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

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
ISBN: 9781925820874

Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo Watson, Cooee mittigar: A story on Darug songlines (#BookReview)

Recently, on a bit of a whim, I bought two books from the Indigenous Australian publishing company, Magabala Books. They were the younger readers-young adult novel, Black Cockatoo (my review), which had been shortlisted for a few awards, and this picture book, Cooee mittigar, which had just won the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction. It is described on the Awards website as “introducing children and adults-alike to Darug ‘Nura’ (Country) and language”. So, a book for children and adults. I’m in …

The book tells the story of the seasons*, as understood or experienced by Sydney’s Darug people, through the eyes of the black swan, Mulgo. It is a perfect example of the generosity of Indigenous Australians. Despite being dispossessed of their country, despite being repeatedly discounted as having anything important to contribute, despite being overlooked or specifically excepted by policy-makers, they come back again and again, willing to share their knowledge – and, particularly, their language – when there’s a real risk that it too might be taken from them. They seem to understand, when so many don’t, that it’s only by sharing and communicating with each other our values and belief systems that we can mature as a nation.

And so, we have this beautiful hardback, written and illustrated by two Darug women, Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo Watson. Like many recent books I’ve read by Indigenous Australian writers, it incorporates Indigenous – Darug here, of course – language into the story. The technique they use is, in two-page spreads, to tell the story using English and Darug words, immmediately followed (on the same spread) by a glossary for the Darug words used. So, for example, we have:

In the time of yuruka and burara
Elders tell us not to hunt the buru.

yuruku – hot
burara – dry
buru – kangaroo

The glossary words are presented in slightly smaller but still clear text. The illustrations for the page, as you’d expect in a picture book, help convey the meaning. This spread, for example, is dominated by hot-dry looking yellows and tans, with two kangaroos lazing in the grass.

But now, let’s go back to the beginning. The book starts with a welcome: “Warami mittigar. Welcome friend. … Cooee mittigar. Come here friend.” We are then introduced to our guide, the afore-mentioned black swan, Mulgo, who tells us that she will teach us “about Darug life” – and off we go, starting, logically, with an introduction to Biami (dreaming ancestor spirit) and the idea of Darug dreaming and the songlines which tell the story of “Nura” or country. From here, we move through the seasons, starting when the “the darrabura [day] grows long and the weather warms up”. Each step of the way, we are told what to look for, what might be happening, what we can do, with respect to country and the natural environment, such as:

During dagara, gulgadya will bloom –
ready to be turned into spears.

dagara – frost
gulgadya – grasstree

The story ends with the gentle request to “tread softly on our lands”.

The language flows simply – though, as a non-indigenous reader, I’m sure it would take me a few readings to feel comfortable enough with the words to make it sound good aloud. Leanne Mulgo Watson’s illustrations draw mostly from greens, blues and yellows, but with touches of other hues. They are gorgeously evocative of the text, making them a delight for all readers, but they also provide good opportunities for actively engaging younger readers (and listeners).

At the end of the book is a complete glossary of the Darug words used throughout, with a simple pronunciation guide, which is a feature I’ve missed in other books. So, for example, there’s “warami – wara me – hello”. There is also a one-page description of Darug Country, and another page providing brief bios of Seymour and Watson.

Cooee mittigar concludes with a statement of its creators’ intentions, which are “to share Darug language and culture and show that the Darug people are still strong on Country”. They also “hope that Cooee mittigar will contribute to the continuation of stories and culture”. I’d be surprised if they haven’t achieved this, but I hope that in publishing this post I will have made my contribution to supporting their goals.

Challenge logo

Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo Watson (illus.)
Cooee mittigar: A story on Darug songlines
Broome: Magabala Books, 2019
ISBN: 9781925936865

* As many Australians know, Indigenous Australians do not see the year through “our” four-season calendar, but through different seasons depending on the country.

Nhulunbuy Primary School, I saw we saw (#BookReview)

Book coverA week or so ago, I wrote a post to commemorate this year’s Indigenous Literacy Day. In that post I noted that the book I saw we saw was going to be launched at the Sydney Opera House that day. It was written and illustrated by students from Nhulunbuy Primary School, up on the Gove Peninsula, and a number of them were going to read and perform from the original Yolŋu Matha language version, Nha Nhunu Nhanjal?, at the launch. I ordered my own copy of the book that day.

The books – the original Yolŋu Matha version, launched at this year’s Garma Festival, and the English version – were published by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which describes itself as a “national book industry charity”. Their aim is to “reduce the disadvantage experienced by children in remote indigenous communities in Australia, by lifting literacy levels and instilling a lifelong love of reading”. These two books came out of their Community Literacy Project, and were produced through a series of workshops with illustrator Ann Haddon and teacher-librarian Ann James, with local Yolŋu elders helping develop the story.

So, the English-version book. It begins with a brief introduction telling us that the Yolŋu people of north-east Arnhem Land represent one of the largest indigenous groups in Australia. Their main language is Yolŋu Matha, which, it explains, has twelve sub-languages, each with its own name. It also tells us that, for most Yolngu children, English is their second (or even third or fourth) language. I saw we saw, the English language version of their book, is, by definition, written in English, but it uses words from the Dhaŋa sublanguage to name the actual “things” seen. This is a lovely, effective way of introducing indigenous language to non-indigenous people (as recommended at the Identity session of the Canberra Writers Festival). However, this approach also creates a bit of a challenge for the reader – what is being seen, and how do you pronounce it?

Beach, north-east Arnhem Land

Beach, north-east Arnhem Land

Well, there is quite a bit of help for us in this. First, the text and illustrations provide a lot of clues. “I see a waṯu grab a stick from a man” is accompanied by quite a busy drawing with birds, fish, turtle, jellyfish, and a person fishing, but there is also a picture of a dog with a stick in its mouth. So, waṯu is dog! Sometimes, however, it’s not so easy to get it exactly right, either because of the busy-ness of the picture or the (delightful) naiveté of the children’s drawings. You can usually guess, but can be uncertain, nonetheless. In these cases, the illustration on the last page of the story, which shows most of the creatures with their English names, provides most of the answers. Finally, there is also the online Yolŋu dictionary which, in fact, I used to obtain the necessary diacritics since, funnily enough, they are not available on my Apple keyboard!

That’s the “what is being seen” problem solved, but what about the pronunciation issue? How would you pronounce ŋurula (seagull)? Or mirinyiŋu (whale)? This one is easily solved. At the front of the book is a QR code. You hold your tablet or smart phone camera over that to be taken to a website where you can hear the story read by child-speakers of the language. The whole story only takes 3 minutes or so. Of course, being able to then say the words yourself will take some practice.

The story itself is simple, traditional picture-book style. The pages alternate between “I saw …” and “We saw …”, with each “I saw – We saw” pair forming a rhyming couplet:

I saw a maranydjalk leaping high
We saw a ŋurula soaring in the sky

It’s a delightful book. The rhymes are comfortable, not forced; the illustrations are appealing, particularly to young people; and story introduces readers to the rich natural environment of Arnhem Land region. It also conveys the pride the young authors and illustrators have in their country. It would be a wonderful book to use in primary school classrooms. It’s certainly one I look forward to reading to Grandson Gums when he’s a little older (and I’ve practised my Yolŋu Matha).

You can purchase this book directly from the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, for $24.99.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeNhulunbuy Primary School students, with Ann James and Ann Haddon
I saw we saw
Broadway: Indigenous Literacy Foundation, 2019
ISBN: 9780648155492


Deborah Hopkinson, Ordinary, extraordinary Jane Austen (#BookReview)

Deborah Hopkinson, Ordinary, extraordinary Jane AustenWriting biographies for young children – like, for example, Deborah Hopkinson and Qin Leng’s Ordinary, extraordinary Jane Austen – is an interesting concept. Interesting, but not new. So, when I was given this gorgeous Jane Austen one for Christmas, I decided to research the topic – and what I discovered is that the picture book biography is a well-recognised genre. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose, given the number I bought for the young Gums way back when.

Still, it got me thinking. A quick search of the ‘net retrieved a few interesting articles (mostly including lists of recommended books). In 2016, The Guardian writer Amy Coles wrote how “picture book biographies peel back history and bring to life the true stories of iconic figures for a younger generation of readers”. An obvious aim, I suppose, but there’s more to it than just knowing these people’s stories, as Coles continues:

there is a lot to be learnt from the trailblazing achievements of history’s most renowned and respected figures. But how did these inspirational figures reach their goals and what prompted them to act the ways they did?

Coles provides a list of ten books that cross “nationalities, careers and cultures”, books about well-known people like the inspiring young Malala Yousafzai and Nelson Mandela, and lesser-known ones (to me, anyhow) like Wangari Maathai, who is “credited with planting over 30 million trees in Kenya”.

I love the idea of these non-fiction picture books, but how popular are they, really? Well, it just so happens that they have quite a wide readership.

Writers Rumpus is the website and blog of a group of children’s book writers and illustrators from the Boston area. Their blog began with “a lively, opinionated, humongous rumpus of a critique group” that (still I gather) meets monthly in a library. Back in May last year, they wrote this (as an introduction to a list of new releases from the previous year):

We live in a most exciting time, one of abundant picture book biographies! At my library, patrons of all ages check out these books. One adult recently told me he found it an excellent way to learn about famous people—past and present—without spending precious time reading a full biography on each person. With their lavish illustrations and informative back matter, this is no surprise. Authors and illustrators of picture book biographies put in a lot of research time to make sure their facts are correct, recorded, and shared in an entertaining manner.

The list is appealing – and includes books about the composer Bach, the “father of children’s literature” John Newbery whose name now graces a significant American children’s literature award, the black woman ex-slave-cum-anti-slavery-activist Harriet Tubman, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, not to mention a whole raft of scientists, sports people and creators of all sorts.

Julie Just, writing in The New York Times last November, also praised picture-book biographies, stating that modern publishers are producing

beautifully illustrated and closely researched nonfiction books about unsung heroes as well as heroes we can’t read enough about. Best of all, if you like true stories, they include superbly detailed endnotes and suggestions for further reading.

And this brings me to the Ordinary, extraordinary Jane Austen, which is just such a book. The front cover flap describes the book as a “gorgeous tribute to an independent thinker who turned ordinary life into extraordinary stories”.

The book’s epigraph from Pride and prejudice – “For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in return” – will probably not make sense to its 4 to 8-year-old intended audience, but should give its adult readers a wry laugh. The book proper opens – not totally originally (!) – with

It is a truth universally acknowledged
that Jane Austen is one of our greatest writers.
But it might surprise you to know that
Jane lived a simple life.
She wasn’t rich
or even very famous in her time.

This would, I think, push the young reader a bit. How many would even have heard of Jane Austen to wonder whether she was rich or famous? Still, from the opening page they learn some basic facts about her. This first-page text is accompanied by a lovely sketch-illustration of our Jane writing at her famous little round writing table. The book goes on to provide the important facts of her biography. It gives a sense of Austen’s personality, including her love of humour, particularly at the “foolish things people sometimes did and said”. It tells us about the life of her times, including how people entertained themselves, which of course would interest children. It also explains how Austen wanted to write more realistic stories about the ordinary world, representing a significant break from the popular novels of the time – adventures and romances. Its conclusion, suggesting that Austen may have stood in her father’s library one day and thought to herself, “I can do this”, is nicely aspirational (as Coles suggests these books can be.)

The book concludes, as Julie Just notes many such books do, with some useful end matter: a basic but detailed enough timeline; a description of each of her novels including when it was published, and some “famous quotes”; some Internet sources to research; and a few books about Austen that the author used in her research.

You won’t be surprised to learn that this book didn’t teach me anything new, but as the friends who gave it to me know, I love adding to my Jane Austen collection of books, videos, CDs and other merch!

Do you have any favourite picture book biographies?

PS I should note that the annual Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards includes the Eve Pownall Award for Information Books, which would include picture-book biographies in its purview.

Deborah Hopkinson
illus. Qin Leng
Ordinary, extraordinary Jane Austen: The story of six novels, three notebooks, a writing box and one clever girl
New York: Balzer + Bray, 2018
ISBN: 9780062373304

Tania McCartney and Christina Booth, The Gum Family finds home (#BookReview)

As many of you know, I recently became a grandmother – and if you know anything about becoming a grandparent you’ll know that THE critical question is “what are you going to be called?” Well, I would like to be called Gummie – the name given me here by one of my favourite bloggers Guy (His Futile Preoccupations.) However, the family is looking at me a bit askance, given other images conjured by the word, particularly in relation to, let us say, older people. I haven’t given up yet, though …

Tania McCartney and Christina Booth, The Gum Family finds home

And my cause received a fillip last night when a friend gave me the gorgeous children’s picture book, The Gum Family finds home, written by local author Tania McCartney and illustrated by Christina Booth, because surely a Gum Family would think Gummie a perfectly good Grandma name, don’t you think?

Anyhow, I was intrigued by the book for other reasons too. For example, there’s the author, Tania McCartney. I hadn’t heard of her until the last couple of years when she started popping up in my social media feeds with another children’s author, Irma Gold, who has appeared several times on my blog. McCartney is currently an ambassador for our (ACT) Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge. She was also, back in 2012, an ambassador for the National Year of Reading. In other words she’s more than “just” an author-illustrator. She’s an active proponent of reading and literacy – and in my city – so well worth getting to know

Domes in the Picaninny Gorge area, Purnululu
Decorative Bungle Bungles

But now, let’s get to the book. The cover provides a hint that it’s more than a story. It includes, it says, “fascinating facts” about “Australia’s unique geology” and this becomes immediately clear when you open the book and find, on the front (and back) endpapers, illustrations of places in Australia, each one with dot points. Pretty soon I was laughing because these dot points read like a house-hunter’s list of pros for a new home. So, for example, the points for Butterfly Gorge near Katherine include “on-site security (crocs!)”; for The Bungle Bungle Range there’s “decorative silica and lichen features” and “close to gorges, pools and walking tracks”; and for the Nullarbor Plain “lots of space” and “very private”. Haha, love it.

The endpapers, then, got me in before I even started the book. The narrative is straightforward, befitting the child audience it is geared to. It is about a family of koalas, the Gum Family, who decide that they need a safer, more “rock solid” home than their gum tree. So, they hitch up a caravan, pack some “gum leaf sandwiches and eucalyptus juice”, and set off around Australia to see what they can find. The story is told with lovely humour, as place after place doesn’t quite suit their needs, such as the Twelve Apostles:

Over the years, these limestone stacks will tumble into the sea. Mum is looking for something a bit more stable.

This trip, then, provides an excuse for McCartney and Booth to introduce their readers to, as McCartney’s website says, “the sheer variety and imposing grandeur of the Australian geological landscape, from Uluru to King’s Canyon, from gorges and limestone pillars to precariously placed boulders and sweeping plains.” There are two main themes – or ideas – here. One is this showcasing of Australia’s landscape, as McCartney explains on the National Library’s blog:

As a land of enormous geographical distance, enjoying these sites firsthand can be difficult for many children, so featuring them in children’s books is a wonderful way to encourage kids to learn about these sites and inspire them to visit.

The other is a more personal one about home, about the fact that home is where you feel most comfortable, where you can live with the people you love in the way that best suits you. For the koalas, this is, of course … but, no, I’m not going to spoil the ending!

The book ends with a lovely value-add – eight pages of basic facts about “Australia’s unique geology.” These facts comprise a photograph or two of the place, and a paragraph giving information about its formation and history. These are kept simple to suit an early primary-school-age audience, but they made the geology nicely comprehensible to me too. (I do find geologic time scales almost impossible to get my head around.) I can imagine a teacher suggesting students choose one of the places to research further, and do a project on or write their own story about … In other words, it’s a book that doesn’t really end when you finish reading it.

I do, however, have one little query. It concerns nomenclature. In some cases, the creators have used the now-agreed indigenous Australian names for the places, such as Uluru and Kata Tjuta, but in others, such as Kings Canyon (now Watarrka) and the Bungle Bungles (now Purnululu) they don’t. I’m assuming they are making some fine distinctions here between the landform and the name of the national park in which they sit, but it would have been good, at least, to include the indigenous name in the facts at the back, as they do for Katherine Gorge (or Nitmiluk.) This is a little quibble, and one, I’m sure, that they discussed thoroughly, but still …

The Gum Family finds home was, I understand, just published this month. I do hope it sells well as the story is delightfully told and the information engagingly presented. I look forward to reading it to Grandson Gums one day.

Meanwhile, though, what do you think about my grandma name?

AWW Badge 2018

Tania McCartney and Christina Booth
The Gum Family finds home 
Canberra, National Library Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9780642279255

School friend annual 1964

The things you find when you start to declutter! School friend annual 1964 is a blast from my very distant past. Yes, I know, some of you weren’t born then, but I can’t resist sharing the sort of books produced for young girls in the olden days! I loved receiving annuals and anthologies, books in my favourite series or by my favourite authors. The more books I received, the more successful I rated my Christmas. Anyhow, it’s fascinating to look at this over 50 years after it was published.

School Friend AnnualSchool friend annual was an English publication which was also distributed in New Zealand, South Africa, and the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Loyal countries of the British Commonwealth, in other words. As far as I can tell it started publication in 1927 and lasted until 1982 by which time I believe it was all comic/picture strip. One article I read suggested that the 1960s are the most collectible!

I’m going to discuss the main contents of my 1964 volume by rough category, so we can look at the reading matter deemed suitable for the young girl and teen of the early to mid 1960s. It’s a time when the Beatles were starting to make their presence felt, when the Civil Rights Movement in America was well under way, but when the second wave of women’s liberation hadn’t really started:

School Friend Annual 1964Stories (Prose or verse)

  • Lucky Black Horse, by Cecil Danby: young girls and horses, then, and still now!
  • The Ballerina from Nowhere: this would have been one of my favourite stories (told in verse in fact) as I adored ballet and loved ballet books and ballet stories. No horses for me. It was ballet all the way. The ballerina illustrated is very nicely developed, which was something for skinny-rake me (at the time) to aim for.
  • A Christmas Carol, from the famous story by Charles Dickens: an excerpt.
  • The loneliest girl in town, by Christine Landon: about the new girl in town who wants to join the dashing looking scooter club. This is a teen story, with such writing as ‘”Haven’t you ever realised why Gloria can’t stand you, Mandy?” she asked merrily, “It’s because you’re heaps pretty than she is. She was scared you’d be a rival.”‘ I don’t suppose writers of contemporary children’s books have their protagonists talking “merrily”, do they?
  • The legend of the fire-bird, illustrated by Mollie Higgins.
  • The girl who went back to 1066, by Evelyn Day: a time travel story.
  • Tropical Magic: A cruise in the sun – the story of a hair stylist at sea, by Janet McKibben: about an Island Chief in the Indian Ocean wanting his daughters’ hair to be dressed western style!
  • The midnight feast, by Gwen Perrott: besides the ballet stories, my other favourite stories were school stories – and if they had a midnight feast, all the better
  • Ladybird’s alibi, by Frances Cowen: a detective story involving teens staying with relations: “Uncle George and Aunt Mary are dears, and almost make up for our not being about to spend our holidays with Father and Mother in Ceylon”. Love the language – “dears” – and the social history here, with the parents in Ceylon, another part of the British Commonwealth.
  • The Fisherman’s Daughter, by Percy Clarke: an historical adventure story about a missing father, a strange lady in black and a foreign lugger.
  • Mysterious neighbours, by Hilary Bailey: a contemporary neighbourhood story.
  • All because of Cora, by Frances Lindsay: about a girl in a school choir who wants to be a singer, and her jealous rival.

Stories (Comic form)

  • Dilly Dreem – she’s a scream and Mitzi and Fritzi: short comics, interspersed through the annual.
  • Tracy on the road: a longer story about teenage fashion models. It’s all about a race to be first at a fashion show, but when their competitors run someone off the road, they stop to help. “Luckily”, we are told, “the girls had changed into casual clothes”.
  • The Sparrows of Angel Street: about a street decoration competition
  • My school friend Sara in A dazzling display: I suspect “My school friend Sara” is a series that ran through several annuals.
  • The tomboy next door: what it says – and it would have appealed to me.
  • Camera-mad Carol: about a school girl who wins a camera.

Crafts and cooking

  • Present surprise: add a touch of tinsel: ideas for wrapping presents and Christmas decorations to make.
  • Enticing with icing: how to pretty up a cake with lots of icing – “with a bit of care, imagination and a pound of icing sugar you an turn quite ordinary fare into delicious treats to surprise your guests”. I wonder how many pre-teens, as I was, had guests they cooked for?!
  • Craft articles: two with Practical Prue, make a Pepper ‘n Salt Stand out of raffia, and how turn a dull tray into a “gay” one, plus another article on how to weave yourself a lampshade.

Fashion advice

  • Pretty up a plain dress in six gay ways: oh the changes in language we have experienced! Anyhow, this illustrated article, as they all are, shows how you can sew on lace, add a scarf or a belt, or a frill.
  • A style for your shape: illustrated article on choosing a hairstyle to suit your face shape. After all “let’s face it, it’s your hair that tops off your final appearance”. Haha!
  • Sally Brook’s Variety Act: for example, when buying a coat “don’t have a big collar … they seem to swamp young people”. And “Buying beads isn’t wise, if you have little money to spend on jewellery. Fashions change too quickly. If you want a necklace that you can wear on and on, and which always looks nice, save up for a single row of artificial pearls”. Or, for the same reason, avoid the long chains and medallions, in lieu of “a small chain with a locket or tiny pendant. Our Grandmas wore them, and they’re still being worn today.” (I’m afraid I didn’t take Sally’s advice when I got to the age a few years later – I bought the “in” chunky medallions and long chains! I still have some!)

General interest

  • Pets and their people: a celebrity story containing photos of celebrities like photogpraher Cecil Beaton, actor Hayley Mills and singer Adam Faith.
  • The seven ages of a ballerina: a story in pictures about learning ballet from beginning to being a starring ballerina, “her triumphant/dream-come-true/Reward for practising”.

So, plenty of illustrations, a few comics, a variety of stories covering a range of interests, plus the specific inclusion of horses, ballerinas, craft ideas and, most importantly, fashion advice. What more could a young girl want over the school holidays?

School friend annual 1964
London: Fleetway Publications, 1963

Irma Gold and Craig Phillips, Megumi and the bear (Review)

Irma Gold Craig Phillips Megumi and the bear book cover

Courtesy: Walker Books Australia

Now here’s something different at the Gums! I don’t, as you’d know, make a practice of reviewing children’s literature, though I have done a few cross-over adult-young adult novels. So, when Irma Gold and Craig Phillips’ children’s picture book, Megumi and the bear, landed in my letterbox a week or so ago I was challenged. Not only is it a picture book, but its cover – featuring a child and a bear making snow angels – suggest that it has little to do with Australia. Why should Whispering Gums make an exception for this book?

Well, the reasons are twofold. Firstly, I’ve reviewed two works by Irma Gold before (her short story collection, Two steps forward, and the anthology she edited, The invisible thread) and so was intrigued to read something different again by her. She’s one hard-working, versatile author, which I think you have to be if you want to make writing your career. Secondly, while it’s not set in Australia – usually something has to be Australian for me to make an exception – it is set in Japan. At least, Craig Phillips’ illustrations were inspired by his observing a little girl playing in the snow in Hokkaido. I love Japan – and have been to Hokkaido. Exception made!

Now, with two mid-late twenty-something children, I’ve not read a picture book for a long time but, as I picked this up and read it, a whole pile of memories of loved books came back, but first, the story. Like most picture books, its narrative line is simple – a young girl, Megumi, meets a young bear in a forest and they become good friends, playing together again and again until one day the bear doesn’t appear. Megumi is sad, and goes into the forest every day, to wait … until eventually she starts to forget and goes into the forest with her friends … It’s a lovely story about friendship, loss, time and memory.

Craig Phillips’ water colour illustrations are delightful – clear, uncluttered and colourful within a restrained palette. The bear and Megumi’s feelings are nicely conveyed through their facial expression and movement. Irma Gold’s text is also clear and simple, but not simplistic, with a nice use of repetition, “But the bear doesn’t come”, in the central section. The narrative is well-paced, keeping the story moving while providing time to consider (and feel) what is happening. The text is visually appealing. The topic sentence on each double-page spread is presented as a wavy line using an italicised font, with the following sentences in straight-lined plain text. This adds a lovely touch of whimsy to the presentation – and, I suspect, could help the out-loud reader get into a rhythm.

All this made it an enjoyable read – but what I enjoyed most was how it reminded me of other childhood loves, my own or ones made with my kids. The idea of a child playing with a bear brings to mind, of course, Winnie the Pooh. This is not at all a Christopher Robin and Pooh-like story but it plays into that notion of a friendship between children and bears. Going into the forest to play with a wild creature recalls Sendak’s Where the wild things are. Our bear here is not a wild thing – he’s sweet and small – and Megumi and the bear may not engage in wild rumpus, but they do have fun in the forest away from adults. And, this next probably sounds even less likely, but I was also reminded of the song “Puff, the Magic Dragon“. Again a completely different story and theme – and in fact quite the reverse in that here it’s the animal which goes missing – but both explore a friendship with “other” that is made and then lost. Hmm, now I think about it, these connections are pretty loose, but isn’t this partly what reading is about? Enjoying, remembering, connecting, making our own paths through literature and its meanings for us?

The thing is, whatever you make of it, Megumi and the bear is a gorgeous book that I can imagine loving to share with a grandchild, if I had one!

Irma Gold and Craig Phillips (illus)
Megumi and the bear
Newtown: Walker Books Australia, 2013
ISBN: 9781921977909

(Review copy courtesy Walker Books Australia)

Louis Nowra, Into that forest (Review)

Louis Nowra, Into that forest

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Louis Nowra is one versatile and prolific writer, having written novels, non-fiction, plays and screenplays, essays and even libretti. Into that forest is his latest work. It was shortlisted for the Young Adult Novel prize in the 2012 Aurealis awards and the Ethel Turner Young People’s Literature prize in this year’s NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. I read this for my reading group. We don’t often do youth literature but every now and then one pops up that we think might interest us … such as a book by Nowra.

The first thing to say is that the novel is written in a unique voice. Here is its opening:

Me name be Hannah O’Brien and I be seventy-six years old. Me first thing is an apology me language is bad cos I lost it and had to learn it again. But here’s me story and I glad to tell it before I hop the twig.

And what a story it is … this novel feeds into several Australian, and wider, literary traditions. There’s the lost child and the feral child motifs (reminding me of Dog boy). There’s Tasmanian Gothic, and there’s also a bit of the fairy-tale about it. Subject-wise it covers some significant ground: environmental issues (involving both the extinct Tasmanian tiger and the whaling industry) and what we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This might sound rather mechanistic, but there’s no sense of “ticking off”. It’s not didactic, and it’s all logical within the framework of the book.

Set in the late 19th century, it tells the story of two young girls, Hannah (then 6) and Becky (7) who find themselves lost in the bush (oops, forest!) after their boat capsizes in a storm and Hannah’s parents drown. They are taken in by a Tasmanian Tiger pair, and live with them for four years. Meanwhile, Becky’s father, Mr Carsons, is out looking for her. Eventually they are found, but the process of re-integration is not easy. The novel has a small cast of characters, which keeps it tightly focused. Besides Hannah’s parents who die near the beginning, there’s our two young protagonists, Becky’s father, his friend Ernie, the “tiger man”, a few other minor characters – and of course, the tigers, named Dave and Corinna by Hannah.

As in Dog boy, the description of life with the tigers is pretty visceral. At first Becky resists living like a tiger – perhaps because she still has a father whom she hopes will find her – but eventually she too succumbs, if succumb is the word. It is, after all, a matter of survival. And so they shed their clothes, start to move mostly on all fours, and develop keen animal instincts (of sight, hearing and smell). They also develop a taste for raw food and become adept at hunting. The descriptions of killing and eating the prey are not for the squeamish – “I were starving and the taste of blood made me feel even more hungry” and “What were ever in that shiny pink gristle surged through me in waves of ecstasy” – but they are important to our understanding of what their lives had become. Hannah says:

God knows where me sense of survival came from. Maybe it’s natural cos humans are just animals too.

There is a bogey man here – the tiger man or bounty hunter, whom Hannah had met before, through her parents. To the girls he is more brutal than the tigers. He’s “evil”, kills tiger pups, does “stuff to himself that were rude”. But, perhaps, he’s just another survivor, albeit a not very pleasant one?

While Hannah is the narrator, Becky’s character is the more complex one. She struggles more with the change forced upon them:

She didn’t want to forget. Me? I thought it were stupid to try and remember like Becky did. I didn’t see any use for it. Me English started to shrivel up, like an old dry skin a snake gets rid of. It just lies there in the grass rotting away and then vanishes with the wind. I took to talking in grunts, coughs and hoarse barks like the tigers. This annoyed Becky no end. But it were simple – the tigers understood me. Becky warned I were making a mistake. You will forget your language. You will forget your parents. You are becoming an animal, she’d say. Why argue with her? She were right on every level.

Becky initially fights against the brutality of the hunt – there’s a horrific description of the tigers attacking seals – but then surprises Hannah by rather fearlessly exerting some dominance in the pack. She was of course desperately hungry by then, but it shows Hannah that:

she were really stubborn if she wanted something. She were brave, she were stubborn, she were smart, she were tough.

Unfortunately, Becky is not as tough – or as adaptable – as Hannah thought, and consequently precipitates the novel’s rather shocking conclusion.

It’s a pretty bold novel – but less so than, say, Lord of the flies. There’s plenty to discuss, particularly regarding the subjects I suggested at the beginning of the post. The big theme, though, the one common to feral children books, has to do with defining our nature. What separates human from animal? What would you do to survive – and what would that say about the essence of humanity? Good stuff for young adults, and a gripping read too for we older readers.

Louis Nowra
Into that forest
Crow’s Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2012
ISBN: 9781743311646 (Kindle ed.)

Markus Zusak, The book thief

In one moment, there was great kindness and great cruelty, and I saw it as the perfect story of our humans are. (Zusak on the Random House website)

Zusak could hardly have chosen, for The book thief, a better setting to explore the best and worst of humanity than Germany during the Holocaust. The book reminds me a little of Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river which also deals with a small German town during the war and the hiding of Jews, though Hegi’s book has a much wider canvas, covering a few decades.

The novel, which is narrated by Death, tells the story of a young girl Liesel (the book thief) who is left with a foster family in a small German town in the lead up to and during World War II. Liesel is treated well by her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and makes friends with people in the neighbourhood including Rudy Steiner, a boy her own age. Not long into the novel, the Hubermann household is also joined by Max, a 24 year old Jewish man whom they hide. From here we follow the family and the neighbourhood as they live through the war. The characters – and there are many of them – are well drawn.

It’s a clever, memorable book. The use of Death as a narrator and its structure, which seems both old world (the chapter titles ‘featuring….’) and post-modern (the inclusion of the illustrated stories, the little bold-type assertions like ‘A small threat from Viktor Chemmel to Rudy Steiner’, ‘He survived like this’), give it a fresh tone which impel the reader on. This tone has a veneer of whimsy while at the same time being deadly serious.

There is a bit of foreshadowing but it’s handled well. It tells us our narrator is omnipotent and warns us that bad things are going to happen (and we know they will anyhow). I don’t usually mind foreshadowing – and agree with Death who says:

Of course, I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me.

The star of the book for me is its language. It’s superficially simplistic but is really quite sophisticated. There are some wonderful images – ‘pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face’; ‘they were going to Dachau to concentrate’; ‘rumour of sunshine’; ‘the sky began to charcoal towards light’ – but these are not overdone.

Zusak effectively handles the fact that the characters are German and would be speaking German through the occasional use of German words and phrases. And he lightly translates most of this German for us,  such as ‘”Keine Ahnung’, Rudy said, clinging to the ladder. He had no idea.'” Again, there isn’t too much of this but just enough.

The repetition of the curses – “Saumensch”, “Saukerl”, “Jesus Mary and Joseph” – give it a light touch, as do things like the “Keine Ahnung … He had no idea” above and the gruesome humour of “they were going to Dachau to concentrate”. Again, none of this is overdone. Not too funny, but definite touches of humour. There are those who say you can’t “do” humour and the Holocaust, but I don’t agree: this book is a perfect example of why I don’t.

There is also poetry to the language – with this poetry coming as much through the rhythm, as through imagery:

In the morning he would return to the basement.
A voiceless human.
The Jewish rat, back to his hole.


She didn’t need an answer.
Everything was good.
But it was awful, too.


Why him?
Why Hans Huberman and not Alex Steiner.
He had a point.


Their drivers were Hitlers, and Hubermanns, and Maxes, killers, Dillers and Steiners.

And then there is the frequency of ‘3s’. For example:

  • The Hubermanns lived at 33 Himmel Street (and 33 was the age Jesus Christ was when he died – relevant?);
  • the common curse was ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’;
  • a lot of the rhythms (such as the examples above) come in threes.
  • it is third time unlucky for Hans Hubermann
  • “The Word Shaker” written by Max story starts with “three important details about his life”.

The threes just keep coming. Three is a pretty magical number: the trinity; mind, body and spirit; past, present and future. The concept of “three” is found in most religions and represents, at its simplest, unity.

The novel seems to have two main themes. One is the power of words – to help and to hinder. I loved this, describing Leisel’s surviving the bombing: “the words WHO had saved her life”. The personification of words here, at the end of the novel, is really effective. Words sustain her through most of the book, but there was a point when she nearly gave up on them, as when she tears up a book in the mayor’s house after having seen Max in the Dachau march:

Soon there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or worldly tricks to make us feel better.

What good were the words.

BUT the other theme is the one that ends the book: what it means to be human. Death says:

I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I ever estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, its words so damning and brilliant … tell her the only truth I truly know … I am haunted by humans.

In other words, Zusak, in this book, encapsulates humanity – its best and its worst – and does it through using ordinary people living in/coping with extraordinary times. His message is simply that humans are capable of wondrous things and of heinous things. No astonishing truth really – we all know it – but he shows how closely these can co-exist and how fine the line often is.

Markus Zusak
The book thief
Sydney: Picador, 2005

Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones (Review)

Jasper Jones cover (Courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Jasper Jones cover (Courtesy Allen & Unwin)

What is is about coming-of-age novels? Why do we like to read them long after we’ve (hopefully) come of age ourselves? Is it because we like to compare our own experience with that of others? Whatever the reason, it is clear that we do like to read them because they sure keep being written and published. In my few months of blogging I have already written about two, and have now read another, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones.

Like many, though not all, such novels, Jasper Jones has a first person narrator. It is set in a small country town in Western Australia in the late 1960s, and the protagonist, Charlie, is the nearly 14-year-old son of a high school literature teacher. He is a reader and therefore, almost by definition in the world of teenage boys, not “cool”. The book opens with the town’s bad-boy, Jasper Jones, knocking on his window in the middle of the night and, to Charlie’s surprise and delight, asking him for his help. The plot revolves around the shocking help that Jasper wants, how Charlie responds and the impact on him, his friends and family.

It is  a pretty dark and gritty story, and Silvey, mostly, controls it well, though there are times when he pushes the melodrama button a little too heavily. Silvey teases us at the beginning with the notion that the book will be a re-setting of Harper Lee’s To kill a mockingbird. There’s a death, an indigenous person likely to be blamed for it, a much maligned apparently “mad” person,  an apparently thoughtful and wise father AND Charlie’s own regular reference to the book and to how Atticus Finch might think in particular situations. However, fortunately I think, Silvey is a little more sophisticated a writer than that and Harper Lee’s book functions more as a frame for the story and the ideas being explored than as a direct model for the plot.

One of the things I like in the novel is the friendship between Charlie and his Vietnamese refugee school-mate, Jeffrey Lu. I’m not a teenage boy but I have known some in my time! The dialogue between the two boys rings pretty true – their puns, their ribbing of each other, their jokey arguments. True too is their uneven burgeoning interest in the opposite sex – Charlie is attracted to classmate Eliza Wishart  and to enjoying some “sassytime” with her, while Jeffrey’s focus is on making the town cricket team.

The novel is neatly plotted – and while some of it is predictable it is not all so. The fact that Charlie fears insects seems to be resolved when we discover that his love-interest Eliza has a similar fear – but it reappears again, cleverly, in the denouement. The story is well-paced, and it deals with a range of side issues, such as racism (against the Vietnamese refugee family, and the “half-caste” Jasper Jones), on top of the usual coming-of-age ones, such as loss of innocence (in several meanings of the word). Many of the characters could be seen as stereotyped – the “bastard” cricket coach who aligns himself with the “boorish” bully boys, and the cold-hearted status-seeking shire president, to name two – but most of them work despite this. Charlie’s mother though stretches the imagination a little too much: she has married down, she has been forced to live in a country town too small for her, and she has lost a child. This does seem a bit of overkill and the panning out of her part of the story feels a bit like one too many layers in the book.

One of the concepts that Charlie explores is that of “timing and chance”. He learns that despite your best laid plans, time and chance sometimes take over and there’s not much you can do about it. Another issue that runs through the book is that of reading, words and language. Early on Jasper Jones tells Charlie he trusts him because:

But I hope you might see things from my end. That’s what you do, right?  When you’re reading. You’re seeing what it’s like for other people.

With this coming near the beginning of the book, it’s not surprising that Charlie’s ability to empathise, to see things from other points of view, is pushed to the limits as the story progresses. Charlie, whose ambition is to be a writer, also learns about the limits of words, about when they are useful and when they are not, and about finding the right ones to use when they are.

There are many thematic and stylistic things that can be talked about in this book, making it a good one for discussion but, in the end, it is a fairly traditional coming-of-age story in its style, tone and structure. That said, if you like such stories, as I do, there’s a good chance you’ll find this a compelling and entertaining even if not a particularly challenging read. And is there anything wrong with that?

Craig Silvey
Jasper Jones
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2009
ISBN: 9781741757743