Category Archives: Ruby Reads

Ruby Reads (15) plus round-faced Bowie

One of the persistent joys of grandfatherhood is the chance to read aloud, and reread, some excellent books. This post continues my notes on this pleasure.

Matt Shanks (illustrator), Row Row Row Your Boat (Scholastic Australia 2016)

What a joy for Ruby to discover this book. It combines three of her major sources of delight: a kookaburra, a crocodile and the song ‘Row row row your boat’. The uncredited author has added verses to the song that introduce a koala, a platypus, a bandicoot and a kookaburra as well as the crocodile that was already there (‘If you see a crocodile don’t forget to scream’).

I don’t care terribly for the illustrations, but they do a great job with the target audience.

Pamela Allen, Alexander’s Outing (Viking 1992)

We bought this from the shop at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, which is the setting for its story of a family of ducks. A song that Ruby requests interminably is ‘Five little ducks went out one day’. The Emerging Artist, in this context known as Nana, does some wonderfully dramatic quacks in that song, and this is a book that offers great scope for more – plus there’s a silly story about a little creature lost and then recovered, thanks to kindness and cooperation. Pamela Allen is fabulous.

Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle, Brown Bear Brown Bear What Did You See? (1967)

This was read to us at Rhyme Time at the library – a total classic that takes us through a range of colours, each attached to an animal. It’s fascinating to read this after I Went Walking (Julie Vivas and Sue Williams 1996), which follows its format closely but does something quite different with the images and has a child observing the animals and in the end having what my mother would have called a love-up with them.

Matt Cosgrove, Macca the Alpaca (Koala Books 2018)

Macca is a sweet, kind, cute creature who meets a big, tough, bullying llama named Harmer, a very different creature from llama-llama-red-pyjama llama who all the same claims the affection, or at least the fascinated attention of our young reader. The bully gets his come-uppance, the skills of the smaller, more agile creature are established, and there is an implausibly sweet reconciliation at the end. As with ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’, Ruby likes this a lot more than I do.

Isabel Sanchez Vegara, David Bowie (Little People, Big Dreams) (Lincoln Children’s Books 2019)

Not really a Ruby Read, this one. The EA and I recently spent an interesting evening with a five-year-old boy while his mother was out. We listened to ‘Old Town Road‘ at least ten times and then on the way to sleep I read to him – his choice – an encyclopaedia entry about volcanoes, and this book. It’s the story of David Bowie’s life as a fable about a boy who felt he didn’t belong becoming very successful and widely loved through, in part, embracing his difference. (Also, I didn’t know what happened to his eye.) The round-faced images are slightly jarring, but it’s a lovely framing of Bowie’s story.


Alexander’s Outing is the thirty-second book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. (Pamela Allen now lives in New Zealand, where she was born, but she lived and created books in Australia for many years. For a time she illustrated for that most Australian of institutions, the New South Wales Department of Education’s School Magazine.)

Ruby Reads (14)

Who’d have thought there were such riches to be discovered when reading with someone less than two years old? (The question’s rhetorical, but of course, the answer is, ‘Anyone who knew anything about books created for children.’)

Alison Lester, Kissed by the Moon (Penguin Australia 2013)

A very beautiful little book featuring a baby and a tranquil night in the natural world, with a baby – ‘my baby’ – in the middle of it. Pragmatically speaking, I guess it’s a bedtime read, but Alison Lester knows how to put words together, and how to make images, that reach in and touch your heart.

Lynley Dodd, Scarface Claw (Puffin 2002)

Scarface Claw appears in others of the wonderful Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy books. He’s the toughest cat in town, and scares all the dogs in other books. This one celebrates his fearlessness in Lynley Dodd’s dependably lively rhymes, until the final reveal of the only thing in the world that Scarface Claw is scared of. I won’t spoil it for you.

Rosie Greening (words) & Stuart Lynch (pictures), There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (Make Believe Ideas 2018)

This was read to us at Rhyme Time. It is probably one of many children’s picture books built around the well-known cumulative song. I have always loved the Burl Ives version of the song, and the Pete Seeger one as well. I wouldn’t say that I love this version – the illustrations are cute, but not compelling. I’m very glad to report that the disastrous consequences of swallowing a horse are not minimised.

Mem Fox (words) & Helen Oxenbury (pictures), Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes (2008)

This would have been a slightly preachy book asserting our common humanity if it wasn’t so very well done. Mem Fox’s rhyming text feels effortlessly simple (and anyone who’s tried to do that sort of thing knows that the effortlessness is the reader’s, not the writers). It essentially lists a lot of babies and says they all have ten little fingers and ten little toes. The illustrations pick up the cultural diversity of the babies / toddlers, and the fingers and toes are gorgeous.

Karen Roosa (words) & Maggie Smith (pictures), Beach Day (MH Boos for Young Readers 2018)

Here’s a board book that made me rethink my whole approach to some children’s books. It’s a day at the beach involving a couple of families. I disliked it pretty intensely on first several readings, the rhyming text includes waves that soar (to rhyme with ‘roar’), and a ‘jewelled array’ of spray. But no one else cares about the rhymes: as you turn the pages, you can follow the doings of half a dozen different characters: the children, the dogs, the various adults, the two babies, the seagulls. I now wonder if its riches will ever be exhausted.

Kissed by the Moon and Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes are the 27th and 28th books I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ruby Reads (13)

When I started writing about books I’ve met thanks to my granddaughter Ruby, I hesitated to include more than one book by a given author. But there are authors who turn up again and again, so here are a couple of books by repeat authors. But first, some read-alouds from Rhyme Time at the library.

Allie Busby, Feeding Time (Just Like Me!) (Childs Play Intl Ltd 2018)

This is a very simple book, with very simple illustrations, and flaps. It worked beautifully with under-twos at the library. The ‘just like me’ of the title evidently indicates a series it belongs to, and it’s also a refrain, as one lifted flap after another reveals the food an animal eats, and that food is also one that humans eat. The illustrations aren’t in the same class as Jim Arnosky’s Man Gave Names to All the Animals but the book’s sweet, unstrained assertion of human commonality with other animals is much more the kind of thing I’d want small children to hear.

Penny Dale, Ten in the bed (Walker Books 1990)

While Rhyme Time is primarily an event for small children, it’s also, something rare these days, a place where adults can enjoy singing together. One old thespian attends irregularly and behaves as I would like to – joining in the songs with unembarrassed pleasure and beaming appreciation of the librarian’s performance and of the children’s sometimes disruptive enthusiasm. This book lifted most of us to his level. The richly coloured illustrations are full of little jokes, and the text rings changes on the familiar song (each ‘one’ who rolls out is a different toy).

Doctor Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go (1990)

I blogged about The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham in pre-grandfatherdom days (the blog post is here). Both of them are still going strong as far as our family is concerned.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go is the last Dr Seuss book published in his lifetime. It’s weirdly abstract both in its geometric illustrations and its non-specific text, but it’s got the characteristic verbal energy and visual quirkiness that keep his books interesting (for me at least).

Doctor Seuss (text) and George Booth (illustrator), Wacky Wednesday (1974)

Originally written over the name Theo LeSieg, this has clearly been welcomed into the general Dr Seuss canon. It’s meant for readers older that 18 and a two-thirds months, but Ruby requests it regularly. It’s essentially a series of spreads in which the reader is invited to find out what’s wrong with the illustrations. The text provides a slender narrative thread and tells the reader how many wacky things they can find on each spread. It has no appeal for me at all, and I can’t tell what Ruby enjoys in it, given that her sense of what’s ‘normal’ is (I believe) still developing – why is it odd that one of the girls on the cover image has no legs but not odd that three identical girls, identically clothed, are walking and gesturing in unison? Such questions are purely academic.

Julia Donaldson (text) and Rebecca Cobb (illustrator), The Paper Dolls (Macmillan Children’s Books 2012)

I’m please to say that Ruby’s tastes and mine sometimes coincide. This book is an example, though I don’t know what Ruby finds interesting in it. A little girl has a chain of five paper dolls – Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie and Jim with two noses and Jo with the bow – who have a string of adventures. Happily, the adventures involve a gigantic crocodile, thereby meeting one of our current preoccupations. If only they’d met a kookaburra it would have been a perfect book.

There are more books, and there will be more blog posts about them.

Ruby Reads (12): Ladybird, Alison Lester & Dylan

On the weekend I went to a family gathering – not a reunion, but a first-time gathering of the descendants of three Shaw brothers who came to Australia from Yorkshire in the 1860s and 70s. The event itself was fun and interesting, with at least one revelation that led to much hilarity, but what’s relevant to this blog is that I stayed with a niece, mother of two small girls. Here’s a) a book I read while stickybeaking on her bookshelves, and b) two books that were requested at bedtime. You’ll be able to tell which is which.

Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris, How it Works: The Mum (Michael Joseph 2016)

This is one of those books that sit on the front counters of bookshops inviting you to buy them as gifts. It’s a parody of a Little Golden Book (or Ladybird Book in the US UK (see Robert Day’s comment) edition as pictured here), using illustrations from 1960s children’s books and affecting a childlike tone in the text, but with an adult sting in the tail. This one is funny rather than cynical, wry rather than bitter. My niece’s favourite page is the one where the mum has an interview for a job but can’t get the theme tune from The Octonauts out of her head. Mine is the last page, where the mum rides her bike to work after an exhausting night and when she hears other mothers speak of their children’s exemplary behaviour is fortunately too tired to kill them.

At the end, there’s a sweet acknowledgement of the pleasure the authors derived from the original books, which reads as a sincere tribute rather than a legal requirement. The artists are listed, but I didn’t make a note of their names.

Alison Lester, Are We There Yet? (Viking 2005)

A family of five go on a trip around Australia in 32 pages. The refrain ‘Are we there yet?’ is irregular enough not to be annoying, but frequent enough that my seven year old great-niece could join me in saying it each time.

Regular readers will know that my main contact with children’s books these days is thanks to my 18 month old granddaughter. This book is a reminder of past reading pleasures and a sweet harbinger of things to come. Alison Lester’s images are completely beguiling.

Bob Dylan (lyrics), Jim Arnosky (images), Man Gave Names to All the Animals (Sterling 1999)

This is a rare thing, a picture book with Bob Dylan lyrics as the text. The song is from the 1979 album Slow Train Coming, from BD’s born-again Christian era. It was hard to tell if my young relatives (who were not only sleepy but also slightly anxious at being read to by a virtual stranger) enjoyed it very much. But the illustrations are gorgeous, every page crowded with splendid animals, many more than are mentioned in the song. The book comes with a CD attached – our copy was from the library, and the CD-less.

I may be a feminist Climate Crisis prig, but front and centre for me was the title’s erasure of female humans and its assertion of human separateness from ‘all the animals’, both of which made it hard for me to love the book or the song.

Are We There Yet? is the twenty-third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge

Ruby Reads (11): Caterpillars, butterflies and lavatory humour

Last week I in bed with a fever and had the great pleasure of hearing in the next rook the Emerging Artist and the Granddaughter enjoy Rosie’s Walk together, maybe ten times in a row. So much squeaking and screaming and sheer exuberance! (Note to the Ramsey Centre: please consider Rosie’s Walk for your curriculum. It is one of the great achievements of Western Civilisation.) But that book has had its moment in this blog. Here are some new books, all of which were read to us at the library’s Rhyme Time:

Eric Carle, Sleep Tight Very Hungry Caterpillar (Puffin 2018)
Eric Carle, Where Is The Very Hungry Caterpillar? (The World of Eric Carle 2020)

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, it turns out, isn’t so much a book as a commercial phenomenon. These books, read to us on separate occasions, have a comfortingly familiar feel. Sadly, though, the existence of these and (I gather from the internet) other sequels/spin-offs somehow takes the shne off the original book (my blog post here).

Petr Horáček, Butterfly, Butterfly (Walker Books 2012)

Though the cover of this book announces that it is a ‘pop-up book of colour’, I was surprised and delighted by its only pop-up spread. Lucy sees a butterfly in the garden one day, and then it is gone. She spends most of the book discovering other colourful creatures, and in the end, failing to find the butterfly again, lies down and waits. Then, in the book’s final spread, there’s a wonderfully theatrical moment. You can see it for yourself on YouTube (here)

Stephanie Blake, Poo Bum (Gecko Press 2013)

The librarian prefaced her reading of this by saying it was for the parents and grandparents rather than the children. It’s a scatological variation on the theme of Maurice Sendak’s sublime Pierre (my blog post here): the little rabbit replies ‘Poo bum’ to every conversational opening. After surviving a terrible event, he (or she) undergoes a miraculous transformation, conversing with courtesy and a rich vocabulary. There’s a lamentable relapse at the end. The librarian closed the book and sighed, ‘I love a bit of lavatorial humour.’

I was relieved to note that it’s a New Zealand title, so I don’t have to include it in my list of books read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ruby Reads (10): Ducks, pop-ups, and llama

Ruby hasn’t been terribly interested in reading for a while, at least when she’s with her grandparents. Too many competing interests, like bubbles, ramps, putting tiny dolls in bags and taking them out again, hunting for kookaburras, people watching … the list goes on. Three of the books in this post have been read to us at library Rhyme Time. Only one has been requested (or, to be more accurate, demanded repeatedly) at home.

Martin Waddell and Helen Oxenbury, Farmer Duck (Walker Books 1992)

This was read to us, rather poorly if the truth be told, at Rhyme Time at a different library from our usual. The duck works for a lazy farmer, who lies around all day and every now and then asks how the work is going. The poor duck looks up from one of his many tasks and reports that it’s going well. Soon the duck is exhausted. The other animals have a meeting, whose conclusion is ‘Moo’, ‘Oink’, ‘Cluck’. Translated into action, this leads to the ejection of the farmer from his bed and from the farm, and the work being taken over by a collective of animals. This is a cheerfully nonsensical tale of socialist revolution and workers’ control. Text and images triumphantly transcended the circumstances in which we encountered them.

Jo Lodge, Oops! Little Chick (Push, Pull Pop! Books, B E S Publishing 2013)

It’s tempting to say this was the opposite experience: an almost nothing book read to us with enormous charm and enthusiasm. But really, the book is an unassuming but perfect piece of paper engineering. The high point, hinted at in the colour illustration, is the page where you pull a tab and a little splat of yellow business appears on the ground behind the little chick. Our excellent librarian returned to that page a couple of time.

Fiona Watt and Alessandra Psacharopulo, Pop-Up Jungle Book (Usborne 2015)

More paper engineering. This one, which is much more elaborate, goes on a walk through the jungle where tails swish, jaws snap, etc, activated just by turning the page. One small child (the program is for children younger than two) was so enthralled, she wandered from her mother’s lap as if hypnotised to stand almost within touching distance. Speak not too lightly of pop-up book creators, they are the unacknowledged formers of young minds. (There’s a YouTube of this book: here.)

Anna Dewdney, Llama Llama Zippity-Zoom (Viking 2012)

This board book is one of the :Llama Llama series. The other one I know is about Llama Llama Red Pyjama at bed time. In this one the protagonist (I’m avoiding saying ‘he’, because the character could be female) has fourteen pages of vigorous, onomatopoeic activity. Something about it appeals hugely to the almost-eighteen-month-old in my life. Just yesterday she returned to it with a vengeance. And I confess to enjoying its wonderful minimalist storytelling, and finely judged rhyme. I just read on wikipedia that all Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama Red Pyjama books have been New York Times best sellers. [Added later: The Emerging Artist wants me to acknowledge that she is the definitively preferred reader of this book.]

Ruby Reads (9): Emus, tigers and ducks and love

The grandparental discovery and rediscovery of books I enjoy, or that Ruby enjoys and I don’t hate, continues.

Sue Williams & Julie Vivas, I went walking (HMH Books for Young People 1996)

This lovely little book has been read to us twice at Rhyme Time at Leichhardt Library. Who wouldn’t love Julie Vivas’s images? ‘I went walking and what did I see? I saw a [xx] looking at me.’ The parents can join in the recitative, as the librarian takes us through a series of charming animals. Until the end, where all the animals and the child are frolicking together. There’s an art to writing text for picture books, and Sue Williams makes it look effortless.

Sheena Knowles & Rod Clements, Edwina the Emu (Harper Collins 1997)

This is the sequel to Edwin the Emu, which I remember from the distant past. It was read to us in the marvellous Kidspace in the Australian Museum. (An actual emu egg was accidentally smashed by one of the young scientists soon after the reading.) I think it went right over Ruby’s head, being a story of how, Edwina having laid ten eggs, Edwin stays home to look after them while she goes out to get a job. No one will hire her because, well, she’s an emu. It’s total nonsense, and Rod Clements’ illustrations are supremely silly.

Melanie Joyce & Dean Gray, Follow that Tiger: Catch Him If You Can (Igloo Books 2016)

Some books are just right for a 17-month-old reader, for reasons that would have been hard to predict. In this one the jungle animals are all concerned about the tiger. Ruby generally wants to stop with the crocodile, who appears on the first spread. The tiger is mildly interesting, because after all he growls, but who cares about the monkey, the parrot (clearly not a kookaburra) or the rest? It speaks wonders for the writing and illustration that we have got past the first spread more than once.

Sophie Beer, Love Makes a Family (Dial Books 2018)

This was another Rhyme Time read. It’s exactly what it says in the lid, showing lots of combinations of adults and small children dong things that families do together. It was read to us without any heavy-handed pointing out that the families included people of different skin colours, that on same spreads there were two adults of the same gender, and so on. That is to say, it’s a book that might make some culture warriors cranky, but it’s a sweet mirror held up to our times.

Jennifer Cossins, 101 Collective Nouns (Lothian Children’s Books)

We bought this stunningly beautiful book at the National Folk Festival. You know, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks, a troop of kangaroos, and especially, given that we bought this for Ruby, a riot of kookaburras. The kookaburra page isn’t the only one we’re allowed to look a but we are required to return to it often and supply sound effects. Ruby’s own kookaburra impersonation is impressive.

I Went Walking, Edwina the Emu, and Love Makes a Family are the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth books I’ve read for the Australian women Writers’ Challenge. I haven’t included 101 Collective Nouns because, perhaps arbitrarily, I’ve decided it’s a book of art rather than of writing.

Ruby Reads (8): Possum Magic

Julie Vivas and Mem Fox, Possum Magic (Omnibus Boks 1983)

Possum Magic is one of the children’s books I have been most looking forward to revisiting. It was published the year Ruby’s father was born and we enjoyed it together many times over.

Julie Vivas’s images – the tiny possum Hush and elderly grandmother, the miscellaneous Australian native birds and animals who follow their adventures, and the round-bottomed children whose discarded Vegemite sandwiches are crucial to the plot – are as freshly witty and whimsical as ever. And if my experience is anything to go by they still play well with the target audience of 2019.

Early in the book, illustrating Grandma Poss’s magic, there’s a cluster of pink kookaburras. On our second read, try as I might, I couldn’t persuade my reading companion to move on, even though she had clearly enjoyed the whole book on the first pass. This time we’d turn the page, but then turn it right back, over and over. Entering into the spirit of things, I did a version of a kookaburra’s laugh. This was such a great success that I was required to repeat it for what may have been half an hour. I laughed myself hoarse, and every time I tried to change the subject, Ruby would make her wishes known, either by saying ‘Ha ha ha’ or by pointing to the pink kookaburras again.

So yes, the images are magic!

But the story is another thing. Grandma Poss has made Hush invisible, and the pair of them travel all over Australia looking for the way to reverse the magic and make the little possum visible. They discover that Vegemite, pavlova and lamingtons do the trick.

Reading it this time, it struck me that in the hands of a lesser illustrator it would have become a travelogue draped over an implausible narrative, with panoramas of the cities visited, close-ups of the ‘iconic’ white-Australian foods, and so on. Julie Vivas has lifted it to a whole other level, made the magic alive and central, and ensured the book’s longevity.

Possum Magic is the fifteenth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019.

More Ruby reads

So many books in Ruby’s house, so little time. I may be doing a weekly blog post for a while to come. Given that the projected life of a children’s book is alarmingly short, it’s heartening to see so many relatively ancient books here.

Leo Leonni, Inch by Inch (1962)

This was Leo Lionni’s first picture book. Not as spectacular as Swimmy, perhaps, it’s still splendid. The tiny inch worm saves itself from being eaten by offering to measure parts of various birds, and finally by rising to the challenge of measuring the nightingale’s song. For small readers, there’s a bit of a Where’s Wally thing going on as the tiny worm appears in every spread. For big ones (including grandparents) there are more sophisticated joys in the spare text and elegant paintings.

Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, Baby Wombat’s Week (Angus & Robertson 2009)

This is a sequel to Diary of a Wombat that won hearts and prizes all over the place in 2002. Who doesn’t love a wombat? And this one’s a baby. Again, the images are probably too complex and the humour too sly for tiny people. But this is wonderful.

Pat Hutchins, Rosie’s Walk (Macmillan 1967)

This is a board book supplied by us grandparents. Its place in our affections is at least as firmly established as The Very Hungry Caterpillar‘s. It’s a classic example of illustrations telling a story of which the verbal text pretends to be oblivious. The bright, patterned illustrations are, of course, gorgeous.

Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees, Giraffes Can’t Dance (2001)

This one doesn’t appeal to me so much, but it’s on high demand in Ruby land, possibly because one of her favourite toys has been a squeaky giraffe named Sophie. The Giraffe in the book is mocked by the other animals because it can’t dance. It wanders off a communes with the moon and the wind, and soon is dancing spectacularly: given how very ungainly the giraffe is in the first part of the boo, there’s something dispiritingly unrealistic in the moral is that everyone can dance if the music is right.

John Klassen, I Want My Hat Back (Walker 2011)

Jon Klassen is a Canadian minimalist picturebook maker. As far as I can tell this is the first of a trilogy about a bear and his beloved hat. The bear, who doesn’t change much from page to page, asks a number of other animals, some of them of indeterminate species, if they’ve seen his hat. We see the hat long before he does (another example of an illustration alerting the reader to something the text is unaware of), and there’s a bloodthirsty and punitive but funny twist in the tale, which I hope young readers generally miss.

Bob Graham, Vanilla Ice Cream (Walker 2014)

Bob Graham! Evidently he’s even more popular in France than in his native Australia. This picture book is the work of an assured master – possibly in his Late Style. A sparrow accidentally hides away in a bag of rice loaded onto a ship in an Indian port. When the ship arrives in a southern land (a non-specific Australian city), the sparrow emerges and flies to a nearby park. There, a dog leaps up towards him and knocks an ice cream out of someone’s hands. The ice cream lands in the lap of a baby in a stroller, and that’s the first time that baby tastes vanilla ice cream. A weird non-plot, you might say. But he pulls it off!

Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, The Snail and the Whale (Puffin 2006)

A strange tail of a snail with an itchy foot who hitches a ride to exotic places on the tail of a whale and comes back to inspire the other snails to go adventuring, having saved the whale’s life by writing a message in slime on a classroom blackboard. Surrealism is alive and well in children’s picture books. This one is way too old for Ruby, but she has two copies, one in the profusion of books and toys in a corner of the living room and one beside her cot.

Anna Dewdney, Llama Llama Red Pajama (2005)

A gauge of the success of this book is that Mr Blue Pencil didn’t notice the US spelling in its title until I wrote it for this bog post. It’s a bedtime story with bright colours, bouncy rhymes (as long as you pronounce mama to rhyme with llama). There’s a fear-of-the-dark moment that might be a bit suggestive for some children. But the relationship between ht young llama and the llama mama is warm and loving, even if she does answer the phone when the young one needs her desperately at the bedside.

Baby Wombat’s Week is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.