Children’s Books

Book Review: The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

In my last Children and Young Reader’s round up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I challenged people to read and review more picture books. As we’ve been visiting the library more regularly, I thought it was an excellent chance to take up my own challenge.

treasure box

The Treasure Box
Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood

2013, Library copy

This is, quite simply, a beautiful book. Over the last year I have been falling head over heels in love with Freya Blackwood’s artwork, and this book is another example of how she tells stories through pictures. From the endpapers with their fragments of pages, to the beautiful way the use of colour changes through the book, the first thing that strikes you is how attractive this book is.

Then you read the story. At the heart of it, it’s a simple story of displacement. But, with a closer look you see that it’s much more. The library in Peter’s city is bombed and the only book that survives is held by his father. When they need to leave the city, the book is carefully packed up and Peter’s father tells him that it is a treasure, a record of their people. They undertake a long journey to safety, enduring hardship and loss, until eventually Peter needs to leave the treasure in a safe place until he can retrieve it again. It’s a story that explores loss and hope at the same time.

Interestingly, this book has made me think about how we ‘allocate’ picture books to different ages. When I borrowed it from the library, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it as a book Squirm would enjoy. I picked it up because I’d read a wonderful review of it and was interested in it myself. I don’t think you’d see this book on any lists of ‘books for 2 year olds’.

But Squirm loves it. He looks through it on his own, he requests it by name. When we read it he points out familiar things in the illustrations and is just starting to talk about what happens. This afternoon we talked about ‘cupping hands’ and what that looks like (the people in the book cup their hands to catch the fragments of books which fall from the sky). Obviously he doesn’t understand about war or enemies or the history of people being forced to move from their homes. But he understands the part about the book being treasure and about them keeping it safe – he builds his story from that point.

It reminds me of my experiences with reading The Red Tree (by Shaun Tan) with children of different ages. I’d read it with children between the ages of 7 and 12 and noticed that their thoughts and reactions were different depending on their age. They borrowed from what they knew – their schema – to make the book work for them. And no matter what their age, they all enjoyed it and made it meaningful to them.

I think in our need to classify things we can be too quick to move picture books (and other books) into age groups and by doing this we can also be too quick to say ‘no, you shouldn’t read that, it’s too old/young for you’. We forget that comprehension is more fluid than test writers would like to believe, completely built on our own experiences. The reader who is two will have a different experience of a book from the seven year old, the twelve year old, the eighteen year old or the thirty year old. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the chance to experience the book at all.

This thought also applies to older readers who can read novels reading picture books, or competent readers who are reading adult books going back to read Young Adult or children’s novels. Earlier this year I reread some Robin Klein books which I enjoyed as a child. It was amazing how many things I saw in them that I hadn’t seen before, how many themes I now understood better from the benefit of adulthood. I can’t help but think that it’s important to give our children those experiences as well.

I really recommend The Treasure Box to readers of all ages. It’s a beautiful book for talking about language, for talking about books and stories and how stories are important to our history. It’s a beautiful book for talking about war and displacement and keeping promises as much as you are able to. It’s a beautiful book about hope.

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Book Review: Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

Adventures of a Subversive Reader: Playing Beatie Bow

Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park
(1980, Penguin Classics – originally published by Thomas Nelson)

Own copy

Despite being a massive book worm as a child, I never read Playing Beatie Bow. I think it probably had something to do with the cover – the ones which were most common when I was little were seriously creepy, and looked very very different from the kinds of books I usually read. But so many people I know have read and loved it, so I knew it needed to be part of my ‘Children Classics’ Australian Women Writer’s challenge.

I actually read Playing Beatie Bow twice before writing this review. It’s such an adored book, that I wanted to make sure I really ‘had’ it before I wrote about it. In a way, I’m terribly sad that I didn’t read this as a child. There have been other books written since Playing Beatie Bow which explore some of the same ideas and themes, and I read them as a child – so Playing Beatie Bow felt at times like it was going over old ground – even though it was written first.

This is the story of Abigail, a 14 year old girl who lives in the modern (well, late 1970s/1980) version of the Rocks in Sydney. She’s carefully built a wall around herself in the four years since her father left her and her mother, but now he’s back in her mother’s life and she wants them to move overseas with him. Meanwhile, Natalie, Abigail’s young neighbour has become overly interested in the scary game – Beatie Bow –  the local children are playing – and the small ‘furry girl’ who comes to watch.

After a fight with her mother, Abigail finds herself chasing the furry girl – Beatie Bow, when suddenly she finds herself in the 1870s version of the Rocks – and after a run in with the girl’s father (injured in the Crimean War and still mourning for his wife) finds herself a guest of the Bow/Talisker family. Here she discovers she is the Stranger, bought to their time to help the family preserve the family gift.

I can definitely understand why this is such a beloved book. It mixes time travel and fantasy and historical fiction and romance in an almost effortless fashion, allowing it to appeal to a wide range of readers. The romance is gentle and sweet, perfect for slightly younger readers. The characters are quite vivid –  quarrelsome but intelligent Beatie,  wise Grandmother, kind Dovey, warm hearted Judah, wounded father and annoying Gibbie. The historical parts are interesting, while challenging the idea that one era is necessarily better than those that come before or after. And the writing is wonderful.

The real key to this is the coming-of-age of Abigail. In building up the wall to protect herself, she’s really shielded herself from other people around her and the things which hurt or affect them. Spending time away from her own problems helps open her eyes up to other people – and the very real things which shape their stories. I’m not sure this book would ever be published today – it’s too inbetween middle-grade and young adult and it crosses too many genres to be neatly catagorised the way so many of our modern books are. However, it’s aged remarkably well, considering that it’s more than 30 years old – I think it would be appealing to a lot of modern young readers (though with better covers – the classics one is aimed more at the nostalgia crowd and the Penguin classics is boring.)

If I learn nothing else, or complete no other books this Australian Women Writer’s challenge, this year will already be a big win for me. Finally reading this particular Australian classic has made me very happy, and if you have also not read it, I thoroughly recommend it.

If the book had a cover like this, I think I probably would have read it!

If the book had a cover like this, I think I probably would have read it!

Book Review: The Min Min by Mavis Thorpe Clarke (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

The Min Min: Adventures of a Subversive Reader

The Min Min by Mavis Thorpe Clark
(1966, Lansdowne Press)

Own copy

The Min Min has a special place in my family. When I was a child, it was a treasured book of my parents (my father, I think) and it was regarded as both an excellent book and a possession to look after. Obviously, there was no chance of taking off with this one, so when I saw it in an op shop, years later, I grabbed a copy for myself. But I don’t think I read it then – in fact I can’t remember reading it since I was a child.

The Min Min is – on the surface – the story of Sylvie Edwards, the slightly awkward, eldest daughter of an often drunk and abusive railway fettler and his wife – who we rarely see through the course of the book. But before you get far in the book, you realise it’s a bigger story than that – it’s the story of Reg, Sylvie’s troublesome eleven year old brother, of the young and eager schoolteacher determined to ‘make a difference’, of Sylvie and Reg’s father, and of all the people who either chose or are forced through circumstance to live in an incredibly isolated part of Australia.

After Reg and the other children of the siding (a collection of 10 houses and a school where the fettler’s families live) destroy the school, (including the teacher’s personal belongings), Sylvie and Reg are filled with fear. Reg is scared that he’ll be sent away to reform school, after having many warnings about previous misdeeds. Sylvie is scared of a future, with a teacher who refuses to teach her any longer, and a father who has asserted his right to hit her as long as she lives in his house. The pair sneak away from their home, following first the railway tracks, and then a bush track to the sympathetic Tucker family – a family who live a life completely foreign to the pair. The Tuckers give Sylvie and Reg a glimpse of something different and the possibility of a future, something which has always been untouchable and out of reach – like the mysterious min min lights which they see from time to time.

At the beginning, this book is just bleak. The landscape around the siding is smooth and unchanging, with the houses the only shapes in their landscape. The families of the siding have developed a gang like community, where the men are the ‘bosses’, women are supposed to be mothers (or are treated with suspicion) and the boys are relied on to cause mischief – to ‘stick it’ to authority and bring some excitement to the town. No one is particularly interested in education or learning, the men have come to the siding  ” . . . because life was sour or dangerous, and it was as good a place as any.” Clive Scott, the young teacher who requested the position, doesn’t belong there – it’s a place for people who feel they have no where else to go.

Things begin to change when Sylvie and Reg turn up at the Tuckers’ place. The Tuckers chose to live in an isolated place (in fact, they live within the borders of Woomera, in a house complete with an air raid shelter), but insist on maintaining aspects of their previous city life – education for the children, reading at night, a set of strict rules and guidelines. Mrs Tucker – who had previously been kind to Sylvie – shows her a world beyond the siding, a world where she can create things with her own hands. (Mr Scott had already started this process of showing her a different world, but his world seemed unattainable to her, while Mrs Tucker’s was very possible)

Meanwhile Mr Tucker and their three sons show a completely different definition of masculinity to Reg. At the siding masculinity is defined by mischief and beer. The Tucker boys shoot, fix things and ride horses – but they do it under the rules and guidelines set out by their parents. The boys wash and wipe dishes, are expected to work hard at their school work and respect learning, and spend their evenings reading. Although he scoffs at them at first, Reg finds himself admiring them more and more.

There’s so many themes I could discuss further with this book – the love of land, the importance of rain and water, the irony of the ‘safe’ family living in an unsafe area, how our families and experiences shape who we are  – it’s remarkably deep, although very few things actually happen. The roles of men and women are quite structured, as expected for a book written in the 1960s, but both men and women are written as people, even if their roles are more ‘defined’. There’s definitely some casual racism, though there’s also a sense that the author respects the Indigenous people she met on her journeys through the area, and the Aboriginal characters are much better written than some other books from the same era.

I’m really glad I read this book again as an adult – a well written book like this often has different sympathies as you grow older. The teacher was a much more vivid character to me this time, as were some of the other adults in the book. This probably wouldn’t be a ‘jump off the shelf book’ for young people today – it’s much quieter than many of the books aimed at the 10-14 year old readers of today – but I could definitely see it making an impact on certain children. It’s a wonderful book, which probably deserves a bit more recognition as an Australian classic than it currently gets.

 

  • The Mavis Thorpe Clarke website has lots of extra information about the author, her books and her inspirations.
  • The Children’s Book Council of Australia awarded The Min Min the best book award in 1967. Here’s a list with other winners and commended books of the decade