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Irma Gold and Susannah Crispe, Where the heart is (#BookReview)

September 17, 2021

I don’t normally review children’s books, particularly children’s picture books, but I do make exceptions, one being Irma Gold. I have multiple reasons for this. Irma Gold is local; she is one of the Ambassadors for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge; she writes across multiple forms (including, novels, short stories and children’s books, in all of which I’ve reviewed her); and, if you click my tag for her, you will get a sense of just how active she is as a writer, editor and supporter of literary culture, particularly in the ACT. Hence this exception!

But, there is another reason too, which is that Where the heart is not only a delightful book but it slots very nicely into her growing oeuvre. Before I discuss that, though, I’ll describe this, which is her most recent book. Gold explains on its opening page that it was inspired by the true story of Dindim, a Magellanic penguin which, in 2011, was washed up on an island village outside Rio de Janeiro. The bird had been caught up in an oil spill. The fisherman who found him, Joao, cleaned and cared for him until Dindim returned to the wild. However, ever since then, Dindim has returned, annually, to Joao to spend several months of the year with him. There are questions about where he goes, but in Gold’s story it is Patagonia. Patagonia is one of the theories, because it is a major breeding ground for these penguins.

This sort of detail, however, is not critical to the story. It is fiction after all. What is critical to the story is that it tells of the potentially disastrous impact of oil spills on animals. It also tells of the importance of wild animals being free. This is what Joao believed. He brought the penguin back to health and set him free. It’s just that the penguin had other ideas. It also tells of the friendship that can develop between humans and wild animals.

What makes this a gorgeous book is the way Gold tells the story. It’s simply told but the language is not condescending, and it naturally incorporates local culture. Joao and the penguin mend nets, eat sardine sandwiches, and go shopping together, with this “shopping” being at a village market stall. It’s also warm-hearted. It encourages us to think about kindness, tenderness and loyalty, making it a feel-good read. Yet, there is also a narrative arc that encompasses a variety of emotions, including a sense of fear and drama as Dindim journeys back.

Not far from Joao’s beach, the sky swelled and lightning jagged. Dindim rode waves and wondered if he would make it. He was exhausted.

A little bit of drama makes it fun to read aloud to littlies, which I look forward to doing when lockdowns end and I’m able to see our little grandson again!

However, this is a picture book, so for it to succeed the illustrations have to be good as well. Fortunately, they are. I think this is illustrator Susannah Crispe’s first book, though she has another coming out this year. I’m not surprised she has, because she has done a beautiful job with this one. The colours are bright and inviting, but are conveyed with a warmth and softness that support the story. This is nowhere more obvious than in the two facing pages that contain only penguins. The expected intense black-and-white of the penguins is there, yet muted, and the white space surrounding Dindim visually conveys the text’s description of the “ache” in Dindim’s heart. Crispe also incorporates lovely little details from nature in her illustrations, like hummingbirds, butterflies, turtles and albatrosses. These all support the story by adding to its sense of place, but they also create interest when reading to littlies. “Can you find the turtle”, etc!

What I’m saying, in other words, is that this picture book is just the right package.

Irma Gold Craig Phillips Megumi and the bear book cover

And there I’ll leave it to return to my opening comment on Gold’s oeuvre, because I am seeing a pattern. The obvious one – from her previous picture book Megumi and the bear (my review) and The breaking (my review) – is her interest in wild animals, and in the relationship between humans and animals. Closely related to this is an interest in conservation, animal rights and the environment. And then – yes, there’s more – overlaying all of this is the importance of friendship, between humans, and between animals and humans. There’s a quiet joy in this, which is something Gold said, in a recent conversation, that she wanted to convey. I believe she has, and look forward to what comes next.

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Irma Gold and Susannah Crispe (illus.)
Where the heart is
Chatswood: EK Books, 2021
[32pp.]
ISBN: 9781925820874

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Sara Dowse permalink
    September 17, 2021 15:24

    Bravo to Irma! I look forward to reading this, and Megumi and the Bear, to my about to turn one new grandson, one of whose first words is ‘book’!

  2. September 17, 2021 17:57

    Sounds wonderful ! – and children’s books can be the BEST literature !! 🙂

  3. September 17, 2021 23:01

    Usually, I don’t read reviews of children’s books, but you started by stating you don’t usually read children’s books, so I had to read. The book with the penguin sounds lovely, very feeling, and yet calm. I grew up in the 90s, when everything was XTREME!!! and I wonder what that did to my brain. I don’t mean that facetiously; being wound up makes me anxious, and anxiety affects your brain.

    • September 18, 2021 08:54

      That’s an interesting comment and question Melanie, and raises mvltple thoughts in my mind. I have been under ng about what seems like an increase in anxiety these days. Is it an increase or is it that people verbalise it more? If the former, why? You’ve made a suggestion. You are around the age of my children.

      And yet, a friend of mine, whose kids are the same age too, said she’d read an article about your generation, which described you (and those born in the 1990s) as the “Harry Potter generation”, as people who believe things are possible. Hmm perhaps that and anxiety are not mutually exclusive.

      The other interesting thing is that while Bills and my generation grew upn a time of boom, we also grew up during the Cold war and with the fear of “the bomb.” Our dystopian novels were more about that sort of apocalypse than today’s dmak change ones.

      My, l’ve got off-track, but your comment was so interesting and heartfelt. I do hope you are getting on top of your brain. I do know how hard that is. I really enjoy engaging with you and your blog.

      • September 19, 2021 07:25

        I’m so glad we are friends, Sue! To be clear, I was born in 1985. It was in the early to mid-90s that “XTREME” everything happened. Bill Nye, the Science guy had this frantic show that made children think science was cool. The “X Games” started in 1994. “XTREME” starting with an X was a whole thing. Then, around 1997 we got a lot of bubble gum pop culture, and things softened a lot. Oddly, even though I lived through the whole decade and remember it well, I’m surprised by how much those ten years had their own themes. 1990-1993 was “we don’t care,” 1993-1997 was “XTREME,” and 1997-1999 was boy band/hot girl pink bubble gum happy. If your children, or I, seem like we have multiple personalities, this may be part of it.

        I see videos of children today learning things like managing emotions, yoga, and taking a deep breath when upset. How different they will be!

        • September 19, 2021 08:31

          I will have to see if my kids (you were born between my two) see the decade the same way. Of course, they spent the fist 3 years of it, Oct 90-Oct 93, in Orange County.

          It will be interesting to see how different this new generation will be.

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  2. September 2021 Round Up:  Children and Young Adult | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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