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

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

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