Saturday, January 21, 2017

Grug Plays Cricket
by Ted Prior

Grug 2 for 0 (Grug 0, Cara 2-0) tied with Cara 2 for 0 (Cara 0, Grug 2-0)

Not since the One-Legged XI played the One-Armed XI in England in 1848 has cricket seen anything remotely like this. On a green pitch indistinguishable from the outfield, a snake named Cara, overcoming the significant obstacle of having no arms and no legs, held Grug to a remarkable scoreless tie that left the cricket world stunned.

As the host, and thus most familiar with the conditions, it was a humiliating result for Grug, who had invited Cara to play expecting an easy win. But over the previous few years Grug had spent his time cycling, swimming, gardening, painting, and engaging in all sorts of other irrelevant activities that that left him ill-prepared for a major cricket match.

Although nobody really knows what Grug is, he indisputably has two arms and two legs, and thus a natural advantage over Cara. It is not out of the question that anti-corruption authorities could inspect the betting markets around this match, but the likelihood is that Grug simply succumbed to hubris.

Sending Cara in to bat, Grug began with a delivery that beat Cara’s paltry defences and rattled the middle and leg stumps. Cara had batted with a grip rarely seen in elite cricket, holding the bat in her mouth, but she made a game swing at the ball, and in fact looked more likely to score than former New Zealand No.11 Chris Martin.

Cara was more at ease when bowling. Gripping the ball under her chin (do snakes have chins?) she formed herself into an imposing S shape and then flung the ball down the pitch. Her unconventional action may have looked suspect but was in fact perfectly legal; the ICC bans "chuckers" whose elbow extension exceeds 15 degrees. Cara's complete lack of elbows made the rule redundant.

Cara resembled nothing so much as former speedster Jeff Thomson, rolling up and going "whang", and Grug, who had spent far too little time in the nets ahead of this game, was slow to react. In the words of commentator Ted Prior: "Grug swung the bat and missed. The ball hit him on the nose!" It was an apt description, and typical of Prior's concise commentary style.

Though shaken by the incident, Grug passed the mandatory concussion tests and batted on, driving the next delivery hard and straight back towards the bowler. Cara showed her remarkable reflexes by catching the ball in her mouth, which brought back memories of Shahid Afridi chewing on a ball during a one-day international.

It meant that neither Cara nor Grug had scored in their first innings, and Cara was soon to complete an ignominious king pair when she again swung hard but lost her middle stump. This left her needing to once again dismiss Grug without scoring in order to emerge from the match with a tie.

Things looked grim for Cara when Grug smashed the next delivery high into the air through the region of extra cover, which appeared to be vacant, but a pelican unexpectedly flew past at an opportune moment and Grug was caught. Not since Gary Pratt ran out Ricky Ponting in the 2005 Ashes had a substitute fielder had a more significant impact.

The match had been tied, and although both players finished the game with smiles on their faces, it was easy to see through Grug’s façade. Indeed, Grug failed to appear at the post-match press conference, and is believed to be considering immediate retirement from the game. 

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.