Tag Archives: picture book

Boori Monty Prior & Jan Ormerod Shake a Leg

Boori Monty Prior & Jan Ormerod, Shake a Leg (Allen & Unwin 2010)

shake.jpeg Two of the greats of Australian children’s literature join forces in this book. Boori Monty Prior’s chapter books written with Meme McDonald, My Girragundji and The Binna Binna Man, are wonders of cross-cultural communication. It must be a rare Australian born into a reading family who hasn’t been delighted by Jan Ormerod’s images of small children.

Shake a Leg starts out with three hungry boys hunting for pizza in a Far North Queensland town. They find an excellent pizza maker who gives them a little lesson in Italian (for those who don’t know, there has been a strong Italian presence in some parts of Far North Queensland for well over a hundred years) before mentioning that he is Aboriginal.

‘You’re … an Aboriginal?’
‘How come you’re …’
‘Not standing on one leg, leaning on a spear, looking for emu?
I still do that on holidays but …
a man’s got to make a living
and you boys are hungry.’

As he makes their pizza he tells them traditional stories, and when they’ve eaten he teaches them to dance the stories.

It’s a witty, joyous, generous assertion of the vibrant persistence of Aboriginal culture. Boori Monty Prior has a long history of performing in schools. I would love to be in an audience when he reads / performs this book to a group of children, especially if it evolves into a general dance:

This was once
our bora ground
our gathering place
for warrima.
Now it’s a busy street
in this town.

Our pizza feeds the soul,
keeps you dancing strong,
lifting the dust with your feet,
listening with eyes, ears and heart
so our old people can join us
and together we warrima.

library.jpg

This book came to me by way of the little Street Library we set up a month or so ago. Our aim was to cull our bookshelves, hoping the books we discarded would find good homes. What we didn’t expect was the steady reverse flow of other people’s unwanted treasures. Shake a Leg is one of them.

Tohby Riddle’s Milo

Tohby Riddle, Milo: A moving story (Allen & Unwin 2016)

MILO_FRONTcover-thumbnail.jpgMilo is a dog who lives in a pleasant part of a city resembling an idealised Manhattan. He has a quiet life, and a contented circle of friends, though he sometimes gets irritated by the friend who insists on reciting his very bad poetry. One day, with terrible timing, a storm picks up his kennel soon after he has lost his temper with his poetical friend, and he is stranded high up on a roof. Along comes a migrating bird who likes to walk some of the way because you see more of the country that way. And then it’s just a question of if, when and how Milo will find his way back home, and if we will have to read more of the friend’s verse.

If Tohby Riddle’s fans aren’t legion, they ought to be. This book has his characteristic whimsical seriousness in the telling, and his characteristic artwork to die for, complete with the letterpress speech bubbles that have become something of a trademark. It would make a terrific Christmas/New Year / birthday present for a young person who like dogs, or has complex friendships, or is alive. Older people like me will also enjoy it a lot.

Alan Moore Unearthing Lost Girls

Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, Lost Girls (Knockabout / Top Shelf Productions 2012)
Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins, Unearthing (Top Shelf Productions 2013)

You know what I was saying the other day about superheroes? Well, same for pornography and illegible typographic design.

1lg One of my sons gave me Lost Girls for my birthday. I knew enough about it to say as I tore the protective wrapping from the deluxe hardcover, ‘This is a rude book.’ I opened it at random and after a cursory glance showed the spread to my yum cha companions. ‘That’s not rude,’ someone said. ‘It’s pornographic.’ She was right. And there aren’t many spreads in the book that that’s not true of.

The eponymous lost girls are Wendy (as in Peter Pan and Wendy), Dorothy (as in The Wizard of Oz) and Alice (as in Alice in Wonderland), all grown up. They meet in a decadent European hotel just before the first World War and tell each other pornographic versions of their respective classic tales, then go on a seemingly endless series of sexual adventures. It’s a bit like a cartoon I remember from my early 20s that shows a crowd of Disney characters having an orgy. Only this goes on for, oh, 180 pages.

I can’t say I read it all, or looked at every image. I don’t know who would want to. I don’t understand why the brilliant story-teller Alan Moore and the fabulously talented artist Melinda Gebbie made the book in the first place. Evidently they married each other during the making of the series, so it can’t have been as off-putting for them as it was for me. If you want a proper discussion of the book, Tim Callahan discussed it as part of his Great Alan Moore Re-read on tor.com.

1603091513At the risk of incurring the wrath of truly hip commenters, I am now going to say that Unearthing also left me fairly cold. According to the back cover it began life as part of an anthology about London, and ‘evolved through a series of live performances and recordings’, before being published as this book. It’s a kind of biography of Steve Moore, a friend but no relation of Alan Moore, enmeshed with an account of Shooters Hill in South London, Alan Moore’s text and Mitch Jenkins’s photographs combined in a design phantasmagoria. I did read some bits: Steve Moore is an occultist who seems to use a lot of recreational drugs and have shared hallucinations with Alan on at least one occasion. The prose is overwrought, and in order to read it one has to variously read tiny print, decipher weird Gothic fonts, follow text presented in a spiral, distinguish pale type from an only slightly paler background, etc. And when the physical effort comes up with, for example,

The bookshelves there behind him are the hexagram with six unbroken lines, Chi’en,the Creative, are a doorway where the brilliance bleeds through from a next room that’s not there, a warren of such rooms stretching away above, below, on every side, a Hyper-London, an eternal fourfold town of lights. This is it, this is real, this lamp-glow that’s inside the world like torchlight through a choirboy’s cheeks, the mystical experience as Gilbert Chesterton’s absurd good news and it goes on for hours, goes on forever

I’m afraid I just lose the will to continue.

These books made wonderful birthday presents – beautiful, luxury objects, that took me well out of my comfort zone. I don’t know if either of them actually expanded my world, but they did make me wonder if pornography and occultism don’t have a function in common: to provide distractions from real issues in the real world. Lost Girls could even be read as saying as much in its last pages where (SPOILER ALERT) the motif of the poppy is transformed from a symbol of dreamy erotic surrender to an emblem of the carnage of war.

Tohby Riddle’s Unforgotten

Tohby Riddle, Unforgotten (Allen & Unwin 2012)

This is a picture book to treasure. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. The story is like (Doctor Who alert) ‘Blink’, only the angels are benign. So it’s also like (Wim Wenders alert) Wings of Desire, only not really, really long, and also suitable for children.

I’m a Tohby Riddle fan, and friend, but this goes well beyond any of his previous books. Shaun Tan says on the back cover: ‘Ephemeral as a feather, timeless as a rock, and as true as both.’

Anna the Goanna

Jill McDougall & Jenny Taylor, Anna the Goanna and other poems (Aboriginal Studies Press 2000)

This is a collection of poems written by a schoolteacher ‘in order to provide classroom reading material which reflected the daily experiences of her students’. That description, taken from Jill McDougall’s bio at the back of this book, could be a recipe for semi-literate, patronising disaster, all the more so when the students in question are Aboriginal. On the contrary, this collection is a delight, words and images both. Not that the opinion of a 65 year old urban middle class white men matters all that much, but I’d be surprised if this book didn’t go down very well indeed, in the classroom and out of it, performed for the students or by them or read in private, by curious non-Indigenous as well as Indigenous children.

Why did I read it? Well, reading the Kevin Gilbert books reminded me of how much I enjoyed his children’s poems, and this was a gift that has been sitting on my shelves for a couple of years now, waiting for a suitable child to turn up to be read to from it. I just decided to stand in for that hypothetical child.

As the title promises, there are silly poems about goannas. There are also mosquitoes, crows, flies, and a crocodile, but it’s not all animals. There are babies, big sisters, football and baseball, a sweet   comedy about the difference between Aboriginal and mainstream economics, and two pieces that depart from the general cheerful tone – ‘Too Many Drunks’ and ‘Sad Boys’ , the latter being about petrol sniffing.

Jenny Taylor’s illustrations demonstrate just how important the interplay of text and image can be in a picture book. One page that struck me in particular was ‘Sleep’. The poem:

Goanna like to sleep
In the sandy ground,
In a soft warm hole
Just a little way down.

Crows like to sleep
Near the starry sky,
By a big bird’s nest
That’s way up high.

I like to sleep
In a cosy bed,
With a blanket for my feet
And a pillow for my head.

The final stanza could be spoken by any child, anywhere. One could easily think of a room with pastel wallpaper and shelves of stuffed toys. The illustration is a revelation about possible meanings for the word ‘cosy’:

By Swapna Dutta

Swapna Dutta and Geeta Vadhera, The Sun Fairies (National Book Trust, India 1994, 2001)
Swapna Dutta, Plays from India, illustrated by Baraan Ijlal (Rupa & Co 2003)
Swapna Dutta, Folk Tales of West Bengal , illustrated by Neeta Gangopadhya (Children’s Book Trust 2009)
Sucitrā Bhaṭṭācārya, The Arakiel Diamond, translated by Swapna Dutta and illustrated by Agantuk (Ponytale Books 2011)

My friend Swapna Dutta is a writer, translator and editor, mainly of children’s literature, who lives in Bangalore, in southern India. The School Magazine published some of her stories when I was editor, and she and I have kept in touch over the intervening years. Swapna mentioned in a recent email that she had translated a children’s book, The Arakiel Diamond, from Bengali into English, and asked if I’d like a copy. Of course I was interested, and a couple of days later it arrived in my letter box, with three other books. It’s been a treat and an education to read all four.

The Sun Fairies is a tiny picture book that plays around with science and fantasy. That is to say, it’s a fanciful account of the origin of clouds – some fairies who live in the sun build castles in the sky so it won’t be so bare and empty – that ends up being a decorative but accurate account of how the water cycle works: the cloud castles are made from water, air and dust, and when they get too heavy they fall to the earth as water. The fairies have discovered ‘a never-ending game’. The illustrations, by Geeta Vadhera, are fabulous. I see from the Internet that Ms Vadhera has gone on to international renown. This may be her only children’s book.

In some ways each of the other books is a work of translation. In Plays from India three episodes from Indian history are shaped into dramas suitable for performance by school students. In my ignorance I don’t know whether the stories would be familiar to most Indian students, so I can’t tell whether the history or the theatre is the main point. I was interested in both.

Folk Tales of West Bengal retells sixteen tales. Swapna has an article at papertigers from which I learned that what the Grimms were for Germany, and Moe & Asbjørnsen for Norway, the imposingly named Dakshinaranjan Mitra-Mazumdar was for what is now Bangladesh and West Bengal. At least some of the tales here were collected by him in the first decades of last century. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has entered the woods of Re-enchantment, there’s a lot in these stories that’s familiar to a reader brought up on European-origin fairy stories: kings and princesses, talking animals, metamorphoses, riddles, lost and found children, supernatural beings who reward the humble and punish the greedy. There’s also a lot that’s different: the heroine of the first story, for instance, is not a seventh child but a seventh wife. This blending of familiar and unfamiliar makes for a delightful read.

The Arakiel Diamond is the only book in my swag that is not Swapna’s original work. It’s a detective story for young readers, one of a series featuring a Bengali housewife and her niece. A wealthy man dies. His most precious possession, the eponymous diamond, has gone missing, and almost everyone in his household – and there are many – has had motive and opportunity to steal it. The plot has exactly the twists you’d expect, but the detectives’ relationship and the details of their domestic life are well captured, and I learned a lot about the Armenian community in Calcutta, in a way that reminds me of grown-up detective writers (Sarah Paretsky comes to mind) who take us to a new subculture in each novel.

The four books had me reflecting on multiculturalism in children’s literature. We used to make fun of the way US children’s publishers, apparently believing that their intended readers would shrink from anything not immediately recognisable as of the US, would re-edit books from elsewhere in the English-speaking world to remove unsightly exotica. They weren’t just wanting a world where British characters spend dollars and cents, or Australians walk on a pavement, weird as such a world might be. I remember hearing of a New Zealand novel whose publisher suggested the book’s Maori issues might be more accessible to US children if the setting was changed to California – that author held firm and the book still found readers, even got made into a movie.

I wish now to acknowledge that I’m a bit of a kettle to the US publishers’ pot. Though I enjoyed the slight cultural disorientation I felt as I read these books, I caught myself thinking young readers would be put off by it. To make the books accessible to Australian 11-year olds, the unexamined internal argument went, you’d have to do something about lakh and crorelunghi, salwar shameez and rakhi, not to mention the nitty-gritties of the game of chess or a casual use of thrice in conversation. On reflection, I think that argument profoundly misunderstands how young people read. The only thing that universally distinguishes young from adult readers is that the young ones are younger. One result of this is that they know they don’t know everything about the world, and mostly when they read there are words they don’t recognise but have to guess from the context. (I loved and understood pulverise and invulnerable in Superman comics long before I could define them.) So you might not know what a lunghi is, but the context tells you it’s an article of clothing, and there’s even an illustration to help. Likewise, lakh and crore are obviously big numbers, and that’s all you need to know. As I remember back to my own childhood reading, I think such things would have added spice to the book: if I was young now, I might even have fun googling them. As for nitty-gritties and thrice, I do think we can trust young readers to recognise when a word or a turn of phrase belongs to a different place. (Both my sons say zed in spite of seeing quite a lot of Sesame Street when young.)

Why Bronwyn Bancroft Loves Australia

Bronwyn Bancroft, Why I Love Australia (Little Hare 2010)

I was given an iTunes voucher for my birthday on the understanding that I would use it to buy book. It’s taken a couple of months and a system upgrade, but I’ve bought this one. And of course now I want a dead-trees copy. It’s on the short list for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, and a good thing too. If like me you feel ever so slightly squeamish when you watch those Qantas ads, ‘I still call Australia home’, this is a marvellous antidote – a brilliant, bold, spectacularly beautiful acknowledgement of country.

 

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.