Tag Archives: picture book

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.

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.

Anna, Kim and Stephen’s Monsters

Anna Fienberg (writer), Kim Gamble and Stephen Axelsen (illustrators), Monsters (Allen & Unwin 2018)

monsters.jpgThis is the final collaboration between Anna Fienberg and Kim Gamble, the creators of the wildly popular Tashi books. They began it when they both knew Kim didn’t have long to live. When Kim became too ill to continue he bequeathed the job of finishing the illustrations to his close friend Stephen Axelsen. In the  published book it’s all but impossible to tell where Kim’s work finishes and Stephen’s starts. So the book is a testament to love and friendship, a cairn of lyrical words and luminous images.

It’s also a funny, scary picture book about a little girl, Tildy, who is terrified of monsters in the night and finds a way to overcome her fear through her friendship with Hendrik. There’s plenty of room to play spot-the-monster (and an occasional thieving magpie), and plenty of the visual and verbal wit and warmth that has made Anna and Kim (and, until now separately, Stephen) such beloved giants of Australian children’s literature.

Monsters is the eighth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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.)