Thursday, July 26, 2018

Don't Forget, Matilda
by Ronda and David Armitage


“It was a rainy sort of morning. Mother had gone to work and Father was doing the dishes.”
 
With those eighteen words, my worldview changed. Eighteen words and a picture of a dad, shown only from behind, apron around his waist, at the sink, scrubbing the dirty saucepans and plates. Mother had gone to work. Father was doing the dishes. Don’t ever underestimate the role picture books play in shaping a child’s mind. When I was a little boy, the above passage shaped mine. I’m forever thankful that it did.
 
If you haven’t heard of Don’t Forget, Matilda, don’t worry, you’re in the majority. It was written in 1978 and has long been out of print and difficult to find. There is even a copy on Ebay listed for the farcical price of $193.82. The author is Ronda Armitage, the illustrator her husband David; if you have heard of the Armitages, it’s likely because of their best-known book The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch, and its sequels. Don’t Forget, Matilda is, ironically, largely forgotten. But not by me.
 
I grew up in a small town in rural Victoria, where most families functioned with dad as the breadwinner and mum looking after the children. Not, to borrow a line from Jerry Seinfeld, that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s fine if that’s who you are. I had a wonderful, caring mother, who had worked as a primary teacher in her youth but stayed at home once she had kids. Dad was a dairy farmer; it was hard work but because we lived on the farm, he was always around. I saw loads more of him than many kids whose dad worked in an office. I had a terrific childhood.
 
Still, I thought I had a pretty clear view of how the world worked, no doubt moulded in part by television, books, and the examples of other families I knew. Fathers went to work in the morning and mothers looked after the kids. And then I came across Don’t Forget, Matilda, where the mother worked and the father stayed at home looking after little Matilda. And I had an epiphany. I remember it vividly. I thought to myself, if I ever have kids, I’d like to stay at home and look after them. Matilda’s father does it, maybe I could too.
 
Thirty-odd years later, at least a few days a week, I do exactly that. These days, lots of men do. There are plenty more who would if they could, but for whom it is just not a realistic option. I get that. I am acutely aware that I’m in a very fortunate employment situation. But I know also that some men (and I suspect more men than society cares to admit) would still baulk at stepping back from their careers to stay at home with the kids, while they think nothing of their wife or partner doing so. It's a sad reflection of the fact that raising the next generation, while invaluable work, remains widely undervalued.
 
It’s also a shame, because they’re missing out on one of life’s great opportunities – and so are their children. Don’t get me wrong, looking after Heidi and Fletcher is not all smiles and swings at the park. Toddlers are emotionally complex and tantrums frequent. Then there are the endless nappies, loads of washing, meals, faces and hands and tables everythings to clean. Juggling two kids aged three and under is challenging, tiring work. But it’s also priceless, hugely rewarding, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m sure Matilda’s father would say something similar.
 
Don’t Forget, Matilda is a day in the life of a little koala named Matilda Elizabeth Bear. Throughout her day, everyone seems to forget something. Father forgets the pushchair when they catch the bus to the shops, Grandad pretends to forget Matilda’s name when she visits for lunch, Matilda forgets to take her handkerchief and can’t stop sniffing, and Granny forgets to put Matilda’s shoes on when they go to the park. The next day, Father and Matilda miss the bus to the beach, but realise that in any case Father had forgotten to pack their lunch.
 
Mother appears only on a single page, nicely dressed, picking Matilda up from Granny’s house on the way home from work. Father seems to be the primary carer, with help from Matilda’s grandparents. That may not be especially remarkable today, but remember that this book was published in the late 1970s, when most picture books reflected a society still tethered to the traditional roles of men and women. And what strikes me now, looking back as an adult, is how normal the Armitages make the situation appear. Importantly, it is not presented as a novelty.
 
I wondered why the Armitages – Ronda is a New Zealander and David from Tasmania, though they have lived in England since the 1970s – chose to make Matilda’s father the primary carer. And so I asked them.
 
“The book was based mainly on our early years in the UK,” Ronda Armitage says. “With our two young kids we left New Zealand to continue with some travelling for a couple of years but once our first book, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch, now 41 years old, was published, our original publisher wasn’t keen on our being 12,000 miles away. So we drifted into remaining here.
 
Don’t Forget, Matilda was based on our daughter Kate, who was looked after by either one of us before she went to school ... David is still slightly upset that when, as the only male, he took Kate to playgroup, the mothers would immediately stop chatting and sort of draw together. They never spoke to him, although a woman once picked him up when he and Kate were walking home in the rain. So sometimes we shared the care of the kids and sometimes either one of us would work full-time.
 
“We fell foul of a Swedish publisher for the opposite reasons with the Lighthouse Keeper books. Not only was Mr Grinling (the lighthouse keeper) too ugly but they were also a very traditional couple. The male looked after the lighthouse and the female did the cooking. But David certainly valued the time with his kids, just as we both have with our one grandchild, whom we looked after regularly until he went to school.”
 
The Armitages might now be grandparents, but what of the inclusion of grandparents in the childcare arrangements in Don’t Forget, Matilda, back in the 1970s? With one set of grandparents in New Zealand and the others in Tasmania, that was based less on Ronda and David’s reality as UK-based parents than Ronda’s experience as a child. Born during World War II, she spent the first three years of her life being raised by her mother and grandparents in the small New Zealand town of Kaikoura while her father was overseas in the Air Force.
 
Ronda recalls that living on a farm in rural New Zealand, getting hold of enough books to read was a problem. The first book she remembers loving was Horton Hatches the Egg, an early Dr Seuss book published in 1940. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the basis of that story is a male elephant looking after an egg child-rearing, essentially  albeit because he was tricked into it by the bird who laid it. All these years later, Ronda still remembers the book’s famous line: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent!”
 
I repeat, don’t ever underestimate the role picture books play in shaping a child’s mind. Ronda remembers Horton with fondness; I remember Matilda in the same way. I still have my childhood copy of the book, which three-year-old Heidi enjoys nearly as much as I did when I was little. If you ever see a copy, buy it (though not from that outrageous price-gouging listing on Ebay).
 
“I’m delighted that you would like to feature Matilda,” Ronda says. “We have more queries from parents about the possibility of getting hold of a copy of that book than for any of our other titles. It was a great favourite, particularly in Australia.”
 
Ronda is delighted that DadReads is featuring Don’t Forget, Matilda; DadReads is pleased to hear that the book is still a nostalgic favourite among parents even these days. Aside from the underlying theme of the father staying at home, it is a fun book that is brought to life by David Armitage’s colourful artwork. He brings a caring touch to Father, dignity to Mother, wisdom to the grandparents and the full and genuine range of toddler emotions to little Matilda. It is no surprise that he remains to this day a well-respected painter in Britain.
 
Anyway. I have to go. It’s a rainy sort of a morning. Heidi and Fletcher’s mother has gone to work, and their father has dishes to do.
 
 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Tiger Who Came to Tea
by Judith Kerr


Judith Kerr turns 95 today. At that age, when she blows out the candles she might simply wish for more birthdays. To be fair, that’s sensible regardless of age. But if I could borrow that wish, I would use it to have her tell me the secret of what this mysterious classic is about. I mean, what it’s really about. Fifty years after The Tiger Who Came to Tea was first published, Kerr still insists it is nothing deeper than the story of a tiger visiting a little girl named Sophie. Pull the other one, Judith.
 
The events begin innocently enough. Sophie and her mummy are enjoying some afternoon tea when the doorbell rings. Sophie’s mummy wonders if it could be the milkman or the boy from the grocer. In 2018, a man putting milk on my doorstep would alarm me nearly as much as a tiger asking to come in for tea, but in 1968 the tiger would have been the more shocking option. So you’d think. But Sophie and her mummy politely invite the tiger inside to share their meal.
 
The tiger gobbles up all the sandwiches, drinks all the tea from the teapot, scoffs all the buns, biscuits and cake on the table, then makes for the kitchen to eat the supper on the stove, all the food in the fridge, and everything in the pantry. Understandably thirsty, he drinks all the milk and orange juice, all of Daddy’s beer, and all the water in the tap. Think about how parched you’d have to be to drink all the water in the tap. Poor Sophie couldn’t even have a bath.
 
But to me, the crux of the story is when Sophie’s daddy comes home from work and listens to his wife explain why there is no supper on the table and, more importantly, where his beer has gone. He sits in his chair, patient, slightly worried, thousand-yard stare fixed firmly to his face. What is he thinking in that moment? Is he thinking, oh god, she’s really gone off the deep end this time? Or, nice try love, but I know exactly who drank my beer? Or, simply, here we go again?

 
 
Whatever the case, Sophie’s daddy handles the situation just as any self-respecting British man of his era would. Repression. Denial. Keep calm and carry on. He asks no hard questions, seeks no help for his clearly deranged wife and child. He merely suggests they have their supper at a café. This is not the time for panic, but for sausages, chips and stiff upper lips.
 
The Tiger Who Came to Tea was Judith Kerr’s first book, published in the same year that her husband, well-known screenwriter Nigel Kneale, had his television play The Year of the Sex Olympics broadcast by the BBC. (Don’t be fooled by the title: it was a perceptive, dystopian work that anticipated reality TV decades ahead of time). Theirs was clearly an imaginative household. Kerr says she was unimpressed at the preachy picture books of the 1950s, so one day when she and her young daughter Tacy were bored at home and wishing someone would visit, she made up the story of a tiger coming to tea.
 
A few years later, when her children were at school, she finally had time to illustrate the story and have it published. Kerr says she has improved as an illustrator since then, but her clean, beautiful pictures capture not only the mood of the story, but also the fashions of the late 1960s. The tiger was still just a tiger, but Kerr’s own background has led to a persistent rumour that the creature represented something far more sinister: the Gestapo.
 
Kerr was born of a Jewish background in Germany in 1923 and her parents were friends of Albert Einstein – she once wrote that, at a party in Berlin, Einstein had explained his theory of relativity to her mother. Kerr’s father was a noted theatre critic who had also openly criticised the Nazi Party, and the family wisely fled to France in 1933, shortly before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Three years later, they moved further towards safety, settling in London.
 
But was there something from those early years in Germany that led to the tiger’s tale? Could he represent the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police who could come knocking on your door at any time? It is a rumour that Kerr has steadfastly denied, pointing to the way Sophie nuzzles in to the tiger to indicate that he is really no threat at all. “I don’t think one would snuggle the Gestapo, even subconsciously,” Kerr once said.
 
Personally, I had wondered if the tiger represented a dark, addictive, or even unbalanced side of Sophie’s own mummy. Remember, all of Sophie’s daddy’s beer disappeared during one weekday afternoon. Recently, the spotlight has started to shine on the “wine-mum” culture. Often celebrated in light-hearted, comical memes, it’s also an alarming reflection of the number of parents (of both sexes) literally being driven to drink by the demands and expectations of parenthood.
 
At least these days mental health issues (including post-natal depression) are more openly acknowledged and discussed than in the past. As a father, I feel incredibly lucky to spend a lot of time at home caring for my children, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. But it has its challenges, and I could empathise if Sophie’s mummy’s felt she needed to take the edge off her day. My daughter Heidi is about to turn three, and we have certainly experienced our fair share of the Terrible Twos. Worryingly, being a “Threenager” is also a thing, apparently.
 
Anyway, that's just my theory. As Kerr insists, perhaps the tiger is nothing more than a tiger, the antagonist in a fun, memorable story - and one that Heidi loves. She also loves the Mog stories, for which Judith Kerr is most famous. At 95, Kerr still works every day, has published more than 30 books, and has another one due out later this year. Not bad given that English was her third language. In fact, in 2013, Britain's first bilingual state school in English and German was named after her: the Judith Kerr Primary School in south London. The students will no doubt be celebrating today.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Mr Clumsy (and Mr Fussy)
by Roger Hargreaves



Dear Mr Hargreaves,

As a father of two small children, and as a former child myself, I have generally enjoyed your Mr Men series of books, notwithstanding the often unnecessarily verbose text, which makes some of them feel like novellas and inspires a sense of dread when I am asked to read three of them in succession before bedtime, and has led to my subconscious use of 79 words in this particular paragraph when 10 would clearly, obviously, and undoubtedly have sufficed.

However, that is neither here nor there. The reason for my letter is that I wish to complain about an unfair national stereotype perpetuated by your books.

From my repeated readings of the Mr Men canon, I have learnt that Mr Happy lives in Happyland, Mr Clever lives in Cleverland and Mr Nonsense lives in Nonsenseland. This makes sense, in the same way that Thais live in Thailand, Finns live in Finland and northern ire lives in Northern Ireland.

So, why does Mr Clumsy live in Australia?

That’s right, Mr Clumsy does not live in Clumsyland. He lives in Australia.

This, Mr Hargreaves, is nothing but offensive national stereotyping.  

You introduce Mr Clumsy as a dishevelled, long-lost cousin of Mr Fussy. This boorish Australian layabout lobs on Mr Fussy’s doorstep and asks to stay. He appears unable, or perhaps unwilling, to comb his hair, tie his shoelaces, or engage in any of the other basic functions expected in a civilised society. When he later stars in his own book, Mr Clumsy is so dense that he puts a letter from the postman in the toaster and tries to read a piece of bread.

Which brings me to another point. I understand the word ‘clumsy’ to mean ‘awkward’, or ‘ungainly’, but you apparently think it means ‘idiotic’. This character is effectively ‘Mr Stupid’, but you clearly realised that introducing Mr Stupid from Australia would be crossing the line, so you softened his name while retaining his moronic nature. Spilling your beer while dropping a catch during a game of backyard cricket is clumsy Australian behaviour; toasting an envelope is simply inane.

Please understand, Mr Hargreaves, that although we recently had a prime minister who tried to eat an onion like it was an apple, and a deputy prime minister who was unaware that he was a citizen of New Zealand, we are not all idiots. I will admit that two of the four members of my household are unable to tie their shoelaces, but this is because they are aged one and two respectively. The fact that they are Australian is purely coincidental.

Perhaps political correctness had not yet gone mad when you introduced Mr Clumsy in 1976, but since then it has become certifiable. As such, I request that when the series is next reprinted, Mr Clumsy should come from Clumsyland rather than Australia. At the very least he should hold dual citizenship, which admittedly would preclude him from running for Australian parliament, but in any case we have enough oafish behaviour in that institution without adding Mr Clumsy to the mix.

I have been told, Mr Hargreaves, that you died 30 years ago, and I therefore understand that you may face certain difficulties in replying to my letter. Nevertheless, I shall await a response via the late mail.

Yours sincerely,

Mr Offended



Sunday, March 11, 2018

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge
by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas




Mem Fox is not on the official list of Australia’s National Living Treasures. That is plain wrong. It’s even more wrong given that Clive Palmer is on the list. Clive is large and full of money, but that’s the only way he could be considered a treasure. If we define the word as something precious and cherished, Mem Fox fits the bill. Possum Magic is the definitive Australian picture-story book, and probably only Graeme Base can rival her popularity over more than 30 years. Today we look at another Mem Fox classic: Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge.

Wilfrid was published in 1984, the year after Possum Magic. They are the first two books Mem Fox had published, and they were both illustrated by Julie Vivas, whose style is unique and instantly recognisable – she too is an icon of Australian children’s literature. If Possum Magic was their blockbuster, Wilfrid was their sleeper hit. That’s because where Possum Magic is a fun, whimsical fantasy, Wilfrid is poignant and truly resonates.

On its surface, it’s about a young boy who lives next door to a nursing home and befriends the residents. Deeper down, it’s about the fundamental truth that people are the same whether they’re 6 or 96. And usually, sadly, it’s only the six-year-olds and 96-year-olds who seem to understand that. The rest of us are stuck in the middle, too old to be innocent, too young to be wise, and too caught up in our day-to-day lives to give it much thought anyway.

Wilfrid’s favourite friend at the nursing home is Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper, because she has four names just like him. One day, his parents call her a “poor old thing” because she’s lost her memory. Wilfrid wants to help her find it. He starts by asking the other residents at the home what a memory is. Old Mrs Jordan says it’s “something warm”. Mr Hosking says it’s “something from long ago”. Mr Tippett says it’s “something that makes you cry”. And so on.

Taking this literally, as small children do, Wilfrid goes home to find some “memories” for Miss Nancy that fit the descriptions. And his little collection sparks her memory. The warm egg he brings reminds her of being a little girl and finding speckled blue eggs in a bird’s nest in her aunt’s garden. His grandfather’s medal reminds her of the brother she loved who went to the war and never returned. She marvels at how such a young boy could have brought these memories back.

Heidi and Fletcher are fortunate that all four of their grandparents are still alive, and luckier still that they have two living great-grandmothers. One, who we call Grandma Millie, is 94, and just like Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper, lives in a nursing home. When we visit, it makes Grandma Millie’s day to see the kids. More than that, it brightens the day of every other resident who sees them. At a nursing home, little children are like a drug – the residents can’t get enough of them.

Besides Grandma Millie, there’s old Jeannie from Northern Ireland, who was a high-school teacher and Skypes with her family back in the old country. She loves to say hello to the kids. There’s Alwyn, who always takes a grandfatherly interest. And Joyce, who likes to keep an eye out for Heidi too. And of course there are those who one day just weren’t there anymore. What must life be like in a nursing home? You have lived a long, eventful life, but you know this is the last stop.

I remember, when I was five or six, my older sister Lindy would visit an elderly lady at Sunnyside House, the local nursing home. I would sometimes tag along, and without realising it at the time, I helped cheer them up in the same way. I remember one old man giving me a present of a big, men’s sized hankie, and a packet of Steam Rollers that fair dinkum knocked my socks off. I had a concept that these people were old, but it was still abstract. As far as I was concerned, everyone who wasn’t in school was old.

And that’s the thing about Heidi, or Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. They treat the elderly like they would treat anyone. They treat them like people, like equals. Not feeling sorry for them, not wondering if this is the last time you’ll see them. The rest of us are coloured by what we think we know. “Poor old thing”, we think, and we act accordingly. Any visitors at a nursing home are welcome, but I wonder if kids are especially loved because they are so unaffected.

A word here about Julie Vivas. Her style is so distinctive and her characters so expressive that they sometimes border on caricature, but in children’s books that can sometimes be a good thing. In Wilfrid it has the effect of bringing these old people to life, giving the sense of youth that is such an important message of the book. Yes, they are hunched over and frail, but they also have a recognisable spark. They are individuals, each with a story. And that’s the truth of a nursing home.

I’ve been told countless times that you never feel any different as you age – not deep down inside. It should be obvious that Grandma Millie at 94 is the same person she was at 74, or 34, or 14. But too often we fail to think that way. We mentally group all old people together in one category. They’re not like us. We’ll never be like that. Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge helps to remind us that we’re all the same. Old people have been young like us and we – hopefully – will grow old like them.

If you have kids, and you have an elderly relative, it’s impossible to read this book and not feel inspired to pop around for a visit. So just do it. I guarantee you’ll make their day – and probably your own as well.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Wow! Said the Owl
by Tim Hopgood



Heidi’s favourite toy is a soft owl, and her favourite pastime is reading stories. So it should be no surprise that she has plenty of books about owls. There’s Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson. There’s Ten Little Owls by Renee Treml. There’s The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, illustrated by Jan Brett. There’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. Actually, how did that one get onto her shelf?

But by far her favourite owl book is Wow! Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood. In fact, if I told her she could only keep one of her hundreds of books and we would throw the rest out, I think she would pick Wow! Said the Owl to save. And then she’d cry and I would be a terrible parent. But my point is it’s probably her favourite book of all. Here’s a recent exchange that demonstrates just how much two-year-old Heidi loves this book.

Me: What does a sheep say?
Heidi: Baa-baa!

Me: What does a lion say?
Heidi: Rooooaar!

Me: What does an owl say?
Heidi: Wow!

Wow! Said the Owl is perfect for toddlers of Heidi’s age. A curious little owl stays awake during the daytime instead of going to sleep, and discovers all the vivid colours of the world around her. On each page she says “WOW!” as she sees a new colour – the warm pink sky, the yellow sun, the green leaves on her tree, the pretty red butterflies, the grey clouds when it starts to rain.

The day finishes with a rainbow, and then the little owl stays up all night, just like little owls are supposed to, and she decides that the night-time stars are the most beautiful of all. The final page, after the end of the story, shows a sort of colour wheel, and Heidi loves to point to each one and say the name of the colour – even if she calls both indigo and violet a generic “purple”. I mean, who ever uses the word “indigo” anyway?

I don’t know what it is about owls that Heidi loves so much. I guess the big eyes do make them look pretty cute. The big eyes also help owls to find the mice, voles and other small mammals and birds that they like to attack with their razor-sharp talons and eat. Not so cute now, are they? Maybe that’s what the famously mysterious Twin Peaks clue meant: “The owls are not what they seem”.

But back to Wow! Said the Owl. Sometimes Heidi likes reading stories on her own, and you can tell when she’s reading this one even if you're not in the room. You’ll just hear “wow” as she turns each page, then a lot of gobbledegook with the occasional name of a colour thrown in. When she gets to the page full of red butterflies, she says “owl?” – it’s the only page that doesn’t show the curious little owl.

I hadn’t heard of Tim Hopgood before we picked up a copy of this book. He has a background in graphic design and uses those skills in combination with his drawing ability to produce his works. He scans the various elements, including his drawings, into his computer and assembles the images digitally. All his work starts in black and white, and he colours it using his computer – this way he can test out different colour combinations.

Fascinatingly, he collects textures from unusual places – the clouds in Wow! Said the Owl have a pattern he scanned in from the inside of an envelope from his bank! What sort of creative mind comes up with that idea? Every time we read Wow! Said the Owl now – which is to say, several times a week – I’ll pay special attention to those patterned clouds and be reminded how a clever mind can see creative potential in the most mundane objects.

All of this creativity combines to be a cut above your usual toddler book. In fact, it has become so popular that in 2015 Wow! Said the Owl was adapted into a stage show using puppets in London, and received rave reviews.

Speaking of reviews, on the back cover of Wow! Said the Owl, you’ll see the following testimonial: “Just the right blend of vivid illustration and engaging text” – Daily Mail. For the first (and probably last) time in my life, I am forced to admit that the Daily Mail got something bang on.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Dogger
by Shirley Hughes



Today, the iconic Shirley Hughes turns 90. And today DadReads goes out on a limb to declare that Shirley Hughes may well be the greatest living children’s author and illustrator in the world. I am open to counter-arguments, but for longevity in the industry and consistent quality of output, who else is even in the same league?

Eric Carle? He is now 88, and it is nearly fifty years since he produced The Very Hungry Caterpillar, one of the most universal childhood classics of all time. But some of his other works have been positively dull. Carle’s The Very Quiet Cricket is the slowest-moving cricket book since Test Cricket Lists.

Judith Kerr? At 94, she remains best known for the Mog series and The Tiger who Came to Tea. They are beloved books for some, but I’ve always found her work a little strange, and certainly lacking the warmth of Shirley Hughes.

From the Antipodes there is Pamela Allen, who is 83, but in my opinion falls into the same category as Judith Kerr – quirky, and a little cold. If I was voting for the finest Australian or New Zealander it would be Graeme Base or Dame Lynley Dodd.

It is worth noting that some living greats – Mem Fox and Allan Ahlberg, for example – are authors only, and thus do not qualify as author-illustrators. I could accept arguments for Raymond Briggs, who is a worthy candidate, or for Sir Quentin Blake, whose pictures are iconic, but whose writing I personally am yet to read.

But for me, it’s Shirley Hughes. Maybe I’m swayed by nostalgia, because the stories featuring Alfie and Annie-Rose, and Lucy and Tom, were such a big part of my childhood. Re-reading them now takes me back to a warm and fuzzy place, but it’s a warm and fuzzy place that I know is shared by countless others around the world.

In Britain, Hughes is something of a national treasure. Her first book as author and illustrator, Lucy and Tom’s Day, came out in 1960. In an interview with The Guardian last month, she said she was currently working on another Alfie story. That’s nearly 60 years of output. Baby Boomers might have grown up with Shirley Hughes and could still today be enjoying her new works; their grandchildren may be growing up with her now, and can share the classics with their grandparents and parents.

In the UK right now there is almost a Festival of Shirley – she was recently guest editor of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and interviews with her have been featuring in various newspapers – celebrating both her 90th birthday and the 40th anniversary of one of her most beloved books, Dogger (a hardback anniversary edition of Dogger was published last month).

And Dogger really is beloved. Not only did it win the Kate Greenaway Medal for “distinguished illustration in a book for children” in 1977, but when the Medal celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2007, Dogger was voted the best of the best, narrowly pipping another of my all-time favourites, Each Peach Pear Plum, to be named the finest winner in the Greenaway Medal’s history.

Dogger is the story of a little boy named Dave, his treasured soft toy dog, and his big sister Bella. One day, Dave loses Dogger while waiting with his mother to collect Bella from school, and a few days later, Dogger turns up for sale on the toy stall at the school fete. (As an aside, a huge percentage of Heidi’s books have come from school fetes – they are a goldmine of children’s books).

Dave doesn’t have the 3p he needs to buy Dogger back, and by the time he finds his big sister to help, another girl has bought Dogger. She refuses to sell him back to Dave, but Bella, who has just won a giant teddy bear in a three-legged race, comes to the rescue by trading her new teddy bear to the girl in return for Dogger. It is just the most beautiful moment of sibling love.

And this, I think, gets to the crux of why Shirley Hughes is so good. A memorable picture book might be funny (The Gruffalo), or intricate (Animalia), or whimsical (Hairy Maclary). Or, in the case of Dogger, it can be heartfelt. And heartfelt is deceptively difficult to achieve. The big risk is straying towards the saccharine (Guess How Much I Love You, for example, makes me want to vomit).

Shirley Hughes does heartfelt and warm with as much sincerity and skill as anyone. She has an incredible ability to empathise with children. Her stories are emotionally complex, just as little children are, and her illustrations are beautifully observed. She gets the small details right: the way Dave holds Dogger up to the school fence to show him the men setting up the fete, the subtly anxious look on Dave’s face as he tries to sleep without his beloved toy.

And she gets to the truth of how a child’s mind works, as when Bella wins her teddy bear:

"Dave didn’t like that teddy at all. At that moment he didn’t like Bella much either, because she kept on winning things."

I’m sure Dave still loved his sister, but at that moment he didn’t like her much. Kids, and especially those of toddler and pre-school age, are remarkably fickle, because they are still learning how to control their emotions. And with a two-year-old daughter, that is something that I am discovering more and more every day.

Perhaps Dogger resonates with me even more now because I’m a parent. I can just imagine the apprehension if Heidi’s favourite toy – an owl – was to go missing. And I can picture big sister Heidi looking after her little brother, Fletcher, in future years in just the way that Bella watches out for Dave.

If you don’t know Shirley Hughes and haven’t read her, you are missing out on a joyous experience. My other favourites as a child were Lucy and Tom’s Christmas, Alfie Gets in First, and An Evening At Alfie’s. I was introduced to Shirley Hughes by my Mum, who had first seen the books being read on Play School.

My Mum, Valerie, is a very talented illustrator herself – I would love to write a children’s book and have her illustrate it – and she loves Shirley Hughes now more than ever. In fact, I gave her Shirley’s autobiography for Mother’s Day this year, and I’m pleased to say it has sparked a renewed passion for the books. Now, my nearly 70-year-old Mum is actively compiling a library of Shirley Hughes books from secondhand shops and online. Here’s what Mum says about Shirley Hughes:

"Shirley Hughes is an observer. She sees the small details that we overlook. She can create a charming story from ordinary happenings, and her illustrations are full of colour and movement. I like these quotes from her book A Life Drawing.
'... to become a writer you must first become a reader, so becoming an illustrator is preceded by learning how to look.'
'Drawing means looking more intently and for longer than you do at any other time.'"
Shirley Hughes has been looking intently for 60 years. That’s why she’s the best there is.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat
by Jenny Wagner & Ron Brooks



I loved this book when I was little, but had I known what it was really about I’d have been seriously freaked out. To five-year-old me, it was a nice story about a gorgeous Old English Sheepdog, a sleek black cat, and an old lady who reminded me of my grandmother. A couple of outdoor scenes in the dark of night were a bit spooky, but everything was all right because the story had a happy ending.

Or so I thought.

Little did I know that the old widow, Rose, was tired of life. Little did I know that the Midnight Cat represents death, and that it was highly symbolic that John Brown the protective dog refused to allow the cat inside. Little did I know that the final stages – when Rose is sick in bed and John Brown opens the door to the Midnight Cat, the only thing that can make Rose “better” – are very final.

But you know what? Learning about the hidden meaning has only made me love the book even more. It takes remarkable skill to create a work with such layers, as author Jenny Wagner and illustrator Ron Brooks have done here. In fact, the Midnight Cat As Death is just one of multiple possible subtexts to this book.

Perhaps a short summary here would help. Rose is an elderly woman whose husband died long ago. For many years she has passed the time with her dog, John Brown. One night, Rose looks out the window and sees a black cat. John Brown refuses to look, but when Rose has gone to bed, he goes outside and threatens the cat to stay away.

But Rose keeps seeing the cat, and John Brown keeps ignoring it. “You don’t need a cat,” he says. “You’ve got me”. One morning, Rose remains in bed, and tells John Brown she is sick. John Brown spends the day thinking, and in the evening asks Rose if the Midnight Cat will make her better. “Oh yes!” she says. “That’s just what I want.” Reluctantly, John Brown lets the cat inside.

On the second-last page, the three are all sitting in the living room, Rose gazing lovingly at The Midnight Cat, a portrait of her late husband staring down on them from above the fireplace. “Then Rose got up and sat by the fire, for a while.” As illustrator Ron Brooks writes in his memoir Drawn from the Heart:

Note, and think about, that comma.

The comma makes you pause. It makes you wonder what happened after the “for a while”.

And the final sentence is split across the last two pages: “And the midnight cat sat on the arm of the chair ... and purred.” A close-up of the black cat ends the book.

I don’t think I’ll be able to read this to Heidi without choking up just a little, now that I know its true meaning. For me, the most poignant pages are the double-page spread on which John Brown, in close-up and filling almost the whole space, cuddles one of Rose’s slippers while thinking about her lying sick in bed. You can almost see that he is mourning, realising that it’s time to let her go.

This was not the first collaboration between Wagner and Brooks. They had earlier teamed up to produce The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek, which also had layers of meaning, though perhaps less subtly than John Brown. Again, Brooks’ cross-hatching and line-work brings such texture to the book. He is at his best when creating a dark night-time atmosphere, yet not so dark that we cannot see the action.

And Wagner skilfully imbues her words with many possible meanings. When we read this to Heidi, the first subtext that my wife Zoe picked up on was that John Brown might represent an eldest child, struggling with the jealousy that can arise from the impending arrival of a new baby. Whichever way an adult interprets the meaning, a child will still enjoy the surface-level story, which is charming.

Ron Brooks in his memoir mentions that the Waiting for Death reading of the story was the one Wagner mentioned most often, but he entertainingly (and a little mischievously) sums up the other possible interpretations:

The English (ever democratic) reviews of John Brown pointed out endless possibilities in the book, story and pictures. Among the more interesting was Margery Fisher’s observation that Queen Victoria also had a friend called John Brown, and that the relationship there was very similar indeed.

The Germans (who take their children’s books very seriously) suggested that John Brown was a sensitive study of the problems sometimes involved with a first child coming to terms with the impending arrival of a second, and that ‘parents in this situation may well find the book helpful’.

The Americans, on whom one can always count for – shall we say – a certain clarity of vision, seemed mostly to think John Brown was ‘a lovely book about an old woman, a dog, and a cat’.

So perhaps Zoe is German and five-year-old me was American. But five-year-old me lived on an Australian farm and recognised much that was familiar in the illustrations: Rose feeding the chooks; the windmill behind the house; the garage housing an old car that looks like it hasn’t been driven for years; Rose’s stockings down around her ankles, like my own grandmother.

It is notable that John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat won Australia’s Picture Book of the Year award in 1978. The judges were unanimous and described the book as having universal themes but many distinctly Australian touches, and that it “comes as close to the perfect picture book as Australia has yet produced”.

Of course, classics such as Possum Magic and Animalia were yet to be published, but in my opinion John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat holds its own against anything that has come since.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Miffy
by Dick Bruna


Let’s play a little literary Jeopardy. I’ll give you an answer, you tell me the question. Okay, here goes. The answer is: Anne Frank and Dick Bruna. Any ideas? “Who are two people who have never been in my kitchen?” Technically true, like Cliff Clavin of Cheers was when he went on Jeopardy, but not the response I’m after. The correct question is this: “Who are the two most translated authors from the Dutch language?”

Dick Bruna and Anne Frank were of similar ages – he was born in 1927, she in 1929 – and thus both were teenagers in the Netherlands during the war. Everybody knows the story of the Franks; the Brunas also hid out, though in their case to protect Dick’s father, a publisher, from conscription into forced labour. It was during this time of hiding that Dick began to draw.

And he drew for more than 70 years. When he died in February this year at the age of 89, his works had been translated into more than 50 languages in 85 countries. His work was wide-ranging – even including a series of book covers for Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels – but his most famous creation was Miffy the rabbit.

Miffy is all about simplicity: uncomplicated lines, blocks of colour, few words. As Dick Bruna once said: “If you put very few things on a page, you leave lots of room for the imagination.”

Had Miffy been translated under her Dutch name, Nijntje, even more imagination would have been required. Like, imagining how the hell “jntj” is a pronounceable letter combination. The name was derived from the Dutch word “konijntje”, meaning “little bunny”. Fortunately she became Miffy in the translated versions.

If you thought Miffy was a Japanese creation, you’re not alone. And she does bear some striking similarities to Hello Kitty, who is indeed Japanese. But it should be noted that Hello Kitty was created nearly 20 years after Miffy. “That is a copy [of Miffy], I think,” Dick Bruna said in a 2008 interview. “I don’t like that at all. I always think, ‘No, don’t do that. Try to make something that you think of yourself’.”

In fact, such are the similarities that when Hello Kitty introduced a rabbit character named Cathy, Bruna’s representatives sued Sanrio, the company behind Hello Kitty, for copyright infringement. Miffy won the lawsuit, Hello Kitty appealed, and the case was eventually settled out of court. But I love the idea of two of the world’s cutesiest characters in a Grisham-esque legal showdown.

Miffy was born in 1955; that, in fact, is the original storyline. Mr Rabbit likes gardening and Mrs Rabbit cooks and cleans. She also does the shopping – peas, beans and cabbages mostly, although “once she bought a juicy pear, as a special treat”. These rabbits clearly know how to have fun, though not too much, since Mrs Rabbit wants a baby but seems not to know how to get one.

One night there was a tap on the window. Mrs Rabbit peeped through the curtains. Outside stood a little cherub. “Your wish is granted,” it said. “A baby rabbit is on its way to you.” The cherub flapped its wings and flew off into the sky. The rabbits were very excited. The baby was born soon afterwards. They called her Miffy.

This is the word of the Dick. Amen.

Or something like that. It’s peculiarly biblical, and gives a strange new meaning to the phrase “breeding like rabbits”. Anyway, this is the genesis of a series of 32 books and a franchise that evolved into television and merchandise and Dick knows what else.

Some of the stories, particularly those written as rhymes, can be a little clunky when translated, but that is to be expected. The drawings always remain simple, though it took a deceptive amount of skill for Bruna to convey Miffy’s emotions with only two dots for eyes and an x for a mouth. The simplicity was deliberate; in creating Miffy, Bruna was targeting children, not parents.

And for that reason, in 1996 he decided to address what was often a normal childhood experience: the death of a grandparent. The cover of Dear Grandma Bunny shows Miffy in front of a gravestone, and the book deals in very straightforward terms with the death of Miffy’s grandmother – open casket and all. After Miffy’s virgin birth, death was treated more realistically.

Now, two decades later, Dick Bruna himself has died. Hendrik Magdalenus Bruna, the man behind Nijntje, or Miffy. And the man with the finest moustache in children’s literature. 


Friday, March 24, 2017

Princess Smartypants
by Babette Cole



After Babette Cole died in January, The Guardian summed up her career rather well: “She created books on the kinds of disgusting topics that children love and adults mostly do not, and then, emboldened by their success, she went on to more controversial subjects, partly because she liked to shock and partly because she felt she had a duty to make sure children were properly informed.”

Her publisher summed her up even more succinctly: “She was as mad as a box of frogs”.

Her most famous book is probably Princess Smartypants, a reimagining of the traditional fairytale in which the helpless princess is whisked off her feet by her prince charming. But in Babette Cole’s version, the princess is a fiercely independent woman who is pressured by her parents, the king and the queen, into finding a man. Her attitude is clear from the first line of the book:

Princess Smartypants did not want to get married. She enjoyed being a Ms.

And so, to humour her parents, the princess sets various seemingly impossible tasks for her suitors. One by one they fail, until the princess is left alone in her castle to carry on happily on her own. But then Prince Swashubuckle turns up, unexpectedly completes all her various challenges, and thinks he has won her heart. Instead, her kiss turns him into a warty toad and the princess lives happily ever after. Prince Swashbuckle presumably gets turned off women forever – human ones, at least.

Not much about Princess Smartypants is subtle. It does not have a feminist undertone, rather a feminist monotone. The main character is spoilt, selfish and mean. Poor Prince Swashbuckle was only trying to be kind, and she turned him into a toad. And yet, is any of that a problem? Probably not. Sometimes a good bashing over the head is necessary to get the message across.

It is worth noting that this book was written in 1986; 25 years later Australia had a female prime minister who was castigated for being “deliberately barren”, and a further five years down the track the USA has a president who says of women “grab them by the pussy”. So, yeah, still a fair way to go on the whole equality thing.

What is most fascinating – though not surprising – is the way that much of Babette Cole’s work divides opinion. A sample of Goodreads reader reviews of Princess Smartypants gives you the idea:

"Not only is it funny and cute, it  teaches children that no matter what, they don't have to compromise their boundaries and they don't have to conform to society's expectations." (From a 5-star review)

"From the lowbrow names of "Prince Pelvis, Swimbladder, Boneshaker, Grovel etc. and the overall disrespectful, non-familial attitudes to the man-hating, lying, deal breaking princess this book was feminist rubbish from top to bottom." (From a 1-star review)

"...great sense of humor and a beautiful message about being yourself and standing up for what you believe is right." (From a 5-star revew)

"This book seems to be telling girls that they would be better off without a husband and family. Definitely not the message I want to share with my little girls." (From a 1-star review).

And this from a more measured 3-star review:

"Books like this and the Paper Bag Princess seem to reinforce the idea that, in order to be a feminist and be independent, (1) you have to be mean to men, because they are bad, and (2) you have to be alone. It seems the implication is that if the character did get married or even have male friends, she would automatically give up all her independence and become a mindless cooking-and-cleaning drone (or a mindless gown-wearing ball-attending drone)."

I should point out that all of these reviews were written by (or, at least, appear to have been written by) women. But if good art polarises opinion, the same is often true of good literature – and why not children’s literature, too?

Several of her other books similarly divide opinion, including Hair in Funny Places, which deals with puberty, and Mummy Laid an Egg, a book about the facts of life that features graphic illustrations of various adventurous sexual positions. Her work often dealt with serious issues in an absurd manner, and her cartoonish pictures only add to the effect.

One last note on Babette Cole, unrelated to this book. Although she was only 67 when she died in January, she was lucky to have lived that long. Two years ago she was nearly killed when she was trampled by a herd of cows. She suffered broken ribs, a fractured shoulder blade and lacerations all over her body. Her left ear was left hanging off and had to be stitched back on by a cosmetic surgeon.

But her final word in the aftermath of the ordeal rather summed up her ability to shock. How would she deal with cows now? "I'm going to eat a lot more steak!" she said.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Grug Plays Cricket
by Ted Prior



Grug 2 for 0 (Grug 0, Cara 2-0) tied with Cara 2 for 0 (Cara 0, Grug 2-0)

Not since the One-Legged XI played the One-Armed XI in England in 1848 has cricket seen anything remotely like this. On a green pitch indistinguishable from the outfield, a snake named Cara, overcoming the significant obstacle of having no arms and no legs, held Grug to a remarkable scoreless tie that left the cricket world stunned.

As the host, and thus most familiar with the conditions, it was a humiliating result for Grug, who had invited Cara to play expecting an easy win. But over the previous few years Grug had spent his time cycling, swimming, gardening, painting, and engaging in all sorts of other irrelevant activities that that left him ill-prepared for a major cricket match.

Although nobody really knows what Grug is, he indisputably has two arms and two legs, and thus a natural advantage over Cara. It is not out of the question that anti-corruption authorities could inspect the betting markets around this match, but the likelihood is that Grug simply succumbed to hubris.

Sending Cara in to bat, Grug began with a delivery that beat Cara’s paltry defences and rattled the middle and leg stumps. Cara had batted with a grip rarely seen in elite cricket, holding the bat in her mouth, but she made a game swing at the ball, and in fact looked more likely to score than former New Zealand No.11 Chris Martin.


Cara was more at ease when bowling. Gripping the ball under her chin (do snakes have chins?) she formed herself into an imposing S shape and then flung the ball down the pitch. Her unconventional action may have looked suspect but was in fact perfectly legal; the ICC bans "chuckers" whose elbow extension exceeds 15 degrees. Cara's complete lack of elbows made the rule redundant.

Cara resembled nothing so much as former speedster Jeff Thomson, rolling up and going "whang", and Grug, who had spent far too little time in the nets ahead of this game, was slow to react. In the words of commentator Ted Prior: "Grug swung the bat and missed. The ball hit him on the nose!" It was an apt description, and typical of Prior's concise commentary style.

Though shaken by the incident, Grug passed the mandatory concussion tests and batted on, driving the next delivery hard and straight back towards the bowler. Cara showed her remarkable reflexes by catching the ball in her mouth, which brought back memories of Shahid Afridi chewing on a ball during a one-day international.

It meant that neither Cara nor Grug had scored in their first innings, and Cara was soon to complete an ignominious king pair when she again swung hard but lost her middle stump. This left her needing to once again dismiss Grug without scoring in order to emerge from the match with a tie.

Things looked grim for Cara when Grug smashed the next delivery high into the air through the region of extra cover, which appeared to be vacant, but a pelican unexpectedly flew past at an opportune moment and Grug was caught. Not since Gary Pratt ran out Ricky Ponting in the 2005 Ashes had a substitute fielder had a more significant impact.

The match had been tied, and although both players finished the game with smiles on their faces, it was easy to see through Grug’s façade. Indeed, Grug failed to appear at the post-match press conference, and is believed to be considering immediate retirement from the game.