Create, read, play, wear

NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 09:42 21/01/2013
Justine Summers
MARION VAN DIJK/FAIRFAX NZ
NEW LEAF: Justine Summers with her new book, Pipimoomoo, in her Best Island home.

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Naomi Arnold visits a home of creativity on an island in the Waimea Estuary.:

Is she an artist, a clothing designer, a toy designer, or a writer? Justine Summers is quite happy to be all of those at once - and now she can add children's author to the list.

The self-taught artist lives in a renovated art deco home on Best Island, surrounded by the waters of the Waimea Estuary, its occasional spring tides nearly lapping her back doorstep.

"It's such a cool island," she says. "It feels like you're on holiday all the time. The estuary is always changing."

The 46-year-old shares it with partner Fin Horder, 9-year-old daughter Echo, and son Torbea, 12. Their home is littered with her and Horder's simple, striking art. She can't stop creating, she says - an urge that has led to her latest venture, a children's book called Pipimoomoo, published by Nelson-based Craig Potton Publishing.

It's the story of Pipimoomoo, a little girl who always wears jeans until she realises she wants a skirt of her own. Family and creativity are intermingled in Summers' world. Pipimoomoo is simultaneously the name of her original rag doll and her children's clothing brand, but she comes to life in her book. "I just thought she was so cute I turned her into a character," Summers says.

Her high-quality merino and cotton children's clothing range developed from her making outfits for the doll, and the word came from one of her nicknames for Echo: "Madame Moomoo".

"And I always loved the name Pipi," she says. "I was thinking of a name for my company and, as soon as I said it, I said ‘That's it'. It just stuck."

Family life finds a place in the book throughout, such as an enormous blackboard in the kitchen, painted stars on her children's bedroom wall, and Echo's paintings standing in for Pipimoomoo's.

Summers has based the story on her own childhood, and new traditions she has developed with Echo.

"I remember going to the fabric shop with my mother, and I loved it," she says. "Getting clothes made for you was just fantastic. And pushing your foot down on the pedal - it was such a buzz. My daughter loves it."

However, she says, mothers sewing for their daughters is pleasure and a craft that has become rare these days.

"I think that's sad. It's a wonderful thing you can do, create clothes from a piece of fabric."

Summers grew up in Central Otago, taught English in Taiwan, then gained a degree in education. She and Horder travelled the world before moving to Horder's hometown Nelson in 2000. "Children settled us down," she says.

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When her daughter was born, she remembered a handmade, wool-stuffed rag doll she had adored as a child and, in 2005, made her first one for Echo, with curly black hair, bright clothes, and a smile. She loves the simplicity of rag dolls.

"With rag dolls, it doesn't matter if the dog gets it or the stuffing comes out - you can just wash it and fix it up again," she says."I wanted it to become a family tradition. One of those things you cherish and hand on with love and memories. I've tried to capture some of the spirit of that in this picture book too - all the wonder that comes with childhood, with its individuality and expressiveness."

A selection of her dolls and children's clothes, printed with child-like designs of T-Rex, diggers, "blutterflies" and more, are sold in Nelson's Shine and Upper Moutere Village's the Old Post Office Store, and she also brings a few to the Wanaka A&P show when she visits family down south.

Her kids have helped her with the designs. "My model is, ‘Inspired by children for children'," she says.

Post Office Store owner Jo Costar calls Summers' creations "just brilliant". "We just keep selling the dolls," she says. "We've had them for a few years now and they're completely unique. Each doll has its own personality, which sounds strange, but somehow they do."

Shine owner Jo Menary says Pipimoomoo, a "gorgeous" book, has been popular with customers since its release, along with the clothing line. "They're good quality and a little bit different from the mass-produced [clothing]," she says.

Summers and her partner developed the Trekkle in 2007, a sturdy, simple wooden and steel trike made in New Zealand. The prototype she wheels out of her shed is still in good nick.

"I just hate plastic toys that are going to end up in the landfill six months down the track," she says. "Our business philosophy was always ‘Made to last with love and memories'. If I do anything it's got to be good. I can't produce crap. It does my head in."

The items were all originally sold in her online store, but her father's illness forced her to put all that on hold recently, and she started considering the future of her business. She was determined to keep manufacturing in New Zealand, but the expense is huge. She cast around for something to do next - and her enormous children's book collection gave her the answer.

"I always wanted to write and illustrate a book and the timing was perfect," she says. "I adore children's books, I always have. Some of them are just so ingenious; so blimmin' clever, and a good book will last forever. I still can't quite get that I've done one, to be honest."

She had written an outline of the story when Echo was 4 years old, and decided to show a few sample pages to CPP's publisher Robbie Burton. He asked to see more. Her illustrations have an unusual quality - a mix of photography, sketch, and paint, scanned and Photoshopped together.

"There is every medium you can possibly use in that book," she says. "I love how people have no idea how it's done. It's fun. It's totally different. That's the beauty of being self-taught; you just go with your gut feeling."

The book took her about seven months to complete as she worked through winter in estuary-surrounded seclusion, with the illustrations taking up most of the time.

"It was just like being on a writer's retreat," she says. "I just loved it. I pinched myself each day; I couldn't believe I was doing something I adore.

"It was just fantastic because you get so engrossed in it; I wouldn't even answer the phone."

Used to an artist's freedom, she had to adjust to working to a deadline and keeping her illustrations plentiful and consistent.

"That was the hardest thing; you had to wake up every day and turn on that creativity."

It's one of four children's books CPP has published, but there are more to come this year, with another handful in development. Mr Burton says they picked up Pipimoomoo because they enjoyed its crafty emphasis.

"We really liked that it was a book targeted at girls and that whole discovery of clothes which seems to be a part of growing up," he says. "We couldn't see anything else quite like it on the market [and] we thought it was really charmingly illustrated."

CPP gets about two or three children's book proposals a week, and Mr Burton says it's a growing area of the company that began with Nelson story Herbert, the Brave Sea Dog, which has sold 25,000 copies in New Zealand.

He believes there's potential for more from Pipimoomoo - although Summers says she's writing a boys' one next. If Pipimoomoo was her gift to Echo, her next one will be for Torbea, packed with machinery. "I can see him on the cover wearing his striped T-shirt, with a digger. It'll be fun, completely different. Then I'll feel like I've given a book to both of them."

  • Pipimoomoo, by Justine Summers, retails for $29.99 hardback and $19.99 paperback. It is available from bookstores nationwide and online at craigpotton.co.nz.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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