A roomful of reading volunteers cluster round a table. Each chooses the book they would most like to share with a child. Three out of eight choose Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy. "It's such fun," they say. "Anyone would want to read this. Don't the pictures make you laugh?"
Lynley Dodd is delighted. "I hear this a lot. Teachers and children write in all the time, even that autistic children have been helped to read by Hairy." Glamorous New Zealander Lynley - mother, grandmother and artist - is author of 28 picture books, 16 of them in the Hairy MaclarySlinky Malinki series. (For the uninitiated, Hairy is a scruffy little dog and Slinky a dramatic black cat.) She has recently added duckling Zachary Quack to the Hairy clan and the new title, Zachary Quack, Minimonster, is published this summer just as Puffin brings out a 20th-anniversary edition of the Hairy Maclary series. He's 21 in New Zealand.
One of those children who couldn't stop drawing, Lynley went on to art school and studied sculpture. Her teacher, "a stickler for form and line", had a deep effect. Even now, she feels, her colours, painstakingly applied gouache, are less natural and vibrant than her lines, which leap and dance along the page.
Although she came from a house where language was played with and enjoyed (her father affectionately called her "Arabella slapcabbage"), there was little in her background (father a forester, mother a homemaker) to suggest innovative writing. "Words weren't my thing," she says, "until I started to write, when I realised that they had been my thing all along."
The fictional landscape of her books is distinctly New Zealand, though many Hairy fans (including me and my three sons) may not have noticed. Lynley explains that, for the international market, New Zealand authors have to make sure that they do not overemphasise facts such as "dairy" in New Zealand being a corner store rather than anything to do with cows. Though, she adds, with a glint in her eye, "I make sure that details such as letterboxes and plants are from home." But the dogs and cats seem so English, I suggest. "Dogs," she says, "are universal."
Hairy Maclary had been sitting in Lynley's ideas book for a few years before he fell out on a piece of paper with the first sentence: "Out of the gate and off for a walk went Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy." Zachary Quack was hatched partly from a picture of an unlikely animal looking after a young duck, partly from Lynley's desire to have "a little character who was up against all the others, who can show children how you can take on everyone". The first Hairy book was written in a flash, but subsequent texts, produced at the rate of one a year, take 20 or more rewrites. As she says: "It's so important to get the marriage between words and pictures; you are lucky if you get it right first time. And then you have to cut it down; I had a lot more dogs in Hairy at first, but I followed the repetition structure and dropped ones that didn't rhyme."
Picture books came Lynley's way by accident. She taught art in secondary schools and then, with the birth of her two children, took to freelance illustration and teaching art by correspondence. In 1973, her husband's cousin, Eve Sutton, asked for help with a children's story she had written called My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes, which was published the following year to worldwide acclaim. Lynley thought: "I like this. I'd like to have a whole book to myself." So The Nickle Nackle Tree (published 1978) was born, partly, as she says, "from ideas coming thick and fast as I read to the children. They weren't so keen on Mum's books. They were a bit older by then and they'd heard them all the time." Granddaughter Ella, though, is already "thoroughly indoctrinated" in Hairy Maclary.
The adult Lynley has no dog herself, though she does own a very badly behaved Burmese cat. She grew up with animals, including a "funny little Schnitzel von Krum (Schnitzel is a dachshund "with a very low tum" in the Hairy Maclary books) who once actually did climb a tree, like in my book".
There were also "hordes of cats" who used to camp out on the doormat when Lynley was young. In the middle of the woods in a cold New Zealand winter, you could sometimes step over as many as nine cats on your way into the warm house, only three of which lived there.
Hairy, like all great characters, has taken on a life of his own. "I was only going to write one Hairy, but one day I was parking my car when I saw a small dog come out of the butcher's with a large amount of meat hanging from its jaws and trot away down the street, and I thought, 'that's Hairy number two: what does he do when he gets home. Does he ever get to eat it?'
" She went into the butcher's shop and asked for a large bone. "What for?"
asked the butcher. "To draw." The butcher hollered out, "What do you want to draw a bone for?" Lynley laughs, but adds: "Then I made a soup out of it, which was good."
That soup would have been seasoned with Lynley's essential good sense and humour. Underlying the comedy, rhyme and visual verve of the books lies what she would hesitate to call a message ("I don't like earnest books") but which nonetheless is a welcome corrective to what she equally distrusts as "negative books". "It's a world of chaos and anarchy, but not bleak. I don't know if bleak is good for children. I tell a story to entertain. I know what I like as a child and I write for myself." Or as the end of A Dragon in a Wagon puts it: "No sharks, no bats, no hairy yaks, no dragons in a jam. Just the face, the friendly face, the DOGGY face of Sam."
Zachary Quack, Minimonster and the other Hairy Maclary books are published in the UK by Puffin