From the blues to brave bovines

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

When I was a kid my great­est fear was be­ing sent to board­ing school. To­day, it’s that my al­most 12-year-old will stop help­ing me re­view pic­ture books. With hind­sight, I know board­ing school was never an op­tion: my par­ents could not have af­forded it. I hope my new fear is equally mis­placed. Well, at least un­til he’s a teenager …

The fol­low­ing books are ones we read since Jan­uary. We’ll do another re­view pre-Christ­mas. Syd and I love dogs, and we will let loose a few here, but let’s start with one that is in a sense metaphor­i­cal: The Brown Dog (Work­ing Ti­tle Press, $24.99), writ­ten by New Zealan­der Gina In­ver­ar­ity and il­lus­trated by Ade­laide-based Cana­dian Greg Holfeld. “The brown dog turned up one rainy Satur­day af­ter­noon,” the story starts. That “rainy Satur­day” says a lot, doesn’t it? The large, sad dog pushes his cold nose into young Henry’s hand. Usu­ally Henry doesn’t mind when the dog vis­its but this time he “de­cided to stay”. Henry stays too, at home, un­in­ter­ested in go­ing out to play. Syd twigged to what this was about: the brown dog is al­most black. This is a beau­ti­ful, ul­ti­mately up­lift­ing book that gen­tly sends an im­por­tant mes­sage.

More ca­nines later, but it’s only fair to shooin a cat now. Can’t Catch Me! (Walker Books, $24.99) is a funny and even­tu­ally sur­pris­ing book by English writer-il­lus­tra­tor team Ti­mothy Knap­man and Si­mona Ci­raolo. On page one we meet Jake, “the fastest mouse in the world”. He’s far too speedy for Old Tom Cat, who, be­ing aged, doesn’t ask for much, just “a sweet young mouse to eat”. Jake evades him eas­ily, singing “You can’t catch me”. He re­peats this to lots of other car­ni­vores he passes in the fields, in­clud­ing a bear. Yet he learns some­thing hu­mans have known since Odysseus: ev­ery jour­ney has a be­gin­ning and an end. The fi­nal scenes are so good that Syd and I thought there had to be more pages to come. There were not, and we were de­lighted. If read­ing it to younger chil­dren per­haps pre­pare your­self for a fol­lowup dis­cus­sion about the an­i­mal king­dom.

Aaron Blabey is such a bril­liant chil­dren’s au­thor that from to­day I’m re­mov­ing the words “for­mer actor” from his de­scrip­tion. His new one, Bust­ing! (Scholas­tic, $16.99), drops the draw­ers on a cor­po­real cri­sis that af­flicts hu­mans and an­i­mals alike: furry Lou (I’m guess­ing he’s a ham­ster) is “BUST­ING for the loo” but “yikes! The loo had quite a queue”. The other an­i­mals in the queue tell Lou to “SHOO!” What fol­lows re­minds me of the Se­in­feld episode where Kramer needs to do, well, what Lou needs to do. While we are on body bits, Do Not Lick This Book (Allen & Un­win, $19.99) lit­er­ally brings some of them far too close for com­fort. It’s writ­ten by Mel­bourne mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist and philoso­pher Idan Ben-Barak, with amaz­ing il­lus­tra­tions, some dig­i­tal, by Ju­lian Frost, another Mel­bur­nian, who made a splash with his YouTube an­i­ma­tion Dumb Ways to Die.

We’re in­tro­duced to a blue mi­crobe named Min. There’s a pen­cil-tip dot on the same page. “Mi­crobes are so small that 3,422,167* could fit on it.” The * de­notes “give or take a few mil­lion”. There’s no harm in liv­ing on a dot, but when Min goes else­where we see strange sights, thanks to mi­cro­scopic photos that put small ob­jects in large, fine de­tail. See­ing her on a jun­gle­like sheet of pa­per is weird enough, but when she trav­els to Hi­malayan hu­man teeth and oil­spill belly but­tons, we needed to call a doc­tor. This is a fas­ci­nat­ing book for young and old.

Of course another way to see things more closely is to look harder. Rock Pool Secrets (Walker Books, $24.99), by Queens­land au­thor Narelle Oliver, took me some­where I’ve loved since child­hood, when my fa­ther would take me and my sib­lings to Syd­ney’s La Per­ouse. Syd and I go there now. In this al­most med­i­ta­tive book you lift flaps to find rock pool crea­tures such as her­mit crabs, goby fish, starfish, sea slugs and the one I still fear most: the oc­to­pus. Mopoke (Scholas­tic, $19.99) is by another Queens­lan­der, Philip Bunt­ing, and it’s a gem. “This is a mopoke,” we are told as we see a brown bird sit­ting on a branch. “This is a high­poke.’’ Same bird, higher branch. “This is a low­poke.” We can barely see him now. It gets fun­nier and fun­nier as we meet a posh­poke, a mo’poke, two pokes and — in a can’t-breath-from-laugh­ing-toomuch mo­ment — another one I will not name.

Un­til I checked Ben-Barak’s CV I thought another Mel­bur­nian, philoso­pher Da­mon Young, was the most ed­u­cated chil­dren’s au­thor in Aus­tralia. Well, he may not be a mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist too, but he’s still sweet and funny with his con­tin­u­ing se­ries on fam­i­lies and their stand­out mem­bers. This time it’s My Brother is a Beast (UQP, $24.95), il­lus­trated as usual by the jaunty-penned Peter Car­navas. A girl talks about how reg­u­lar broth­ers like to go fish­ing or play mu­sic, but her elder sib­ling is “a beast … he hugs with huge, hairy paws”. Now, the paws and ton­so­rial horns may be from Kmart, but that doesn’t mean the wearer can’t be a beast. I love what he does to a pi­ano. Speak­ing of beasts, per­haps my favourite here is Cap­i­tal (Sim­ply Read Books, $18.99), by Por­tuguese au­thor and il­lus­tra­tor Afonso Cruz. There are no words in this one, just draw­ings that il­lus­trate the life of a piggy bank. We first see it in the hand of a large, pipe-smok­ing man in a pin­striped suit. He’s hand­ing it to a little boy. The boy grows and the pig grows with him. There’s a funny, un­set­tling draw­ing of the young man, now in his own pin­stripe, walk­ing the money-slot pig on a leash. The story be­comes quite dark by the end. Syd agrees with me that it’s a good book, but he asks that I add this rider: “It’s weird!”

Weird? Try Tri­an­gle (Walker Books, $24.99). It’s by Amer­i­can writer Mac Bar­nett and il­lus­trated by his mag­nif­i­cent com­pa­triot Jon Klassen. The book opens sim­ply: “This is Tri­an­gle.” In­deed it is, though black in colour and with wide eyes and two legs. “This is Tri­an­gle’s house.” It looks like a mod­est pyra­mid. He ven­tures out of his tri­an­gle-shaped door to “play my sneaky trick” on his neigh­bour, Square, who also has wide eyes and two legs. The four-sided one is not im­pressed. This de­light­ful book, the first of a tril­ogy, puts a new spin on the lit­er­ary phrase “shapeshift­ing”. The Red Book (ABC Books, $19.99) is another odd one, and I mean that as a com­pli­ment. By lo­cal hus­band and wife team Beck and Matt Stan­ton, it’s their lat­est con­tri­bu­tion to “Books That Drive Kids Crazy!”. An uniden­ti­fied hu­man nar­ra­tor talks to us about the an­i­mals that pop­u­late the pages, in­sist­ing each is red. The lob­ster, OK, even if his tie looks more green than red. But the pen­guin, the frog? C’mon, you’re driv­ing us crazy. In­deed the whole book is red, and while adult read­ers may see the pun com­ing, it’s a fun one to share with more in­no­cent minds.

Even in­no­cent minds need en­hance­ment, and Syd and I have been learn­ing Span­ish. So far, he’s up to “Good­night, fa­ther” and I’m flu­ent when it comes to “Two beers please”. I’m work­ing up to “cerveza de jen­gi­bre”, just in case the un­der-18-year-old is with me at the time. I Love You (New Fron­tier, $24.99), by Chi­nese duo Xiao Mao and Tang Yun, takes those three pre­cious words and trans­lates them into Chi­nese, Ital­ian, French, Ger­man and Span­ish, for the ben­e­fit of a class­room of little an­i­mals. “To­day we will learn my favourite words of all,’’ says their teacher, a gi­raffe. “They sound dif­fer­ent all around the world, but they all mean the same thing. And when you say it out loud, the most won­der­ful things can hap­pen.’’ That’s a worth­while les­son for us all.

Amer­i­can au­thor-il­lus­tra­tor Mo Willems, cel­e­brated for his Pi­geon books, heads to ru­ral France in Nanette’s Baguette (Walker Books, $16.99). Nanette is a frog. One day her mother gives her the great­est re­spon­si­bil­ity she’s had: to go to the shops and “get the baguette”. Sounds easy? Well, not when you run into Ge­or­gette, Suzette, Mr Bar­nett and Bret (with his clar­inet). Even if she does get the baguette the task is not over yet, dead set. For starters, baguettes are de­li­cious. Then there’s that type of weather that rhymes with baguette. While in for­eign climes, Moo and Moo and the Little Calf Too (A&U, $17.99) is based on the real ad­ven­ture of two Here­ford cows and a calf af­ter the mag­ni­tude 7.8 earth­quake on the South Is­land of New Zealand in 2016. This pic­ture book is by Kiwis Jane Mill­ton and Deb­o­rah Hinde. The cows are sleep­ing as the Clarence Val­ley begins to shake. As the ground rifts they are stranded on a grass plat­form. “‘Hold on, Moo!’ mooed Moo to Moo. They stayed to­gether with the little calf too.” Brave bovines in­deed, but they need hu­man help. This is a crack­ing story. So is Corinne Fen­ton’s My Friend Ter­tius (A&U, $24.99), and it too is based on a true story, that of a Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence code-breaker in pre-war Hong Kong, and then Sin­ga­pore, who takes home a baby gib­bon he finds at a street mar­ket. This de­tailed story is exquisitely il­lus­trated by Owen Swan, right down to the Glad­stone bag. It’s about the prospect of war — we see Japanese fighter planes in the sky — and an un­likely friend­ship be­tween two pri­mates. “Some days I wished I could be like Ter­tius, obliv­i­ous to it all,” the man thinks as the two lis­ten to the ra­dio.

Help from an un­ex­pected place is also part of Gran­dad’s Se­cret Gi­ant (Quarto, $21.99), by English au­thor David Litch­field. Billy is in a pickle. He and his friends are paint­ing a town mu­ral, but none of them is tall enough to reach the top of the wall. His gran­dad knows some­one who is tall enough: “He has hands the size of ta­bles, legs as long as drain­pipes, and feet as big as row­ing boats.” Billy doesn’t be­lieve him … yet.

I’m run­ning out of space, so it’s time to un­leash the re­main­ing dogs. One of ours, Scout, is a dingo, which means she’s su­per in­tel­li­gent and would sur­vive a bush­fire. Din­goes Are Not Dogs (Bud­burra Books, $22) is not a new book but I want to men­tion it. It’s by in­dige­nous ed­u­ca­tor Chris Sarra, il­lus­trated by the chil­dren of Cher­bourg State School in Queens­land, which is where we found Scout as a mal­nour­ished puppy. Six years later she lives hap­pily with Bella the lab and Jack the English staffy. Well, happy in her su­pe­rior way. She’d agree on this mo­ment in the book, when a labrador named Win­ston asks a dingo named Bud­der what kind of dog he is. “We’re not dogs! We’re din­goes.’’

Scout does have some­thing in com­mon with Arlo, the red dog in Char­lotte Calder’s The 12th Dog (Ha­chette, $14.99), il­lus­trated by Tom Jel­lett. Arlo likes play­ing back­yard cricket, even though he can’t bat or bowl. I bet you know what he can do, though. His young owner and his friends soon find out. Howzat!

THIS DE­LIGHT­FUL BOOK, THE FIRST OF A TRIL­OGY, PUTS A NEW SPIN ON THE LIT­ER­ARY PHRASE ‘SHAPESHIFT­ING’

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