Stephen Whiteside, The Billy that Died with its Boots On and other Australian verse, illustrated by Lauren Merrick (Walker Books 2014)
Diane Bates, children’s writer and tireless children’s literature activist, recently set up the Australian Children’s Poetry web site. Its aim, she said,
is to, for the first time, give a national and international ‘face’ to Australian children’s poetry.
The website, which is well worth a look, may change things, but until now poetry written for children in Australia has struggled to have a public face. The School Magazine, published by the NSW Department of Education, has been a dependable outlet just short of 100 years, but its index fairly bristles with lovely poems that appeared there and then were seen no more (except in readers’ memories: in my time at the magazine we received regular phone calls from people trying to track down a poem they had read in the magazine 70 or so years earlier).
It’s always heartening, then, when a children’s publisher like Walker Books brings out a new book of poetry, especially one by a single author.* It would quickly become disheartening, of course, if the poetry wasn’t any good, but The Billy That Died with its Boots On delivers the goods.
The poet’s Introduction proclaims his life-long love of rhyme, and encourages readers to ‘find a brother or sister, or mother or father, or cousin, or aunt or uncle, or grandfather or grandmother, or simply a friend, and read a poem to them’. So be warned, if you give this to a young person as a gift, be prepared to sit still and be read to.
Not that you will suffer if that happens. The book is bursting with gleeful love of rhyme and bush-ballad rhythms. There’s nonsense, fantasy, word play, jokes (some laugh-aloud, some groan-worthy), historical narrative; the beach, the bush, the snow, the sports field; dogs and cats, cormorants and spotted quolls; dinosaurs and flying whales. It’s not hard to imagine a young reader becoming permanently addicted to rhyme if exposed to this book.
If I have a favourite poem, it’s probably ‘We Headed for the Beach Today’. I’d love to give you the whole poem, but it’s long and I don’t want to breach anyone’s copyright: suffice to say it lists all the things that could have gone wrong on a day at the beach but didn’t, mixing the all too common with the extremely unlikely, all in impeccably scanned, rhyming couplets, as for example:
No one grizzled. No one snarled. No one yelled or jeered.
We didn’t see a baby grab his daddy by the beard.
A change did not arrive to make the water dark and wild.
A shiny flying saucer did not steal a little child.
It’s perfect for learning off by heart and performing for your brother or sister, etc.
By way of full disclosure: Roughly half of these poems were first published in The School Magazine, many of them when I was editor. Stephen graciously mentions me in the acknowledgements, and also in his account of the book’s long gestation on the Australian Children’s Poetry site. I received a complimentary copy from Walker Books.
* I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this is the only such book Walker have published. Far from it. The last page advertises Guinea Pig Town and Note on the Door, both books by Lorraine Marwood, another fine poet who has graced the pages of The School Magazine.