Tag Archives: children’s literature

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.

Ruby Reads (6)

This instalment of posts about books I’ve read as Ruby’s grandfather consists of two kinds of books: two that have been read to the audience of 0–2 year olds at Leichhardt Library Rhyme Time, and three that she requests on repeat.

Gail Jorgensen & Patricia Mullens, Crocodile Beat (Simon & Schuster 1989)

This starts with a scary image of a crocodile who is waiting for his prey to come to the waterhole. Then, page after page, a procession of animals arrives, making at least this reader very uneasy: it’s set up as a macabre variation on Who Sank the Boat?, something like ‘who will the crocodile eat?’

Happily, no spoiler really, everyone ends up alive, though it’s thanks to an extremely improbable intervention, and only for today. Tomorrow the crocodile may well get lucky. It was, however, beautifully read to us with lots of animal noises to match the colour and movement of the book itself.

Jessica Spanyol, Clive and His Babies (Child’s Play International 2016)

Clive is a little white boy who plays with dolls, one of whom is brown. He also plays with a number of other children, some of them also brown. This was read to us at the library. Its message of diversity and flexibility about gender roles, explicitly named on the back cover, is overwhelmingly front and centre and there’s no story to speak of, but who am I to complain? I joined in with gusto all the nursery-rhyme singing and gesturing, motivated at least in part by the desire as the only man there to set a model of gender-role flexibility.

Ingela P Arrhenius, Where’s Mr Duck (Nosy Crow 2019)

No author is named for the text in this lift-the-flap, and there’s no reason why one should be. The reader is simply asked to lift a flap on each spread to see if Mr Duck (not Mr Drake) is under it. Eventually, after finding Mrs Worm, Mr Frog and so on, we do find the duck. End of story.

What makes the book stand out is that the flaps are made of felt, which resists the deliberate or accidental depredations of little hands. The images by Ingela P Arrhenius, described on the publisher’s website as a ‘Swedish homewares designer’, are attractive in an impersonal, Ikea-ish way. The book is definitely designed for 15-month-old people.

Peppa Pig: Creepy Cobwebs (Ladybird 2014)

I’ve never seen an episode of Peppa Pig, and as far as I know neither has Ruby. On the strength of this little board book, we’re not missing much. It’s nominally about creepy things, but includes – among other non-creepy things – an image of Peppa Pig and family riding in a space ship. There’s no narrative line, and I find the images crude and uninteresting. Ruby, however, took the book from me after a couple of readings and proceeded to turn the pages while giving voice to what might have been a Martian rendition of the text. A big success for the unnamed author.

Kimberley Barnes (illustrator), The Wheels on the Bus (Hinkler Books, First Steps 2017)

Not so much a book as merchandise to accompany a song, this is one of several musical ‘novelty books’ we read/play. One of the buttons on the right plays the tune, the other three play the sounds of windscreen wipers, a baby crying and a car horn respectively. (I do wonder if Verna Hills, who Wikipedia says wrote the song, receives any royalties.)

I am reading on my non-grandfathering days. Some posts about that coming soon.

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.

Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives

Erich Kästner and Walter Trier (illustrator), Emil and the Detectives (1929; translation by Eileen Hall 1959; Puffin 1984)

My virtual To-Be-Read pile includes innumerable children’s literature classics. Emil and the Detectives is one of them. I have somehow come to own a copy of it, and it seemed like the perfect read after the rigours of Edward Said’s On Late Style. I knew almost nothing about it. And of course, not being a children’s literature scholar, I still don’t know what its historical claim to fame is, but I did enjoy it, and had a complex enough response that I felt compelled to do a little background reading 

First published in Germany in 1929, it evidently broke new ground by telling a tale set in recognisable current reality, mainly in Berlin, with a mainly realistic story. Emil, who lives with his mother in the tiny village of Neustadt, sets out by train to visit his grandmother and aunt and family in Berlin. His mother gives him the enormous sum of seven pounds (in Eileen Hall’s 1959 translation the money is British), one pound for spending money, the rest to help Grandma out. The money is stolen, and Emil has to catch the thief and retrieve the money. He is helped by an ever expanding gang of Berlin boys, and one girl. It’s not really a spoiler to tell you that they are successful.

The book was a delight to this 71 year old, and the note on my yellowing copy’s opening page is almost certainly accurate:

It is a book everyone reads with pleasure. Forward readers of eight could tackle it, while those in their early teens still enjoy it without wanting to disguise the fact.

The squabbling among the boys, their awe in the presence of the only girl, the presence of a kindly journalist named Mr Kästner, the acknowledgement to the smallest boy whose undramatic contribution to the project was nonetheless heroic, the attention paid throughout to tiny practical details, the evocation of the city of Berlin – nostalgic now but no doubt fresh and new then: so much to love.

The thing that sent me to Wikipedia was this: I became uneasy in the climactic scenes leading up to the villain’s capture. Some of this is described from his point of view:

Mr Grundeis found himself completely surrounded. He looked about in amazement, Boys swarmed round him, all laughing and talking among themselves, jostling each other, yet somehow always keeping up with him, Some of them stared at him so hard that he hardly knew where to look.

Then – whizz – a ball flew past his head. He did not like that, and tried to move more quickly; so did the boys, and he remained surrounded. Then he tried to take them by surprise by turning abruptly to go down a side street, but he could not get through the mass of children which seemed to stream across his path whichever way he turned.

And it goes on. Mr Grundeis threatens to call the police, but the boys call his bluff. And so on, until there’s a violent confrontation in a bank, and the boys convince the tellers and police (who do eventually turn up) that the man is indeed a thief. I can’t be the only one to be made uneasy by this scene of a cheerful mob of adolescent boys harassing a solitary man, especially in late 1920s Berlin. It’s possible that Mr Grundeis has some of the cultural markers for ‘Jew’. He is certainly described in more detail than any other character. He wears a bowler hat, and has ‘a long face, with a small black moustache and a lot of wrinkles around his mouth’. In addition, ‘His ears were thin and stuck out from his head.’

So I was uneasy. I did go to Wikipedia, where I learned that this is the only pre-1945 book by Kästner that wasn’t censored by the Nazis, so I’m reasonably assured that this isn’t deliberate anti-semitism. But I’m putting it out there as a question to people who know more about the history of this book than I do. Does this lovely book about youthful solidarity and power contain a coded version of the antisemitism that Hitler and the Nazis built on? Is it possible for the same story to make one think of the recent school students’ demonstrations for the environment, and in the same moment to remember that boy in Cabaret singing so sweetly, ‘The future belongs to me’? Or am I being hyper-vigilant in this age of assertive identity politics.

Freeman & Beer’s Amazing Australian Women

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

When I ran into the lovely Pamela Freeman in an Annandale cafe the other day, just down the road from where I used to live, she insisted on interrupting her lunch to dash off, and returned to present me with a copy of Amazing Australian Women, which she inscribed to my almost-one-year-old granddaughter.

The granddaughter won’t be ready for this book for another couple of years, but I couldn’t just leave it to wait for her. Besides, I’ve been a fan of Pamela’s writing for young readers (and old) for years.

The book is what it says on the lid: twelve spreads, each featuring an amazing Australian woman. It’s a terrific list, presented with a keen eye for the memorable detail, and decorated by Sophie Beer with wit and charm.

I’m willing to bet that none of my readers, asked to draw up a list of twelve Australian women who have changed history, would come up with exactly the twelve women in this book. I’ll bet the lists wouldn’t be identical even if I tightened the brief and asked you to include women who represent ‘warriors, artists, business owners, scientists, singers, politicians, actors, athletes, adventurers activists and innovators’ (to quote the back cover), and then tightened it again to say your list must include at least one Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander woman, at least one other person from a non-European background, and at least one person with a disability.

The two absences that surprised me were Cathy Freeman and Mary McKillop. At least four of the inclusions are new names to me. Of the ones I knew about, none felt Wikipediated. Did you know for instance that Mary Reibey, when she was thirteen, dressed in boy’s clothes to ride the horse she was then accused of stealing? And did you know who discovered the cause of the Northern and Southern Lights? 

If you want to know who made it onto Pamela’s list, whether for your own enlightenment and entertainment, or to quarrel with her decisions, you probably don’t have to wait for the author to give you a copy. Once you’ve checked it out, you might well consider buying it as a gift for a young girl (or boy, because what boy doesn’t want to know about amazing women?)

Amazing Australian Women is the nineteenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.