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.