Monday musings on Australian literature: Alison Lester

Saturday, as I noted in my Six Degrees of Separation post, was National Bookshop or Love Your Bookshop Day in Australia (and in Great Britain too, it seems). For last year’s day, I wrote a post on author-owned/managed bookshops, most of which were located in places other than Australia. The exception was Australian children’s author and illustrator, Alison Lester, so I thought she deserved a little feature post today.

Alison Lester has appeared in my blog a few times, but the first was the most significant, because it was when she and Boori (Monty) Prior were named our first two Children’s Laureates. She was also mentioned briefly in my post referencing the 2018 National Bookshop Day, when Daughter Gums bought a Lester book for a baby shower she was attending! It’s time, then, to give her a little bit of a profile here, even though children’s literature is a sideline focus here.

As I wrote in my Children’s Laureate post, I first became aware of Lester through my own children. As I wrote then, she’s an author/illustrator best known for her picture books, though she has also illustrated chapter books for other writers and written a couple of young adult novels. The first book that she both wrote and illustrated herself was 1985’s Clive eats alligators.

Book cover

This means that Lester was just starting out when my children were young, so most of her children’s books have been published after my children left that stage of their reading lives. But, we did have some favourites, including Rosie sips spiders (1988), Imagine (1989) and Magic beach (1990). As our children grew we also enjoyed Robin Klein’s chapter book, Thingnapped, which was illustrated by Lester.

Lester, like all the best children’s book authors and illustrators has a lovely sense of fun while also conveying important values to children, such as respecting difference, a critical value at a time when rejecting other seems to be on the rise again. Indeed, as her website says, “her picture books mix imaginary worlds with everyday life, encouraging children to believe in themselves and celebrate the differences that make them special”.

Jonathan Shaw of Me fail? I fly has discussed Alison Lester’s books several times on his blog in his Ruby Reads series where he discusses the books he reads to his granddaughter. Lester’s books featured by Jonathan to date are:

  • Clive eats alligators (1985), which features seven children going about their daily lives, except that “Clive eats alligators”. You’ll have to read it to discover that that means! Jonathan says that the fun in this book lies in tracing any one of these children through the book to see “how their interests play out in the different contexts: the girl who loves horses, the bookish boy” and so on. Rosie sips spiders, which Daughter Gums loved, follows the same children in more adventures through life. Lester fans will get a giggle when, in this Rosie book, they read that “Clive jumps in Alligator Creek.”
  • Are we there yet? (2005), a picture book about – yes, you’ve guessed it – family car travel. Jonathan says that her images are “completely beguiling”. Maybe this is why it was the first book given to a child from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Reading Library.
  • Kissed by the moon (2013), about a baby, the night, and nature. Jonathan writes that “pragmatically speaking, I guess it’s a bedtime read, but Alison Lester knows how to put words together, and how to make images, that reach in and touch your heart”.
  • My dog Bigsy (2015), which is one of those books in which the feature character wanders around a farm, meeting other animals, like, for example, Pat Hutchins’ fabulous Rosie’s walk. I haven’t read this Lester yet, but Jonathan says that Lester does it well. I think I’ll be getting it for Grandson Gums.

Thanks Jonathan for posting on these books – for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge where we have appreciated these posts, and so I could use them here! Very thoughtful of you!

Lester has been shortlisted for, or won, Children’s Book or Picture Book of the Year awards several times over the years. She has also won the Dromkeen Medal for services to Australian literature, and was the first children’s writer to be awarded the valuable Melbourne Prize for Literature. She has been shortlisted for the international Astrid Lindgren Memorial Prize. And, of course, she is an active promotor of Aussie children’s literature, including being that Children’s Laureate role and being an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Lester, born 1952, was a farm girl, and still rides a horse when she can. Adventure, that features in her stories, is in her DNA it seems (something I think I missed!) So, I wasn’t surprised to read that in 2005 she went to Antarctica as an Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow. You can read her Antarctic Diary on her website.

Alison Lester Gallery

Now to Lester’s bookshop. It is, I have to admit, not like the others. Located in the gorgeous Victorian town of Fish Creek, near where Lester was born, it is more a “gallery” than a bookshop, and is devoted solely to her work. We have been there, and it is a light, airy, welcoming place that sells her books, cards and other merchandise, and also prints of many of her illustrations. It also has lounges where you can sit and read her books.

So, a rare post for me, given its focus is children’s literature, but most of us here started our reading lives when we were very young, and if we’ve had children or grandchildren we’ve done our best to share that love down the generations.

I’d love to hear about your favourite children’s authors. Who did you love as a child and/or who have you loved reading to children in your life?

My literary week (13), it’s (mostly) all about Aussies

This last week or so we’ve been on the road again, severely cutting into my reading time, but literary things have been happening, nonetheless.

National Bookshop Day, 2018

Readings Kids, Carlton

Readings Kids, Carlton

Yesterday, August 10th, was, as many of you know, National Bookshop Day and I did, in fact, visit a bookshop, Readings in Carlton, Melbourne. I bought Gerald Murnane’s Border districts, which brings me one step closer to reading this Miles Franklin shortlisted book. Daughter Gums and I also visited, next door, the Readings Kids bookshop, where she bought Alison Lester’s Rosie sips Spiders for a baby shower she was attending this weekend.

It was so hard not to buy more, but you all know how behind I am in my reading so you’ll understand my abstemiousness!

I’d love to hear what you did – if you are an Aussie – to support the day?

Alison Lester Gallery

A couple of days before National Bookshop Day we were driving to Melbourne from Canberra via one of the long routes, in this case via Cann River. It was an interesting drive that took us through some quite dramatic landscapes – from the shimmering yellow-white colours of the Monaro in drought to the lush green of south-east Victoria which is not!

Alison Lester GalleryOn Day Two we overnighted at Foster, in order to visit Wilson’s Promontory, before driving on to Melbourne the next day via Fish Creek. Now, Fish Creek is a very pretty little town that also happens to be the home of the Alison Lester Gallery – yes, the Alison Lester who wrote (and illustrated) the book Rosie sips spiders mentioned above. Fish Creek is a lovely little town, and is in the region where Lester was born, grew up and still lives. We bought books here for our new Grandson Gums. The Gallery sells Lester’s books plus numbered prints of her beautiful book illustrations. It also has a little library nook where you can read her books before you decide to buy them. Unfortunately Lester wasn’t there, but you can organise to have your books signed if you want to (and don’t mind waiting for your books!)

BTW Alison Lester was one of Australia’s Inaugural Children’s Laureate from 2011 to 2013, which I wrote about back then.

The Wife and RBG

One of our Melbourne traditions is to have a meal and see a movie with Daughter Gums. We usually go to Cinema Nova (across the road from Readings Bookshop.) It’s a big complex, but not at all like those big impersonal suburban multiplexes. The cinemas are mostly small, and many have rather idiosyncratic layouts, but the movie selection is wonderful. We decided to see The wife, starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, and adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s novel, that I haven’t read. It focuses on the responses and feelings of the wife of an author who is told he has won the Novel Prize for Literature. If you don’t know the story, I don’t want to spoil it, but it is a great film for booklovers, and, particularly, for women booklovers! I enjoyed seeing Glenn Close again in a meaty role. The story is full of issues to chew over about gender, morality, pride, vocation, relationships over the long haul, and about how a door chosen can have unexpected ramifications down the line.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court of the United States (Source 2)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Then, suddenly finding ourselves with some extra free time, Mr Gums and I took the opportunity to also see the documentary RBG about the US Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As documentaries go, this takes a pretty standard form – a combination of archival footage, contemporary footage, interviews with Ginsburg and with friends, family and colleagues. Wikipedia quotes film reviewer Leslie Felperin who says:

…there is something deeply soothing about RBG, a documentary that, like its subject, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is eminently sober, well-mannered, highly intelligent, scrupulous and just a teeny-weeny bit reassuringly dull.

As I said, traditional in form, but the subject is so intelligent and her contributions to thinking about women’s rights so relevant beyond the USA, that the film kept us engaged from beginning to end. She is a fascinating woman with an inspiring capacity for clarifying the complex.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu

Bruce Pasco, Dark emuNow, we didn’t quite see Bangarra Dance Theatre’s performance of Dark Emu this week but we did see it very recently so I’m sneaking it in here. This is Bangarra’s interpretation of Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark emu (my review) in which he argues that indigenous Australians were not hunter-gatherers but had an agricultural practice, a practice that better proves, in legal terms apparently, their sovereignty or ownership of the land.

I wondered how they would balance the abstraction of dance with the literalness of the theory Pascoe presents (a theory that requires evidence of all sorts of agricultural practices) without, somehow, being prosaic. The dance, the props (which helped convey activities such a corralling animals, damming water, storing food), the lighting, and the music (which mixed traditional sounds with more suggestive modern ones) kept the audience on track with the story being told, although I understand Canberra reviewer Michelle Potter’s point that we didn’t always comprehend the “meaning” of what we were seeing in terms of the theoretical argument. For Mr Gums and me, though, these concerns were not strong enough to spoil the spectacle of Bangarra’s dancing. The moves, the shapes, the energy – we can never get enough of them and we did “get” the main threads of the narrative. (And, I suspect a second viewing would make a big difference. It is sometimes tricky to separate out spectacle from meaning first time around.)