Tag Archives: Margaret Mahy

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.

Ruby Reads 22:

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted about books read with my granddaughter. Here’s a beginning catch-up.

Dinner with Olivia (Simon & Schuster 2009, based on the TV series, adapted by Emily Sollinger, illustrated by Guy Wolek)

Neither Ruby nor her grandparents knew there was a TV series featuring Olivia, and at first I was wary of this knock-off of Ian Falconer’s wonderful books: as befits children’s TV, the illustration style is a lot cruder than Falconer’s New Yorkish elegance. But it turns out the book is lovely. Olivia goes to her posh friend Francine’s place for dinner. At first she is in awe, and mildly ashamed of the messiness of her own family, especially her little brothers. But once she has experienced the rule-bound life of Francine’s family, not to mention the Brussels sprouts, she – and Francine – realise how excellent it is to slurp spaghetti sauce and occasionally have a meatball bounce to the floor.


Alison Lester, Hello Little Babies (OUP 1985)

Like Alison Lester’s Clive Eats Alligators, this follows a number of children in different activities. This time the children are babies, of a range of ethnicities. Ruby is besotted with her little brother, and with babies in general – at the museum, the exhibit that held her attention was the diorama of baby dinosaurs hatching from their eggs. An added attraction in this book is that one of the babies is named Ruby.


Sally Lloyd-Jones and Sue Heap, How to Be a Baby, by Me, The Big Sister (Schwartz & Wade Books 2007)

Much loved by Ruby, this mocks the narrator’s baby brother for his comparative helplessness. At least, we assume the baby is male, because that’s what Ruby’s baby brother Charlie is. We first read this before he was born. It has become much more popular since he became a reality. I’m not entirely comfortable with the book’s rampant condescension, but I think Ruby can tell it’s joking, and she particularly likes the last pages, where the big sister looks forward to the time when the baby will be as tall as her and able to play with her.


Maurice Sendak, In the Night Kitchen (©1970, HarperCollins Publishers 1988)

Ruby’s not so fond of this. I think there’s too much that she doesn’t quite recognise: the cooks in the kitchen, dough rising, New York skysline, naked boy … And the story line is weird. However, we were driving in the car the other day and she started chanting, ‘Milk in the batter! Milk in the Batter!’ So the magic of Sendak is percolating.


Margaret Mahy (writer) and Jenny Williams (illustrator), A Lion in the Meadow (©1969, re-illustrated edition ©1986, Picture Puffins 1989)

We picked this up at the Addison Road markets. Margaret Mahy is one of the great children’s writers, and Ruby has responded to this book appropriately. Like Sendak’s The Sign on Rosie’s Door, it has a brilliant mother who responds intelligently to her child’s fantasies. The difference is that is this case the child’s fantasy, of ‘a big, roaring, yellow, whiskery lion in the meadow’, turns out to be real, and so does the mother’s counter-fantasy of a dragon in a matchbox who will chase the lion away. Not a word out of place, this is irresistible, and – like the Sendak books – a pleasure to read aloud.


Libby Gleeson (writer) and Freya Blackwood (illustrator), Banjo and Ruby Red (Little Hare 2013)

A dog and a chook overcome initial relationship difficulties to become good friends. What’s not to love? We used to visit some urban chickens when Ruby was much smaller (her word for chicken as ‘babook’, but she eventually decided to go with the consensus). She still talks about the family dog who died some time ago – ‘It’s very sad.’ And relationship difficulties seem to be an issue as she spends more time in childcare. Plus, the chook’s name is Ruby Red. I don’t imagine the Australian farm setting is any more familiar to our inner-city girl than Sendak’s New York skyline, but in this case that doesn’t seem to matter.

This book is also a pleasure to read aloud, for the pathos of a scene where Ruby Red is apparently lifeless as much as for the pages where Banjo does a lot of barking and for the way movement can be traced in great arc across the pages in Freya Blackwood’s illustrations


Hello Little Babies and Banjo and Ruby Red are the first two books I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Children’s literature is not a genre

Guus Kuijer, The Book of Everything (2004; Translation by John Nieuwenhuizen, Allen & Unwin 2006)
David Greenberg & Victoria Chess, Slugs (Pepper Press 1983)

There’s a way of talking about children’s literature as if it’s a genre, like detective stories or police procedurals or thrillers or vampire stories or fantasy novels. I think this is quite wrong. A genre has acknowledged conventions, that can be followed flexibly or even violated in any particular specimen of the genre. The conventions change and grow with time. But they still rule. It’s not a vampire movie if no one sucks blood. It’s not a detective story if there’s no major crime in the first quarter of the book. Children’s literature isn’t like that. It’s defined entirely by the imagined readership. I like Margaret Mahy’s definition, which I remember as: Children’s literature is literature that you can start enjoying while a child. The two books I’ve just read illustrate my point.

0316326593 I read Slugs for the first time in years the other night. My five year old great-niece was staying with her father. At bedtime, having scoured our bookshelves, she emerged with this unpleasant little book and asked me in her sweet, shy way to read it to her. Evidently she’d fallen in love with the book earlier in the year when they stayed here in our absence. I complied with as much gusto as I could muster. I find the book profoundly unattractive. It has rudimentary rhymes, describing a huge variety of slugs, many being subjected to would-be comic indignities, tortured and murdered in hideous ways, all with images showing the brown creatures impassively accepting their fates, until in the last pages they come and wreak a horrible revenge on a child (known in the book as ‘you’), ending:

And after how you’ve treated Slugs
It surely serves you right!

My great-niece seemed to enjoy having this horror read to her, and when I’d finished she sat for maybe half an hour studying the pages intently.

Clearly she is the reader the creators had in mind – she and my sons twenty or so years ago. I am not that reader.

1kuijerThe Book of Everything is definitely a children’s book, but it couldn’t be more different. It has more in common with J M Coetzee’s Boyhood (which I’ll blog about during the week), in subject matter, point of view, even tone, than it does with Slugs. A lonely boy, helped by apparitions of Jesus and an old woman who is almost certainly a witch, finds a way to free himself and his family from the dominion of his harsh, violent, religiously extreme father. It speaks in particular to literate children. The hero,Thomas, finds inspiration in Emil and the Detectives, Joanna Spyri’s All Alone in the World and the Book of Genesis. The narrative assumes familiarity with literary conventions (OK, there are some conventions!), particularly those about witches in children’s literature. I found my adult-reader self wanting explanations of Thomas’s visions: ‘Please be clear about this. Is the poor child hallucinating from terror, or is this a world where such things really happen?’ Such questions are just plain irrelevant to the book’s imagined reader, and once I moved over to occupy that position the book opened up to me – or I opened up to it.

It occurred to me that just as Pixar animations, among other children’s movies, tend to wink knowingly over the heads of the children in their audience, both these books are winking at the children – ‘Don’t tell the adults.’ If we have to talk genre, the first is something like Perversely Cautionary Verse (which may be a genre found only in children’s literature), the second Domestic Magic Realism (and I doubt if that is limited to any age readers).

I read The Book of Everything on Richard Tulloch‘s recommendation. His dramatisation of it will be playing at Belvoir Street at the end of the year. It seems to me that one of his challenges is to take the story away from the children and give it to the adults who will presumably make up the bulk of the Belvoir audience.