CHIL­DREN’S BOOKS:

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

MY al­most eight-year-old co-reader, Syd, is deep in The Lord of the Rings saga at the mo­ment but he gra­ciously agreed to take time out to help me with this re­view. As it’s win­try out­doors let’s start with a cou­ple of hot choco­lates and Peter Gouldthorpe’s su­perb Ice, Wind, Rock: Dou­glas Maw­son in the Antarc­tic (Loth­ian, 32pp, $28.99HB). We loved Gouldthorpe’s pre­vi­ous book, No Re­turn: Cap­tain Scott’s Race to the Pole, but this is even bet­ter, not least be­cause it has more am­pu­ta­tions and eat­ing of dogs. ‘‘ Not a sker­rick is wasted. They even make a broth with its paws,’’ Gouldthorpe writes with the ad­mirable re­al­ism that char­ac­terises his ac­counts of po­lar ex­plo­ration. Syd, who loves his two dogs, asked: ‘‘ We’d never eat them, would we?’’ I said we would if the al­ter­na­tive was eat­ing each other, an an­swer he found grimly sat­is­fac­tory. By the end of this faith­fully il­lus­trated story we both knew more about Maw­son, and spent a happy 15 min­utes or so trac­ing his ex­pe­di­tion on the maps pro­vided at the back of the book.

With our canine com­pan­ions look­ing ner­vous, we thought it best to move next to Claire Saxby’s feel­good Sea Dog (Ran­dom House, 32pp, $19.95HB), il­lus­trated by Tom Jel­lett. This sim­ple story for preschool­ers is about a fish­er­man, his son and their gan­gly red dog, who is ‘‘ not a work dog . . . a fetch dog . . . a sit-still-then-roll-over dog’’ but a . . . well, the ti­tle gives it away. As any­one who has a beach-loving hound will know, our pro­tag­o­nist also is ‘‘ not a clean dog’’, and this sub­plot will have young read­ers hold­ing their noses and yelling ‘‘ yuk!’’.

While we’re fond of our dogs, Syd and I would trade them in for a pair of wolves in a heart­beat. The ban on wolf own­er­ship is one of two laws we con­sider egre­giously un­fair, the other be­ing the pro­hi­bi­tion on gen­tle­men wear­ing swords in the street. Be that as it may, the won­der­ful il­lus­trated chap­ter book Wolf and Dog (Gecko Press, 96pp, $19.95) does its bit to un­der­mine the idea that wolves rule. This is an English trans­la­tion of the award-win­ning Dutch book writ­ten by Sylvia Van­den Heede and il­lus­trated by Marije Tol­man, and is suit­able for the five to 10-year-old age group. The story be­gins: ‘‘ Dog is Wolf’s cousin. Wolf is Dog’s cousin. That’s strange be­cause: Wolf is wild. And Dog is tame.’’ That ten­sion be­tween the sav­age and the civilised (though note, both wolf and dog speak elo­quent English) is teased out through the book, com­ing to a delightful and sur­pris­ing con­clu­sion in con­nected chap­ters headed Hero, Bark, News­pa­per and Thief. This book, which at al­most 100 pages can be read across sev­eral nights, was our pick of the bunch.

While on longer reads for slightly older read­ers, we had a ball with Timmy Fail­ure: Mis­takes Were Made (Walker Books, 304pp, $17.95HB), the first book in a pro­posed se­ries by Amer­i­can author Stephan Pastis. Timmy Fail­ure (‘‘My fam­ily name was once Fayleure. But some­body changed it.’’), who looks about 10, is the founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of de­tec­tive agency Fail­ure Inc. His off­sider is a 680kg, per­ma­nently hun­gry po­lar bear named To­tal. Hence when Timmy places an ad for his busi­ness in the Yel­low Pages, it is listed as To­tal Fail­ure Inc. De­spite this un­promis­ing start, Timmy and To­tal soon have im­por­tant cases to solve, such as the mys­tery of the dead ham­ster (‘‘Did he have a lot of money?’’ Timmy probes), and an arch en­emy in the form of girl de­tec­tive Cor­rina Cor­rina. This book is laugh-out-loud funny. Syd keeps ask­ing when the next one is com­ing out.

Timmy Fail­ure is un­usual in the eight to 12-year-old mar­ket­place in that it man­ages to be very funny with­out re­sort to jokes in­volv­ing rude words or bod­ily func­tions. Well, we can only take so much of that, so we turn next to Mandy Foot’s Shut the Duck Up! (Loth­ian, 32pp, $14.99). This ex­u­ber­antly il­lus­trated book for younger read­ers stars In­die, a duck who dreams of fly­ing. The trou­ble is, he’s an In­dian run­ner duck, a flight­less breed. In­die fights his ge­netic des­tiny, launch­ing him­self into the air from var­i­ous van­tage points, only to land in the pigsty or worse, send­ing the other farm an­i­mals into ri­otous laugh­ter, which in turn prompts the farmer to in­voke the book’s ti­tle. But then a fox sneaks into the farm­yard and ev­ery­thing changes. It’s good, messy fun, as is Bang (Gecko Press, 48pp, $24.99), by Bel­gian il­lus­tra­tor Leo Tim­mers. ‘‘ Bang’’ is the only word in this book for preschool­ers: it cat­a­logues a pile-up on a busy road that starts when a deer driv­ing a yel­low con­vert­ible crashes into a garbage bin. Then a pig driv­ing a truck full of chick­ens hits the deer, a gi­raffe in an or­ange sports car hits the pig, a croc­o­dile trans­port­ing tyres hits the gi­raffe and so on. Bang! In­deed.

A traf­fic mishap is the ge­n­e­sis for Frances Watts and David Legge’s The Fear­some, Fright­en­ing, Fe­ro­cious Box (ABC Books, 32pp, $13.99HB), which was one of our favourites of the books dis­cussed here. A large wooden crate falls off the back of a ute and is found by a cu­ri­ous mon­key. ‘‘ I won­der what it could be? I’ll open it.’’ But from in­side the box comes first a moan and then a rid­dle, to the ef­fect that what’s within is all sharp teeth and bad at­ti­tude, so open if you dare. The mon­key backs off but a croc­o­dile, un­daunted, de­cides to have a go — un­til there’s an­other moan and an­other scary rid­dle. And so a conga line of an­i­mals gird them­selves to open the box, only to be fright­ened off by the omi­nous rid­dles. Even the wolf! Al­most need­less to say, the box does get opened in the end. What do you think is in­side?

Still on a trans­port theme, the ti­tle char­ac­ter in Mis­ter Whistler (Gecko Press, 32pp, $15.99) has a train to catch, if only he can get that tune out of his head, stop his feet from danc­ing and re­mem­ber where he has put his ticket. Mis­ter Whistler, who is a bit of a dandy, whis­tles and dances as he per­forms an im­promptu sta­tion plat­form strip tease — off come the hat, over­coat, tie, waist­coat and so on down to his barely men­tion­ables — in search of that elu­sive chit. This lively, cheer­ful book is the last pub­lished work by much loved New Zealand chil­dren’s author Mar­garet Mahy, who died 12 months ago. It is hand­somely il­lus­trated by her com­pa­triot Gavin Bishop.

A high­light of the re­cent Aus­tralian Book In­dus­try Awards was meet­ing Dar­win-based author Nick Bland, who picked up a prize for The Very Hun­gry Bear, which Syd and I re­viewed in th­ese pages last year. Bland made a funny speech in which he said that story — about a land-rich, food-poor griz­zly bear and a food-rich, land-poor po­lar bear who de­cide to co-op­er­ate — should be read as a po­lit­i­cal parable. Well, it looks as if he’s at it again in the bril­liant King Pig (Scholas­tic, 32pp, $24.99HB). Our porcine re­gent, who is per­fectly drawn, rules over a king­dom of sheep. ‘‘ King Pig could never un­der­stand why the sheep didn’t adore him. They were al­ways com­plain­ing about one thing or an­other,’’ the story starts, as we see his majesty walk­ing on sheeps’ backs to en­ter his cas­tle. King Pig has a huge ego. He shouts a lot. He in­tro­duces un­pop­u­lar self-serv­ing poli­cies. He en­cour­ages class war­fare (the il­lus­tra­tion of sheep be­ing used as cas­tle wall scrub­bing brushes is price­less). Is it any won­der his ap­proval rat­ing is on the skids? Will he mend his self­ish ways in time to avoid elec­toral disas­ter? We’ll know soon enough.

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