Date Archives October 2012

Top 5 Australian children’s picture books: to re-read until you go mad

Mem Fox + Judy Horacek, Where is the Green Sheep?
Mem Fox + Judy Horacek, Where is the Green Sheep?

Having two children has taught me a lot about narrative.

With the first child (my boy, McCool, now almost four), we did everything by the book, so to speak. We settled on a bedtime routine quickly, milk and three books. He was read up to ten books a day (and still is). He is fascinated by story, able to sit still and focus on the words, the detail. He is usually reluctant to read a new book, preferring to have one on endless repeat until he has memorised it and can read it himself.

With the second child (my girl, GG, now 18 months), the routine flew out the window from day one. She has absorbed the books, as part of us reading to McCool. She now sits on her own for a long time, looking at them in the corner. She brings favourites over to me at all times of the day. She still gets at least ten books but usually in bursts of passion (mine and hers). She is more interested in turning the pages, in noises and flaps, in dashing to the last page to see what happens. The only way I can get her to lie still when I change her nappy is to give her a choice of books.

But there’s no doubt that, regardless of their very different personalities, they both are drawn again and again to the same books. Sometimes books I’m truly in love with (the classics: Where the Wild Things Are; The Very Hungry Caterpillar); sometimes books I wish I never had to lay eyes on again (most of the mass-marketed Wiggles variations).

We’re lucky in Australia to have access to such a wide range of wonderful children’s book writers and illustrators (and publishers willing to look after them). My favourite thing is emptying the children’s piggy banks and being left to my own devices in the picture book section of a bookstore like Gleebooks in Sydney to wander and browse.

Here are the top 5 books in our household that have stood the test of time — for both the kids and me. These are the ones where I’m still able (after hundreds of readings) to truly enjoy turning the pages, to discover something new each time I read it.

WHERE IS THE GREEN SHEEP?

Mem Fox and Judy Horacek’s book is a masterpiece of narrative. I’ve learnt that children love Q+A. As I read ‘But where is the green sheep?’ my daughter answers ‘Mmmmm’ each time, enjoying the to and fro between us. The simple images give lots of chance for singing and acting the fool (the clown sheep, the sheep swinging around a lamp-post) and build in momentum to a climax, a page with a riot of sheep — Ned Kelly, Carmen Miranda, the ‘narcissist’ sheep — offering me the chance to branch off into all kinds of other narratives, before I start to whisper, and we find the little green sheep, sleeping and peaceful. The publishers, in all their marketing glory, decided to sell a soft toy of the green sheep, but my kids would never touch it. I always like to think they preferred the green sheep to be lost, missing, in their imaginations; they didn’t want to see it on their shelves.

Mem Fox & Helen Oxenbury, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes
Mem Fox & Helen Oxenbury, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

TEN LITTLE FINGERS AND TEN LITTLE TOES

Mem Fox (she has contributed to so many wonderful books) and Helen Oxenbury’s tale of inclusion holds absolute delight for babies and toddlers. GG’s favourite word of the moment is ‘baby’ and in this book she sees herself reflected on every page, especially when there are actual illustrations of hands, fingers, feet, toes that she can measure her own against. The repetition gives her a chance to learn, and also the opportunity to see kids from different cultures to her own (she loves the image of the child with the penguin in the snow; and the child with the chicken in the heat). The personal link at the end where the mother kisses her baby three times on the ‘tip of its nose’ gives me lots of opportunities to kiss and tickle too.

Sonya Hartnett & Lucia Masciullo, The Boy and the Toy
Sonya Hartnett & Lucia Masciullo, The Boy and the Toy

THE BOY AND THE TOY

Sonya Hartnett’s foray into children’s picture books is, like everything else she does, unusual, with beautiful illustrations by Lucia Masciullo. It’s a melancholy tale of a boy on his own (his mum not mentioned, his dad away at sea). His father is an inventor and invents a toy for him, but this toy is jealous and starts destroying the boy’s world. The boy soon figures out there’s something not quite right and works out a way to trick the toy, creating a model of himself as a decoy. McCool has always loved this tale. He’s an independent boy, too, looking for answers, and this book elicits loads of questions: What is the toy doing? Where has the dad gone? What’s an inventor?

John Brown, Rose and the Midnight CatJOHN BROWN, ROSE AND THE MIDNIGHT CAT

This is my favourite children’s picture book of all time. I’ve no doubt handed down my passion, but both the kids love it. Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks’ narrative proves once and for all that the dark and mysterious have a place in children’s books, even those for very young kids. The glorious illustrations and the apparently simple narrative (that is, in the end, about approaching death) of friendship and loyalty means the book can be savoured on many levels. Just the opening page before the story begins is full of wonderful possibilities: the outside toilet (McCool is fascinated by this idea), the chicken coop, the tyre swing, the old car in the garage that doesn’t get driven, the black cat that’s always lurking. I have to hold back tears nearly every time I get to the page where John Brown, the sheepdog, is lying with Rose’s slippers, wondering why she won’t get up. It’s a lesson in pared-back, taut and controlled writing. Magnificent!

WHO SANK THE BOAT?

Pamela Allen, like Mem Fox, writes and illustrates classic after classic: the list is remarkable (others that we call favourites include the Mr McGee series, Black Dog, Shhh! Little MouseWaddle Giggle Gargle, Inside Mary Elizabeth’s House) and she makes it look easy (it isn’t, I’ve tried). Who Sank the Boat? again focuses on repetition and refrain, asking a question so that the kids can answer. All kids seem to be drawn to the tiny in narrative (the small creature, the speck of dust, the littlest battling against the biggest [us adults]) and the idea that it is the smallest of all (the mouse rather than the donkey) who causes the commotion, who sinks the boat, is a clever trick and source of wonderment that never seems to grow stale.

Pamela Allen, Who Sank the Boat?
Pamela Allen, Who Sank the Boat?

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE AUSTRALIAN CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOKS? OR THE ONES YOUR KIDS LOVE?

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Crafting the truth: Jeanette Winterson + Kate Holden

Kate Holden, The RomanticAs the NonfictioNow Conference heads to Melbourne in November, I’ve been thinking a lot about creative nonfiction. It’s my favourite genre at the moment. I love its playfulness, its lyrical language, the ability to create exciting narratives with historical resonance, the way writers can shape people’s lives (and their own).

I think I’m most interested in where boundaries blur, where nonfiction blends into fiction and other genres, at what point the self dissolves in memoir. Recent discussions at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival around nonfiction concentrated (as always) on the truth. Lee Gutkind, the so-called ‘godfather’ of the creative nonfiction movement, kept repeating his mantra: true stories, well told. But I found this emphasis frustrating and limiting. Why do we always have to focus on the ‘truth’, that slippery and elusive notion? Why do readers get so angry when the author is revealed to have made things up? It’s the same for documentary film. Many still carry the notion that docos are somehow real, rather than carefully constructed arguments.

I’ve never understood this strong attachment to ‘what really happened’. It seems that when you write nonfiction you’ve signed a contract with the reader. As with an intimate relationship, if you lie, it’s a betrayal. Readers don’t seem to forgive. But I’m more interested in the slippages, what lies between what happened and what the writer reveals. Take a look at your daily life and the story you tell about it to others. I’d guess you lie to yourself (and others) many times a day; or if not quite a lie, then not quite the truth. If you write about your life, this takes on an extra dimension; you’re creating for an audience, shaping a narrative so that others will want to share the journey.

Kate Holden, author, The Romantic
Kate Holden, author of The Romantic

Kate Holden is one of the most interesting writers working in nonfiction. Her first memoir In My Skin was a page-turner, in the best sense (one of my favourite books of past years). Her tale of heroin addiction, and the lure of prostitution, was unusual in that it worked almost as literary fiction, beautifully crafted and confident in technique and attention to detail and character.

In her second, The Romantic, she has even more of an experiment with style and genre. In an interview for The Age, Jane Sullivan spoke to Holden and commented:

Everything in The Romantic is true, but it has been “filtered and worked on”. Readers tend to think a memoir is a chronicle or record of a life, “but it’s a much more subtle form. You’re compressing, eliding, using your craft to present a good story.”

Her disclaimer at the beginning of the book (that she read out at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival) is a careful reminder to readers that all may not be as it seems:

This is a work of imagination as well as truth. All names have been changed and characterisation compressed. It is a sincere memory in shaped retrospect. The author is real.

Although again a memoir, Holden plays with the conventions of a rom-com-style odyssey through Italy — while revealing the passivity that plagues her in many situations, especially in her relationships with men. This is no Eat, Pray, Love. While a recovering addict, she is also in a sense testing out her new identity as a single woman abroad, re-learning how to be independent, and working out how to relate to men (with sex and without) now she’s no longer a paid sex worker. While there’s the occasional joyous moment, many of her experiences are brutal and painful, full of self-doubt and despair.

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?Jeanette Winterson is also prepared to be brutal (about herself and others) in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, her memoir about growing up in an abusive household, with a deranged mother who’s waiting for the end of the world. Winterson’s style is savage, rushed, compelling — as if she’s running down a mountain trying to escape an avalanche (of emotion). But there are some gaps (big ones), years that she jumps over, a suicide attempt mentioned in passing.

As with Kate Holden’s writing, her strength is in her ability to feel, convey and translate pain. But also maintain a sense of wonder. As her mother bans and burns her books, she decides she can hold them close (within her body) by memorising texts; her connection to literature, to the local library, keeps her alive.

I’ve just started on my own nonfiction path. I don’t find it different from writing fiction, really. I try to inhabit my characters (real or not), play with the landscape I’m creating, and transform research into something dynamic. I don’t like being tied down by boundaries and expectations. But I do let the players involved read the end product, and if they’re happy, I run with it.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? READ ANY GREAT NONFICTION LATELY? 

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