Sunday, July 8, 2018

Classic Australian books

Later this year (October 2-4, 2018 Canberra, Australia) there will be an important exhibition of IBBY (International Board on Books for the Young) Honour Books including 48 Australian titles. Each of the titles will be displayed with an abstract and today I worked on six of the picture book titles. I thought I would share my writings here. You may be familiar with these books but perhaps it is a while since you shared some of them with a child.

Lizzie Nonsense by Jan Ormerod

Lizzie lives with her mama, papa and baby brother on a remote farm in the Australia bush. Papa leaves the family for weeks on end while he delivers wood to the distant town leaving Lizzie, her Mama and baby alone in the bush. Lizzie is a lively girl with a vivid imagination. Her brother in his bath is floating in the ocean, a fallen log is her brave steed and flowers in the garden become a bridal bouquet. Lizzie is such a happy girl. She finds delight in the smallest of things and her buoyant outlook and positivity help her Mama during these difficult days. Even though she dismisses Lizzie’s ideas as nonsense Mama has her own daydreams too. On Sundays they put on their best clothes and pretend they have walked to church. Finally, after all the long weeks, they hear a sound. Is that harness jangling or just sounds in their imagination? No it is papa!

Lizzie Nonsense is dedicated to the memory of Jan Ormerod’s grandmother and her life in the 1890s. It is a tale told with warmth, tenderness and humour. The images are built up from pencil drawings. Watercolour and ink are used to evoke the light of the Australian bush and the simple candle light of their home. Several illustrations are presented as an oval similar to a framed picture placed on a dresser or mantle.

The Old Woman who loved to Read by John Winch

The old woman does love to read, she has gathered an assortment of farm and native Australian animals who share her passion, she has a large collection of books, a comfy chair and she appears to be living alone. When she arrives in the Australian outback from the city, the farm is in disarray. The windows are broken, animals have made nests inside and the woodwork is falling down. Through hard work the old woman restores order inside and outside. In spring a lamb arrives. The old woman studies her books to learn about feeding and shearing. Her harvest has been successful and she has pumpkins, apples, sunflowers and plenty of wood stacked outside. In summer she harvests her fruit trees and makes preserves. It is hot and very dry which means it is bushfire season. In the autumn the rains come and she rescues several animals caught in the rising flood waters. The rains continue leaving little time for reading but finally, when all the chores are done, her larder is stocked and her animals are safe, the old woman can once again settle down to read a good book or two. You can see some of the titles on a handwritten note found on the last page. 

The colours chosen by John Winch follow the seasons and the landscape. He turns a spotlight on the face of the old woman with her creamy complexion, rosy cheeks and finally contentment. The size and close-up illustrations allow the reader to feel and smell the ripe fruit, the heat of the sun during the drought and even the juice of her pears. The Old woman who loved to read is the partner book to The Old man who loved to sing.

Possum Magic by Mem Fox

Grandma Poss makes bush magic, such as turning wombats blue and kookaburras pink. But her best magic was to make her granddaughter Hush invisible to keep her safe especially from snakes. Being invisible, Hush can do all sorts of playful things with other bush animals. She loves to ride down the tail of the kangaroo. The time comes, however, when Hush wants to be visible again. Unfortunately Grandma Poss has forgotten what magic to use. She knows it has something to do with food – people food. So the pair set off on a journey around Australia nibbling all kinds of iconic Australian foods such as vegemite sandwiches, minties, mornay and luscious pavlova until they find the right foods to make Hush completely visible once more. 

Using tiny brush strokes, Julie Vivas gives a sense of fur for her possums along with the fur of the blue wombat and the koala. To show Hush is invisible she uses a light sepia outline which stands out against the white background. Adding to this idea, when Grandma Poss and Hush lean over the river bank, Hush herself has no reflection. Magic pours out of Grandma Poss in the form of multi-coloured shimmering stars. Grandma Poss wears an apron but all of the other Australian animals in this book are painted in their natural state. This is a delightful book full of humour about Australia’s lovable native bush and suburban creatures – possums.

Who Sank the Boat? by Pamela Allen

It is a sunny day so the cow, donkey, sheep, pig and mouse decide to go for a row on the bay. The narrator anticipates a disaster when she asks, even before we see the friends boarding the boat – do you know who sank the boat? The reader, at this point, does not know the boat is going to sink although a closer look reveals it is a tiny wooden row boat perhaps not suited to such a large and in some cases heavy set of passengers. If weight is the issue then surely the fault lies with the cow, the donkey or the pig, who is described as being as fat as butter. Meanwhile the sheep has been sitting on the dock calming knitting a pink and white scarf. She slides carefully aboard and sits right in the middle. At this point, while the boat is indeed lower in the water, it is still floating. Now it is the turn of the little mouse. He is the lightest of all. He jumps aboard and the catastrophe we had anticipated ensues. In the final wordless scene our troop of wet and dripping adventurers trudge up the beach followed by the dry mouse with his mischievous grin. The boat, oars and umbrella are all left behind in the bay. The almost identical images of the first and last pages neatly bookmark the tale. 

This story is ideal for reading aloud to young children. The body shapes and facial expressions of each animal convey emotion and personality. The use of sepia gives a sense of time or a potential outcome. The facing pages are outlined with a frame like the pages from a photo album. The rhyming text and repeated refrain make this a text young readers quickly learn to recite.

A Year on our Farm illustrated by Andrew McLean

As the title and various tree images on the front cover suggest this book covers a year on an Australian farm. A family consisting of mum, dad and three children along with a collection of pets and other animals from the ‘chooks’ to the new spring lambs, populate this farm in rural Australia. There are hardships such as drought and the rush to bring in the harvest. Pleasures such as the arrival of new kittens, hand rearing a lamb and the usual tasks of hand-milking and shearing that connect farm lives everywhere around the world.

The simple text is complemented by the watercolour and crayon illustrations, through which McLean evokes the changing seasons. His characters have expressive faces finding delight in the smallest of tasks. The first image gives a birds-eye view of the whole farm. The following pages use small vignettes to show the incidental aspects of everyday life on the farm. Everyone in the family has a job to do including the animals. The story uses a chronological and seasonal framework beginning with Summer in January and ending with the return of Summer and Christmas in December. There is the promise of special gift. Andrew McLean repeats his illustration of the family group we saw at the beginning of the book but this time with the addition of a new pony.


Where the forest meets the sea by Jeannie Baker

A father takes his son by boat to a place where trees have grown for millions of years. It is a remote place near a coral reef with few visitors. While the father relaxes, the son explores the rainforest. His father’s remark that the forest has been here for over a hundred million years resonates with the boy. As he wanders the boy pretends that it is long ago when dinosaurs lived and aboriginal forest children played amongst the ancient trees. He takes time to sit still and listen to the sounds of the forest and marvel at the size of the majestic trees wondering how long each took to grow from a tiny seedling. Sadly the day ends too quickly as does the boys reverie. “But will the forest still be here when we come back?” 

Imaginatively constructed relief collages evoke the past along with the present and also alert the reader to the possible demise of the Daintree Rainforest in North Queensland. The collages are created from a combination of natural and artificial materials and where she can Jeannie Baker uses the actual material portrayed in the illustration such as bark, earth and fabric.

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