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.