Tag Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge

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.

Ruby Reads (7)

Ruby doesn’t necessarily read every book I mention in this series of posts. In fact just now, as an assertion of agency, she will wave a cheerful ‘Bye bye’, her way of calling an end to any activity from eating zucchini to talking to her grandmother on FaceTime, after just one page. But I have read them all in connection with Ruby. This week I rediscovered a cache of picture books we found in a street library about a year ago, and donated the ones from the younger end of the spectrum to her library. And we were read to at Rhyme Time at Leichhardt Library.

Airlie Anderson (illustrator), Cows in the Kitchen (Child’s Play International 2014)

This is the Rhyme Time book. Evidently its text is traditional. At the Library the parents were invited to join in the chanting as one group of farm animals after another created chaos in an inappropriate place. The illustrations are cheerful and silly. I’d recommend this as a fun participatory read. (The other book read to us on Thursday this week was The Wheels on the Bus, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but please, not again.)

Mem Fox and Vladimir Radunsky, Where the Giant Sleeps (Harcourt Children’s Books 2007)

Probably too old for a 15 month old, this is a fine addition to the genre of picture book spoofed in Adam Mansbach’s Go the F**k to Sleep, which is also on Ruby’s household’s bookshelves, but which I haven’t read until I listened to Samuel Jackson’s rendition just now. Everything in the world is animated, and sleeping, except the elves who are weaving something magical for the child who is being read to.

Marcia K Vaughan and Pamela Lofts, Snug as a Hug (Scholastic Australia 2014)

Another excellent addition to that genre, distinguished by being full of native Australian animals sleeping soundly at night. There’s a note in the early pages to the effect that the book is largely lying – most of the animals it mentions don’t sleep at night at all. Perhaps this points to the desperation of the adult world when faced with a baby who won’t sleep. The gorgeous illustrations are by Pamela Lofts, the friend of Kim Mahood who features in Position Doubtful.

Pamela Allen, Shhh! Little Mouse (Penguin Australia 2009)

Ruby is yet to see the whole of this totally beautiful book. She saw the first page, a black ink drawing of a mouse, and climbed down off my lap. I can wait! You could say this is the opposite of a ‘Go To Sleep’ book. While the scary ginger cat is sound asleep, a little mouse goes on the hunt for food and finds quite a lot, lovingly drawn in brilliant colour, before the cat wakes up and becomes a terrifying vision in orange. But be reassured, the mouse makes it back to safety.

Where the Giant Sleeps, Snug as a Hug and Shhh! Little Mouse are the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth books I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019.

Sarah Day’s Towards Light

Sarah Day, Towards Light and other poems (Puncher & Wattman 2018)

There are probably a hundred reasons why so few non-poets (I am one!) read poetry. One of them is the general belief that poetry is difficult, and that contemporary poetry is more difficult than most. And if you have stumbled across a poetry reading at a literary festival where someone stands up front to cool applause and reads, for example, the proofing marks on a business document galley, you may well decide that contemporary poetry is not only difficult but pointless.

If you’ve been avoiding poetry for reasons like this, and yet have a niggling worry that you might be missing something, then maybe you could try reading Sarah Day. The poems in this book are eminently accessible, and they attend to things worth attending to.

Many of the poems read as the equivalent of a visual artist’s pencil drawings of beautiful things and places – a Lisbon tiled wall depicting St Anthony preaching to the fishes, the tomb of Eleanor of Aquitane, many moments in Tasmanian landscape, an amateur-built rocking horse, a caravan park campground, a ‘fugitive budgie / in a democracy, or an empathy / of sparrows’, a cow looking out from a concrete stall in Galicia. In poem after poem, there is a sense of close, acute, patient attention. There are some narrative poems, especially dealing with childhood memories, though ‘Overcoat’ makes a rich narrative from an elderly couple observed leaving a cafe. The book ends with a powerful sequence, ‘The Grammar of Undoing’, about the poet’s mother’s Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

I usually pick a single poem to talk about in some detail when I blog about poetry books, and I generally go for one that fits on a single page. The poem in this book that keeps demanding my attention is a little longer than that. It’s ‘Lens’:

We were on the bridge
gazing into the marsh creek
whose waters, filtered by sedge
and ribbon grass and samphire,
threw light on the motion of worms
and the whims of small clams.
Somewhere in the landscape,
a harrier circled, a crane stooped,
each intent on its own business.
A short eel hovered in the current,
swallows dipped under the bridge
and back. Then from upstream
a bow-wave, pushed by a long gaze
that seemed to take us in:
two humans on a bridge.
Liquid, it looped, fur swaying
through figures of eight
ruddered by a long tail with
a white tip like a ring-tailed possum.
It snatched up a crab in small front paws
and with one motion was a creature
of the land whose supple, lean length
bent into a pot-hook
like a bandicoot but its feet
were half wading bird, half rodent.
The cracking of carapace and legs
revealed strong teeth. A comb
or two with the thin clawed toes
and the slate fur stood up softly
in air, mottled with auburn.
The water rat vanished as we blinked.
Since then, nothing much has changed;
the day's news, like any other's,
is filled with grief and fear and fury.
The water rat has not appeared again
under the wooden bridge
but the landscape is altered
beneath that cool, brackish lens.

See what I mean about close, acute, patient attention? The poet’s gaze, perhaps. The scene is created so deftly in the opening lines – and the words used to convey the transparency of the creek (‘the waters … threw light on the movement of worms’) introduce the book’s pervasive motif of light as something almost magical. Certainly there’s restrained wonder at being able to see such detail on the creekbed. Three kinds of bird, an eel: I don’t know about you, but by the time we reach ‘Then from upstream / a bow-wave’ I’m pretty well identified as one of the ‘We’ who are standing together in companionable silence on the bridge pausing, I imagine, in the middle of a bush walk.

It wasn’t until I started writing this that I noticed the repetition of gazing: ‘We’ are gazing into the creek, and the bow-wave is pushed by a ‘long gaze’. The landscape looks back, and for a moment the poem too turns back on the viewer. I don’t think it’s fanciful to say that at this moment, the poet (and her companion) become as much part of the scene as the harrier or the swallows: worms, clams, birds, eel, and ‘two humans on a bridge’.

Having made its entrance, the poem’s hero occupies the next fifteen lines of wonderfully engrossed description. Engrossed, but not all romantic-lyrical: the animal is like a bandicoot or a ring-tailed possum, and even more prosaically a pothook. Like the harrier and the crane it’s intent on its own business, which is cracking open and devouring a crab, doing a bit of grooming and then clearing out. Only when it has vanished can it be named, because up until then it was all colour and movement – and long gaze.

The last seven lines echo two much-quoted lines about poetry: William Carlos Williams’s famous one-liner lines, ‘It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there,’ and W H Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. The water rat held the poet’s attention for a moment. That’s all. The actual news – of looming environmental catastrophe, perhaps – is no less horrible. But … but what?

I find the last two lines enigmatic. We’re back with the transparency of the creek, now a ‘cool, brackish lens’ – the notion of the water throwing light has condensed into the single word that gives the poem its title. Is it that this moment with the creek and the water-rat has provided a way of looking at the broader landscape, the domain of ‘the news’? The landscape is altered, perhaps, in the sense that the speaker has been reminded that there are other ways of looking at the world than through the lens of ‘the news’, as in newspapers and social media. (I speak as someone who stopped looking at Twitter, hopefully for good, 10 days ago.) Once you’ve seen a water rat, really seen it, can you keep on being obsessed with the doings of Fraser Anning or Donald Trump, or the self-nicknaming Prime Minister of Australia? Maybe there’s also a faint echo here of another famous line, this one from Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo‘: ‘You must change your life.’

Towards Light is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The Book Group, Goodall and Cadzow, Rivers and Resilience

Heather Goodall and Allison Cadzow, Rivers and Resilience: Aboriginal People and Sydney’s Georges River (New South Books 2009)

Before the Meeting: I was the Designated Book Chooser this month, and seized the opportunity to read and discuss this book – Heather Goodall’s From Invasion to Embassy (1996) does a brilliant job of un-erasing the long and continuing history of Aboriginal dispossession and struggle for land in New South Wales, and a friend recommended this more localised history. I came to it with high expectations.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Nine of the book’s eleven chapters are filled with stories of Aboriginal people living, working, fighting, building families, organising – being resilient – on or in connection to the Georges River. These stories draw on early settler accounts (in the case of the Bediagal warrior Pemulwuy and the less famous, but charismatic Dharawal man Kogi), petitions to government (beginning with Kogi’s grandson Jonathon Goggey in 1857, and appearing regularly from then on), reports of governmental inquiries (beginning with the colony’s ‘Select Committee on the condition of the Aborigines’ in 1845, where a man named Mahroot told how a number of Aboriginal men and women made livings from fishing on the river, in what the authors call ‘effective cultural negotiation’), the diaries and newspaper articles of white people (including those guided, and fed, on fishing and hunting expeditions by Dharawal-speaking Biddy Giles in the 1860s; and, as transport improved, tourists), the records of the Aborigines Protection Board and other government agencies, and, as the twentieth century progresses, newsreel footage, records of the Housing Commission, Land Rights claims and interviews with Aboriginal people with living connections to the river.

It’s necessarily a piecemeal story, and I can’t tell whether anyone from outside Sydney, let alone outside Australia, would find it interesting. But as a non-Indigenous Sydneysider who has crossed the Georges River many times and walked along the upper reaches of Salt Pan Creek, a tributary that features significantly, my internal map of the world was being radically redrawn as I read.

The opening chapter places the stories in the context of some major ideas about ‘land, indigeneity and change, about environment and about cities’. To give you some idea of this fifteen-page section:

  • The authors reject the idea that ‘Aboriginal “traditional” cultures were unchanging and static, consisting of a closed and fully formed parcel of knowledge and stories which could be handed down intact across generations for thousands of years – and which therefore could not cope with changes’. Even on the Georges River, which flows through heavily industrialised parts of Sydney, they argue, Aboriginal cultural process have been maintained.

  • They argue that the cultural practices that establish strong links to a place need not be effective only for people with a traditional affiliation to that place.

  • Since 1788 and even earlier, mobility has been ‘as much a defining characteristic of Aboriginal cultures as affiliations with meaningful bounded places’. The river has served as an ‘important corridor of mobility’.

  • Discussions of conservation emphasise native local species, treasuring them as national emblems, and paradoxically often ignoring ‘the role of Aboriginal people in the cultural and material work of actively managing, cultivating and changing the native species on the river and its banks’. The declaration of the Georges River National Park, contested among non-Aboriginal people, is even more complex for Aboriginal people.

It would do an injustice to the book to reduce it to a single argument, but there’s a thread of argument running through it: the established way of thinking about sacred sites and Aboriginal people’s connection to land is inadequate. People from many language groups and many parts of Australia have been part of the Aboriginal communities along the Georges River. They have been allocated land, have bought land as individuals and as collectives, and been moved off it repeatedly, sometimes with promises of the right of return, promises that were invariably broken. Because for a long time the land along the river was inaccessible or useless to the colonisers, they were able to make homes and livings there. Whether or not it passes the official criteria for a Native Title claim, it’s indisputably Aboriginal land. The book ends with a quote from the Tharawal Land Council:

Each Aboriginal site has its place; every Aboriginal place has its story in the life of an Aboriginal family. Country is alive with stories.

After the meeting: We had audiovisual aids. Alec Morgan and Rose Hesp’s Australia in Colour is currently screening on SBS, and the second episode includes a colourised version of a 1933 newsreel clip that opens the book, featuring Joe Anderson (‘King Burraga’) standing in the bush near Salt Pan Creek and declaiming in a strangely plummy accent:

Before the white man set foot in Australia, my ancestors had kings in their own right, and I, Aboriginal King Burraga, am a direct descendant of the royal line … There is plenty fish in the river for us all, and land to grow all we want … The black man owned Australia, and now he demands more than charity. He wants the right to live!

(You can see the whole episode here. Joe appears at 17:35.)

We opened the evening with that clip. And a group member who is a heritage conservationist who had gone walking in the Georges River National Park on the weekend shared some beautiful photos, including one of a plaque marking the site of Joe Anderson’s family’s home.

We had an animated conversation, though there was less laughter than usual. It’s a heavy subject, and the mildest-mannered of the group said he was quivering with rage at some parts. There was some discussion of what it meant that two white women had written the book: some felt that the authors were very careful not to overstep because of their outsider status – not something I was aware of.

Most of us had got hold of a copy from a library, but one chap get a print-on-demand copy from the publisher – with just a two-week wait.

Rivers and resilience is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ruby Reads (5)

First a disclaimer: Some of the books I list in these posts about Ruby’s books are obviously completely age-inappropriate. Those books don’t necessarily get read to her, at least not more than once, but I include them because I’ve encountered them in Ruby’s context and they are splendid in their own right, or for some other reason. A case in point is today’s first book.

Shaun Tan, The Red Tree (Lothian Books 2000)

A stunningly beautiful, surreal picture book that’s not for pre-schoolers, probably not for anyone younger than about 15, and definitely not for 15-month-olds. It begins with dead leaves floating in a grey environment and continues with an extraordinary evocation of depression, loneliness and an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness – all with glorious (if that’s the word) full-page images evoking that mood. The red tree of the title doesn’t turn up until the final spread, but when it does, it’s a brilliant game-changer. Shaun Tan is a genius, and I’m glad he and his books have cheered up since 2000.

Lucy Cousins, Maisy’s Traffic Jam (Walker Books 2007)

Maisie the Mouse came into being when my sons were already teenagers. I was vaguely aware of her as a phenomenon, having seen people in giant Maisie suits at children’s book fairs in the 90s, but this is my first actual Maisie book – one of more than 27 million in print according to Lucy Cousins’s Wikipedia page, Wikipedia doesn’t list it in her bibliography. It’s a concertina book, which we picked up in a street library, and unfolded in Ruby’s local park, to the delight of a random passing two year old – and Ruby. Lots of flaps to lift, and who doesn’t love a metre-long fold-out?

Rod Campbell, Oh Dear! (1983)

A classic lift-the-flap book. Only one of its flaps has been torn out so far. but that’s more a sign of Ruby’s restraint than of any quality of the book. The little boy has to find eggs, and goes through a gamut of farm animals until he remembers, and goes to the chicken coop where, splendidly, after the chook has been revealed, there further flap must be lifted to find two eggs.

Doctor Seuss, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1957)

I guess everyone knows that Dr Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel to his friends) invented the Cat in the Hat in response to a challenge to create an illustrated text that would help children learn to read. Serious literacy aid or not, the character has been pretty popular in our family, including when read to someone with advanced dementia. The Cat in the Hat Comes Back doesn’t have quite the level of terror and insouciance about breaking rules that the original has, but it’ll do. The original hasn’t turned up at Ruby’s place yet.

Sally Morgan and Kathy Arbon, Can You Dance? (Pan Macmillan Australia 2018)

A board book produced by the Indigenous Literacy Fund, its reason for being is even more worthy than The Cat in the Hat‘s, but it wears its worthiness even more lightly. The reader is asked if they can dance in imitation of a series of native Australian animals. While a lap read is quite pleasant, the book cries out to be read to a group of small people who can flap their wings like the angry magpie, stamp their feet like the wombat and so on, until the last page is pretty much a wild rumpus.

Can You Dance? is the ninth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ruby Reads (4)

At this rate I’ll be doing a weekly post about books Ruby and I enjoy – or at least experience – together for quite some time to come. Here goes this a selection of this week’s discoveries and rediscoveries.

Jan Pienkowski & David Walser, Meg and the Dragon (Puffin 2015)

A library book, this is part of the series that began with Meg and Mog all that time ago. Mog the cat is still on the scene; she’s just been nudged from the title. Meg the witch, whom I first met close to 40 years ago, still hasn’t got her spells completely under control, but everything turns out all right in the end. It’s a Halloween story. For anyone who thinks of the writer of a picture book as the main creator and the artist as an illustrator, the Meg and Mog series is a challenge, as artist Jan Pienkowski has been the constant. The first so many books were written, beautifully, by Helen Nicholl. David Walser seems to have been supplying words since about 2014. I doubt if the target audience notice the difference. I certainly have no complaints.

Oliver Jeffers, Up and Down (HarperCollins 2011)

This is a sweet book (borrowed from the library), but seen vicariously through the eyes of a 14-month-old reader it’s car too complex: it’s about a boy and a penguin, inseparable friends who have a falling out and are reunited in the end, raising questions on the way about why penguins can’t fly and should they want to, and how does one support a friend who has ambitions one knows will be destructive in the end.

Pamela Allen, Who Sank the Boat (1982)

Isn’t it brilliant how books survive the decades. We loved this in the early 80s. I still love it. One by one, five animals get into a boat which eventually sinks. The repeated question is ‘Who Sank the Boat?’ I guess you could see it as teaching a lesson about buoyancy, but I think of it more as gently mocking the idea of such a lesson. Ruby asked for it four tomes in a row yesterday.

Craig Smith & Katz Cowley, The Wonky Donkey (2009)

This was read to us by the splendidly showy Lisa at Leichhardt Library Rhyme Time. Evidently it started life as a song, and the wordplay is certainly brilliant. I don’t care for the somewhat grotesque illustrations when seen through my grandparenting lenses, and was relieved to discover that they are not the work of Australian artist Craig Smith. This is a different Craig Smith, possibly a New Zealander, and he did the words.

To be continued.

Who Sank the Boat? is the eighth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ruby Reads III

Though Ruby likes to have the same book read to her over and over, she has still managed to accumulate quite a library, and casts her reading net wide. Here are some more titles from her bookshelf (and floor).

Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (Walker Books 1989)

Many people, in Australia at least, might be forgiven for thinking this is a spin-off from the Play School song with the same words, but I think I’m right in saying that the book came first. It’s a brilliant ear-worm of a read-aloud, complete with sound effects of grass, mud, forest and other obstacles that must be gone – not over, or under, or around, but through.

Jill McDonald, Hello World! Birds (Doubleday 2017)

I promise I’m not going to mention in my log every board book in Ruby’s collection. Let this one stand in for a dozen, including Cats and Kittens (a favourite).

It’s a thrill to be with a small child as she learns to turn the pages of a book, and to indicate which images excite her attention. This is a book that allows that to happen. (And there are plenty of board books that don’t judge their readership as well as this one.)

Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, Monkey Puzzle (Alison Green 2009)

Here’s a terrific ‘onion book’ (thanks to Ann Knight Bell in the comments for the term). I love the fabulous drawings of the little monkey who goes looking for his mother, and the range of animals who don’t make the grade, and the wit of the text as each candidate has some feature of the mother, but none of the essential quality, finally revealed, that she must look like the little monkey. Ruby loves the book, but turns the page once that page’s candidate has been named.

Matthew Van Fleet, with photographs by Brian Stanton, Moo (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books (2011)

Matthew Van Fleet has a whole string of beautifully produced, hefty picture books with pop-ups and moveable parts. This is the first one I encountered. There are also Dance, and Dog (in which a cat appears under the very last flap, and certain presenters of the book make sure it’s a very noisy appearance.)

HTML for Babies (Sterling Children’s Books, 2016)

I really don’t get this. The web description website says, ‘These concept books will familiarize young ones with the kind of shapes and colors that make up web-based programming language and give them the head start they need.’ (It seemed appropriate to leave the US spelling unchanged.) It’s impossible to read aloud, as nothing in it makes sense. I guess it’s for browsing and taking in the visuals

Margaret Wild and Ann James, Lucy Goosey (Little Hare Books 2008)

Oooh! Another perfect picture book. Ann James’s little geese (goslings doesn’t seem the right word) are very sweet, and the story about Lucy, who is enjoying her life but doesn’t want to go flying because it’s so scary, is suitably reassuring: in the end she finds the courage because her mother reassures her she will always be there. So far Ruby seems to like pointing at the pictures most, but I like the word ‘whiffling’, for the sound made by the wings of grown-up geese.

Lucy Goosey is the eighth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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.

Ruby reads

My granddaughter, Ruby, is now nearly 14 months old, and I have re-entered the world of books for very young people. This is a catch-up on books I’ve read to her or listened to while someone else read to her – some fondly remembered, some new to me. Ruby’s parents and the people who give them books have very good taste. I mean no disrespect to the many brilliant board books featuring photos of African animals, sometimes with rudimentary rhymes, whose pages she loves to turn, but I’ve only included books that give me pleasure as well. In no particular order, then:

Eric Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969)

This book is 50 years old this year, and its place in the canon is firmly established. I know the last page when the caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly is supposed to be the great visual thrill, but I love the transformation before that into a very big, round caterpillar.

Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks, On the Day You Were Born (Allen & Unwin 2018)

Margaret Wild is one of the greats of Australian children’s literature, and her collaborations with Ron Brooks are legendary. The title of this book might lead you expect a story of mother and baby cuddling in bed, but no, here the baby’s father takes ‘you’ on a walk out into the wonders of the world, and returns in the last words to the mother. None of the humans is seen – just the gorgeous world.

Hairy Maclary Scattercat (Puffin 1983), and other brilliant books by Lynley Dodd.

This book first appeared the year Ruby’s father was born. In case you don’t know, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy is a scruffy and scrappy little New Zealand dog whose adventures are told in rollicking rhymes. Here he monsters a series of cats until finally the tables are turned by Scarface Claw, whose name says it all. Dachshund Schnitzel von Krumm isn’t in this book, but he’s in at least one of the others we get to read.

Nick Bland, The Very Sleepy Bear (Scholastic Australia 2017)

 This bear has a series of books, in which he is variously Very Cranky, Itchy, Brave, and so on. This one is a kind of trickster tale – a fox tricks the bear into leaving his cave with a promise of somewhere better to sleep. After inspecting a series of unsatisfactory possibilities, the bear insists on returning to his home, where he discovers the fox has installed a gang of his friends. Particularly relevant to adults who are trying to manage a baby’s sleep.

Eric Hill’s Spot series, in particular Who’s There, Spot? (Puffin 2013)

Along with the mouthless Miffy (whom I haven’t seen on Ruby’s bookshelves), Spot is a standout memory from my own early parenting days. The original was the lift-a-flap book Where’s Spot (1980). Who’s There, Spot, complete with flaps under which lurk a series of animals, is one of a vast number of sequels. Every baby I know has loved lifting the flaps on Eric Hill’s books, and as an adult, I’ve always enjoyed giving the hissing, trumpeting, barking, meowing hints beforehand.

Ted Prior, Grug at the Beach (Simon & Shuster 2009)

Grug is the animated grass-tree hero of his own series of 26 tiny books (I just found that out from Wikipedia, where I also learned that he may not be a grass tree after all, but I’m sticking to my story). The first book, Grug, appeared in 1979, and though the series finished in 1982, he lives on in treasured old copies and new editions. Grug at the Beach is charming propaganda for sunscreen, but don’t let that put you off.

Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men series, in particular Mr Clumsy (Budget Books 1987)

I’m not all that keen on the Mr Men series, but there’s no doubting their appeal and longevity. Maybe the cheerful acceptance of idiosyncrasy and imperfection is the secret of their success. The gender specificity is a bit problematic, and was only made worse, in my opinion, by the Little Miss series. Girls can be clumsy too! Like the Grug books, these have the advantage of being small enough to fit very young hands.

Mem Fox and Judy Horacek, Where Is the Green Sheep? (Puffin 2006)

The text, which otherwise might be mistaken for a didactic exercise in naming colours, provides a perfect platform for Judy Horacek’s brilliantly silly illustrations. We haven’t got to Mem Fox and Julie Vivas’s great classic, Possum Magic, yet. In fact, no Julie Vivas at all – a gap that will definitely be closed before too long.

That’s enough for now. I’ll save Leo Lionni and others for another post.

I wasn’t going to mention any of these texts in relation to the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, but then I remembered how children’s literature, especially picture books for the very young, tends to be seen as lesser creations than even the most lackadaisical work for older people, even while some picture books and books for very young people are works of genius. So here you are: On the Day You Were Born and Where Is the Green Sheep? are the fifth and sixth books I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Katharine Margot Toohey’s Vera Rudner

Katharine Margot Toohey, Vera Rudner: A Study (Quemar Press 2018)

A friend of mine (and no, this isn’t urban legend) recently attended a lecture on Australian modernist art at a mainstream tertiary institution in Sydney. The lecturer managed not to mention a single woman. When my friend protested, and rattled off a list of women who were crucial to the history, the lecturer was unapologetic.

Early this year at a prestigious Melbourne gallery, the same friend was lamenting the almost complete absence of women painters in a large exhibition of 20th century Australian art. Then we walked into one of the smaller rooms, and there they were, scores of them, crowded onto the walls four or five high without space for so much as a descriptive label: if you wanted to see who painted that sock knitter or that bridge in curve you had to consult an iPad chained to a seat in the middle of the room and scroll through the list. So the ladies had a room to themselves, all hugger mugger, and the real male artists, were shown as individuals.

It seems our institutions may have some trouble giving Australian women artists their due.

This tiny, almost zine-like book from Quemar Press is doing its bit to kick against the trend.

Vera Rudner, born in Berlin in 1922, fled the Nazis with her Jewish family and arrived in Australia in 1938. She studied painting at the aforementioned Sydney tertiary institution, among others, and painted a number of striking surrealist works before she stopped painting in 1948.

Two of her paintings are held in the National Gallery of Australia. Four are in the artist’s possession. One is known to have been destroyed – actually burned – because, according to the woman who inherited it, it ‘scared her grandchildren’. She hasn’t been completely ignored in the literature of Australian art, but she remained in relative – almost complete – obscurity until Jennifer Maiden’s poem ‘Sacrilege’ appeared in her collection, Appalachian Fall (Quemar 2017, link is to my blog post). It introduces Vera as a friend of some decades, and focuses on her painting for which the poem is named. It begins:

                I fear not doing her justice; however,
for a long time I've wanted to write a poem about Vera
Rudner.

That poem, and ‘Be Back in the Morning or Diary Poem: Uses of Toys’, named for another of Rudner’s paintings and published in Maiden’s brookings: the noun (Quemar 2019), are reprinted in this book, evocative amplifications of Katharine Margot Toohey’s prose.

The text of the book is in three parts. First is a brief biography presented as an extended captions to a series of photos – snaps of Rudner as a child movie actor (the movies were all destroyed by the Nazis), of a framed wedding photo; an exhibition catalogue; the cover of a book that mentions her work; and a recent shot of her with Jennifer Maiden. The second is a short general essay, and the third an explication of the six paintings that Katharine Margot Toohey has access to.

There are two colour photographs of each of the paintings, and a number of details in black and white. These are enough to whet the appetite to see the actual paintings, but because of the perennial problem of reproducing paintings as tiny illustrations and getting the colour right, it’s hard to feel they do much more than that. For example, the cover photograph of Suburbia (1945) has a predominantly blue-grey pallet; both internal reproductions are mainly warm yellows and oranges.

Some sections of the book are available online at Quemar’s website (click here), where the images seem much less problematic. If, like me, you’re vaguely aware of an ache in your brain where the history of women artists should be stored, I recommend you have a look.

Vera Rudner: A Study is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’m grateful to Quemar Press for my copy.