Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood, The Cleo Stories: The Necklace and The present (Allen & Unwin 2014)
Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood. Go to Sleep, Jessie! (Little Hare 2014)
Doctor Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (©1957; Random House)
Janet & Allan Ahlberg, Each Peach Pear Plum (©1978, Puffin)
Doctor Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham (©1960; Random House)
We have just had two small people visiting for a week (along with their mother, my niece). Although the little girls were mostly busy making things and being generally fascinating company, they did like being read to, which meant that we had a chance to discover some new books for very young reader–listeners, and to revisit some old ones.
Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood won two of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards this year (Freya won a third, but for older readers), and we were guided by the CBCA in our purchase of new books. Their books are warm, affectionate celebrations of the intelligence of their girl protagonists. In Go to Sleep, Jessie! the heroine shares a bedroom with a baby who refuses to go to sleep and instead keeps her awake by crying loudly. The parents’ well-meaning attempts to solve the problem are unsuccessful, and she solves it beautifully herself.
Cleo is a bit older, and her problems are of a different order. ‘Everyone’ at a friend’s party has a necklace, but her parents say she can’t have one until her birthday, which is a very long time away. In a second story she has to decide on a birthday present for her mother. The problems are real, and the solutions clever.
Both books harbour understated challenges to the parents who will read them aloud many times: what do you think about consumerism, envy, tattoos or ‘controlled crying’, among other things?
After dinner one night the two little girls put on a ‘show’ that consisted mainly of vigorous physical movement and silly faces, but included audience participation in which we adults had to take our socks off and wave them about, and later take turns reading from The Cat in the Hat. The book was apparently chosen at random, but it was wonderful to see the concentration grow on the young listeners’ faces as the story progressed. (Two thirty-somethings ostentatiously took to their smart phones during the reading. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.)
An ‘I spy’ book whose images turn out to tell a story. Hearing my niece read it to her daughters in a way that beautifully captured its music, I remembered again that the joy of reading excellent children’s books aloud is as much for the adults as for the young ones. And that’s true of books like this, that depend on the art for their full meaning.
Another Dr Seuss book. This one was referred to a couple of times as our almost-two-year-old was being resolutely negative (‘Would you like it in a box? Would you like it with your socks?’). Theodor ‘Dr Seuss’ Geisel makes it look easy, but to create books that beginning readers can manage that are also fun for the fiftieth – or should that be five hundredth? – time is the work of a genius.
There were other books – including a Snugglepot and Cuddlepie adaptation that leaves mercifully nameless both the revising writer and the simplifying artist. I tried to insinuate Where the Wild Things Are into the mix, but the little one, clearly recognising the book, rejected it as too scary.
Go to Sleep, Jessie! and The Cleo Stories, are the thirteenth and fourteenth books I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I know they’re very slender, but it should count for something that I’ve read both of them at least four times in the last week.