Tag Archives: Alison Lester

SWF 2021: Friday

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has come back from the virtual world, and though it hasn’t returned to the splendours of its old harbourside venue, the Carriageworks is an expansive site whose acoustic problems of past years are no longer an issue, and for me it has the advantage of being just a 40 minute walk from home. My festival this year got off to a slow start, with just two sessions on Friday.


Friday 30 April 4.00: Writing the Unspeakable

The Unspeakable of the title didn’t refer to the Great Australian Silence about the massive wrongs of colonisation or other vast silences, but to personal unspeakables like depression, grief, trauma and addiction. Each of the panellists has written a memoir about that kind of unspeakable – and in some ways the session played out the implication of the session’s title: you’ve written about something that’s unspeakable, but maybe that doesn’t make it any more speakable?

I haven’t read any of the panellists’ books: Lech Blaine’s Car Crash, which tells the story of a car accident where three of his friends were killed but he and two others survived; Ashe Davenport’s Sad Mum Lady, about the difficulties of being a new mother that had its origins in a blog, ‘Sad Pregnant Lady’; and Fiona O’Loughlin’s Truths from an Unreliable Witness, which deals with her long struggle with alcoholism and addiction, often in the public eye as a successful stand-up comedian. Michaela Kalowski was the moderator.

Rather than start out with each panellist reading a short passage from their book – even, say, the opening paragraph – which would have grounded the conversation, MK opened with a question to each of them in turn, ‘Why are these subjects taboo?’ The panellists weren’t terribly cooperative, but the way each of them avoided answering the question, and pretty much every question after that, led to some entertaining and sometimes illuminating conversation. Here are some snippets that I have managed to decipher from notes I jotted in the dark.

Lech (I’m going to use first names) said that these subjects aren’t actually unspeakable. He spent his childhood in a pub and by the tenth or eleventh beer anything could be talked about, though not necessarily in a civil or constructive manner. Ashe told a horrific tale of her mother being groped when a child, in full view of a room full of people who pretended it hadn’t happened.

Fiona ventured to ask her mother if there was anything in the book that upset her. ‘Of course not,’ her mother said. ‘I haven’t even read it.’ This prompted Lech to tell us that he showed his brother a passage in manuscript where the brother is quoted as saying something profoundly offensive about Labor voters. His brother said, ‘That’s brilliant! You got that exactly right.’

Ashe described the process of making the transition from blog to book. In the blog she would work hard at creating amusing anecdotes out of her struggles. The book could still be funny, but she realised that she had to become less abstract: not so much, ‘It’s hard being a new mother,’ and more, ‘This is how I struggled as a new mother.’ At MK’s prompting she told the story of how she went to an anger management group for women, thinking it would make an amusing story for the blog – and she told it to us in a way that got laughs, until she got to the point where one of the group of older women asked her a question, she burst into sobs, and the other woman simply placed a supportive hand on her back until she was finished.

Fiona spoke beautifully about the shame of being an addict – and the importance of kindness. Tom Gleeson (the cheerfully cruel host of Hard Quiz) got a special mention as a kind person, but she said that the whole community of comedians is tremendously supportive.

Each of the panellists spoke about intensely personal difficulties. That they’ve written books about those difficulties didn’t make it any less easy to talk about them. Lech was often left staring blankly into his personal voice, and I felt that Ashe wasn’t quite ready to serve up her personal pain in person to a big audience. Fiona is a professional at airing her linen to live audiences, and did most of the work of keeping the conversation aerated by comic touches. At one stage Ashe turned to Fiona and said something like, ‘You know what it’s like to feel that you’re a bad mother.’ Fiona did a nice comic routine, turning away in mock denial. As Ashe continued with her point, it became clear that she was talking about something that was still raw. Fiona reached out and touched her on the forearm. A little later, doing her own bit of mock denial, Ashe waved her arms joyfully in the air and said, ‘And now I’m completely all right!’

Asked about how it felt writing this personal material for an audience, there were two very different, but equally memorable answers. Someone recalled the reassuring words of a wise editor: ‘Always bear in mind that no one is going to read every word you write.’ Fiona said that she wrote her book ‘for my children, to explain myself to them’.


Our only other event for the day was the Within Reach Gala at 8 o’clock. We managed to squeeze in a celebration dinner for a friend’s 70th birthday on our way to the Town Hall. Once there, we were taken back in time by the Town Hall’s insistence that masks were mandatory – though there was a lot more non-compliance than there was back in the day.

After a short introduction from Festival Director Michael Williams – in which he said among other things that Geoffrey Blainey’s concept of the Tyranny of Distance was regressive and idiotic but part of our culture – we were treated to a dozen writers speaking on the Festival’s theme, Within Reach, reflecting on the past year. Their interpretations of the brief ranged widely. Each speaker was identified simply by their name on a big screen, so that we were spared time-consuming introductions and appreciations by an MC, which made a huge difference to the pleasure of the evening.

Tony Birch told a beautiful story of how the gift of a stone at a wake made a huge difference to him when he was depressed and despairing from the death of a close relative and the lack of progress in action on climate change. He held up the stone.

Ceridwen Dovey said she has been working on space objects, and talked about the ‘golden records’ that have been sent out into space. There was a debate about whether those records should include material about the dark sides of humanity. In the end, the woman writer on the team managed to have the sound of a kiss included – and the actual kiss that was recorded was both an expression of tenderness and the beginning of a betrayal.

Sisonke Msimang spoke of the great movement of white women in response to allegations of sexual assault in Parliament. She was onside with the protests but couldn’t join them, knowing that she couldn’t ask her group netball mothers to join her on a BLM march. She spoke eloquently and generously about this impasse.

Ellen van Neerven started with the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, and the question that resounded in her mind:’When will this country see as much justice?’ She said that like all First Nations people in Australia, deaths in custody was a family matter. She pledged to continue to tell the stories that need to be told.

Geraldine Brooks spoke from Martha’s Vineyard in the USA by video. I confess that the beauty of the country where she’s living largely overwhelmed my ability to take in what she was saying. I think that was her subject: missing home.

Trent Dalton, I think, meant to remind us of the importance of human contact and the pain of physical distance in pandemic times. He misjudged the moment by presenting himself as an indiscriminate hugger of strangers, telling a story in which he hugged woman after woman who were standing a in a queue for the toilet at a previous SWF. Sorry, Trent, but issues of consent are high on the agenda right now and the humour didn’t really work – but the crowd was forgiving.

Maria Tumarkin riffed on the question, ‘How close is too close?’ What she had to say was formidably complex and wide-ranging, and she spoke tantalisingly fast. I managed to jot down one sentence: ‘One person’s specific safety makes as much sense as one person’s piece of sky.’

Michael O’Loughlin, who came out as ‘not a writer’, told the story of his illustrious career as a footballer, from telling his mother when he was 11 that he would her a house to his final words, ‘I hope you’re enjoying the house, Mum.’ I’m appallingly ignorant about sport, so his story was a revelation to me in many ways, but especially about the significance professional sport can have for First nations players, and their families and their communities.

Adam Goodes, a footballer even I have heard of, did a brilliant, modest thing. He read to us the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and confined his own commentary to a single sentence: ‘That was 2017. It’s now 2021. We’re still waiting.’

Alison Lester told us a story of a medical crisis. As she was in hospital being wheeled into emergency she saw on a wall a clumsy copy of one of her illustrations. The orderly was unimpressed when she croaked, ‘That’s my picture.’ she described the experience of an induced coma as an awareness of darkness, cold and discomfort and nothing else, and the struggle to respond when at last she heard her daughter calling to her.

Fiona McGregor read what felt like a prose poem, ‘Eight scenes from a dancing life’: the profound joy of dancing as part of a community, witnessed and experienced

Christos Tsiolkas‘s opening words were, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ It’s Orthodox Easter, and this present moment is one where the gap between the Julian and Gregorian calendars brings home for him the tension between his own life as a middle-class Australian writer and the life of his Greek migrant working-class parents, especially his much-loved mother.

Michel Williams then called all but Geraldine Brooks back onto the stage for a big round of applause and we all went home.


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 (16): Other books by …

There are many joys in being a grandfather. The discovery of new books for the very young is one of them. Here are some recent ones.

Bill Martin Jr & Eric Carle, Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See? (Henry Holt & Co 2006)

This was read to us by the marvellous Lisa during Rhyme Time at Leichhardt Library. It’s a sequel to Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear what Do You See?, or really a variation on it. This one isn’t an accumulation of creatures seen as in the original (and as in Mem Fox and Julie Vivas’s I went walking), but a chain, each seen creature becoming the seer in the next spread. These books make magic from extremely simple text and totally beguiling images.

Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler, Room on the Broom (Pan Macmillan 2016)

Julia Donaldson, especially when teamed up with illustrator Axel Scheffler, has been one of the revelations brought to me by grandfatherhood. This is a simple story of a witch who loses parts of her equipment and each time she regains one she takes on an extra passenger as well. It’s genial and bounces along with wonderful rhymes.

Keith Faulkner (words) and Jonathan Lambert (images), The Wide-Mouthed Frog (Madcap 1997)

I first heard this story as a joke. The wide mouthed frog wanders through his environment asking other animals what they eat. When you tell it as a joke, each time you speak one of the frog’s lines you stretch your mouth wide with two fingers. When he meets the crocodile, who says he eats wide-mouthed frogs, you purse your lips and say, ‘Ooooh.’ It works well as a picture book, too, though the punch line needs to expand: ‘You don’t see many of them around here.’ Also read to us by the fabulous Lisa.

Alison Lester, My Dog Bigsy (Penguin Australia 2015)

A fabulous Alison Lester book. It belongs to the genre where a main character wanders about a farm greeting all the other animals, and does it very well. The images have interestingly textured backgrounds, which is something I haven’t seen in Alison Lester’s work before. As I’m reading so many books where farm animals are introduced to the young reader, I realise how different my granddaughter’s start to life is from mine – I spent my first 12 years living on a farm. I loved the exoticism of books where children lived in villages and could talk to someone in the house next door. She walks out the front door to cars, neighbours and the sounds of urban life – nature is at a premium, and books are a way of learning its importance.

Jan Mark (words) and Charlotte Voake (images), Fur (1986,Walker Books 2014)

The late Jan Mark wrote some superb books for young readers. This is a ‘first story’ that shows she could do it for the very young as well. A cat likes to sleep in ‘my’ hat. Behold, one day half a dozen kittens have joined her in the hat. It’s more than 30 years old now, though this is a new edition. Maybe the images of kittens and broad-brimmed straw hat come from a different era, but its appeal is still strong. I picked this up off the library shelf and it elicited several exclamations of ‘More!’

Pamela Allen, Mr Archimedes Bath (Puffin 1980)

It was a joy to rediscover this on Ruby’s shelves – a library book I think. It was Pamela Allen’s first book, and is a kind of early version of the sublime Who Sank the Boat?, with added nakedness to compensate for the slightly less elegant narrative line. Mr Archimedes and his animal friends have their baths together and want to figure out who is responsible for the water spilling. It’s fun, and possibly lays the groundwork for later learning about displacement of liquids and the actual Archimedes’ Eureka moment

My Dog Bigsy and Mr Archimedes’ Bath are the thirty-fifth and thirty-sixth books I’ve read as part of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ll say it again: though Pamela Allen is a New Zealander and lives there now, she lived and worked for a long time in Australia, including when she created this book.

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 twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth books I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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-fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge