Tag Archives: children’s literature

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.

Dubosarsky & Chapman’s Leaf Stone Beetle

Ursula Dubosarsky & Gaye Chapman, Leaf Stone Beetle (Dirt Lane Press 2018)

Just under a year ago I became a grandfather. My granddaughter isn’t up to Sendak or Roald Dahl yet, of course. She’s barely up to Eric Hill’s Where’s Spot, Ted Prior’s Grug or Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, though she listens attentively to readings from them, as well as Judy Horacek and Mem Fox’s Where Is the Green Sheep? and any number of excellent board books supplied by her excellent parents.

My own interest in children’s literature has been undergoing a revival independent of the granddaughter’s needs or interests. When I saw Leaf Stone Beetle on the shelf at Gleebooks, I couldn’t resist: Ursula Dubosarsky has written a number of brilliant novels for children, and Gaye Chapman is a formidable, adventurous illustrator. The book will probably belong to a grandniece in less than three weeks, but I have enjoyed it first.

It’s a beautifully produced little book, just 36 pages, that tells a little story about three things – vegetable, mineral, animal, leaf, stone, beetle – each of which/whom is affected by a storm, which brings them together for a moment. That’s it. That’s the whole story. Small illustrations of the leaf, stone and beetle are scattered through the pages, and there are three spreads showing the storm, one for each of the ‘characters’.

My grandniece will no doubt have a different take, but I responded to it as a lyrical embrace of a world where anything can happen, where life is precarious and finite, where there is profound comfort to be found in the sense that one’s small existence is part of the great processes of nature. The text is exquisite, and the drawings burst with energy. 

Leaf Stone Beetle is the eighteenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Stephen Hart’s Lighthouse at Pelican Rock

Stephen Hart, The Lighthouse at Pelican Rock (Eagle Books 2018)

lighthouse.jpgPublished by Eagle Books, an imprint of tiny, Armidale -based Christmas Press, this is Stephen Hart’s debut novel for young readers. May he live long and give us many more.

It’s a time-slip adventure novel. Twelve-year-old Megan is recuperating from serious illness, and is sent to stay with her Aunt Rachel in Pelican Rock, not far from Eden on the south coast of New South Wales. While she’s there, a strangely aggressive pelican visits her in the night and somehow transports her back to a time when Pelican Rock’s ruined lighthouse was in one piece and functioning. In a number of what we at first think may be just dreams, she becomes friendly with the ancient lighthouse keeper.

If you’ve read a lot of children’s adventure books, you know that the first thing to do is get rid of the parents, and that’s how it is here, but it turns out that although Megan’s parents are still in Sydney, hundreds of miles away, they are very much on her mind: Aunt Rachel’s interest in her, and obvious caring for her, make her realise that she has come to expect to be treated as uninteresting and unimportant compared to her younger brother, Alex. At Pelican Rock she begins to recover her health and fitness, and also her sense of herself as deserving to be loved and cherished. The trips back in time are at first just icing on the cake.

I enjoyed this book a lot, not just for the well-paced, less than predictable story. One thing I especially like is the way it speaks to the young reader’s curiosity – and the old reader’s for that matter. Aunt Rachel tells Megan why the nosy little Jack Tussell terrier is called Cyrano, the lighthouse keeper explains interesting bits of how lighthouses work, the doctor and the vet both make sure Megan understands what they are doing. And Megan’s understanding of relationships between adults deepens and grows: with her we gradually come to understand that Aunt Rachel and Rhys Evans, whom Megan meets on the train, have been in love and still have feelings for each other (as the Americans would say); she grasps from the beginning that cranky old Aunt Rachel is critical of her parents and over the course of the book’s action comes to see this is as a very good thing;  she takes careful note of the way the doctor and the vet relate to children differently from anything she has previously experienced.

The illustrations by Kathy Creamer are perfect for the story.

So if you’re looking for a book for someone on the cusp of teenagehood, or if like me you enjoy an occasional children’s book for your own pleasure, here’s one I recommend.

Philip Pullman’s Belle Sauvage

Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust, Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage (2017)

dust1.jpegThis is the first book in a promised trilogy, which is a prequel to Philip Pullman’s masterly His Dark Materials trilogy. If you haven’t read the earlier work I wouldn’t start with this one, there is something incomparably delicious in the way the world is revealed in Northern Lights (1995), and I remember how agonising the wait was for the third volume (The Amber Spyglass) after the cosmic cliffhanger ending of the second (The Subtle Knife).

La Belle Sauvage a big thick book, but a surprisingly quick read. Lyra, the main character of earlier/later trilogy, is a baby in grave danger. There are kind nuns and mean nuns, dangerous daemons and sweet daemons (Pullman’s daemons are one of the great inventions of twentieth century children’s literature), a deeply scary villain, a massive natural upheaval, a magical boat (the eponymous Belle Sauvage), and wonderfully engaging lead characters.

The second half of the book lost some of its charm for me as it turned into a kind of Odyssey-lite. But it might be more accurate to say that in the episodic second half, I became aware that I’m not part of the imagined audience. Given the amount of fruity language, and a sex scene that Malcolm, the young protagonist, sees but doesn’t understand, I’m thinking the book is meant primarily for people in their mid teens.

I was reluctant to embark on this trilogy because my To Be Read Pile is towering. But I’m very glad I did because I was in danger of forgetting what pleasure there could be in a good story. It’s a lot of pleasure.


PS on a tiny thing gave me perverse delight
On page 133 Malcolm is talking to his school friend Eric about spies, and suggests that the music reacher, ‘the shortest-tempered person Malcolm had ever known’, might be one:

Eric thought about it. ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘But she stands out too much. A real spy’d be less conspicuous. Blend in more.’

On the next page, still in the same conversation, Malcolm suggests that Eric pump his father for information about something.

‘Dunno. I could ask him. But I got to be suitable about it. Can’t just come out with a question.’
‘What do you mean, suitable?’
‘You know. Not obvious.’
‘Oh, right,’ said Malcolm. ‘Subtle’ was the word Eric wanted, probably. And he’d probably meant ‘conspicuous’ earlier.

Well, yes, he probably mean ‘conspicuous’ because that’s what he said. Clearly there’s been an unusual proofreading error. Malcolm’s unvoiced comment only makes sense if Eric used a malaprop earlier (‘A real spy’d be less contiguous,’ perhaps). Someone – I’m guessing a proofreader late in the process – corrected the wrong word and then had a moment’s inattention on the next page. Editorial workers all over the world think, ‘There but for the grace of god …’

Books read to small visitors

Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood, The Cleo Stories: The Necklace and The present (Allen & Unwin 2014)
Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood. Go to Sleep, Jessie! (Little Hare 2014)
Doctor Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (©1957; Random House)
Janet & Allan Ahlberg, Each Peach Pear Plum (©1978, Puffin)
Doctor Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham (©1960; Random House)

We have just had two small people visiting for a week (along with their mother, my niece). Although the little girls were mostly busy making things and being generally fascinating company, they did like being read to, which meant that we had a chance to discover some new books for very young reader–listeners, and to revisit some old ones.

1gsjLibby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood won two of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards this year (Freya won a third, but for older readers), and we were guided by the CBCA in our purchase of new books. Their books are warm, affectionate celebrations of the intelligence of their girl protagonists. In Go to Sleep, Jessie! the heroine shares a bedroom with a baby who refuses to go to sleep and instead keeps her awake by crying loudly. The parents’ well-meaning attempts to solve the problem are unsuccessful, and she solves it beautifully herself.

1tcsCleo is a bit older, and her problems are of a different order. ‘Everyone’ at a friend’s party has a necklace, but her parents say she can’t have one until her birthday, which is a very long time away.  In a second story she has to decide on a birthday present for her mother. The problems are real, and the solutions clever.

Both books harbour understated challenges to the parents who will read them aloud many times: what do you think about consumerism, envy, tattoos or ‘controlled crying’, among other things?

039480001XAfter dinner one night the two little girls put on a ‘show’ that consisted mainly of vigorous physical movement and silly faces, but included audience participation in which we adults had to take our socks off and wave them about, and later take turns reading from The Cat in the Hat. The book was apparently chosen at random, but it was wonderful to see the concentration grow on the young listeners’ faces as the story progressed. (Two thirty-somethings ostentatiously took to their smart phones during the reading. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.)

1eppp

An ‘I spy’ book whose images turn out to tell a story. Hearing my niece read it to her daughters in a way that beautifully captured its music, I remembered again that the joy of reading excellent children’s books aloud is as much for the adults as for the young ones. And that’s true of books like this, that depend on the art for their full meaning.

Dr_Seuss_Green_Eggs_and_HamAnother Dr Seuss book. This one was referred to a couple of times as our almost-two-year-old was being resolutely negative (‘Would you like it in a box? Would you like it with your socks?’). Theodor ‘Dr Seuss’ Geisel makes it look easy, but to create books that beginning readers can manage that are also fun for the fiftieth – or should that be five hundredth? – time is the work of a genius.

There were other books – including a Snugglepot and Cuddlepie adaptation that leaves mercifully nameless both the revising writer and the simplifying artist. I tried to insinuate Where the Wild Things Are into the mix, but the little one, clearly recognising the book, rejected it as too scary.

aww-badge-2015Go to Sleep, Jessie! and The Cleo Stories,  are the thirteenth and fourteenth books I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I know they’re very slender, but it should count for something that I’ve read both of them at least four times in the last week.

Steven Herrick’s Caboolture

Steven Herrick, Caboolture (Five Islands Press 1990)

1cabooltureSteven Herrick has written a number of terrific verse novels for young readers, most recently Bleakboy and Hunter Stand Out in the Rain (UQP 2014). He’s kept busy performing from them in schools, he has won prizes for them, and more significantly he has attracted a keen readership. In a recent radio interview, asked about his beginnings as a writer, he acknowledged almost sheepishly that he used to perform ‘to lots of drunks in pubs’, that he started out writing about ‘inner-city life’.

It’s a neat bit of counterpoint: as the poet matured he progressed from grown-up venues to children’s and young people’s writing. I’ve enjoyed a number of his more mature works (that is, the verse novels for young readers), so it was only natural that, when a secondhand bookshop shelf offered me Caboolture, a book from his former incarnation, I snapped it up.

I enjoyed these poems, which mostly relate one way or another to masculinity: youthful escapades (not all of them legal) and relationships with women (not all of them Hallmark-worthy), father–son scenarios in which the speaker occupies both roles (in different poems), traveller’s tales, car lyricism. They range from swaggering fun to starkly elegiac, with an occasional foray into poet-identity (in one of several poems set in the US, the speaker has enough money for a book of Frank O’Hara poems or a pie – he can’t have both). They read well on the page, but cry out to be read aloud – or performed, the purpose for which they were originally written.

The only clue to the direction that Herrick’s work was going to take is in five poems featuring his infant son Joe. ‘Country Joe’, for example, takes us through the small hours:

Joe’s awake
it’s 2 am
I threaten Joe
with a song
he acts like he’s asleep
Joe’s awake
it’s 3 am

an so on. On that recent radio interview, when asked for something from his pub-reading days, he performed ‘To My Son, Joe’, a poem he said went down reasonably well in pubs, which begins:

for the first five years
you’ll be like your Dad
you’ll fall over a lot
always be on the bottle
& stay awake all night.

Here’s a YouTube of him performing it, in which he says it’s from his book Water Bombs, a book published five years after Caboolture, described on its cover as ‘a book of poems for teenagers’. I’d say the poem goes down pretty well in schools: a genuine crossover poem. Have a listen.

If you don’t know Steven Herrick’s work, I’d start with one of the verse novels rather than Caboolture. But if, like me, you love his later work, here’s something different.

Words of warning: If you’re younger than about 30 you may need help with some of the cultural references (as in ‘Brian Henderson Saw Us Make Love’, though the poem would still work if you didn’t know Brian Henderson was an iconic newsreader). If you’re from Goondiwindi you may object to having your town’s name consistently misspelled. If you’re from Caboolture, on the other hand, I imagine it will be good to see that someone knows how to say your town’s name right.