Category Archives: Children’s Books

The Magic Pudding: The Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum

Classic Australian illustrated children’s book

Last year was the 100 year anniversary of this book, and although I was fond of a lot of Australian classics as a child, this one was admittedly one that I had never read. I have quite a few beautiful hardcover editions of these classics with beautiful slipcovers and I was hoping to find a matching edition of this book. I couldn’t find one in exactly the same style, but I did have this copy on my shelf, so I figured it would do for now.

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My home-made take on the Old English Apple Hat pudding

“The Magic Pudding: The Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum” written and illustrated by Norman Lindsay is a classic Australian children’s book. The story is about a koala called Bunyip Bluegum who, after getting annoyed by his uncle’s personal grooming habits, decides to venture out into the world on his own. He soon makes the acquaintance of a sailor called Bill Barnacle and a penguin called Sam Sawnoff who are in possession of a magical, infinite and talking pudding known as Albert. Bunyip, Bill and Sam become fast friends however when Albert is stolen, they must use their wits and their fists to get them back.

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I love funny animal stories, and my absolute favourite part of this book is without a doubt the illustrations. The black and white pencil illustrations at first glance seem very simple, but they are actually unbelievably expressive and effective. Lindsay’s experience as a cartoonist clearly served him well and his characters are all so cheeky and memorable. The characters really make this story and I loved turning the page and not knowing what or who to expect next. The character designs were second to none, be it a rooster, an echidna, a parrot, some policemen, a dog. I also enjoyed how Lindsay divided his book into four ‘slices’ and how the main characters had a song or a ditty for every occasion.

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Unfortunately, there were a lot of things about this story that had not aged well. The three women mentioned in this entire book did not actually say any words themselves. One had no lines at all (she was instead hanging out washing while her husband chatted to passers by), one was quoted by the penguin and another was kissed (whether she wanted it or not) by a bosun. Then there is the racism. The book is peppered with disparaging remarks about African people, Arabic people and Jewish people. Even though it is primarily set in the bush and was written in 1918, there is absolutely no mention of Aboriginal people whatsoever.

I won’t go into the legal issues with this story (despite how some of them grated against my law background) because I appreciate that it is meant to be entertaining. I also appreciate that the men in this story are quite diverse, and Bunyip in particular solves problems through his wits and his eloquence. However, I did feel that Bill took larrikinism a little too far, and there was quite a lot of hypocritical violence and double-standards in this book which frustrated me a lot.

One of the downfalls of classic literature is that it frequently contains things that no longer gel with social standards of today. I haven’t quite made up my mind yet about the trend of editing out ‘problematic’ things from older stories, but I do think it is important to acknowledge that things that people used to write aren’t OK anymore. I think that you can appreciate the art of a book, but critique the messages. I think that this is a beautifully illustrated, fun book that nevertheless has its fair share of cringeworthy moments.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Classics

The Graveyard Book

Dark urban young adult fantasy

I have been reading this author for a long time, and he has an impressive bibliography of novels that straddle the blurry line between fantasy and realism. This book has been sitting on my shelf for quite a while after my partner bought it for me, and I have to admit, the cover had not really attracted me. I know the artist is incredibly well-known, and while I agree the style is probably in line with the themes of the book, it is a bit skeletal and knobbly for my tastes. It sat there gathering dust for some time until I thought, I just need two more books to finish my 2018 Goodreads Reading Challenge, this one looks relatively short and it has been a while since I’ve read this author.

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“The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman is a young adult fantasy novel about a little boy called Nobody Owens who lives in a graveyard. Narrowly escaping murder like the rest of his family by the man Jack, Bod, as he is affectionately known, is granted refuge among the ghosts and creatures who live in the graveyard. Although adopted by Mr and Mrs Owens, and watched over by his mysterious guardian Silas, Bod is given a large amount of freedom within the confines of the graveyard. However, the protection cannot last forever, and sooner or later Bod must return to the real world and live his life.

This, at heart, is a book about growing up. Gaiman sets the scene by introducing the graveyard, its features and residents and uses them as a yardstick to measure how Bod grows and changes over time. In his usual subtle way, Gaiman explores the differences between good and bad, child and adult, accepting help and self-reliance – all things that young people must navigate as they start to find their own way in the world. This is also a book about boundaries, which ones are flexible, which ones are permeable and which ones must remain steadfast. Gaiman is never condescending in this book, and I think that the way that he writes about the challenges Bod faces leaves a lot of room for young readers to make up their own minds about the way things turn out. I really enjoyed how Bod aged over time, and I think it’s quite rare for a children’s book to really examine how children’s personalities develop.

I think the problem I had with this book is that while it is undeniably rich, at times it felt a bit constraining while reading it. I completely understand that Gaiman explores different kinds of freedoms and deliberately uses the border of the graveyard as both a physical and metaphorical barrier. However, because the majority of the story is set within the graveyard, and a lot of the story is Bod revisiting places and people within that graveyard, there were times where the book feels a bit repetitive.

Nevertheless, a complex and sophisticated young adult novel in Gaiman’s trademark style that I think many kids would enjoy.


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The Graveyard Book

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Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow

Second book in children’s fantasy series “Nevermore”

If you haven’t read the first book, skip this review because there will be spoilers.

I read the first book in this series some time ago, and although I felt that it wasn’t so unique as to be mindblowing, it was nevertheless an enjoyable read. When the second book came out recently, I thought I’d give it a go.

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“Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow” by Jessica Townsend is a children’s fantasy novel and the second book in the “Nevermoor” series. The story picks up shortly after Morrigan has been accepted into the Wundrous Society after completing a number of trials. One of nine new members in unit 919, each is bound to keep Morrigan’s secret: that she is a wundersmith. A powerful wielder of magic feared by the citizens of Nevermoor. Unfortunately, as a result, Morrigan is excluded from all classes except for the history of catastrophes caused by other wundersmiths before her. Soon, with citizens of Nevermoor disappearing, Morrigan becoming more and more isolated and letters threatening to expose unit 919’s secret unless each member participates in a nigh impossible tasks, it is seeming less and less likely that Morrigan will every truly be a member of the Wundrous Society.

I actually enjoyed this book quite a bit more than the first one. I felt like Townsend has hit her stride and plot-wise, this book was interesting and cohesive. I enjoyed how she kept several mysteries going at once, and wove in what Morrigan was learning about the city of Nevermoor seamlessly into the solutions. I also felt that the worldbuilding was stronger in this book, and I felt that I was starting to get much more of a sense of Nevermore and how the world works. As miffed as Morrigan was about the history lessons, it was an ingenious way to round out some of the context of why the people of Nevermore are so frightened of Wundersmiths. I also enjoyed the trisky lanes and learning a bit about the geography of Nevermoor. Finally, I thought that Townsend’s exploration of good and evil was much stronger in this book with as many twists and turns as the tricksy lanes themselves.

Although I did think that this book was stronger than the previous, I did occasionally feel that sometimes this book was quirky for the sake of being quirky. I also felt that, although it wasn’t as the first book, this book does still borrow a lot of themes from other young fantasy books I have read. There were still quite a few tropes, but I do feelt that this series is starting to come into its own.

An engaging book that picks up where the first left off and lifts the story to a new level.

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Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow: Nevermoor 2

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Charlotte’s Web

Children’s classic about an unlikely friendship between a pig and a spider

As the pressure to reach my reading goal of 80 books for 2018 started to grow, I continued to raid my shelves for some of my shorter books and I came across this one. Although it’s a children’s classic, I must admit I had never read it (though I had seen the animated film many times). I figured it was probably about time I gave it a read.

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“Charlotte’s Web” by E. B. White is a children’s book about a piglet who is the runt of the litter at the Arable family’s farm. Saved from premature slaughter by daughter Fern, she names him Wilbur and hand rears him. Once he is big enough, he moves to her uncle Zuckerman’s farm to be fattened up. Feeling very lonely, Wilbur tries without success to befriend the other animals and is then shocked to learn that he is to be slaughtered. However, when he meets a very clever spider, his future does not look so grim after all.

This is a talking animal story that explores themes of life, death, friendship and tolerance. White intersperses dialogue and plot with whimsical depictions of life on a farm and the effects of changing seasons on the landscape. I think that in an increasingly urbanised world, a story like this would have brought some of the realities of a farm to children who have only ever known cities. Charlotte is of course the highlight of the book, and her no-nonsense attitude and keen strategic mind is the key to Wilbur’s survival.

However, there were some things that irked me about this book. Wilbur is a pretty helpless character who is constantly falling to pieces in the face of adversity. Yes, his trajectory is pretty bleak, but he doesn’t do much to help himself either and relies completely on Charlotte’s generosity of time (exhausting her in the process). I wasn’t entirely happy with Fern either. She’s an 8 year old girl, and her mother worries that she’s spending too much time playing on the farm (?) and not enough time thinking about boys (???). Her mother seeks advice from a doctor and is reassured that she’ll start thinking about boys soon instead of frolicking on the farm. However, then when the doctor asks about her brother Avery, Mrs Arable laughs and says that he’s fine because he’s busy getting into poison ivy and catching frogs.

I just felt a bit that in this book, the male characters were free to make their own destinies, but the female characters seemed to just exist to conform and facilitate the male destinies. I thought that the animated film, made less than 20 years after the release of the book, remained very true to the story but depicted Fern as a young teen (the voice actor was 14). I felt that Fern’s transition from girlhood to young adult was much more appropriate in the film, Charlotte was a little softer and Wilbur was far less annoying.

Regardless of how women’s equality has changed since publication, this book remains a children’s classic and I’m sure if I had read it as a child, I would have enjoyed it.

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Charlotte’s Web

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The Fed-Up Cow

Illustrated children’s book about a cow’s quest for identity

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“The Fed-Up Cow” by Peta Lemon and illustrated by Maria Dasic Todoric is a children’s book about a very quirky cow called Hilda who decides that she’s tired of being a cow. With no fear of self-expression and a flair for ingenious costuming, Hilda experiments with living as a range of other farm animals with outrageous results.

This is a fun book that gently explores the idea of identity while introducing kids to the different characteristics of typical farm animals. With fun rhymes and Hilda’s funny facial expressions, this is an enjoyable story. The illustrations, while a little inconsistent, are very engaging and Hilda is brought to life as a lovable goofball. It’s always nice to see female characters being able to experiment and be silly.

It’s interesting looking at a book about a farm from the perspective of an adult Australian. Firstly, farms don’t look like that here, partly because this is a dry country full of drought and partly because farms don’t really operate on such small scales any more. With more and more kids growing up in the city, but more and more environmental (and ethical) issues affecting farms, I wonder if we’re going to see a change in flavour of farm books in future.

A fun children’s book with a refreshing twist on the classic farmyard story.

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It’s A Bright World To Feel Lost In

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“It’s A Bright World To Feel Lost In” by Mawson is picture book told from the perspective of teddy bears. Mawson, a poetic and thoughtful cream coloured bear, ruminates on what it means to be with someone, away from someone and by yourself.

This is a lovely little book. The language is quite child appropriate with subtleties behind the mostly simple text, though there are a few good vocabulary-building words sprinkled throughout as well. I think that stories about teddy bears are pretty universal. Given that most children like to imagine the adventures their teddies get up to without them, this book with its cheerful photography really taps into that nostalgia. The photos are very expressive, and two of my favourites are of Mawson’s friends: one light brown bear staring off into the distance below the text “you can almost hear the aching sound of being searched for” and another shorter-furred bear writing a “wurry list” considering “Did I hug enuf?”

There are some great lessons about unconditional love in this story and rescuing yourself from loneliness by filling your time with hobbies and observation. This is definitely a book that lends itself to flipping through several times. The book is marketed towards grownups 109 and under, but I think if you have a small child who asks to be read the same book over and over, this book has plenty in it that won’t be discovered on the first read through.

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Foot Notes

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Foot Notes” by Benjamin Allmon is a memoir about a last ditch attempt to make it as a musician. Ben records an album, renames himself Smokey and sets on a 1,000km trek from Queensland to Sydney. Smokey sets out full of confidence that he’ll be able to sell albums, walk the whole way and sleep rough without any dramas. However, it quickly becomes clear that his expectations about weather, terrain, performing and even his audience were not even close to reality.

This was a really interesting read about a pretty extraordinary journey. Allmon’s experience walks a line between pilgrimage and homelessness. The only assets he has are his guitar and CDs to sell. He has no tent, no cash and no support aside from friendly strangers he meets along the way. I’ve driven up and down the Princes Highway between Sydney and the Gold Coast more times than I can count, along that hellish road between those north coast towns. A lot of the places Allmon walked through were places that I had visited. Beautiful coastal scenery and towns that are plagued with unemployment. On foot, Allmon observes far more than I ever have out the window of my white sedan on cruise control. More importantly, he observes his own responses to the people that he meets. Elitism is a hard trait to maintain when you’re sleeping under a plastic garbage bag on the beach. I think one of the most important parts about this book is Allmon finding himself through finding his audience.

When reviewing a memoir, it’s always tricky to critique the book without critiquing the author’s experiences. I think that Allmon wrote an incredibly honest story, and for the most part it was pared down to the most interesting and dramatic parts. I think where I really enjoyed Smokey’s interactions with the locals (flora and fauna included), I was a bit lost during some of the passages where Smokey is overcoming physical and emotional hardship. I think the pragmatist in me was very frustrated by scenes such as the crossing of “the Sahara”. I felt like many obstacles could have been avoided with a bit of preparation, and so I think I wasn’t quite as willing to come to the party about how meaningful overcoming them was.

Ultimately though, this book was a pleasant surprise. I would recommend it to anyone who feels like the pursuit of their dreams is getting a bit stale, or anyone who wants to get a good look at life on the north coast through a fresh pair of eyes.

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