Oo­dles of charm in an­i­mal farm

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

An­i­mals are a sta­ple of chil­dren’s books, but even so I was a lit­tle sur­prised by their dom­i­nance of the ti­tles the 10-year-old and I con­sid­ered for this re­view, which cov­ers re­leases from about June. Not un­pleas­antly sur­prised, I should add, as we love an­i­mal sto­ries. We will start with the most so­phis­ti­cated book here (so, yes, favourites such as Nick Bland and Aaron Blabey will have to wait), The Cat with the Coloured Tail (Walker Books, $19.99), by award-win­ning nov­el­ist Gil­lian Mears, il­lus­trated by Di­nalie Dabar­era.

This oddly af­fect­ing chap­ter book, a fe­line fa­ble, fol­lows a day or so in the life of Mr Hooper, who runs an ice-cream van (though he calls them “moon creams”), and his cat, which has a heart-shaped face and a tail that changes colour in sym­pa­thy with the moods of the peo­ple he meets, and also in re­sponse to the state of the world. For a long and dis­con­cert­ing sec­tion of the story his tail is black as black can be.

Mr Hooper and the cat have a favourite game: find­ing heart shapes — in leaves, clouds, ants’ nests — and a mis­sion to make sad and lonely peo­ple hap­pier and less lonely. This is a melan­choly story at times, an ef­fect en­hanced by Dabar­era’s gor­geous but muted pen­cil il­lus­tra­tions. It ex­plores chal­leng­ing con­cepts in­clud­ing death (read­ing it one can­not but think of the au­thor’s own se­ri­ous ill­ness) and so is one for older read­ers, say 10 and up. But it’s a book we’ve talked about a lot. As Tim Winton puts it so well in a back-cover blurb, it is a “sweet and gen­tle re­minder of the two great forces that lie dor­mant within us — kind­ness and hope”.

Sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments run through Sad, the Dog (Walker Books, $24.95) by Sandy Fus­sell, il­lus­trated by Tull Suwan­nakit. The story opens with a pinch-faced old couple, Mrs and Mrs Cripps, do­ing the least they can to look af­ter a sweet lit­tle dog who was “an un­wanted Christ­mas present from a friend’’. When the dog sings, he is or­dered not to yap; when he draws, screamed at to stop dig­ging; when he reads, yelled at to stop tear­ing the news­pa­per. “The lit­tle dog felt un­happy. And in his heart, he whis­pered a name. Sad.’’ By this point the reader feels the same — but kind­ness and hope are on the hori­zon. A lovely book. Danny Snell’s Seag­ull (Work­ing Ti­tle Press, $24.99) also starts with mis­for­tune: Seag­ull, who just loves to fly, lands on a sand dune and be­comes en­tan­gled in an old fish­ing line with a lead sinker still at­tached. Her strug­gles to loosen the line only see her fur­ther en­snared, and var­i­ous an­i­mals she asks for help — a mul­let, pel­i­can, crab — are un­able to free her. This is a job for op­pos­able thumbs, and the kind­ness of a boy. An­other beau­ti­ful story, one that led to us hav­ing a good talk about the im­por­tance of keep­ing our beaches and seas free of junk.

It’s not junk but junk food (to a car­niv­o­rous fish) that causes prob­lems in Pi­ran­has Don’t Eat Ba­nanas (Scholas­tic, $16.99), by the pro­lific Blabey. This mad­cap story stars a pi­ranha named Brian who tries to tempt his bud­dies into eat­ing fruits and veg­eta­bles. Ev­ery time he sug­gests a vege­tar­ian op­tion, the other pi­ran­has come up with meatier al­ter­na­tives, and ones that rhyme at that: sil­ver­beet/feet, peas/knees. No prizes for guess­ing what they pre­fer to plums. While on an aquatic theme, Sean E. Avery’s Harold and Grace (Fre­man­tle Press, $24.99) is a won­der­ful al­le­gory that ex­plores the chal­lenges of change and the re­silience of friend­ship. Al­though it’s a pic­ture book, awk­ward ado­les­cents might ap­pre­ci­ate its mes­sage.

When a storm blows some egg-clus­tered leaves into a pond, there are just two sur­vivors: a silky egg hatches to re­veal Grace the cater­pil­lar and a slimy egg hatches to re­veal Harold the tad­pole. Both look dif­fer­ent to all the other an­i­mals in and around the pond and are teased for it. Sad and lonely, Harold and Grace find refuge in a spe­cial friend­ship. But of course tad­poles and cater­pil­lars ex­pe­ri­ence re­mark­able changes, ones that will test their bond to its lim­its. The fi­nal pages, when a grown-up tad­pole does what you might ex­pect him to do to a grown-up cater­pil­lar, are funny and mov­ing.

While all the books re­viewed here are best read aloud, Pip and Pim (Scholas­tic, $15.99) de­mands it. It may be just us, but there’s some­thing about ex­claim­ing “Pip!” and “Pim!” (we al­ter­nated in the read­ing) on al­most ev­ery page that tick­les our funny bones. Writ­ten by in­dige­nous au­thor Ruth He­garty and il­lus­trated by Sandi Har­rold, it is about two baby ring­tail pos­sums who leave the safety of their tree home for their first noc­tur­nal ad­ven­ture. “Slowly,’’ mother pos­sum advises. “You have a lot to learn on your first night of ex­plor­ing.’’ Fa­ther pos­sum adds: “Have fun. But al­ways re­mem­ber to look and lis­ten for signs of dan­ger. And don’t go too far!” As if the kids are go­ing to lis­ten to that! By the end of the night, though, Pip and Pim re­alise their par­ents still know a thing or two.

Jackie French’s gor­geous and ed­u­ca­tional Ho­race the Baker’s Horse (Na­tional Mu­seum of Aus­tralia Press, $24,95) is an­other we took plea­sure in the sound of, mainly via our var­i­ous pro­nun­ci­a­tions of the un­fa­mil­iar name Ho­race. Sump­tu­ously il­lus­trated by Peter Bray, this book re­calls a time and event that will seem fan­tas­ti­cal to young read­ers: Aus­tralia, 1919, and the Span­ish flu epi­demic. The story starts in ar­ti­sanal con­tent­ment: a fam­ily of bak­ers making the daily bread and do­ing the de­liv­er­ies with their mighty cart horse Ho­race. There’s a nice town scene in which var­i­ous provi­dores make their rounds by horse and cart. Rugby league­made Syd was fas­ci­nated to learn why the South Sydney Rab­bitohs are so called. But when Old Wil­liam the baker falls ill with in­fluenza, along with Big Bill the cart driver and other towns­folk, it is up to the youngest of the fam­ily, Young Bill, and Ho­race to make sure the life-pre­serv­ing bread is made and de­liv­ered. Like all good books, this one had us re­mem­ber­ing other sto­ries and char­ac­ters, such as poor Boxer in Ge­orge Or­well’s An­i­mal Farm. We also read up on the Span­ish flu epi­demic, and both learned a lot. Our favourite of all the ter­rific books re­viewed here, in a rare unan­i­mous de­ci­sion.

Cor­rine Fen­ton’s Bob the Rail­way Dog (Black Dog Books, $24.95) is an­other fine his­tor­i­cal story, il­lus­trated by An­drew McLean in char­coal, black pen­cil and soft wa­ter­colours. Based on a true story, it’s set in South Aus­tralia in 1884. When a freight train pulls up at Car­ri­eton Sta­tion, one of the cars is crammed with “a mot­ley lot of home­less dogs that had come up from Ade­laide ... bound to be rab­bit hun­ters in out­back South Aus­tralia’’. The train guard catches the eye of one dog and “some­thing tum­bled in the man’s heart’’. He keeps the dog, names him Bob and they ride the rails to­gether. While guard Will has to re­main in SA, Bob ranges fur­ther on solo ad­ven­tures: “Ev­ery­one knew Bob the rail­way dog. Wher­ever there were train tracks, or tracks be­ing laid, Bob was there.’’ An epi­logue shows a photo of the real Bob that is on dis­play at Ade­laide Sta­tion. A de­light­ful story that opens up con­ver­sa­tions about the im­por­tance of the rail­ways to a fast-de­vel­op­ing na­tion.

Craig Smith’s ex­u­ber­ant Re­mark­ably Rexy (Allen & Un­win, $24.99) is also based on a true story, in the sense that all cats are nar­cis­sists. Black and white and hand­somely plump Rex “has been the most daz­zling cat on Serengeti Street for years and years’’. Each day he waits to be ad­mired by the school­child­ren on their walk home. One day, two things hap­pen: a par­tic­u­larly gor­geous cat, Pamela, ap­pears and works her charms on the kids, and a de­ranged dog, Towser, es­capes his yard. The mo­ment when Rex and the slob­ber­ing Towser come face to face is hi­lar­i­ous. The up­shot of all of this ex­cite­ment leaves Rex look­ing more like Les Pat­ter­son than Richard Gere and he starts to think about his life pri­or­i­ties.

Bland’s The Very Noisy Bear (Scholas­tic, $16.99) is an­other cheer­fully loud book that starts with a very sleepy bear be­ing wo­ken by a band re­hears­ing in the jun­gle. Lion is on the drums, Ze­bra on the gui­tar, Moose on the trum­pet and Sheep (a jun­gle sheep, ob­vi­ously) on the vi­o­lin. Bear, per­suaded to join the fun, tries th­ese in­stru­ments one by one, with less than mu­si­cal re­sults. But then clever Sheep has a bright idea, one that re­minds us that ev­ery­one is good at some­thing. The pachy­derm in Have You Seen Ele­phant? (Gecko Press, $15.99), by English au­thor David Bar­row, is good at hid­ing. When a boy sug­gests a game of hide and seek, Ele­phant agrees but adds, “I must warn you though. I’m VERY good.’’ And so it proves to be on page af­ter page. We can see him, of course, we’re not fooled by that lamp­shade on his head — but this doesn’t help our young pro­tag­o­nist.

I Want Spaghetti! (Gecko Press, $15.99), by Amer­i­can writer Stephanie Blake, is the lat­est ad­ven­ture of the brat­tish rab­bit in­tro­duced in the 2011 best­seller Poo Bum. This time Si­mon is re­sist­ing all at­tempts by his preter­nat­u­rally tol­er­ant par­ents to eat his break­fast, lunch or din­ner be­cause ev­ery­thing they of­fer is “DIS­GUST­ING” and “ALL I WANT IS SPAGHETTI!” He’s a very shouty lit­tle rab­bit.

To fin­ish with a couple of board books for the real lit­tlies, for whom the mark of a good book is its chewa­bil­ity. Both are from Gecko Press and cost $16.99. SHHH! I’m Sleep­ing, by French il­lus­tra­tor Dorothee de Mon­fried, comes in a rec­tan­gu­lar shape, taller than it is wide, ideal for in­ex­pert hands. Guid­ing the cor­ners to the gums should present few prob­lems. This shape also suits the charm­ing story, which un­folds in side-by-side four-deck bunk beds in which eight dogs — Nono, Zaza, Kipp, Misha, Pe­dro, Jane, Popov and Omar — are set­tling down for the night. Or not set­tling down: af­ter Popov wakes up ev­ery­one with his singing, there’s a lot of rest­less bunk climb­ing and bed hop­ping, and if you think you know how the eight mutts are go­ing to end up, you prob­a­bly are right. Help! The Wolf is Com­ing, by French-Bel­gian team Cedric Ra­madier and Vin­cent Bourgeau, re­quires a bit more dex­ter­ity as the reader is asked to move the book — tilt it right, left and up­side down — to throw off the fast-ap­proach­ing wolf by send­ing him tum­bling and fall­ing and tee­ter­ing on the edge of a cliff. But of course he is a wolf, so he’s not eas­ily dis­cour­aged and the fi­nal ex­hor­ta­tion to young read­ers is very clever, making this a book that in­sists on be­ing re-read.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.