Category Archives: Ruby Reads

Ruby Reads 27: Tashi

Anna & Barbara Fienberg, Kim Gamble, Arielle and Greer Gamble, Alphabetical Tashi: A story told in ABC (Allen & Unwin 2020)
Anna Fienberg, Barbara Fienberg and Kim Gamble, Tashi (Allen & Unwin 1995, 2018)
Anna Fienberg, Barbara Fienberg and Kim Gamble, Tashi and the Big Stinker (Allen & Unwin 2000)

The Tashi books are a great success story of Australian children’s literature. They had their beginnings in stories that Barbara Fienberg told to her little daughter Anna in the bath. When Anna grew up to be a children’s author – editor of The School Magazine for some years, and creator of a string of picture books including The Magnificent Nose and Other Marvels – she and her mother decided to make some of those childhood stories into books. Kim Gamble, who had worked with Anna on a number of earlier projects, joined the project and created a charming and distinctive visual presence. Tashi was born.

Each of the Tashi books includes two stories told by Tashi to his friend Jack, who usually relays one of them to his father. Tashi comes from a land far away where he had amazing adventures and triumphed over aseemingly endless line-up of monsters and villains. There’s excellent comedy in the telling, as Jack’s father consistently exasperates his son by asking the wrong questions. Jack’s friendship with Tashi has a sweet, unforced subtext about the enriching possibilities of immigration.

Anna and Kim (full disclosure, I have worked with both of them and think of them as my friends) did magical school visits where Anna would read a story while Kim created a chalk image of one of its key moments. Many schools around New South Wales treasure the works created on those occasions.

So, how did Ruby, like many others of her age group obsessed with Elsa of Frozen, take to Tashi?

Not that well.


This gorgeous alphabet book was Ruby’s first encounter. After Kim’s untimely death in 2017, the Fienbergs and Kim’s daughters Arielle and Greer teamed up to make a kind of memorial using some of his original art created for the 16 books in the series.

We progress through the alphabet, as Tashi (A boy) confronts a series of foes, starting with Baba Yaga and ending with fierce Zeng and his army. Every page is striking and there are some spectacularly beautiful spreads featuring rural south-east Asian landscapes with karst mountains, ornate bridges, buffaloes and thatched roofs.

The verse narrative is sparse, and none of the encounters with baddies is spelled out in any detail. It’s meant to remind readers of past reading pleasures rather than provide new ones.

Ruby was generally unimpressed. She’s not interested in scary stories: she covers her ears during some bits of Catwings, or asks us to skip those pages altogether. So she took no pleasure in the wonderfully scary pages here. The one page that stirred her interest was V: ‘Very Big Stinker, who farted and fumed.’ This fitted very nicely with her current opinion that saying ‘Poo-poo’ is the height of wit.


So we bought a copy of Nº 7 in the series, Tashi and the Big Stinker, whose cover shows Tashi recoiling from a cloud of greenish gas at the rear of a very large man.

Oh dear! The farting pages were a long time coming and when they did they were far too graphic for our almost-four-year-old. The playing around with narrative point of view, which I have found delightful, went right over our young one’s head. And then the second episode, a dramatic retelling of the pied piper story, is far too scary for her: there’s a brilliant moment when all the children of the village are about to plunge over ‘a steep drop, down, down, a hundred metres down to the rushing waters of a mountain gorge’, led there by a pied piper figure who is as genuinely frightening as Heath Ledger’s Joker.


Perhaps we needed to go back to the beginning. We got hold of the original, Tashi, with an unstinky, elegant swan on the cover. But oh dear! The action that leads up to Tashi’s splendid flight on the swan had our little listener rigid with horror. Tashi’s parents sold him to raise money to travel. Never mind that they sold him to a war lord – we don’t care what that is, but we do care that parents can sell their children!

The second story in this book has a dragon – the last dragon – who, instead of turning into a good dragon which happens a lot in Ruby’s games, is killed by Tashi. Perhaps some of our extinction-averse zeitgeist has helped form Ruby’s sensibility. The fact that there is a benign grandmother was no help. Nor was the almost complete absence of female characters apart from her.


It was like introducing two dearly loved friends, only to have them take an instant dislike to each other, and being able to see why.

Maybe we’ll try again in a couple of years.


Tashi and the Big Stinker and Tashi are the 12th and 13th books I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Ruby Reads 26: More Catwings and amazing Australian women revisited

Ursula K Le Guin, illustrated by S D Schindler, Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings (© 1994, Orchard 2006)

–––––––, Jane on Her Own (© 1999, Scholastic 2007)

Inspired by the success of the first two Catwings books, we bought the other two online (not from Amazon). They arrived a week apart and in the wrong order, so Ruby got the story in a nonlinear fashion, but it didn’t seem to matter. Here they are in their correct order.

Alexander is a kitten who believes in his own wonderfulness, and is tremendously brave in his home environment. He ventures out into the world where he meets with actual danger and finds himself stuck up in a tree and terrified, when along comes little black Jane-with-wings from Catwings Return to help him down.

The two kittens develop a strong bond, and (spoiler alert!), Alexander is able to help Jane face the early terrifying experience that has left her functionally mute, and having faced it regain her capacity to speak

After having this read to her once, Ruby cast her Nana and Pop as various cats and herself as Jane, and then Alexander, but mainly Jane, and a good time was had by all. The book was then read several more times. Thelma, who barely features in the narrative to my mind, is firmly entrenched as Ruby’s favourite character, possibly because she is the oldest of the Catwings siblings, the big sister, a role Ruby revels in in real life.

Jane takes centre stage here. Bored with the safe life on Overhill Farm, she sets out on an adventure. The others all warn her that if human beings (not ‘beans’) see a cat with wings they’ll either put her in a cage or take her to a laboratory. As it happens, Jane finds herself for a time a captive TV celebrity.

When I saw the title of this book, I thought it was going to be about the Catwings’ mother, Mrs Jane Tabby, and I’m a little ashamed that I wasn’t all that interested. Mrs Jane Tabby does make an appearance at the end, and the whole series finishes, like the first book, with human-to-cat kindness.

I hope Ruby keeps on loving these books, because at the moment I’ve got them on a par with where the Wild Things Are or The Sign on Rosie’s Door for enduring readability.


Pamela Freeman and Sophie Beer,  Amazing Australian Women: Twelve Women Who Shaped History (Lothian 2018)

I blogged about this book some years ago, here. It was a gift from the author to Ruby, back when looking at pictures of cats was what Ruby did by way of reading.

She asks for it often just now, and a measure of her engagement with it is a question she asked last week as we were out walking: ‘Poppa, do you think Rose Quong is a beautiful name?’ Rose Quong makes a bigger impression than Nellie Melba, and she’s very interest to know if Edith Cowan had babies.

Ruby Reads 25: Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula K Le Guin, Illustrated S D Schindler, Catwings (Orchard Books 1988)
–––––, Catwings Return (Orchard Books 1989)

Yesterday, Ruby decided that she’d had enough of the pile of books in our living room, and raided the child-height shelf in the second bedroom. She pulled out a boxed set of Roald Dahl, but before she could get too committed to it I reached for the Catwings books. I thought they’d be ‘too old’ for a three-and-a-half-year-old, but I was delighted to be found wrong.

Mrs Jane Tabby was surprised when she gave birth to four kittens with wings, but she didn’t feel the need to find an explanation. Having dismissed the issue of ‘How come?’, the book moves on to the much more interesting question of ‘What then?’

The kittens were born under a dumpster (which I read as ‘skip’ to Ruby) in an alley, and their mother rightly fears for their safety. In addition to the dangers faced by ordinary kittens, they run the extra risk of being abducted by curious or exploitative humans and subjected to at best humiliation and at worst vivisection, though the book tactfully avoids being explicit about the latter. So their mother sends the kittens off into the world by themselves to find a safe place. After a number of adventures, involving injuries and close shaves, and hostility, especially from birds who don’t want cats invading their airspace, they are eventually coaxed into contact with two human children. The last two lines, which I won’t quote here, echoing Leontes’ wonderful line in The Winter’s Tale, ‘O, she’s warm,’ and have almost the same emotional force.

Catwings Return takes up the story just a little later. Two of the kittens – Harriet and James – decide to go back to the city to visit their mother, and there, in a row of buildings that are being demolished, they discover a tiny black kitten, who also has wings but is too young to fly. Alone, filthy, starving and terrified, it can say only two words, a desolate ‘Me’ and a spitting ‘Hate!’ Of course, the older kittens befriend the little one and all three are reunited with their mother before rejoining their siblings. But there is genius in the scenes where Harriet and James calmly, purringly surround the terrified defensive little one with love and reassurance.

The Emerging Artist and I read one book each – no mean feat for the EA, given that she had cataract surgery two days earlier. Occasionally Ruby would want to turn the page before the EA or I had finished reading it, but she never insisted when we said she needed to wait. S D Schindler’s brilliant illustrations held her attention, especially by setting the mostly impossible task of figuring out which kitten was which. But she also remained rapt for the pages without illustration. In the second book, Thelma and Roger are the two kittens who stay behind. Ruby, who had barely met Thelma in its opening pages, kept asking after her all through Harriet and James’s adventures, and was very pleased when she was found safe and happy at the end. Roger didn’t provoke similar concerns – I suspect gender bias.

We only read the books once each, but we had Catwings themed play for some time afterwards: ‘You be the black kitten and say “Hate!” and I’ll purr at you.’

And so the late great Ursula K Le Guin enters the world of another new person. How good is that?

There are three more books in the series, which I will now go in search of.

[I went searching for my other blog posts about UKLG, and found that they hadn’t been transferred from my old, pre-Wordpress blog. So I’m fixing that.]

Ruby Reads 24: Visiting the library

All but the first of these books were read during two visits to the wonderful Marrickville Library. The first was a gift from a friend.


Margaret Mahy, The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate (Puffin 1996)

This is one of the great picture books. A drab little man who works in a soul-destroyingly dull job has a large, exuberant mother who used to be a pirate. He has never even seen the sea until, at her request, he wheels her over a long distance down to the coast. On the way, in spite of the discouraging comments from a philosopher and others they encounter, he becomes increasingly enraptured by the idea of the sea. When they arrive, the reality is overwhelmingly more impressive than his imaginings. (The opposite of Proust, you could say.) In Margaret Chamberlain’s illustrations, the little man’s transformation is wonderful to behold, as iss the mother’s exuberance and the stunning beauty of the sea.

A Catholic priest once told me he used this book as the basis for sermons. Ruby quite likes it, asked for it more than once, but it’s not a great favourite (yet, he added hopefully).


Margaret Mahy (words) and Jonathan Allen (pictures), The Great White Man Eating Shark (Puffin 1989)

This is another of my favourite picture books. Norvin is an unprepossessing boy and failed actor. He loves to swim, ‘to cut through the water like a silver arrow’, but other people at the beach always get in the way. He decides to capitalise on his appearance and his acting skills and disguises himself as a shark. When the other bathers panic, he has the beach all to himself … until a lady shark comes along and is beguiled by his gorgeous sharkiness. Jonathan Allen’s illustrations strike a perfect note that combines silliness and threat.

In spite of Ruby’s love of ‘Baby Shark‘ (if you don’t know about that song, click on the link), her current love of swimming, and her enduring love of pretend games, this book sadly failed to hit the spot (yet, I say again).


Atinuke (words) and Angela Brooksbank (images) B Is for Baby (Walker Books 2019)

This is not an alphabet book. It’s entirely about the letter B. And somehow that’s perfect for Ruby just now. She can recognise all the letters of the alphabet, and having one of them have a whole book to itself appeals to her. Especially when it’s identified with a brilliant little baby.

Evidently Atinuke, originally from Nigeria and currently living in Wales, has written a number of books featuring this baby. I don’t know if Angela Brooksbank has illustrated them all. I hope so, because the warmth and sheer life of these images is a tonic for the heart.


Bec Barnes, My Rhino Is Better Than Yours (David Fickling 2020)

The recurrent phrase, ‘The rhino that I know is better than yours,’ works like a charm. Two children, a boy and a girl, compete for the title of best rhino owner, their claims for their respective toys becoming more and more hyperbolical, and incidentally transgressing all sorts of gender-specific boundaries. Not just the rhyme, but the concept and the final resolution, in which a real rhino turns up and threatens to eat both children, work a treat. I approached this book with dread, but came very quickly to share Ruby’s love of it.


Lizi Boyd, I Wrote You a Note (Chronicle Books 2017)

As with the rhino book, the rhyme of this title, which I would barely have noticed, appeal hugely to this three-and-a-quarter-year-old. She chanted it over and over in the car on the way home from the library.

A young person’s note is found by a series of creatures who miraculously don’t chew it, or rip it, or soak it, and in the end it finds it way to its intended reader. Ruby loves to draw pictures for (and of) absent loved ones. This book is right up her alley.

The cover gives a good idea of the subtle style of illustration.


Andrew Joyner, The Pink Hat (Schwartz and Wade 2017)

Like I Wrote You a Note, this picture book follows the vicissitudes of an inanimate object – in this case a pink knitted hat – as it is claimed by one creature or person after another and then escapes them. This time, the the hat doesn’t just end up with the young person it is intended for, but with her it joins a sea of pink knitted hats at the great Women’s March of 2017. It’s a brilliant example of a book that is deeply satisfying on a number of levels. Andrew Joyner, an Australian who has illustrated for my beloved School Magazine, says on his website:

Inspired by the 5 million people (many of them children) in 82 countries who participated in the 2017 Women’s March, this is a book that celebrates girls and women and equal rights for all! 

I’ll keep an eye out for his Stand Up! Speak Up!, a story inspired by the Climate Change Revolution, which may be a little old for Ruby for another year or so.

Ruby Reads 23: Hugs, a Bag and a Violin

Having gone months without an update on the books I’m encountering or re-encountering with my granddaughter, here’s a second in quick succession.


Nick Bland (writer) and Freya Blackwood (illustrator), The Runaway Hug (Scholastic 2011)

Lucy’s Mummy has only one hug left, so when she gives it to Lucy, Lucy promises to bring it back as soon as she’s finished with it. Then Lucy goes through her whole family giving and receiving the same hug – until Annie the dog takes it and runs out the door. Lucy is devastated.

But it’s all right: the dog returns the hug, ‘a lot more slobbery than before, but just as nice’. And there’s no limit on kisses. Freya Blackwood’s illustrations bathe Lucy’s family in glorious warmth: we know from the start that nothing can go seriously wrong.

I wouldn’t necessarily have expected a three-year-old to follow this kind of playful commodification of affection, but our three-year-old completely gets it, asks for the book frequently, and has been inventing her own variations on the ‘I’m all out of hugs’ routine.


Rosemary Wells, Morris’s Disappearing Bag (©1975, 199, Puffin 2001)

We went hunting for Rosemary Wells books, because we had enjoyed a number of them when Ruby’s father and uncle were members of the intended readership. So far we’ve had no luck with Benjamin and Tulip, in which a fairly nasty episode of bullying is resolved into a watermelon-seed-spitting friendship. But we did find this. It’s a Christmas book. Morris is a rabbit (I think), the youngest of four in his family, and on Christmas day all his siblings’ presents look more interesting than his, but none of the siblings will let him play with the presents. Then he discovers one more parcel under the tree, which turns out to be the disappearing bag of the title. First he climbs in and becomes invisible, then of their own free will all three siblings climb in, leaving him free to play with their skates, chemistry set and cosmetics for the rest of the day.

I imagine this would be enjoyed most acutely by a young person who wishes his or her older siblings would just vanish from the face of the earth for a while. But the magic of it, and the complex, gently subversive take on sharing are pretty enjoyable for anyone who’s relatively at ease with Christmas, me and Ruby included.


Rosemary Wells, You Can Do It, Noisy Nora (Viking 2020)

We bought this at a bricks and mortar bookshop (Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill) under the impression that we were buying the original Noisy Nora, one of our favourites from all those decades ago. It’s nice to see that Rosemary Wells has stayed engaged with the same family of, um, hamsters.

I remember Nora as a character who hadn’t quite come to grips with the idea of quiet inside voice as opposed to loud outside voice. This book isn’t about voices, but the suffering inflicted on a family when a young person insists on learning to play the violin – not a xylophone, a banjo, or a harp, but a screeching violin – and the joy all round when the young person succeeds. Rosemary Wells’s illustrations show the suffering with wry humour, and the flow of her rhyming narrative contrasts reassuringly with the ‘Twang! Whine ! Scrape! Squeak!’ and so on that Nora extracts from the violin.

Ruby Reads 22:

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted about books read with my granddaughter. Here’s a beginning catch-up.

Dinner with Olivia (Simon & Schuster 2009, based on the TV series, adapted by Emily Sollinger, illustrated by Guy Wolek)

Neither Ruby nor her grandparents knew there was a TV series featuring Olivia, and at first I was wary of this knock-off of Ian Falconer’s wonderful books: as befits children’s TV, the illustration style is a lot cruder than Falconer’s New Yorkish elegance. But it turns out the book is lovely. Olivia goes to her posh friend Francine’s place for dinner. At first she is in awe, and mildly ashamed of the messiness of her own family, especially her little brothers. But once she has experienced the rule-bound life of Francine’s family, not to mention the Brussels sprouts, she – and Francine – realise how excellent it is to slurp spaghetti sauce and occasionally have a meatball bounce to the floor.


Alison Lester, Hello Little Babies (OUP 1985)

Like Alison Lester’s Clive Eats Alligators, this follows a number of children in different activities. This time the children are babies, of a range of ethnicities. Ruby is besotted with her little brother, and with babies in general – at the museum, the exhibit that held her attention was the diorama of baby dinosaurs hatching from their eggs. An added attraction in this book is that one of the babies is named Ruby.


Sally Lloyd-Jones and Sue Heap, How to Be a Baby, by Me, The Big Sister (Schwartz & Wade Books 2007)

Much loved by Ruby, this mocks the narrator’s baby brother for his comparative helplessness. At least, we assume the baby is male, because that’s what Ruby’s baby brother Charlie is. We first read this before he was born. It has become much more popular since he became a reality. I’m not entirely comfortable with the book’s rampant condescension, but I think Ruby can tell it’s joking, and she particularly likes the last pages, where the big sister looks forward to the time when the baby will be as tall as her and able to play with her.


Maurice Sendak, In the Night Kitchen (©1970, HarperCollins Publishers 1988)

Ruby’s not so fond of this. I think there’s too much that she doesn’t quite recognise: the cooks in the kitchen, dough rising, New York skysline, naked boy … And the story line is weird. However, we were driving in the car the other day and she started chanting, ‘Milk in the batter! Milk in the Batter!’ So the magic of Sendak is percolating.


Margaret Mahy (writer) and Jenny Williams (illustrator), A Lion in the Meadow (©1969, re-illustrated edition ©1986, Picture Puffins 1989)

We picked this up at the Addison Road markets. Margaret Mahy is one of the great children’s writers, and Ruby has responded to this book appropriately. Like Sendak’s The Sign on Rosie’s Door, it has a brilliant mother who responds intelligently to her child’s fantasies. The difference is that is this case the child’s fantasy, of ‘a big, roaring, yellow, whiskery lion in the meadow’, turns out to be real, and so does the mother’s counter-fantasy of a dragon in a matchbox who will chase the lion away. Not a word out of place, this is irresistible, and – like the Sendak books – a pleasure to read aloud.


Libby Gleeson (writer) and Freya Blackwood (illustrator), Banjo and Ruby Red (Little Hare 2013)

A dog and a chook overcome initial relationship difficulties to become good friends. What’s not to love? We used to visit some urban chickens when Ruby was much smaller (her word for chicken as ‘babook’, but she eventually decided to go with the consensus). She still talks about the family dog who died some time ago – ‘It’s very sad.’ And relationship difficulties seem to be an issue as she spends more time in childcare. Plus, the chook’s name is Ruby Red. I don’t imagine the Australian farm setting is any more familiar to our inner-city girl than Sendak’s New York skyline, but in this case that doesn’t seem to matter.

This book is also a pleasure to read aloud, for the pathos of a scene where Ruby Red is apparently lifeless as much as for the pages where Banjo does a lot of barking and for the way movement can be traced in great arc across the pages in Freya Blackwood’s illustrations


Hello Little Babies and Banjo and Ruby Red are the first two books I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Ruby Reads 21: Books lent by a blog reader

I’m doing proportionally more posts about children’s books just now because this Covid lockdown is giving me more time than ever with granddaughter Ruby, and concomitantly less time for other reading.

After my last post about books I’ve read with Ruby, a lovely friend/blog reader lent me a swag of books she thought we’d enjoy. This is that swag:

Ian Falconer, Olivia Saves the Circus (Atheneum 2001)

The original Olivia has been a big success. Ruby talks about Olivia’s little brother Ian quite a lot and doesn’t want to go pink at the beach ‘like Olivia’. So this book, in which Olivia tells her class at school how she stepped into the breach when the circus performers were all sick, was very welcome. Although Ruby is a long way from getting the classroom jokes – the teacher is sceptical of Olivia’s tall tales and forces a near-admission of untruthfulness – she asks for the book on repeat. Olivia’s bold inventiveness is pretty irresistible.


Alison Lester, Clive Eats Alligators (OUP 1985)

The first spread of this gives us six children eating breakfast, all different. Turn to the next spread: the text on the left-hand page reads ‘But Clive eats alligators,’ and the image on the right shows Clive, perhaps disappointingly, eating a cereal called Alligator Pops. The book continues with Getting Dressed, Playing, Lunch, Shopping, Pets, Treats and Bedtime. Each of the seven children has a turn at having a spread to her or himself. The fun is in tracing any one of them through the book and seeing how their interests play out in the different contexts: the girl who loves horses, the bookish boy, and so on.


Shirley Hughes, Chatting (Walker Books 1994)

Shirley Hughes is one of the great children’s illustrators of the 20th century. The endpapers of this book are 18 wonderful, warm cameos of active small children, each with a present participle beneath it: laughing, aching, pushing, pouring, and so on. The body of the book picks up on one of these cameos, ‘chatting’. and rings variations on it. The first person narrator is a little girl who likes to chat, who is bored when adults chat for too long, whose mother calls her a chatterbox, whose best chats of all are with her dad when he comes to say goodnight. The illustrations are great, but not very enticing to Ruby, and the theme is a bit lost on her too, I think. (For my part, I rankled vicariously at the ‘chatterbox’ criticism.)


Vera B Williams, “More More More,” Said the Baby (Greenwillow Books 1990)

Subtitled ‘Three Love Stories’, this is exactly that. In three separate stories a small child – a toddler rather than a baby – has a great time with an adult and cries out, ‘More. More. More.’ Except , that is, for the third one, because she’s asleep and just says, ‘Mmm. Mmmm. Mmmm.’ Done in consciously arty gouache, and with attention to diversity, this is very sweet. It doesn’t have the dramatic hold of Olivia or Rosie (see below), but it’s terrific.


Ruth Krauss (writer) and Maurice Sendak (Illustrator), A Hole Is to Dig (Harper Collins 1952)

Subtitled ‘A first book of first definitions’, this is just that – a collection of definitions, mostly in the form ‘X is to y’: ‘A watch is to hear it tick,’ ‘A mountain is to go to the top,’ ‘A mountain is to go to the bottom,’ ‘A package is to look inside.’ The text is witty and charming, but what makes the book brilliant are the pen-drawing illustrations by Maurice Sendak, then 24 years old. It’s a book to treasure. Ruby doesn’t care for it at all.


Maurice Sendak, The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960)

Stung by Ruby’s indifference to the 1952 Sendak, I retrieved this chapter book from our bookshelves, expecting it to sail right past her. The book has been on high rotation ever since.

You can see Meryl Streep reading the first half of the book at Maurice Sendak’s 80th birthday party, complete with slides of Sendak’s drawings, at this link. In that half, Rosie becomes Alinda the Lovely Lady Singer. In the second half, which is even better, she becomes Alinda the Lost Girl (‘Who lost you?’ ‘I lost myself.’) and a giant firecracker, and finally (spoiler alert) a sleepy cat. So many lines in this book make my heart sing. It was inspired by children Sendak saw playing in the street outside his window in Brooklyn, in particular the little girl who ran the show. Like Ruby, Rosie creates a lot of fun, and takes on a range of identities as she goes. I love them both.


Clive Eats Alligators is the ninth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

Ruby reads 19: Ancient favourites

People in their late 60s and older are generally avoiding contact with grandchildren these days, but the Emerging Artist and I are currently on grand-duty a couple of days a week, at least until the little one is cough-free and can go back to her childcare centre without fear of infecting anyone. (Note to any Covidgilantes reading this: We’re confident that her cough isn’t Covid-19, because we caught it from her and have tested negative.)

One of the many pleasures of grand-parenting this week has been renewing acquaintance with some much loved books, and encountering new (to us) variations on others. Here goes, with two Lynley Dodd books and three Allan Ahlbergs.

Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Burglar Bill (William Heinemann 1977)

Burglar Bill’s refrain ‘I’ll have that!’ became part of our family’s conversation. There’s something wonderful about the way he climbs in through windows and puts anything from a toothbrush to a can of beans into his sack. Spoiler alert: he takes home a box he finds outside a house, and discovers a baby inside it. Much merriment ensues as he tries to deal with the baby’s unstoppable crying.

It all turns out well (even bigger spoiler alert) when Burglar Bill is burgled by Burglar Betty who turns out to be the baby’s mother, both burglars decide to reform and end up marrying. But secretly we all just put up with the happy ending so we can have that wicked stealing in the first half. It may be a bit old for Ruby just yet, but she asks for it on repeat anyhow

Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Mrs Wobble the Waitress (Puffin 1980)

I have Mrs Wobble the Waitress on order, but I wanted to mention it here because it was also a big hit with out young ones 30 or more years ago. It’s part of Allan Ahlberg’s Happy Families series – 20 books in all, many (most?) of them illustrated by his equally brilliant wife Janet Ahlberg. I don’t know if the Ahlbergs had the opening lines of Anna Karenina in mind when they named the series, but these happy families are definitely not all alike.

This book begins with a wonderfully inept adult – Mrs Wobble – whose clumsiness leads to her being fired from her job as a waiter. The family come to the rescue, and it all turns out well, but I confess that what has stayed in my mind is the book’s final line After the wobble family have set up their own successful restaurant, there’s an impending disaster: ‘Mrs wobble wobbled.’

Allan Ahlberg and Joe Wright, Mrs Plug the Plumber (1980)

Mrs Plug the Plumber competes with Where the Wild Things for having the most neural pathways laid down in my brain. I read, ‘If a plumber was needed in the town, the people said, “Send for Mrs Plug!”‘ and I’m away. Mrs Plug is the mover and shaker. Mr Plug is the plumber’s mate, and Miss Plug and Master Plug are the plumber’s babies. Terrible things happen, and Mrs Plug rises to the occasion every time. Joe Wright’ illustrations, especially of the storm at sea, are brilliant, and the incantatory text is superb. Ruby loves this one, even including the somewhat scatological punchline. One small but significant pleasure for me is the appearance of Burglar Bill’s catchphrase, ‘I’ll have that’ in the scen where Mrs Plug turns the tables on a robber.

Lynley Dodd, Hairy Maclary’s Rumpus at the Vet (1989)

The first Hairy Maclary book, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy was published in 1983. According to Wikipedia the most recent, Scarface Claw – Hold Tight, appeared in 2017. Roughly 20 books in 35 years and as far as I know Lynley Dodd is still going strong and so are her gang of bouncily rhyming dogs and other animals.

Ruby has at least half the Hairy Maclary and Friends books. These are two of the four or five I enjoyed with her this week. Atypically, Hairy Maclary doesn’t have a starring role in this one: a cockatoo bites his tail in the vet’s waiting room, and there’s a chain reaction of disturbed animals: the dog, mice, budgerigars, kittens, a goat, an overwhelmed vet with her legs in the air. What more could anyone want? (Well, you could want the fabulously scary Scarface Claw to be lurking on the sidelines, an innocent bystander – and if you wanted that you wouldn’t be disappointed.)

Lynley Dodd, Hairy Maclary, Shoo (2009)

Hairy is centre stage in this one. It begins and ends with him playing with his friends, whose names (Bottomly Potts all covered in spots, and so on) have rung like a litany in some of the earlier books. But soon he jumps into a delivery van and is driven off in it. When poor Hairy Maclary jumps out of the van he is lost and every human he meets shoos him off. The lost dog’s panic is wonderfully rendered as comedy, but like all the best comedy the dark emotion isn’t completely extinguished. So the relief when he is found is huge.

Linley Dodd is a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. For having for so many decades paired evergreen, lively rhyming verse with precisely and lovingly portrayed dog behaviour, she richly deserves any honours she receives

Tohby Riddle’s Astronaut’s Cat

Tohby Riddle, The Astronaut’s Cat (Allen & Unwin 2020)

On Wednesday Tohby Riddle facebooked that he couldn’t have a launch for his new picture book because of the social isolation regime. I ordered a copy yesterday morning (Friday) from Gleebooks online. David Gaunt, Gleebooks head honcho, delivered a copy to my door yesterday afternoon – he said he was hand delivering books as a way of dealing with his anxiety. All three bricks and mortar Gleebooks are shut and their post-Covid survival is in doubt. So I’m writing this post about an utterly joyous book through a haze of proleptic grief.

The book is brilliant. It’s brilliant anyway, but it’s absolutely a book for our socially-isolating times.

The Astronaut’s cat is an inside cat. The text never mentions the moon, but that’s where she is. She likes to look outside but doesn’t want to go there. She dreams of going out to frolic in the low-gravity landscape, and then within the dream she dreams of going to live on the blue ball that rises over the horizon – and after all the stark moonscapes there are four full-colour spreads to make the heart sing. All this told in sparse, perfectly judged text.

Tohby has put a couple of his favourite spreads up on facebook (at this link). I’m assuming he won’t mind me putting them up here as well:

When I blog about children’s books, I label them as ‘Ruby Reads’. So that’s how I’ve labelled this one. While I expect toddler Ruby to enjoy it, I doubt if she’ll fall as intensely in love with it as I have.

Ruby Reads 18: buckets from the stream

Blogging about books read to Ruby could become a full time occupation. All I can do is dip my little bucket in the stream every now and then and show you what I caught in it. Here goes!

Christina Booth, Are These Hen’s Eggs? (Allen & Unwin 2020)

Mrs Roberta Kennedy, a retired school teacher, reads to children at Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill every Thursday morning. When we attended last week, the usual contingent from a nearby childcare centre didn’t arrive so Ruby made up half the young audience and this was a wonderfully intimate experience for her, especially as the other little one was sick and not that interested.

Are These Hen’s Eggs? is hot off the press, and though it’s the first book by Christina Booth that I’ve encountered, she has written and illustrated a lot (link to her website here). This one has a story of friendship and cooperation – the hen’s eggs are scattered in a storm and other animals help to retrieve them – and it slips in a sweetly amusing lesson, because as the eggs hatch we get to see a range of creatures that are born out of eggs, culminating in a very cute turtle (I was half expecting a snake, and was relieved that Christina Booth went for cute rather than scary).


Alex Barrow, If I Had a Sleepy Sloth (Thames & Hudson 2020)

Also hot off the press (after all it’s a bookshop and the merchandise must be promoted), this is great fun. I must admit that what I remember is the incidental facts about sloths: moss grows in their fur and they have very long claws. I can’t tell you if these facts were in the text or in Mrs Kennedy’s asides. But the images are splendidly friendly.


Didier Lévy (text) and Fred Benaglia (images), How to Light Your Dragon (Thames & Hudson 2020)

A child tries all sorts of tactics to rekindle his pet dragon’s fire. In the end, it’s his affection that does the trick. We’r never quite sure whether we’re on the child’s side or the dragons. Do we hope the fire will come or do we wish the child would just leave the poor fireless creature alone? Either way, we love the images.

This is translated from French, original title Comment rallumer un dragon éteint. I couldn’t find the translator’s name anywhere, sorry. Didier Lévy is a prolific creator of children’s books, and I hope this isn’t the only one that’s available to Anglophone children. many of them ringing the changes o fairytale themes. Fred Benaglia is similarly prolific in the Francophone world.


Chris McKimmie, I NEED a Parrot (Ford Street Publishing 2019)

Mrs Kennedy showed her virtuosity here. Realising that the books she had selected in advance weren’t appropriate for her audience of a solitary two year old (plus grandparents), she scrimmaged around on the shelves and chose this, and did a brilliant unrehearsed reading. The child narrator here wants a parrot and goes thought a list of the things she doesn’t want – the whale in the cover illustration is the most outlandish, but not by much.


Eunice Moyle and Sabrina Moyle, Super Pooper and Whizz Kid: Potty Power! (Harry N Abrams 2018)

This wasn’t part of Robbie Kennedy’s repertoire. It was in the board book shelf at Marrickville Library, and some inner demon prompted me to pick it up and read it with appropriate gusto to Ruby. It’s a rude and irreverent explanation of the use of a potty with adventurous typography and wealth of synonyms for bodily functions. I don’t know that the synonyms did much for Ruby, but she stayed interested. The bit I liked best was where the child, once sitting on the potty, has to wait … and WAIT …and WAIT.


Julia Donaldson (words) and Axel Scheffler (images), Tabby McTat (Alison Green Books, Tenth Anniversary edition 2019)

This Tabby McTat is a busker’s dear friend. When Tabby is distractd by a beautiful female cat named Sox and the busker gets into serious trouble they are separated. It’s a book about love and loss and change and hope. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler are one of the power partnerships of current children’s literature, and this is my favourite of their books. Donaldson makes rhyming look easy and her wit is brilliant as well as age-appropriate – Ruby loves the song that Tabby McTat sings with his human busker friend:

Me, you and the old guitar,
How perfectly, perfectly happy we are.
MEEE-EW and the old guitar.
How PURRRR-fectly happy we are!

Or at least, she quotes it when the book is picked up and has told me I can’t do the song: ‘No song, Poppa!’ I must be doing it differently from her father, who is a very good reader of children’s books.


Are These Hen’s Eggs? is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.