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.

Saturday, January 21, 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 fa├žade. Indeed, Grug failed to appear at the post-match press conference, and is believed to be considering immediate retirement from the game.