Friday, December 23, 2016

Mog's Christmas
by Judith Kerr



I admire Judith Kerr’s realism. This may seem a strange thing to say of the woman who in 1968 wrote The Tiger Who Came to Tea, in which a tiger rings the doorbell, is invited inside by a young girl and her mother, eats all the food, drinks all the beer and leaves, and then father comes home from work, sees the destruction and cheerily says no worries girls, let’s just go out for dinner. I guess even children’s books were on hallucinogens in the late ’60s.

But when it comes to domestic cats, Judith Kerr knows her stuff. Mog is stupid, forgetful, lazy, easily frightened, and selfish. Let me run through that checklist with our cat, Ruby. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Mog is so realistic it’s a wonder we never see her licking her anus. Mog even dies in the final book in the series, written 22 years after the first – despite her flaws, I hope we have that long with Ruby.

And so this festive season, what better book for DadReads than Mog’s Christmas? When I was a kid, Mog’s Christmas was a fixture of the holiday season. It wasn’t my favourite Christmas book – that was Lucy and Tom’s Christmas by Shirley Hughes. Maybe I related to it less because we didn’t have a pet cat. But I still enjoyed it. Now, as a cat owner, Mog’s Christmas resonates.

It’s nearly Christmas in the Thomas household, and everybody is busy:


Mog doesn’t like strangers visiting, so she hides outside. Ruby doesn’t like strangers visiting; she usually squeezes herself under the coffee table and waits until the coast is clear. In fact, Ruby doesn’t like anyone getting right up in her face. As well as a cat owner, I’m a baby owner, and Heidi enjoyed Mog’s Christmas so much that she tried to “read” it to Ruby by shoving it in front of her face. Good intentions, but Ruby scarpered.

Suddenly she woke up. She saw something. It was a tree. It was a tree walking. Mog thought, “Trees don’t walk. Trees should stay in one place. Once trees start walking about anything might happen.” She ran up the side of the house in case the tree should come and get her. “Come down,” shouted the tree. “Come down, Mog!” “First it walks,” thought Mog, “and now it’s shouting at me. I do not like that tree at all.

Mog thinks that the Christmas tree is walking because Mr Thomas is carrying it towards the house. Are cats that stupid? The first Christmas we had Ruby, she was exactly the same when I brought our Christmas tree inside. She ran away and hid. But then she got used to the tree and spent the next month eating pine needles and throwing them back up. Spiky? Yes. Indigestible? Yes. But damn they taste good. I guess anything would, compared to her own anus.

To be fair to Ruby, Heidi also had Christmas tree "issues". When we collected it from the local Rotary Club a few weeks ago and shoved it in the car, Heidi was a blubbering mess. Mog only had to see a tree walking. Heidi had to share the back seat of the car with one. She didn’t handle it well. If trees shouldn't walk, they definitely shouldn't go cruising in a Volkswagen Polo.

Anyway, Mog retreats to the roof. It starts snowing, but Mog is stubborn, and won’t come down. She goes to sleep on top of the chimney and then as the snow melts underneath her, she plummets down through the soot and lands in the fireplace. Her timing is fortuitous; one page earlier, Mrs Thomas was stacking logs in the fireplace, preparing to light them. It was nearly roast cat for Christmas dinner.

When Mog lands in the living room, one of the senile aunts cries “It’s Father Christmas!” “No, dear,” says the other aunt. “Father Christmas does not have a tail.” This, I think, is evidence that the aunts are blood relatives of Mrs Thomas, who displayed a tenuous grasp on reality in Mog and the Baby.

All’s well that ends well, and Mog’s Christmas finishes with everyone standing around the Christmas tree unwrapping presents. At least, I hope that’s what’s happening, because one of the senile aunts is holding a pair of pantyhose. If she hasn’t just unwrapped them, she’s taken them off, and the daft smile on her face makes me wonder which it is.

Mog’s creator Judith Kerr, now 93, has had an interesting life. Her father Alfred Kempner (he later changed his name to Kerr) was a well-known German theatre critic nicknamed the Kulturpapst, or “Culture Pope”. Judith was born of Jewish origin in Germany in 1923, not an ideal time to be born of Jewish origin in Germany, and the family moved to Britain when she was 10.

As of last year, she was still publishing new works – Mog’s Christmas Calamity was the latest. I haven’t read it, but maybe the calamity was that the Thomases only just realised Mog had been dead for 13 years. Given Mrs Thomas’ absent-mindedness – in Mog and the Baby she lets a neighbour’s child escape the house and run into oncoming traffic – this would not be a surprise. If you told me Mrs Thomas had been feeding Mog’s corpse since 2002, I’d believe you.

On that bright note, Merry Christmas from DadReads.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Roger Hargreaves predicts the US presidents


The 43rd book in the Mr Men series was Mr Cheerful. The 43rd US president was that grinning idiot George W Bush.

The 44th book in the Mr Men series was Mr Cool. The 44th US president is Barack Obama.

The 45th book in the Mr Men series was Mr Rude. The 45th US president will be Donald Trump.

Look at this sequence and tell me the late Roger Hargreaves wasn't Nostradamus. (Well, along with his son Adam, who now writes the series).

Mr Rude is a weird shade of orangey-red. He insults everyone. He has a doormat, but has crossed out the word “WELCOME” and scribbled “GO AWAY”.

If he met someone overweight he would shout, “Fatty! You’re supposed to take the food out of the fridge, not eat the fridge as well!"

The good news is that by the end of the story, Mr Rude’s rage has eased, and Mr Happy has taught him manners. (Mr Happy is 3rd in the Mr Men series, so maybe Trump needs to spend some time at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial).

The even better news is that the 46th book in the Mr Men series is Mr Good.

So, Bernie Sanders for 2020?

Monday, November 7, 2016

Mister Dog
by Margaret Wise Brown




I wonder how Margaret Wise Brown pitched this story to the Little Golden Book people?

“Well, Miss Brown, we liked The Color Kittens and The Seven Little Postmen. What have you got for us this time?”

“I’ve decided to take my next book in a slightly different direction. Picture this. A hairy, Republican nudist – no, it’s okay, stay with me – convinces a little homeless boy to come and sleep with him. It has a wonderful moral.”

Perhaps not. Nevertheless, that’s more or less what happens in Mister Dog, surely one of the most peculiar picture story books in existence. It begins with a depressed-looking mutt pouring milk on his cornflakes, dressing-gown gaping open at the front. Why go to the trouble of wearing a dressing-gown and slippers in the morning when you leave the house in the nude? And is that a bone in your pocket or are you just happy to see us? Oh. Oh, it literally is a bone in your pocket.



He certainly doesn’t look happy to see us. In fact, he looks like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. Either that or he’s had a massive night and needs hair of the dog rather than cereal and strawberries. Check out the front cover at the top of the page. Look at his eyes. Has Mister Dog has seen disturbing things that he cannot unsee? Or is that something stronger than tobacco in his corncob pipe.

The dog’s name is Crispin’s Crispian. We are told that “he was named Crispin’s Crispian because he belonged to himself”. Okay, so he answers to nobody. An admirable sentiment. But then, if his name is Crispin, why is he called Crispin’s Crispian? Why not Crispin’s Crispin? Where did the “a” come from? And if his name is Crispian, why is he not Crispian’s Crispian? He probably dreamed it up after a session on that pipe.

But the best part is when we are told that Mister Dog is "a conservative". That is a direct quote. And note the italics. It is a word that Margaret Wise Brown wishes to define. “He liked everything at the right time – dinner at dinner time, lunch at lunchtime, breakfast in time for breakfast, and sunrise at sunrise, and sunset at sunset. And at bedtime he liked everything in its own place – the cup in the saucer, the chair under the table, the stars in the heavens, the moon in the sky, and himself in his own little bed.”



Yeah, you gotta watch those damn liberals, they’ll move sunset to the morning just to keep the unions happy. It’ll be a two-hour working day. Only Eisenhower will keep the stars in the heavens and the moon in the sky. A vote for Adlai Stevenson is a vote for chaos.

Still, it’s a rather quaint 1952 view of conservatism. What might the 2016 version say?

“Crispin’s Crispian was a conservative. And not a pathetic thumb-sucking moderate. A proper Tea Party-loving, Trump-voting, gun-toting far right conservative. He liked everything at the right time, which was whenever he damn well wanted. He liked everything in its own place – the cup in the saucer, the chair under the table, and the Mexicans in Mexico, south of the wall.”

Margaret Wise Brown died the same year this was published, and I can’t decide if she was an eccentric genius or a nut-job. She is best known for Goodnight Moon, which was haunting and strange, but Mister Dog is at least a little warmer, thanks to Garth Williams’ fun illustrations. Williams was probably best known for illustrating the classic versions of Charlotte’s Web and the Little House on the Prairie series.

Yet for all the peculiarities (and there are a LOT of them), Mister Dog has a very valid message. Its subtitle is “The Dog Who Belonged to Himself”. He answers to no human family and asks nothing of the state. He is clearly a classic conservative lover of small government.

One day, Mister Dog meets a little boy who is fishing in a stream. “Who and what are you?” Mister Dog asks. The boy replies: “I am a boy, and I belong to myself”. Note that the boy does not introduce himself by name but as “a boy”. Yet another oddity. Mister Dog is glad, and invites the boy to come and live with him. The boy agrees, with an alarming lack of due diligence.

Then they went to a butcher shop – "to get his poor dog a bone," Crispian said. Now, since Crispin’s Crispian belonged to himself, he gave himself the bone and trotted home with it.

Note the direct quote. Why would Mister Dog say he wanted “to get his poor dog a bone”? He should say “to get my poor dog a bone”. Who edited this stuff? Anyway, then the little boy prances off happily with Crispin/Crispian, blissfully unaware that soon he will be tidying a dog’s living room. They make dinner at Mister Dog’s house and each of them, in Brown’s words “chewed it up and swallowed it into his little fat stomach”. Then boy and dog sleep in side-by-side beds.

The moral of this story is clear: your life is your own, and don’t let anyone else rule it. Mister Dog belongs to himself. The boy belongs to himself. They both act on free will. If the boy can be easily convinced to come and do chores then, hey, that’s just Mister Dog’s good fortune.

For all of Margaret Wise Brown’s oddities, I think she knew how to tap into the brain of a child. The word “belong” resonated with me. As a child, I heard it often. I “belonged” to my parents and my friends “belonged” to theirs. “Who does such-and-such belong to?” adults would ask each other. This never sat well with me, for I felt that nobody owned me. This is the child-like mindset Brown exploits (and which Mister Dog then exploits with the little boy).

But Brown also implies that you’ll be happier if you let people into your life. Look how despondent Mister Dog appeared when preparing his breakfast cereal, back before he had met the boy. And look at how happy he was afterwards. You can be yourself and belong to yourself without having to keep to yourself.

Mister Dog is strange, confusing, disturbing, and utterly unique. And I love it. If I was American and Crispin’s Crispian was on the presidential ticket this year, I’d vote conservative. He wouldn’t build a wall to keep the Mexicans out. Although there is a fence around his house and a sign that says “NO CATS”, so I guess you never know.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Pigs in blankets, a la Richard Scarry


The other day I was flicking through Richard Scarry's Busiest Fire Fighters Ever, a Little Golden Book from the early 90s.

And I noticed that these frightened looking pigs seem to be under attack from giant pieces of bacon.

And one of the pigs is named Smokey.

And, worryingly, that looks like a frying pan next to the bed in the foreground.

Yep, alarm bells should be ringing at this fire station all right.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Dear Zoo
by Rod Campbell





In primary school we had books called Free Stuff for Kids, that listed heaps of things we could send away for in the post. You could get stickers, posters, stuff like that. I definitely do not recall an option to send away to the zoo for a pet.

It seems an irresponsible and expensive concept. You’d need a shitload of stamps to post an elephant to a kid. But that’s the basis of Dear Zoo, the classic lift-the-flap book by Scottish author and illustrator Rod Campbell.

“I wrote to the zoo to send me a pet,” a kid writes on the first page. If I was the zookeeper I’d have thought: “What’s the wee bairn havering aboot?” I assume that’s how Scottish people talk. Then I’d have written to young Angus or Morag or whoever and explained that zoo animals need special care and attention and are not appropriate as family pets.

Instead, this zoo sends the kid an elephant, which is about as responsible as putting Donald Trump in charge of the nuclear codes. And like Trump the kid is a whining jackass, complains that the elephant is too big, and sends it back. They send a giraffe. It’s too tall, the kid says, and sends it back.

Reading between the lines, I suspect the zookeeper becomes annoyed at this point. The kid gets sent a lion, and then a snake. What sort of zookeeper thinks these are appropriate pets for a child? A pissed-off zookeeper who wants to teach the ungrateful little shit a lesson, perhaps.

But the kid is not to be deterred, and keeps returning the animals until the zoo sends a cute puppy dog. “He was perfect! I kept him,” the kid says. What sort of puppies does a zoo keep? It'll probably grow up to be a wolf or a dingo or something. Next time write to the Lost Dogs’ Home, kid.

Dear Zoo is a classic that was first published in 1982. It’s cute, simple and interactive – Heidi loves lifting the flaps to see what animal is underneath. And for all my facetiousness, I think it’s a lot of fun.  

I’m just not sure about the moral of the story, which appears to be “keep whingeing until you get what you want”. Thanks, Rod. As if kids need any encouragement with that.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek
by Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks


You can thank nostalgia for my choice of book this time. It is an Australian classic, though not one I recall from my childhood. My nostalgia was not for The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek, but for another Australian icon: Play School. The show is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. What memories: John Hamblin, Benita Collings, Noni Hazelhurst, Don Spencer, John Waters. My favourite was Alister Smart, a moustachioed Aussie bloke who reminded me of my Dad.

I don’t know what five-year-old me would have made of Tim Minchin. We didn’t get many men who looked like him in a dairy-farming town in the 1980s. Then again, I was obsessed with Carlton and he has long hair like Tommy Alvin and the beard of Robert Walls, so I’d probably have liked him. What I can say with certainty is that Heidi and I enjoyed having Tim read us The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek on Play School Celebrity Covers recently.

Just a few weeks earlier I had read the story to Heidi, and found myself rather indifferent to it. I got the message, but felt detached from it. But sometimes it’s in the way you tell them, and Tim told it perfectly: a little brooding, a lot of empathy, a certain amount of gravitas. That is one of the delights of Play School’s story time: every storyteller has their own unique style. The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek is a story of self-discovery, of not being confined by the perceptions of others. In other words, perfect for Tim Minchin.

To summarise: a creature emerges from the black mud of a creek. As it scrapes off the mud it asks itself: “What am I?” As quick as Cary Young buzzing in to answer the same question of Tony Barber, a platypus answers: “You are a bunyip”. The bunyip goes around asking other animals what he looks like. “Horrible,” says a wallaby. “Horrible,” says an emu.

The bunyip finds a man, a scientist of sorts, who tells him that bunyips don’t look like anything because bunyips simply don’t exist. At first the man doesn’t even look up from his notebook, where a bunyip is existing right there in front of him. But like a typical stubborn human being, the man knows what he knows, and won’t be told otherwise.

But the bunyip remains cheerfully optimistic. He goes off someplace quiet where he can be as handsome as he likes, on his own, away from those who will only bring him down. He looks at himself with a little mirror – an obvious metaphor for finding oneself instead of relying on the opinions of others – and seems happy enough. He’s even happier when a lady bunyip emerges from the swamp, and he shares his mirror with her.

Though it wasn’t familiar to me, The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek was a collaboration between the same author and illustrator who created one of my childhood favourites: John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat. Author Jenny Wagner wrote the story, with all its existential angst, and illustrator Ron Brooks added his earthy style, creating an atmosphere distinctly Australian but not clichéd. As a result, the book feels timeless.

And yet it was very much of a time. Published in 1973, Bunyip came out shortly after the progressive Gough Whitlam was elected Australia’s new prime minister, ending 23 years of conservative rule. The bunyip’s “What am I?” refrain struck a chord with Brooks, who sensed the entire country collectively asking a similar question. As a result, the tall and imposing Whitlam was one of the models Brooks used to design his bunyip.

The other was a fascinating individual named Haworth Bartram. You’re unlikely to have heard of Haworth Bartram, so let me fill you in. His name was familiar to me from researching an upcoming blog entry on a curious Australian book called Monty Mouse Looks for Adventure. What makes it so peculiar is that the illustrations are not drawings but photographs – photographs of a taxidermied mouse posed in various ways to fit the story.

Haworth Bartram was the photographer. Not only that, he was the publisher. A very wealthy former importer who never married and lived with his elderly mother in Heidelberg, Bartram was a keen photographer who believed that illustrating books with drawings was old-fashioned, and photos were the way of the future. So he started a photography studio/publishing company called Childerset, more or less to produce his own work.

And Jenny Wagner worked for him as project director. So when Wagner wrote The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek and took it to Bartram, he realised photographs wouldn’t work. Bunyips, despite the message of Wagner’s text, do not exist. So Brooks was brought in, but struggled at first to work out how his bunyip should look. Eventually he modelled it on Bartram. And here is how Brooks, in his fascinating memoir Drawn from the Heart, described Bartram:

Well over six feet tall, with a large equatorial circumference, he resembled nothing so much as a balloon, one of those pear-shaped water balloons you drop from the verandah roof onto some unsuspecting little brother or sister ... Not much neck to speak of ... And because he had no waist, he wore braces – over the shoulders, crossed at the back and clipped to his pants to hold them up.

Haworth Bartram sounds like a very odd individual indeed – Brooks describes the way he rarely saw Bartram consume anything other than Arnott’s Scotch Finger biscuits and bottles of orange Fanta. And much as I would like to see a photo of him, the only one I can find online is a grainy digitised newspaper picture of him as a young boy. Further googling reveals that he died in 1985 at the age of 62.

But Brooks’ description of him sounds very much like the bunyip star of our book – although because Brooks was nervous about making his bunyip too much like Bartram, he threw in a little bit of Whitlam as well. In any case, the end result was a character that has charmed generations of Australian children.

As an illustrator, Brooks certainly has a characteristic style, featuring lots of cross-hatching and linework to create the appearance of texture. And as an author, Wagner too is distinctive, dealing with questions of existence, identity and prejudice, and layering her work with symbolism that adults might understand, while children will just enjoy a good story.

Symbolism features heavily in John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, which will also appear on DadReads in the future. It remains a childhood favourite of mine – like Play School. For me, The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek is in a different category, but I can understand why those who read it as children may love it. And I’m prepared to have it on medium rotation for Heidi’s story time.

A personal post-script to finish: my mother-in-law (Heidi’s grandmother Margaret) knew Ron Brooks back in the 1970s, when they lived near each other in Warrandyte in Melbourne’s outer north-east. Margaret was a Prep teacher at Warrandyte Primary School and had in her class Ron’s step-daughter Miche; Ron would often come in for story-time with the children. Here is the inscription from a copy of The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek gifted to Margaret by Ron, 41 years ago.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Isn't Pig Won't Naughty?
by Richard Scarry



My brain hurts.

Isn’t Pig Won’t Naughty?

How can I answer when I don't even understand the question.

Last time I saw contractions this close together, Heidi was about to pop out.

I know the words, but together they make about as much sense as a bad translation. Or the phrase “humorous Adam Sandler movie”.

I feel as bewildered as the Springfield Elementary students when Principal Skinner tells them to “stand down”.


Isn’t Pig Won’t Naughty?

To be fair to one of the most beloved names in children’s picture books, this was not actually written by Richard Scarry. Or else it was a hell of an achievement, because he’d been dead for 16 years when it was published in 2010. I'll have to do Scarry justice and review an original at some point.

The Richard Scarry Corporation produced this, one in a set of board books designed for real littlies like Heidi. She loves to sit and turn the pages and although she’s getting strong, she can’t possibly rip them. So there’s that to be said for Isn’t Pig Won’t Naughty?

And there is also this: the title got me to read the book. (Oh yeah, and, um, Heidi too). I had to work out what the hell was going on.

It turns out it’s the story of two brothers named Pig Will and Pig Won’t. Why don’t they share a surname? I dunno, I guess they’re like Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez.

Pig Will is the good brother, like Emilio, and says "I will" to everything his parents ask, including putting on a hat when he plays in the snow. Pig Won’t is a bit of a dick and says "I won't" to everything, and ends up with white powder all over his face and nose. Like Charlie.

As a result, he catches a cold and learns his lesson. So, in the end ...

Though it's Pig Won't's wont to say "won't" and Pig Will's will to say "will", Pig Won't says he won't say "won't" anymore. Like Pig Will, Pig Won’t will say “will”, and won't say “won’t”. Pig Will will will Pig Won't on, but then Pig Won't won't be Pig Won’t anymore, will he? He’ll be Pig Will too, won't he? Pig Won't will just need to be willing, or else he won't succeed, will he?

Next time I think I’ll choose something easier to understand. Ulysses, maybe.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Animalia
by Graeme Base


I always knew Graeme Base was good, but it was a touch of divine inspiration that really made me praise him. Tucked away in the bottom right corner of Animalia’s D page, just below a dachshund, you can see the corner of a piece of paper. Most of it runs off the page, but you can read “1 Thou shalt have no”. Clearly it’s the beginning of the Ten Commandments. Why is it on the D page? Because the Ten Commandments are also known as the Decalogue.

Disappointed as I was that baby Heidi failed to appreciate this nuance – she didn’t seem to pick the dodecahedron either, but then Maggie Simpson struggled with that one too – I had to admire Graeme Base. It is so rare to find a picture book that has something for everyone, but he achieves it. On that page alone, little kids can point to a dog or a dragon, older children can pick out dynamite or Doctor Who, and adults can feel smug at identifying the hard stuff.

Like the Decalogue. Or the crab (decapod, get it?). Or the inscription of 6th June, 1944 (D-Day, you with me?). Or the framed picture of a man looking nervously up at a sword hovering above his head. Alphabet books are a dime a dozen – hey, this D game is easy – but usually this page would feature a dog or a duck, or another dull cliché. But a depiction of Damocles in an alphabet book for kids? Now you’ve got my vote.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. As a kid, I spent hour upon hour poring over another Base classic, The Eleventh Hour. Even after I knew whodunit I was still searching for the rest of the hidden clues that pointed to the culprit who ate all the food for Horace the Elephant’s birthday party. It’s possible that Graeme Base contributed more to my lifelong love of crime and mystery novels than any other author. He himself was inspired by Agatha Christie.

The Eleventh Hour was full of puzzles, codes, hints, riddles, poetry and games, all wrapped up in the guise of a children’s book. And there was even a cricket match. What was not to love? Most of all, it was a work of art, like all of Graeme Base’s books. To call him merely an author is a bit like calling Paul McCartney just a singer. True, his words brilliantly add to the atmosphere, but his trademarks are those rich, dense, colourful illustrations.

So much time goes into them. Years, in some cases. In fact, you know what else he could have drawn on Animalia’s D page? Daniel Day-Lewis, an artist of similarly complete immersion. Typically, several years pass between Daniel Day-Lewis roles, because he chooses carefully and researches thoroughly. That’s how I think of Graeme Base. He might only release one book every three or four years, but it will always be quality. (Enid Blyton spat out 33 books in 1949 alone, just saying).

Animalia was first published in 1986, three years before The Eleventh Hour. But I spent far less time with Animalia as a kid, mostly because we didn’t own a copy. I recall it from school, or borrowing it from the library, but I remembered only the essence of the book, not the detail. And what detail there is. Each page has a few alliterative words to describe the illustration – “Diabolical dragons daintily devouring delicious delicacies” – but there is so much more to the pictures.

In his introductory poem, Base challenges the reader:

“For many things are ‘of a kind’
And those with keenest eyes will find
A thousand things, or maybe more –
It’s up to you to keep the score”

I haven’t counted, but a thousand wouldn’t surprise me. And on every page, there is something for everyone. Including a hidden picture of the author himself as a boy – it’s like a Where’s Wally in a book that’s already full of challenges. Kids can turn browsing Animalia into a competition. Who can identify the most things? And with references from mythology, mathematics, music, and minutiae of all kinds, it is a trivia lover’s dream.

There is barely a blank space in Animalia. I flashed back to Mr Scally’s classic time-filler during art class when I was in Prep. When we were drawing, he told us we could leave no white space at all. I used to use my yellow crayon to colour in any blank space behind my house or tree or whatever, and said I was drawing "air". If only I’d had Graeme Base’s imagination. And talent.

I read an interview with Base in which he described his love of problem solving. How am I going to create this picture so it is appealing but also conveys this information? He does so by providing illustrations that are truly luxurious, giving more bang for your buck than almost any other author. You can come back to Animalia time after time after time and always spot something new.

His approach to “X” is particularly praiseworthy. Xylophones are the ultimate cliché in children’s alphabet books. You won’t find one in Animalia; it is so conspicuously absent that it seems as though Base decided a xylophone was too easy (though there is a glockenspiel on the G page). Instead you will find the semaphore and sign language symbols for X, and the words – “Rex Fox Fixing Six Saxophones” – are ingeniously depicted in a mirror so the X comes first.

As an aside, Base in the same interview also described his own inquisitive nature. This quote did not surprise me at all, given his obvious attention to detail:

“If the toaster breaks here, I don’t buy another toaster; I take it apart and find out what’s wrong with it. How can I fix it? It’s not being cheap. It’s just wanting to know. I think I have an enquiring mind.”

He said his ideal dinner party guests would be Bill Bryson, Stephen Hawking, and someone else whose name escapes me but who apparently was dead in any case. Bill Bryson is my all-time favourite writer, Stephen Hawking the world’s finest brain, and Graeme Base in a league of his own as a children’s author and illustrator. Can I please have the fourth place at that table?

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Corduroy
by Don Freeman


Recently, I was rummaging through the picture story books at my parents’ house, looking for nostalgic reads to share with Heidi. Some I was actively seeking: the Berenstain Bears, a few Shirley Hughes classics, some Little Golden Books. Some I had completely forgotten, books I hadn’t thought about in 30 years. One of those was Corduroy.

As soon as I saw the cover, it all came flooding back. The little teddy bear locked in a department store overnight, trying to pull his missing ‘button’ off a mattress. The security guard who finds him and takes him back down the escalator to the toy section. And the little girl who saves up money in her piggy bank to buy Corduroy the Bear.

But there was one thing that I didn’t remember, something I only noticed upon rereading the book for the first time in three decades: Lisa, the little girl who buys Corduroy the Bear, is black. And I realised that there was a very good reason I didn’t recall this: because I never noticed in the first place. When I was four, five, six years old, Lisa wasn’t a black kid. She was just a kid.

And it made me think about children and parenthood. When it comes to knowledge and values, babies are blank slates. Nobody is born with built-in notions of race or religion, of superiority or inferiority, of similarity or difference. Watch the way babies or toddlers interact. They don’t know if their little friend is a different race unless their parents tell them.

This is of course all very obvious, but given recent world events it is worth reflecting that everything we know and believe is learnt. We learn from our parents, from our friends, from the world around us, from TV, from books. Some picture books teach equality in a beautiful way – Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox was one such example we read recently.

Others, like Corduroy, do so more subtly. I’m not even sure if the author-illustrator Don Freeman, who was white, meant for his book to be anything other than an adorable story. But there are messages in its pages.

When Lisa first sees Corduroy in the store and looks into his bright eyes, she wants to buy him. Her mother is dismissive: “He doesn’t look new. He’s lost the button to one of his shoulder straps”. Note that it was only the adult in the situation who ascribed a negative connotation to his appearance. Poor, innocent Corduroy didn’t know he’d lost his button. Neither did Lisa.

It is worth noting that Corduroy was written in the USA in the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination (1968), and that for young African-American readers it provided valuable positive reinforcement. Consider this excerpt from a Goodreads reader review:

It was the first book I ever read that had a lead character that looked like me. (And no, I don't mean the bear.) The little Black girl ... was well groomed and cared for, and SO nice. People out there who've always had characters in books and magazines who look like them won't 'get it'. The significance will be lost on them I fear. But it's instances like that that help establish a child's self-esteem and community worth.

None of this would mean much if Corduroy was a run-of-the-mill story, read once or twice and tossed aside. It is certainly not that. In our house it was well-loved and well-worn. Not just in our house. The New York Public Library, the National Education Association, the School Library Journal, they all have Corduroy in their respective lists of the top 100 children’s books of all time.

What is it about that little bear and his story that is so adorable? The green overalls, the expressive face, the innocence of the great big world around him – he’s just like a toddler. And the premise plays to a sense of child-like adventure. I know I wasn’t the only kid to dream of the freedom that would come with being in a big store overnight.

There are so many memorable pages imprinted on my mind: Corduroy stepping tentatively onto the escalator. Corduroy trying to pull a button off a mattress because he thought it belonged to his overalls. The nightwatchman searching with his flashlight. And my favourite: the white pillow and sheets with only Corduroy’s tiny, fuzzy ears sticking up to reveal his hiding place.

It is at turns charming, sad, sweet and tender. At its core is the notion of innocence. Corduroy thinks the escalator is a mountain, the furnishings department is a palace. He sees something small and round on a mattress and assumes it must be his missing button. When Lisa takes him home, there is a little Corduroy-sized bed next to her own, just waiting for him. “This must be a home,” he says. “I know I’ve always wanted a home”

Rereading it nearly 50 years after publication, Corduroy is also a window into an era. Just look at the styles seen in the department store: the saleslady’s beehive hairdo and cat’s eye glasses, the classy hat and coat combination worn by Lisa’s mother, the 1960s lamps in the bedding emporium. Some older books don’t stand the test of time, but Corduroy deserves to be a retro classic.

Part of that is due to the pictures, which are pieces of art that would not look out of place framed on a nursery wall. The use of bright colours for the busy department store during the day, the limited palette at night, the way every character’s eyes tell a story. Freeman was 60 when he produced Corduroy, and it was the result of a lifetime of observing the human character.

As a young man he made money playing trumpet in a dance band, working at nightclubs and weddings. He used to wander the streets of New York City with his sketch pads, recording the sights and characters of the city. One night he lost his trumpet on the subway, and decided to make a living from his artwork instead. Broadway and circus performers were frequent subjects.

He died in 1978, ten years after Corduroy was released. Freeman wrote and illustrated something like 20 children’s books, including a sequel called A Pocket for Corduroy. That title rings a bell; I think I must have read it as a kid as well. Perhaps I’ll stumble across it one day. For now, I’m so glad I rediscovered the original.