Tag Archives: children’s literature

Ruby Reads 30: Billie B Brown

Sally Rippin (writer) and Aki Fukuoka (illustrator), Billie B Brown: The Bad Butterfly (Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing 2010) [Nº 1]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Perfect Present (2010) [Nº 7]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Birthday Mix-up (2011) [Nº 10]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Deep End (2012) [Nº 17]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Missing Tooth (2020) [Nº 19]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Honey Bees (2020) [Nº 23]
––––, Billie B Brown: The Baby Bird (2021) [Nº 24]

I used to be fairly knowledgeable about children’s literature, but that was a while ago. Until two months ago I hadn’t heard of Australia’s top-selling female author Sally Rippin or her Billie B Brown series, which Goodreads says has sold more than 4.5 million copies in 14 languages.

On advice from a salesperson at Gleebooks, Ruby’s local bricks and mortar bookshop, we bought four titles, then another three a couple of weeks later.

They’re chapter books, intended mainly for six-year-old readers but Ruby, who is still 4, loves them. It’s living evidence that children often enjoy books meant for readers who are older than themselves.

In each book, Billie B Brown – the middle B stands for something different every time – meets an age-appropriate challenge. In book Nº 1, The Bad Butterfly, she and her best friend, Jack from next door, go to ballet classes and discover that Jack excels at the dainty butterfly dance while Billie does better as a stomping troll – and (spoiler alert) they tell the teacher that Billie will dance a boy’s part (a troll) and Jack a girl’s (a butterfly). This is done quietly, without flag-waving or defiance, just two young people solving a problem, and only incidentally evoking a sigh of relief from the adult reader who was bristling at the dance school’s gender stereotyping.

And so it goes. In The Perfect Present, Billie (the B is for Bursting) is excited then disappointed about Christmas; in The Birthday Mix-up, she has a party and it looks as if no one is coming; she is painfully anxious about swimming in the deep end of the pool; she loses a tooth, but not completely according to plan; she learns about bee-sting allergy, and is distraught about an abandoned baby bird. The story generally goes how you would expect: the guests arrive; the tooth fairy delivers; the baby bird is OK; relationships with other children are realistically fraught, and reassuringly resolved. But there’s nothing stale about the tellings, and Aki Fukuoka’s manga-ish drawings add to the freshness. Here’s her full-page drawing that ends The Honey Bees (which she discusses on YouTube, here):

It’s uncanny how many of Ruby’s concerns are taken up explicitly in these books – birthdays, Christmas, the danger posed by bees, friendships, swimming, ballerinas, letters and numbers, little brothers, and more. I doubt if Billie would have been quite as much appeal to either of my sons. But Sally Rippin and Aki Fukuoka have another series, Hey Jack! Maybe that will still be there when my other grandchild is thirsty for chapter books.

PS: In his memoir Tell Me Why, Archie Roach calls his grandchildren grandies. I haven’t seen the word in a dictionary, but I love it, and I’m using it. As Ruby’s little brother is just beginning to enjoy being read to, I’m changing the name of this series of posts to Reading with the grandies.

Ruby Reads 29: Gift

It’s the time of year when Ruby comes into possession of many new books, first for her birthday, and then for Christmas. This is one I gave her, and which she took time to enjoy in the midst of things. (I love it.)


Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby Riddle, The March of the Ants (Book Trail 2021)

Full disclosure: Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby Riddle are friends of mine.

They’re also both geniuses, who have collaborated on a number of books for children. This gorgeous picture book is the latest. The text was read by Ursula at her launch as Australian Children’s Laureate in February 2020. Neither she nor Tohby could have known that its message about the importance of story had a prophetic relevance for the two years that lay ahead.

A group of ants set out on an excursion. Every one of them carries something important for the enterprise. When one little ant shows up with just a book, there is much mockery. But the little ant persists. Later when all the others are tired from their exertions and the food and drink have run out, the little ant reads to the others, and they are revived by the story.

Tohby’s images are masterly, full of odd details without being at all crowded.

Here’s a video of a laurel-crowned Ursula reading the book, from the Australian Children’s Laureate Foundation webpage


The March of the Ants is the 15th and final book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Ruby Reads 28: Mostly William Steig

A good friend who has a vast library of children’s books decided it might be time for Ruby to meet William Steig, one of the greats of US children’s literature. Shrek is his best known book, but wasn’t among the swag she lent us. The four books in our swag have been read many times by many children over the decades, and needed to be treated with great care. After we read them to Ruby, we decided to get hold of copies we could keep and manhandle. It turned out that none of the three public libraries I belong to have copies; I’ve ordered them from bookshops, but it will take months for them to arrive from ‘suppliers’.


William Steig, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (©1969, Simon & Schuster 2005)

Sylvester is a donkey who finds a pebble that grants his wishes. As you’d expect, one of his wishes goes terribly wrong. The wonder of this book is that the wrongness isn’t Sylvester’s fault: his wish is a clever response to a real threat, so the pickle it lands him in isn’t a punishment. All the same, the bulk of the book has poor Sylvester trapped and immobile, while his parents search for him desperately.

The suspense is terrible. All the more, because z– not to give anything away – the reader can see just how close Sylvester is to a solution to his problem. Yet the happy end, when it comes, is a huge relief.

We’ve only read this once, but it feels as if it will be part of Ruby’s repertoire for a while. We had to play a game based on it, but Ruby instructed us to make up our own wishes. So the appeal of th story so far seems to be in the idea of a tiny red stone with magic powers.


William Steig, The Amazing Bone (©1976, Puffin 1981)

Pearl is a pig who dresses in pink (always a winner with Ruby: ‘Did you know my favourite colour is pink, Poppa?’ ‘Yes, I had gathered that somehow’). One day, relaxing in the woods, she discovers and befriends a magical talking bone.

The bone is much more active than the pebble in the earlier book, and the dangers that Pearl faces are more dramatic: first some masked bandits, and then a suave and hungry fox. The bone scares the bandits off without breaking a sweat, but the fox is another matter.

Needless to say, Pearl and the bone escape the fox and, like Sylvester, Pearl returns to her parents. But whereas the pebble was locked in a safe out of harm’s way, the bone lives on in pride of place in Perl’s household.

I’d hesitated to read this to Ruby because she tends not to like scary stories. But she loved it


William Steig, Doctor De Soto (Farrar Straus & Giroux 1982)

Doctor De Soto is a mouse who is also an excellent dentist. For work health and safety reasons, dangerous animals such as cats are banned from his practice. One day, however, a dapper fox who is in extreme pain from toothache pleads for his help. Doctor De Soto and his wife, who is also his able assistant, reluctantly take pity on the wretched creature and remove the troublesome tooth. But they know, and we know, that the fox is still a fox and will eat them both once he is relieved of his pain. (Spoiler alert: Doctor de Soto and his wife outsmart the fox and stay safe.)

There are comic-terrifying images of the mouse-dentist actually going inside the fox’s mouth, with its huge sharp teeth. Ruby kept her hands at the ready to clamp over her ears each time this happened, but decided over and over to let the story continue: ‘I think they’ll escape,’ she said. I think she had the crocodile’s jaws in Jonny Lambert’s Let’s All Creep Through Crocodile Creek (see below) as a reference point, and so was prepared to trust the story teller not to hand her a steaming pile of tragedy.

As for me, I love Doctor and Mrs De Soto for their courage, compassion, and quick-wittedness. I also love the dapper and unscrupulous fox, who may actually be the same fox who troubled Pearl and the bone, now recovered from what they did to him.


William Steig, Brave Irene (©1986, Victor Gollancz Ltd 1987)

Irene is a young human. Her mother has made a dress for the Duchess, but is taken ill and can’t deliver it in time for the ball. When Irene offers to deliver it for her, the mother can see no other option and reluctantly agrees. So brave Irene struggles on through page after page of blizzard. She rides on the dress’s package like a sled, and when the wind snatches the beautiful dress from her, she struggles on anyway because it would be even harder to return home.

It all turns out well in the end.

I’m not sure Ruby quite got this book, but I’m hoping it will grow on her. Irene is no Disney princess, which is a plus from my point of view, but not so much from Ruby’s.


Jonny Lambert, Let’s All Creep Through Crocodile Creek (Little Tiger Press 2019)

I had to read this book to myself in order to understand what I had to do when Ruby said, ‘I’m the mouse, you’re the rabbit and Nanna is the turtle.’

Three animals take a short cut across a creek. The mouse is the leader who knows it’s safe because they have never seen a crocodile in this creek. The turtle is a little bit thick and has to have everything explained to her/him: ‘What does a crocodile look like?’ and so on. The rabbit is all too aware of the dangers and preaches caution.

As they cross the creek, the three adventurers keep seeing things that match up to the mouse’s description of crocodiles: from bumpy, scaly backs to big eyes and very sharp teeth. The mouse pooh poohs the similarities, the turtle asks more questions, and the rabbit understands the danger they are in all too well but her/his cries fall on deaf ears.

It’s a lot of fun. Thanks to the interplay of text and image, we understand what is going on so much better than the characters, so the pleasures of the unreliable narrator can begin at an early age. And in our case, the book is perfect for re-enactments if you have two willing collaborators. It would be odd to write about this in the same blog post as the William Steig books, but the link is there in the scary teeth.

Ruby Reads 27: Tashi

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

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

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

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

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

Not that well.


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Ruby Reads 26: More Catwings and amazing Australian women revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Ruby Reads 25: Ursula K Le Guin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenny Blackford’s Fil and Harry

Jenny Blackford, with illustrations by Kristin Devine, Fil and Harry (Christmas Press 2021)

Christmas Press is a small, Armidale-based publishing house set up about seven years ago, initially intending to publish ‘beautiful picture books for children, featuring traditional tales — folk tales, fairy tales, legends, myths — retold by well-known authors and stunningly illustrated in classic styles that reflect the cultures the stories come from’. Since then their list has expanded, and in 2018 they began to publish chapter books/junior fiction. The world of Australian children’s literature is all the richer for their existence.

In the chapter book Fil and Harry, Fil has to negotiate the perilous world of primary school relationships, deal with an oblivious older brother, resist an over-zealous quasi-stepmother named Elspeth, and cope with life in general. Then her cat Harry starts talking to her. He not only talks, but he lends a sympathetic ear (not something I would expect of a cat, but I suppose I’m more of a dog person). And then he intervenes in ways that are definitely catlike – accidentally on purpose making life hard for those who deserve it and seemingly effortlessly make things go better for the afflicted.

The pencil drawings by Kristin Devine that are scattered through the text add depth to the tale’s sweet warmth. I especially like the double spread of Fil’s empty room with light and breeze billowing the curtains.

It’s a quiet, companionable tale that is just the wrong age for any of my young friends and relatives, so I get to enjoy it just for myself.


Fil and Harry is the seventh book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021. My copy of the book is a gift from the author. Full disclosure: when I was editor of The School Magazine we accepted a short story, ‘Barry’, that was published in the magazine in May 2006. Since then the cat’s name has changed and the story has grown longer and deeper to become this chapter book..

Ruby Reads 24: Visiting the library

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Jenny Blackford’s Girl in the Mirror

Jenny Blackford, The Girl in the Mirror (illustrated by Fiona McDonald, Eagle Books 2019)

In what seems another lifetime, I was professionally immersed for something like 15 years in literature for children of primary school age – the brilliant range of writing arrayed between little children’s picture books and beginners’ chapter books at one end and YA fiction at the other. I haven’t read a lot of it since. The Girl in the Mirror reminds me of what I’m missing.

It’s a time-slip/ghost story: Maddy moves to a new home with her family. As a new girl she has to deal with school-yard politics, and find a way of making herself at home in the new house with its unruly back yard. Her parents, like so many parents in books for this age group – perhaps like so many parents in real life – are oblivious to her struggles, they can’t hear the clattering footsteps of the little-boy ghost on the stairs, and she knows it would be pointless to tell them about Charlotte, the girl from a century earlier, whom she sees in the old-fashioned mirror in her bedroom.

It turns out that Charlotte has problems with a nasty aunt, and that nastiness somehow spills over into the present, threatening the very survival of Maddy’s baby brother. The two girls help each other with their problems, and the ghost of Charlotte’s little brother, already a ghost in her time having died of whooping cough, intervenes cheerfully in Maddy’s life.

With a wonderful lightness of touch, Maddy and Charlotte show each other things about their respective ages: whalebone corsets and skits that end above the knee; the symptoms of whooping cough and the wonders of the Internet.

All that, plus a garden full of poisonous plants, and ominous redback spiders. Which leads me to Fiona McDonald’s illustrations: apart from two full-page ink drawings, most pages have a single tiny redback spider next to the page number. Then at two points in the narrative the illustrations mirror the action, and those spiders multiply and spread up the margins in a delightfully creepy way..


The Girl in the Mirror is the 18th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy of the book is a gift from the author, Full disclosure, in 2009, soon after my tenure as editor came to an end, The School Magazine published a short story, ‘Bertie’, which Jenny Blackford has expanded to become this novel.

Ruby reads 20: Lockdown?

In the mainstream narrative grandparents everywhere are pining for their socially distanced grandchildren. The Emerging Artist and I have meanwhile been quietly sailing against the current, with more contact than ever, pending our little one being rid of flu-like symptoms. She comes to our place three days a week, and our small collection of children’s books has been much called on. When Gleebooks at Dulwich Hill reopened recently, we fell on its non-virtual shelves with cries of joy and came away with arms full.

Here are some of the old and some of the new.


Libby Gleeson (writer) and Jedda Robaard (Illustrator), Soon (Little Hare 2020)

This is brand new and has already been requested/demanded many times. It may be a mistake to give a toddler who is obsessed with babies a book about waiting for a new baby to be born, but if so it’s a mistake that’s hard to resist. We wait, wait, wait. We clean, clean, clean. We paint, paint, paint. And just about all the mother mouse has to say on the subject is, ‘Soon.’ You don’t need me to tell you the ending, but I will say that it is emotionally very satisfying. Libby Gleeson’s incantatory text and Jedda Robaard’s calm, charged images make this a joy to read together. (The birth itself, like the devouring of the apple in Grug and the Big Red Apple, happens offstage.)


Ian Falconer, Olivia (Simon & Schuster 2000)

Olivia is a great artist and dancer trapped in the body of an anthropomorphised pig and the persona of a six year old girl. The back-cover praise from dame Joan Sutherland, Mikhail Baryshnikov and David Hockney, at least one of them written posthumously, are just one of the delights for adult readers. A 2 and a half year old seems to be delighted as well. Olivia argues, paints, dances, fusses about her clothes (which I’m glad to report are all bright red, no pink in sight), and is generally fabulous on pages with acres of white space.


Julia Donaldson (writer) and David Roberts (illustrator), Jack and the Flumflum Tree (Macmillan Children’s Books 2011)

We may have gleaned this from a street library a while back. In it the enormously prolific Julia Donaldson teams up with illustrator David Roberts for a quest story. Jack’s granny has spots and the only cure is the fruit of the faraway flumflum tree. Jack and friends sail away, face many challenges in which the contents of a patchwork sack come in handy. It bounces along, and ends with a terrible pun. I think Ruby likes it because it’s got sharks in it, and they’re almost as interesting as the big bad wolf or a bear.


Cressida Cowell (writer) and Neal Layton (illustrator), Emily Brown and the Thing (Hodder CHildren’s Books 2007)

Cressida Cowell wrote How to Train Your Dragon, which I haven’t had the pleasure of reading yet. She has also created a whole series of Emily Brown books: in this one, Emily Brown and her old rag rabbit Stanley keep trying to go to sleep but are kept awake by a weird creature, a ‘Thing’, who demands that they perform great feats to help him. They perform the feats – retrieving his cuddly (we say ‘blanky’) from the Dark and Scary Wood, fetching a glass of milk from the Wild and whirling Wastes, and so on. In the end Emily refuses to pander any more, and everyone gets a good sleep. We love this one.


And now a couple more Julia Donaldson titles. Is anyone else finding that her books are multiplying like mice? Nice mice, of course.

Julia Donaldson (writer) and Axel Scheffler (illustrator), The Smartest Giant in Town (Macmillan Children’s Books 2002)

Here Julia Donaldson is teamed up with Axel Scheffler, the co-creator of her most famous book, The Gruffalo.

This is a tale told in prose that allows the reader-aloud to burst into song at the end of each of its episodes. A scruffy giant wanders into town and buys a smart new outfit. Then, in fairytale rhythms, he gives one item of flash clothing after another away to animals in distress. In the end, he retrieves his scruffy old clothes from the garbage outside the clothes shop, and is reconciled to his scruffy status. But them the animals he has helped turn up and celebrate his kindness. This is amiable and charming. The text is beautifully honed, and the illustrations are full of unexpected joys – other giants can be seen among the rooftops and characters from fairytales pass the giant on the road without comment.


Meanwhile, the parents had felt the need for variation and bought a number of books online, among them:

Julia Donaldson (writer) and Axel Scheffler (illustrator), Zog (Scholastic 2016)

Told in the bouncing rhyme that I think of as Julia Donaldson’s typical mode, and which is a lot harder to do than it looks, this one plays sweet variations on the dragon theme. As young Zog learns all the basic dragon skills he is helped out by a girl who happens to turn up just as he gets into trouble. When he has to capture a princess, well, guess who turns out to be one? And when a knight comes to rescue the princess, I don’t think you’ll guess what happens, but it’s a most satisfactory ending with a most satisfactory variation on the tale’s recurring refrain.


Besides the books, there’s the scooter, the dolls, the trampoline, the cooking, the painting, the songs and the athletic challenges – all making worthwhile the weariness come 6 o’clock


Soon is the eight book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.