Tag Archives: Bob Graham

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.

Maralinga, the book

Yalata and Oak Valley Communities with Christobel Mattingley, Maralinga, the Anangu Story (Allen & Unwin 2009)

Christobel Mattingley is well known in Australian children’s literature circles. Along with picture book creator Bob Graham she was nominated for the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Award (aka the Little Nobel). The award went elsewhere, but these two national treasures were honoured by the NSW Branch of IBBY Australia (International Board on Books for Young People) at a Sydney event on International Children’s Book Day, 31 March. Both spoke wonderfully about their work. I learned that a whole generation of French people grew up thinking Bob Graham was French, and whatever his nationality he’s a modest miracle. But for me, Christobel Mattingley was the revelation.

Now in her early 80s, Christobel Mattingley has written an extraordinary body of work for young people and adults that deals with, for want of a better word, social justice issues. Two books in particular stand out: for something like eight years she laid her own writing aside in order to coordinate the landmark Survival in our Own Land—‘Aboriginal’ Experiences in ‘South Australia’ since 1836 (Australian Scholarly Publishing 1988, reprinted at least twice since), which incorporates oral history and archival material to tell the Nunga story of events that have otherwise been told almost universally from a settler perspective; and Maralinga, a smaller project, that looks at first blush like a children’s picture book and would certainly be accessible to most teenagers, but turns out to be a powerful, original and significant work of history. Both books leapt onto my To Be Read list. Marrickville Library had a copy of Maralinga.

As every schoolchild knows (or can look up on Wikipedia):

British nuclear tests at Maralinga occurred between 1955 and 1963 … A total of seven nuclear tests were performed, with approximate yields ranging from 1 to 27 kilotons of TNT equivalent …

The site was contaminated with radioactive materials and an initial cleanup was attempted in 1967. The McClelland Royal Commission, an examination of the effects of the tests, delivered its report in 1985, and found that significant radiation hazards still existed at many of the Maralinga test areas. It recommended another cleanup, which was completed in 2000 at a cost of $108 million. Debate continued over the safety of the site and the long-term health effects on the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land and former personnel. In 1994, the Australian Government paid compensation amounting to $13.5 million to the local Maralinga Tjarutja people.

Maralinga tells this story in some detail. As the subtitle – The Anangu Story – indicates, the point of view is not that of the scientists, the politicians, the bureaucrats or the journalists, but that of the affected Aboriginal people (for whose name I wouldn’t trust Wikipedia). It begins well before their country was deemed to be a good place to test nuclear devices (putting the lie to a rerun of terra nullius, you might say) and brings us up to the slow rebuilding of communities in the present. It begins:

Long time ago, before whitefellas came, Anangu lived on their lands for thousands and thousands of years.

There are old people at Oak Valley who can remember living a traditional life in the desert. But the book is not limited to oral history. It tells of the coming of whitefellas to Ooldea Soak: explorers including Eyre and Giles, then well-sinkers and surveyors, in 1912 the Transcontinental Railway, then Kabbarli (Daisy Bates), and the truly invasive United Aborigines’ Mission, whose abrupt departure in 1952 left the now-dependent local people distraught and at the mercy of the dreaded Aborigines Protection Board, to be forcibly removed to alien country at Yalata, on the coast.

While the dispossessed, disoriented desert people were grieving, spiritually lost in foreign country, rebuilding a few basic community structures from salvaged material twice recycled, a township for whitefellas was being constructed in their country … In 1953 the site … was named Maralinga by the whitefellas. This time they took the word from an Aboriginal language of northern Australia.

The power of the book’s text lies in the multiplicity of its voices. It’s one thing to describe the desert people as grieving and dispossessed. It’s quite another to read the words of Jack Baker and others to the 1985 Royal Commission:

We felt lonely about Ooldea, we were worrying for it. We tried to get back up there. Yes, we were worrying and … we were sad for all of the places that we were related to, and we were worried because these places had been spoiled … We were told we could not go back there.

And how telling it is to read first hand accounts like this from Kukika, who worked on Wallatinna Station homestead:

Smoke came from south, brought up by light wind. The sun became bad. People got sore eyes. We were weak in arms and legs, couldn’t get up and dig for rabbits. Blood came from people’s noses and mouths. My two grandmothers died, and my father and mother. Before the smoke we were all okay. We were without sickness. Tommy Cullinan [station manager] didn’t have a name for the sickness. Didn’t know what it was. I was burying people. Shifted camp again and again.

When this book was shortlisted for a number of awards in 2010, I don’t imagine I was alone in thinking of it as worthy, an excellent addition to a school library, but not exactly something to rush out and buy. But you know, it’s also a book that changes the way you see the world, and leaves you in awe of human beings, both the resilient ones who have come through a hundred years of brutal disregard, and the one who has sat down and listened deeply enough to bring their stories to us.

I saw Harry Bardwell’s Backs to the Blast: An Australian Nuclear Story when it came out in the early 80s, and it did include an interview with an unnamed Aboriginal woman. Here, the Aboriginal people are named, we have a sense of their personal and collective histories, and the vibrant illustrations throughout make it clear that they are not just informants, but they share the authorship of the book.