Sunday, 27 December 2015

El Deafo

I came across El Deafo when it was an 2015 honour book for the Newberry Medal. I read the extraordinary Brown Girl Dreaming (see my review) at the start of the year, and bought El Deafo at the same time. This week I got to read it. I thought it would be the perfect book to read while sitting around on a train for a day, and it was. 

I don't read all that many graphic novels, it's a category that doesn't always appeal to me, but I've learnt to read and love verse novels, so anything is possible. 

El Deafo, is not just a graphc novel, it's a graphic memoir, and for some reason I have a bit more success with them than graphic novels alone. I'm particularly thinking of French Milk (see my review) I suppose. El Deafo tells us the story of Cece Bell's childhood, which changes for ever when she contracts meningitis aged 4 and is left profoundly deaf, a change which isn't immediately recognised by Cece, her parents or her doctors. A few weeks later the diagnosis is made. Not too many kids books have lumbar punctures.

Young Cece is anxious about her difference, self-conscious and worried that people are always staring at her because of her hearing aids- although no-one ever seems to. Cece, like every kid, wants a best friend. Kids (and adults) are always curious about any difference, but usually kids will just get on with things once their curiosity is answered.

Cece Bell is younger than me, and American, but I was surprised how many songs and TV shows we shared as kids. There are 70s references littered throughout El Deafo, very familiar to me of course, but not necessarily to modern kids. Monty Python. Elton John and Kiki Dee's Don't Go Breaking My Heart. The Monkees. The Partridge Family. I was most surprised to see reference a teacher singing "I've got a girl called Boney Maloney." I thought Bony Moronie was a Hush original. Sad to learn that it wasn't.

I was intrigued by the mention of Color by David Lasky. Because of my gross unfamiliarity with the graphic novel world I was not aware of the occupation of colorist (which rightly should be colourist of course). But it's a thing. Here's an interview with professional colorist Ian Hannin. I guess I find it odd that people can draw well enough to create a graphic novel and then need someone else to bring it to life in colour. 

Fascinating, but sad, to see that in this fabulous Guardian article that adult Cece still had those some childhood insecurities, but that they really led to the creation of El Deafo- first as a blog, then as a book. And she ran out of time to colour the book and so used a colourist! I am seeing references to Raina Telgemeier wherever I go today, so I think I know what my next graphic novel will be. 

Diversity on the Shelf 2015

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Top 10 Christmas Books

Perfectly timed from The Guardian, Matt Haig's Top 10 Christmas Books.

1. A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens

2. Father Christmas - Raymond Briggs

3. A Child's Christmas in Wales - Dylan Thomas

4. Little Women - Louisa May Alcott

5. Holidays on Ice - David Sedaris (see my review)

6. The Snowman - Raymond Briggs

7. The Dark is Rising - Susan Cooper

8. Mog's Christmas - Judith Kerr

I haven't read the book, but Sainsbury's Official Christmas Advert this year is Mog's Christmas Calamity. It's very cute.

9. Letters from Father Christmas - J.R.R. Tolkien

10. The Little Match Girl - Hans Christian Andersen


Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

How I wish I'd read this book when I was a kid. I'm sure I would have loved it. I love it now. I didn't know all that much about this book or Joan Aiken before I read this most famous of her books. Joan Aiken wrote over 100 books for children and adults, and it appears she had the most stupendous imagination. 

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has an almost Dickensian feel. Certainly the names are Dickensian,  a lawyer Mr Gripe, the governess Miss Slighcarp and a traveller Mr Grimshaw. A note at the front of the book makes sure we know that it is set in an alternate reality version of England in 1832. Good King James III is on the throne instead of George IV. A tunnel links Dover to Calais allowing hungry wolf packs from the continent to broach the channel and take over the genteel English countryside. Which is particularly clever. I'm not sure why we need the alternate king, there was no political element to this story. Perhaps it becomes apparent in one of the many books that were to become the Wolves Chronicles.

Wolves have been central characters in children's stories for a very long time. Little Red Riding Hood and many other fairy tales have wolves. The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Joan Aiken was fascinated with wolves as a young girl after hearing Balten and the Wolf. There are quite a few new wolf titles this year, most of which sound quite intriguing. Katherine Rundell's The Wolf Wilder and Ryan Graudin's Wolf by Wolf come to mind, but I'm sure I've seen others. 

At the beginning of the story we meet Bonnie Green who is impatiently waiting in Willoughby Chase for her new governess to arrive as well as her cousin Sylvia who is coming to stay because her elderly aunt is becoming too frail to look after her. It is evocative and beautifully descriptive from the very start. 

It was dusk- winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.

The orphaned Sylvia is travelling to Willoughby Chase on the train and there are fantastic scenes of the wolf packs attacking the trains. I was a bit disappointed that the real wolves really only inhabit the first third or so, after which the threats come from more human wolves. It is still an exciting story though with Victorian workhouses, secret passages and intrigue.

I did absolutely adore the numerous, and surprising references to champagne. I do love Champagne even though I am nowhere near as lucky as the two villains of the piece who are condemned because they "drink champagne every day." And when a group are trying to rouse an old woman overcome by malnutrition the doctor advises her needs.
"Firstly, champagne. She is too weak to take anything else at the moment."

Not surprising to me at least that it was marvellously restorative.

Every now and then Dr Field came and administered another teaspoon of champagne, and presently he reported with satisfaction an improvement in the patient's breathing and a tinge of colour to her cheeks. 

As well it would. Just like reading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. 

And the vocabulary, it is particularly luscious. Wold. Irruption. Oubliette. Immured. Victuals. It is not surprising to learn that Joan Aiken grew up hearing her mother read Dickens aloud to her as a young girl.  I can see myself reading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase again, and I'm certainly curious to read more of Joan Aiken. 


Monday, 21 December 2015


I came across Outside on the CBCA Shortlist this year, and was intrigued. The cover looked so pretty, and I had just come across illustrator Rita Voutila on another shortlisted work, The Stone Lion (see my review). Also, Libby Hathorn is a big name in Australian children's books, and I've only read a few of her less well known books.

Outside is an ode to the wonders of playing outside, the adventures that can be had, the sights, the smells, the fun. All the simple joys of playing outside, of spending time outside told in a repetitive, cumulative text.

The illustrations are dazzling. Almost kaleidoscopic. With a kind of Alice in Wonderland vibe. So pretty. I do wonder though if digital illustrations are ironic in a book extolling the virtues of being outside? Although I guess if they were drawn or painted these would have been created inside too.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Billie B Brown The Secret Message

The thing about being the mother of a son and the aunt of nephews is that you don't really get to buy books written primarily for girls. And The Billie B Brown series is fairly aimed at girls. I hadn't read any of the Billie books, but was keen to read one before I saw Sally Rippin speak at the Sydney Writer's Festival Children's Festival of Moving Stories recently, especially as I learnt that she is our highest selling female author, and our fourth most read children's author. And I hadn't really heard of her! But of course now that I'm paying attention, I've seen young girls excitedly plucking Billie B Brown books off shelves to buy them.

The Billie B Brown books are perfect for emerging readers. A simple but fun story on 42 pages with large font and illustrations make them very easy to read. Billie B is a bit of a tom boy, her best friend Jack is absent from this story (the second in the series) as Billie B goes to the beach with her parents.

Billie B is good at lots of things. She is good at the monkey bars and good at making cubbies. She is good at soccer and she is good at midnight feasts. But the thing that Billie B is best at is coming up with ideas. 

Author Sally Rippin is actually an illustrator as well, but the Billie B Brown books are illustrated by NZ illustrator Aki Fukuoka. There's at least 20 books in the series, and another series featuring Billie for slightly older readers, the Billie B Mysteries.

Teacher's Notes for The Secret Message.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015


I bought Ugly a few months ago when I first saw it on a bookstore shelf. This was quite some time before I knew I would have the opportunity to see Robert Hoge speak in person. I knew of Robert from his Australian Story a few years ago, and he had already published an adult version of his memoir Ugly in 2013 which I had wanted to read but never bought. Here was a kids version of that book. I was intrigued.

I did get to see Robert speak a few weeks ago at an amazing Sydney Writers Festival Primary School Day last month (along with Emily Rodda, Sally Rippin, Gus Gordon and Tristan Bancks). Of course it was a great day, and Robert was a great speaker. Sadly I didn't get to read Ugly before I heard him speak but I was prompted to pluck it from the TBR pile after I did.

Ugly is an extraordinary story as you might expect. Robert Hoge was born in 1972 with a large facial tumour and deformed legs. In those days pre-ultrasound his birth of course came as a surprise. It is heart-breaking to read how his parents initially rejected him.

'I didn't feel anything for this baby,' she (his mother) wrote in her diary. 'I had shut off completely. I had made up my mind I was not taking him home.'

Devastating. A sign of the times perhaps too? But the family did take him home, mainly at the urging of Robert's four older siblings. He was lucky to grow up in a close, loving family.

A man's home might be his castle, but the four fences of that yard became my mother's prison. After fighting so long to keep from bringing me home, Mum was reluctant to take me out again once she did. She was not ready to face the verdict of strangers when they saw her strange child. For a long time, the only place I went as a baby was to the hospital for various appointments. No shopping trips. No playground visits. Just appointments and Fortress Hoge. 

It was fascinating to get a slight glimpse into the surgical care of the time. Robert's major operations were planned with the aid of skull X-rays and life size photos! No CTs, no MRIs, no 3D reconstructions that modern surgeons use and rely on. The 70s were a simpler time, Robert broke his prosthetic leg in the first week of school and it was able to be welded together at the local petrol station!

Robert was always keen to compete, and keen to excel. Naturally this was difficult, he wasn't allowed to play rugby or cricket like he wanted. He wasn't even able to swim for many years because of his ongoing surgeries. He was able to have a great childhood though with more than enough boyhood adventures.

He was to grow up to become a journalist and speech writer, and his many years of experience shine through, Ugly is gripping and well written. Ultimately, Robert's story is about acceptance, ugliness, truth and beauty, he realised that little kids may accept difference quicker than anyone.

Young kids are naturally very accepting of new and different things. The kid with a squishy nose and strange legs isn't that surprising when you're three years old and you hear stories about talking bears sitting at a table eating porridge. It's only as kids get older that they start to know what's normal and what's not. 

Robert had learnt early on that our faces are our admission tickets into the world- they let us "look out and know others and let others know us".

I knew I was ugly. But everyone is uglier than they think. We are all more beautiful too.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Queensland Gallery of Modern Art APT8

Recently I was in Brisbane for a few days for a conference. I didn't have a lot of time for sightseeing which was a shame as I hadn't visited Brisbane since sometime in the 90s. I was keen to visit the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art as I'd heard good things about it. The whole gallery is currently taken up with the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT8). APT8 extends to the nearby Queensland Art Gallery- Brisbane has a great arts precinct in South Brisbane with art galleries, performance theatres and the Queensland Museum all very close- great for visitors.

The art starts outside.

The High/Perpetual Xmas, No Abstractions
Scott Redford 2008
The scale of the building is amazing.

And is matched by some of the artworks. This one is a site specific work developed for APT8. Not surprisingly, the artist here is also an architect. This artwork had sensors attached and would burst into sound as you wandered amongst it.

All we leave behind are the memories
Asim Waqif 2015

Thankfully the guide at the entrance had told me about this one, or I suspect I would have missed it. It is a whisper cloud suspended from the ceiling. There was a little room to one side where you could record your wish, and this then gets uploaded and played as a "rain of wishes". I like to think of my wish raining down on visitors even though I've long moved on.

Everyday Whispers
Lawrence English  2015

It's funny what you notice and you don't notice as an adult. We see what we expect to see. I saw this as three horses when I was in the gallery. It's only now, reading about this work that I see that it really isn't. An exploration of childhood toys from Myanmar.

Another Realm (Horses)
Min Thein Sung 2015
This one was the last of an extraordinary series of 4 paintings by a Thai artist.  Each quite different. This one was my favourite.

Tales of Navin 4
Navin Rawanchaikul 2013-15
 A lot of the artworks tackled some confronting subjects. This one from Cambodia.

Hell of Tuol Sleng
Leang Seckon 2014
 This is one of a number of figures filling a room.

Francis Upritchard 2012
This next one is a life size installation of a rural school in Myanmar with young students starting on their education.

The sick classroom
Noe Lay 2013
 I don't think I've seen much experimental Aboriginal art before- it was really good. This artist used some unusual materials in interesting ways such as galvanised iron water tanks, black rubber conveyer belts.

Three Larrakitj (memorial poles)
Gunybi Ganambarr 2013-15
This next one was perhaps my favourite experience of the day. You had to remove your shoes, and duck under a very low ceiling to a room with sea grass matting, music playing and all four walls filled with kaleidoscopic vision. It made me think back to my sightly boozy visit to MONA in 2012 and wish that I had consumed as much bubbles as I had that night. Still it was fabulous even stone cold sober on a hot Brisbane afternoon. 

Ils vous regardent (They look at you)
Nicolas Molé 2015

I wasn't the only one captivated...
Mongolian zurag painting was a new one for me. Pretty cool. 

Soldiers who don't know themselves (detail)
Gerelkhu Ganbold 2013
And this, this was mesmerising. Clouds of detergent/foam slowly emerging from perspex pipes. See a fascinating short film about David Medalla and his Cloud Canyon series here.

Cloud Canyons No 25
David Medalla 1963/2015
Of course there are a few sculptures outside too. You can barely see the native water rat, the kuril, just in front of the elephant's eye, which is the hero of this piece apparently. 

The World Turns
Michael Parekowhai 2011-12

All of these artists were new to me. Indeed I was familiar with only one of the artists in the entire gallery, although modern asian and pacific art isn't my area of special interest. Still, it was an interesting hour or so very well spent. 

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