or “I could imagine…” As you can imagine, he’s effusive and full of spark and creativity and his enthusiasm is refreshing and contagious. Rhys Darby certainly has cross-generational appeal. I have been looking forward to this book being published for a while, as both a children’s librarian and a parent of children in the target age group. I was already a fan of his comedy since his Flight of the Conchords days, but now I have children who enjoy his work too, in projects like Jumanji and Thunderbirds Are Go! With a children’s book in the mix, he’s growing a new fan base.

Darby’s first book is a winner! Borrow it, buy it, gift it! We look forward to finding out what happens next in Darby’s daring adventures in Book 2! 

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Murderbots, spaceships and other planets

It’s been a good year for science fiction, with some great series wrapping up. Don’t worry about cliffhangers or long waits between sequels with these recommendations, you can read the whole lot back-to-back if you feel like it!

All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Cover of All Systems RedCover of Artificial ConditionCover of Rogue Protocol

You might think a book series about a being who call themselves “Murderbot” would make for grim reading, but you’d be wrong. An AI SecUnit (security consultant) for a research party on a newly discovered planet, Murderbot just wants to watch their favourite media show rather than having to interact with humans. But when they’re attacked by unregistered indigenous fauna it starts to look like their research mission has been sabotaged, and Murderbot finds themselves caring more about the humans than they’d like to admit.

The sequels all feature Murderbot trying and failing to stop protecting humans from themselves, as well as a sarcastic AI ship and some of Murderbot’s back story. The final novella in the series came out at the start of this month, so if you feel like some comforting, slightly snarky science fiction then I’d highly recommend giving the series a go, starting with All Systems Red.

Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

Cover of Ninefox GambitCover of Raven StratagemCover of Revenant Gun

If Murderbot is the literary equivalent of chocolate pudding then Ninefox Gambit and its sequels are like kimchi — delicious but not to everyone’s taste. It took me a while to get into but once I did they were compulsive reading. Ninefox Gambit begins with disgraced captain Kel Cheris being given a second chance in order to recapture the Fortress of Scattered Needles. The catch? To do so she must ally with undead tactician Shuos Jedao, a man who went mad before murdering his own troops as well as the enemy. Cheris must decide whether she can trust his tactical ability, or whether he’s leading her to her own grave.

Planetfall, After Atlas and Before Mars by Emma Newman

Cover of PlanetfallCover of After AtlasCover of Before Mars

The Planetfall series is technically not closed to future sequels, but there are now three books out and they all stand alone (although there are some common threads). I find each of them very odd — Newman doesn’t go in for satisfying conclusions, but at the same time there’s something compelling about them that keeps me reading. They all grapple with mental illness in different ways, from hoarding in Planetfall to postnatal depression in Before Mars. For that reason the experience of reading each book is very unsettling, Before Mars especially so as it begins with that classic trope of arriving in a new place (Mars) only to discover a note in your own handwriting warning you not to trust the others. My favourite of the three is probably After Atlas — detective (and indentured slave) Carlos Moreno is tasked with finding the murderer of the leader of the same religious cult Carlos escaped as a teenager.

Bonus: Semiosis by Sue Burke, an entertaining but odd book about coexisting with intelligent plantlife on an alien planet.

Some books I haven’t read yet but are on my list:

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal: I liked the novella that inspired this novel (The Lady Astronaut of Mars) so I’m keen to read more about how Elma York got to Mars.

A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White: A treasure hunter and a racing driver framed for murder and trying to clear her name both meet on a smuggler’s ship in search of riches and justice. From the reviews it sounds fun and pacy!

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers: I enjoyed the two previous books in this series (beginning with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet) and look forward to another quiet read about found family in space.

Cover of SemiosisCover of The Calculating StarsCover of A Big Ship at the Edge of the UniverseCover of Record of a Spaceborn Few

Further reading

Eat, Drink And Be Scared: Halloween – Wednesday 31 October 2018

Halloween display at Linwood Library
Halloween display at Linwood Library, October 2014. Flickr 2014-Photo3.img

On the 31st of October we celebrate Halloween. Also known as Hallowe’en; All Hallow’s Eve; Allhalloween and All Saint’s Eve. Although not everybody recognises this contentious holiday, I will celebrate by scaring myself to death with a selection of horror films.

Halloween Events

Spooky Halloween Day – Wednesday 31 October 3.30pm to 5pm Christchurch City Libraries is holding Spooky Halloween Day at two library branches- Shirley Library and Linwood Library. Come along dressed in your scariest costume and enjoy a spooky Storytimes, competitions, crafts and more.

Ferrymead’s Hall of Doom and Raise the Dead Rave – Further afield, for the Young Adults (over 16) there is the intriguing sounding Hall of Doom and Raise the Dead Rave at Ferrymead Heritage Park, featuring ‘DJ Spinal,’ if that is your thing.

Ferrymead’s Family Trick or Treat – and there is the slightly more family friendly sounding Family Trick or Treat event, also held at Ferrymead Heritage Park in conjunction with Plunket.


I have not always been a Halloween advocate. Growing up in a religious household, I did not have the option of observing Halloween as an event, nor was I allowed to watch anything resembling a horror film. Now that I’ve flown the nest and am free to make my own traditions, I am pleased to say that Halloween is cemented on my calendar as an important day of the year.

So maybe there is a correlation: for some time now, whenever we dare to discuss our future, my husband has envisioned us buying a lifestyle block somewhere out in the countryside, perhaps halfway to the alps, miles from the neighbours in isolated bliss. I resist this dream fervently. My very legitimate reasons include:

  • My penchant for horror films and true crime
  • Still being scared of the dark and don’t like being home alone as it is
  • Nobody would be around to hear me scream should I be being murdered.

His argument is that should I scream for help in the centre of suburbia, it is likely nobody would come to help anyway. Probably true. But it is psychological terror which prevents me from contemplating a life more than a stone’s throw away from civilization.

Yet despite being afraid of the dark, of potential murderers and of being home alone, I continue to love and watch horror films of all varieties. I have seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre about five times, and have suffered through all sequences of Paranormal Activity.

The latest horror I have seen was the recent film A Quiet Place directed by John Krasinski (remember Jim Halpert from The Office?). This film is set post-apocalypse and follows a family through their struggle to survive in a landscape featuring monsters who hunt by sound (the slightest of sounds). To avoid being eaten the family are forced to live in silence and communicate through sign language. Unfortunately, I watched A Quiet Place in a cinema full of people munching popcorn and chatting away as though they were in their own living room- did ruin the effect somewhat, but the good news is that the library have acquired a copy.

Keep your goosebumps well activated this Halloween and browse our abundant horror film collection.

Halloween Reading

Sometimes reading about it can be every bit as horrid as watching it. Horror books tend to be atmospheric, tension building page-turners. Just like other genres of fiction, they come in all sorts; gory, gothic, psychological, apocalyptic, supernatural, fantasy/sci-fi based, filled with monsters…the common thread being that they are designed to scare the daylights out of you. In honour of Halloween here are some starter ideas. Just in case you feel you’ve been getting a bit too much sleep.

And if you need more you can consult our brand new Horror fiction genre guide.

American Psycho

Brutal, gory serial killer novel. If you’ve seen the film by the same name, you’ll know that pop culture loving, suit-and-tie wearing Patrick Bateman is anything but a respectable businessman. Disturbing, violent, and written in the first-person narrative – you really get to go inside the head of this particular sadist.

House of Leaves

House of Leaves has inspired a cult-like following, and for good reason. It is based upon an intriguing and original premise; “a young family that moves into a small home on Ash Tree Lane where they discover something is terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.” The story is intricate and complex, and will appeal if you enjoy a shot of literary fiction with your horror. Reads much like a documentary, and if you like found footage films, may find this to hit the spot.

The Haunting of Hill House

If you’re more into the supernatural, ‘Amityville Horror’ type (which has thankfully been proven, beyond a doubt, to be a scam), then ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ is a must read classic. Atmospheric, creepy and menacing, ‘The Haunting of House Hill’ will have leave you paranoid, wary of lurking ghosts at every turn.

It

A list of horror books would simply not be complete without a nod to the [Stephen] King of horror. ‘It’ certainly fits the terrifying bill: child murder and a supernatural killer clown secures that.

Bird Box

This post-apocalyptic horror book is full of suspense and features Medusa like ‘look-at-me-and-you-die’ creatures. Just do open your eyes, unless you’re listening to the audio book version.

Endless Night

Sometimes the horrors that really get under your skin are those which hark to a potential reality. Personally, I’ve never been excessively freaked by things that I know (hope) don’t exist – the undead, ghosts, demons, monsters and the like. Home invasion? That will keep me up at night. ‘Endless Night’ will turn your nights into exactly that, as you follow the experiences of a sixteen year old girl at a sleepover turned murder-fest. Fast-paced and action packed. On a gore scale from Brother’s Grimm to Rob Zombie, this rates closer to the latter.

Let the Right One in

Ah yes, a Scandinavian horror. The Scandinavians do the darkness and the bleakness extraordinary well, after all. This book, in summation: dark, creepy, vampires. But don’t run at the mention of vampires: ‘Let the Right One in’ would make Stephanie Meyer shake in her pretty boots.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ marries two of my favourite things to find in a book: fantasy and horror, and is a classic of the genre.

The Chalk Man

‘The Chalk Man.’ Children, stick figures and dismembered bodies. No more said. This is one tale sure to traumatise.

For the kids: settle in for a reading marathon of Goosebumps by R.L. Stine.

Fear vs. Phobia

As Halloween approaches, the fake spider phenomena is really setting me on edge. But is my fear really a phobia in disguise, and can it be controlled or even conquered? According to the website of the NHS (UK):

[Phobias] develop when a person has an exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger about a situation or object.

Although the humble wee jumping spider might not take me down Shelob style, it may certainly send me screaming from the room. And arachnophobic librarians like me will understand that moment of primal terror directly following the unwitting retrieval of a book from the returns bin, whose front cover illustration happens to be the unspeakable, hairy, eight-legged object of mortification. And since we’re going there, I can’t help but recall the awful, PTSD inducing squashed-whitetail-between-the-cookbooks incident of 2017. Why people.

But life would be a little easier if I didn’t have to run from the room every time a spider scurried into my line of sight. Whilst it can be very difficult (and perhaps, folly) to get over your quite rational fears, it is definitely possible to conquer your phobias. Sadly one of the most effective methods is not particularly pleasant, and involves getting ever closer and more personal with the very thing you fear, in a form of therapy known as exposure. Here is a video showing the use of augmented reality as a technique to perform exposure therapy, to treat a spider phobia. This was part of research conducted at the University of Canterbury’s Human Interface Technology Laboratory New Zealand (HIT Lab NZ), in 2012.

Take that, phobia.

If you would like help getting over your phobia, there are lots of great resources to get you started. Check out:

  • Health and Medicine eResources – on our website. For authoritative information, studies and resources on a whole host of health related issues.
  • HealthInfo Canterbury – a great website written specifically for Canterbury residents, by nurses and doctors. A good place to go for reliable, regional specific advice, resources and general health info.
  • Health Navigator New Zealand – Health Navigator NZ is a New Zealand focused charitable trust endorsed by the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners- so you know you’re getting reliable information.
  • CINCH: Community Information Christchurch – our Christchurch information directory, find health local health related services here.
  • Any Questions/Many Answers – a website run by New Zealand librarians. Contains links and guidance on resources with information aimed at New Zealand school-aged students.

Join me and feel the terror. Wishing you a horrendous and hellish Halloween.

Castle Hill Hotel, West Coast Road: Picturing Canterbury

Castle Hill Hotel, West Coast Road. File Reference CCL Photo Collection 22, Img02341.

Castle Hill Hotel, West Coast Road [ca. 1890].

The original hotel on this site was built in 1865. It was replaced by another, built by Fred Harris, in 1871. A second storey was added to the building in 1881 and increased the size of the hotel to 28 rooms. It was a favourite stopping place for the West Coast coaches and was particularly renowned for the hot scones and tea it supplied to travellers. Although it was built of stone, the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1904. At this time it was owned by Messrs Fletcher, Humphries & Co. of Christchurch.

Do you have any photographs of the Castle Hill area? If so, feel free to contribute to our collection.

Share your photos and help us to create a true picture of our city’s rich history. Anyone can contribute.

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