Harry and Hopper by Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood

Harry and Hopper Cover


A boy’s best dog friend dies while he is at school. Harry comes to terms with Hopper’s absence gradually, first by trying to distract himself and not think about Hopper at all, then by imagining his reappearance, and finally by imagining saying goodbye in person.

Dogs commonly feature in pet-death stories. Probably because goldfish are bastards.

Question: why, in nearly every book for children about death, is it a dog that dies?

— Goodreads review

Though as the NYT wrote, tearjerkers featuring dogs aren’t really all that common in the picturebook category. You’re probably thinking of chapter books.

Tearjerkers are a fixture in the dog book genre, but they are perhaps less prevalent in the kiddie division, which makes this enormously affecting Australian import so distinctive.

— New York Times

Naturally, any children’s book about death is going to garner a variety of responses from adult readers, because readers all have their own ideas about death and children. Some people don’t like supernatural storylines, preferring not to stimulate children’s hopes that death is not really final. Others prefer religious explanations. Some thing that death must be introduced very, very gently to children while others probably don’t think books about death are appropriate at all.

I also didn’t like how they just jumped straight to “Hopper is dead”. The dad has “tears in his eyes” but I guess he just manned up. The dad doesn’t offer any comfort. Just “Would you like to come and say good-bye to Hopper before I bury him?”

No “it’s okay, Hopper is in a better place”, or “remember the good times” is is just he is dead…lets bury him.

— Goodreads review

Here is the part about the dog ‘coming back to life’:

“In the middle of the night,
something woke him up.
He turned over—-and there,
leaping at the window, was a
dog. A dog as jumpy as
a grasshopper!

Harry sprang off the sofa and
ran to the back door. He flung
it open.

‘Hopper!’ he cried. ‘You’ve
come back!’”

Harry and Hopper

from On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
from On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

In another book about the death of a pet, Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr, it is clear from the pictures that Mog is not really there but just a sort of ghost. This is because Kerr depicted the dead Mog by drawing more lightly with her pencil and choosing lighter colours. But in this book, there are no clues about dream sequences/imagined parts. When Hopper comes back, it’s really as if he has come back.

I was uncomfortable with the fact that the story and illustrations made the dreams all too real. This may give readers false hope of seeing their loved ones every time they go to sleep.

Will some kids be confused by the appearance of Hopper after he has been buried? Will they think he’s a ghost? Maybe. Not sure. It’s certainly possible.

It’s not clear from the story whether Harry’s encounters with Hopper are dreams or something more fantastical or supernatural

— Goodreads reviews


For parents who would want to present death in a no-nonsense fashion to their children, this is a very good choice.

Interestingly, there is no mother in this story. We don’t know where she is, but she does not live with Harry and Dad. Presumably, Harry has already dealt with some earlier grief, in which case he knows what to do this time. The good thing about there being no mother is that we see dads doing domestic things, like hanging up washing on that Hill’s Hoist.


This is a story about a dog’s death, but we’re encouraged to think about the dog’s life as a whole from the first title page, in which we see a litter of puppies sitting upon the words ‘Harry and Hopper’. An especially cute puppy has separated himself from the squirming litter and offers his paw. On the second title page we see that Harry has been standing off-stage with his father, and Hopper is running towards him. The title page, of course, is where the story really starts in any picture book.


Blackwood’s illustrations are done on watercolour paper with watercolour, gouache and charcoal. The grain shows through. Along with ‘messy sketches’, this means the illustrations are definitely ‘illustrations’ (rather than photos). How do you think a picture book about death would go down if children saw actual photos of a (staged) funeral? That would be the opposite extreme — picture books about death tend to be sketchy and arty, and I believe this helps remind young readers: Don’t worry, this is just a story.


If you’ve watched Six Feet Under or any number of other films about death, you’ll often notice a strong opposition between light and dark. Obviously these are symbols for life and death. Freya Blackwood has worked in film (Weta Workshops in NZ), and I think it shows.

Through this story, too, there is a warm light in the darkness, often provided by Harry and Hopper themselves. Here we have a lamp shining against the wall, and as a halo across Harry’s head.


In the second illustration below, with dead Hopper peering through the window, the yellow light cast upon the sill serves to make the darkness/death of outside seem even darker.


Freya Blackwood’s stories all seem to have a good balance between interior and outside scenes. Her children tend to live in the suburbs, and spend a lot of time outside. Here we have the Hill’s Hoist washing line — a detail that marks the story as distinctively Australian/NZ — I haven’t seen this kind of washing line illustrated outside this part of the world, but let me know if I’m wrong!


Artists such as Nigel Brown (NZ) have also turned the Hillman’s Hoist into a feature in their work. Brown did a whole series of them; this is ‘clothesline painting number five’.

Nigel Brown Clothesline painting number 5

Although I say this book is distinctively Australian, the illustrator chose not to put wide-brimmed hats on the boys who are sitting on a form bench eating their lunch, yet they’re in summer uniform, so I figure this might be set in an earlier time, perhaps in the 1980s. (There’s one of those old-style TVs in one of the pictures — no flat screens.) This generation of Australian school children have a ‘no hat no play’ thing going on, even if there’s a shade sail.


Freya Blackwood is particularly good at drawing from high (and low) angles, varying perspective constantly to create dramatic moods and add interest. (Apparently her parents were artist/architect — I’ve seen other outstanding perspective work from architecturally trained illustrators.) In order to draw like this you need to have a good understanding of perspective. I’ve been experimenting with cheating a little when creating illustrations from different angles by making  mock ups in a 3D interior design program, then changing the perspective within the software and using that as a model. I believe Adobe makes it easier these days for illustrators using Photoshop and Illustrator to draw from varying perspectives too, by making use of the ‘vanishing point tool’. On the other hand, a lot of illustrators don’t want a photorealistic look at all, sometimes playing with perspective to make it look deliberately off-beat (as in the Nigel Brown painting above). Freya Blackwood’s illustrations are pretty much spot on when it comes to vanishing points and planes and all that, and because she’s illustrated in a loose, sketchy style, I’m impressed at the technical skills first and foremost.


One of the earliest picture books to vary perspective was an American book called The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, published way back in 1936.

The Story Of Ferdinand cover

Here’s an interesting technique: using loose pencil sketches uncoloured to suggest movement. In this particular story, this technique foreshadows something else: the ghost of the dead dog.


And here is another way of depicting movement, as well as the passing of time. If you go back far enough, you’ll find this technique on Greek vases, in which the viewer is meant to understand that there’s not five men walking in a line, but one man walking (or doing whatever). Children have to learn to decode such pictures; a very young child with little experience of picture books is likely to think that there are six dogs in the picture below rather than just a single dog depicted at different times. Such illustrations are technically called a ‘polyptych’. (Most commonly known perhaps is the triptych, with three panels.)

Traditionally, a polyptych has one central image and is surrounded by smaller ones, but getting away from the religious associations, modern illustrators of children’s books sometimes use this technique simply to present a lot of action in a short space of time (in the book).

Why might Blackwood portray a whole lot of information so succinctly? Because the story of a boy losing a beloved dog has been done before, so any new books of this sort must be a little different. You could argue that for a young reader what’s been done before is irrelevant, but picture books must appeal to the dual audience of adult and child, so the creators of this book wisely decided to dwell little on the relationship between the boy and the dog — the boy loves his dog, good, got it — and turn this story instead into one of a child dealing with grief rather than a story about wonderful child/pet relationships, of which there are even more.


The endpapers of this book are brightly coloured squares. Assuming the design of endpapers is more than just decorative, what might these represent? They remind me a little of the colours of Elmer, from a completely different series of picture books. Some of the squares in these endpapers have a red line across the middle, like a street ‘do not enter’ sign. What to make of such bright endpapers?

If we look closely at the saturation and hue of the illustrations, the colours start bright, become muted as Harry enters his period of grief, then return to bright. The bright colours of these endpapers simply underscore the colour scheme within the story.

The illustration below is an example of one of the dark pages — it’s no accident that Hopper comes back to Harry at night (though the night can be drawn as brightly as the day, as observed by Vincent Van Gogh).

I’m sure there is a disproportionate number of red-headed children in picture books, and illustrations such as this one demonstrate why: The red hair serves as an attractive spot of colour to break up the darkness of the night.



Published 2009 by Omnibus Books (Scholastic).

Margaret Wild is a well-known Australian writer who has published more than 70 books.

Freya Blackwood has also illustrated books by writers such as Libby Gleeson, Margaret Wild, Roddy Doyle, Jan Ormerod, Nick Bland and Kyle Mewburn.

Blackwood said that being shortlisted for the {the CILIP Kate Greenaway medal for outstanding illustration] “was one of the most exciting moments of my life”. “Then to find out I won was really difficult to comprehend. I’d grown up with some of the [previous winners] and I still read the same books to my daughter now that my mum read to me. It was absolutely amazing,” she said. The Kate Greenaway medal has been won in the past by Shirley Hughes, Raymond Briggs and Quentin Blake.

“I don’t know if [Harry & Hopper] is my best book but I feel like the words and pictures go together very well,” added Blackwood.” I felt the connection when I read the story and it was one of the easiest to visualise and to illustrate. Very early on I knew what Harry & Hopper would look like, it seemed quite intuitive.”

The Guardian


There are a number of picture books about a white boy whose dog dies. But too many of them end on an uplifting note with the replacement of the pet. One example is Scrumpy by Elizabeth Dale and Frederic Joos. The book opens like this:

Ben had a dog called Scrumpy_600x714
Ben and Scrumpy did everything together_600x693

At one point we think Ben is going to get a new cat, but our expectations are foiled; he gets a new dog. Female dog, this time. The author goes out of her way to impress upon the young reader that the new dog can never, ever replace Scrumpy.

irreplaceable Scrumpy_700x863

I wonder which of her books Blackwood considers her best?

We might compare this book to some of the others she has illustrated and make a guess at it ourselves?


For more children’s books about grief, see some selections at Children’s Books Heal blog.

For me, the most moving death-of-a-pet story is actually a song, by Gotye.

Gotye wrote this song about some friends of his who were letting go of their 21-year-old dog, who was called Bronte. He has said, “You don’t have to necessarily interpret it as a relationship between people and animals. You can flip it on its head and turn it into a group of animals letting go of this peculiar relationship with a human child they have in the forest.”

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Caleb by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman

Caleb book cover dark face

Caleb (1996) by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman is less picturebook (compound word), more ‘illustrated short story’ in typical picture book binding. In other words, the story could exist in its own right. The illustrations expand the story, sure, but unlike typical picture books for younger readers the words still make sense on their own. So perhaps this is best described as an illustrated short story for older readers — the most interesting kind of story I know (and sadly, the one most likely to go out of print or never make it to soft back, from what I can gather).

Gary Crew is a writer who defies convention in other ways as well. Not only in his story telling techniques and characterisations, but also in his ability to transcend age and genre boundaries. Take for example his hugely successful 1990 horror novel, Strange Objects (William Heinemann). Among numerous other awards and nominations, this book won the highly respected Children’s Book Council Book of the Year for Older Readers in Australia. But it was also short-listed in the adult category for the Crime Writer’s of America Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Award! Likewise, while Crew also writes picture books, more often than not they are written for older readers rather than the youngsters you might expect. So while Gary Crew is primarily marketed as a children’s writer, he is not constrained by marketing boundaries. Indeed, many of his books are ageless, able to be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

Australian Horror Writers’ Association


A gothic tale told in prose by a bookish, young university student. When he is assigned the precocious adolescent Caleb as his roommate it seems like disaster, but Caleb turns out to have amazing and gruesome talents.


Written in first person point of view, the character as narrator, Stuart Quill, describes his university room mate Caleb van Doorn. It’s clear to the reader from inference that Caleb is the human version of an insect. Both Stuart and Caleb are studying entomology. Caleb’s behaviour grows stranger and stranger. He never seems to eat, but is one day caught eating a bowl of raw meat, with blood all around his mouth. On a field trip these two are supposed to be sharing a tent. Instead, Caleb disappears into the forest and manages to find a great collection of very rare insects. In the end, a woman is murdered and Caleb goes missing. The mystery is never solved. But enough information is given to the reader for us to know exactly what happened: Caleb metamorphoses backwards  and forward between insect and human, and in some sort of ‘reverse sexual cannibalism’ (that’s what they call it, since it’s normally the females who eat the males), Miss Emily is killed.


The story of Caleb is a bit of a spoof on a genre of short story that was popular around Mary Shelley’s time, in which many readers would have seriously entertained the possibility that the supernatural events contained within were either true, or could be true. A modern audience responds differently. For us, the joy lies more firmly in the realm of fantasy rather than hypothesis. In any case, Gary Crew successfully emulates the formal style of the 18 and 1900s. Back then, a narrator with a firm grasp of learned language would be more easily believed. So the formality of the language would have added to the verisimilitude. Polysyllabic words are favoured over simple ones. Lengthy sentences are favoured over short, sharp ones. No unreliable narration here, folks:

Nor did the day-to-day rigours of education diminish my interest, particularly at high school, where all forms of science were a constant source of joy to me. And so, following graduation, it seemed quite natural that I should enrol in a science degree, majoring in biology.

The success of this story depends upon the reader knowing exactly what was happening without being told. To this end, we’re given plenty of clues about how Caleb is a sort of insect werewolf.

First, the narrator is ‘fascinated by insects’, and is fascinated especially by his room mate. Caleb van Doorn has insect-like qualities:

It was his voice that I heard first. A peculiar chirping sound that seemed to emanate from the back of his throat, rather than the larynx.

He was tall, well over six foot, and very thin. His head – which was little more than a skull with skin stretched over it – protruded from a high-collared shirt.

The description of the skull is reminiscent of an exoskeleton.

His acute thinness was accentuated by a loose-fitting vest of tan suede and a pair of dark-brown, heavily ribbed corduroy trousers pinched at the waist by a wide, black leather belt.

The belt sounds like it divides the body in two, seeming to create an insect-like division between abdomen and thorax.

The human race is filled with gangly youths, but it was Caleb’s eye-glasses – he was wearing pince-nez, a type of wingless spectacles that clamp on the bridge of the nose – which focused attention upon his most remarkable eyes. Blue-green they were, almost iridescent, while their unnatural enormity was further increased by the magnification of the lenses.

The eyes are a feature commonly described when authors offer thumbnail descriptions of a character. It’s not surprising that this feature is regularly highlighted in animal metaphors too.

‘Confined spaces don’t bother me,’ he answered. ‘Besides, look at this window. I can see the whole street. And the park.’

Physical similarities are only the start; once this has been set up, the author continues to find ways in which the character behaves like an insect would, or rather, as an insect would if that insect were human. Above, we have a creature used to small spaces (reminiscent of a chrysalis), and also one which either lives in trees or is used to flying, and most at home with a bird’s eye view of the world.

In lectures he was constantly wriggling, twisting this way and that and, worse, he had the habit of talking out loud… Curious little chirping noises he made…


The back flap of the hardback tells us that the ‘black plates’ were rendered in ink, with the background images on the text pages rendered in a combination of chalk and pencil. It’s significant that the black plates are indeed ‘black’ (heavily so, with a little white showing through the crosshatching). This is reminiscent of books of yesteryear, in which printing was so expensive that only black and white was possible. It was only much later that technologies allowed for full-colour printing. I’m guessing this is also the reason why the text is kept separate from the text. These days there’s no real reason to keep the text separate from the pictures, but if you look at a book from, say, fifty years ago, the pictures are printed on pages all their own, and sometimes on more glossy paper. Another modern book which emulates this practice of yesteryear is Gaiman and Mattotti’s Hansel and Gretel.

The only colour in Caleb is orange, mostly washed out, and therefore reminiscent of ‘old stuff’. There’s a bit of orange on the dust cover, and if you remove the dust cover you’ll find a browny orange, as if this is a very old book from long ago.

Apparently illustrator Steven Woolman majored in the sciences through high school, though studied design at tertiary level. In these pictures, his interest in science definitely shines through. Note that the washed-out anatomically correct drawings of insects tend to be cut-off, because the page of this book ends whereas it’s assumed the page of the drawings extends further. This ‘lopping off’ of the insects has a slightly unnerving effect. For example, we might see one spindly leg rather than the insect it belongs to. This technique is used also in the black plates, for example when Caleb leans over the narrator at his desk. The reader can’t see Caleb’s face, but we can see the shadow upon the wall, and that his head has a distinctly insect shape.

The heavy  use of low-angle perspective throughout Caleb reminds me of the picture books of Chris Van Allsburg, who is well-known for varying his perspective across a story in order to heighten and lessen tension, or simply to provide variety. In Caleb, we see a view of a character in shadow looking down at us from a high window, looking down upon us. We are therefore vulnerable, being that much smaller/lower, and can empathise somewhat with the precarious position of the narrator, who had to share rooms with this character after all. Woolman himself said that his illustrations were influenced by watching horror films, which may explain his heavy use of varying perspectives.

What’s with the recurring owl? If looking for symbolism, the owl is sacred to the Greek goddess of learning. So it’s fitting that an owl might be flitting around university lodgings. On a background page, the owl stares straight at the reader, though you may not notice it immediately, because you’ll be too busy reading the words. Once you notice you’re being stared at, the menacing vibe is clear. It becomes clear that the owl is a pet of the narrator, because we see it perched on his desk as he studies by lamplight. When we see a topdown view of the specimen room, with Miss Emily standing in the doorway, we’ve seen enough images of the owl to assume that this is a view from the owl’s perspective. Indeed, the narrator himself has a ‘panoramic’ view of proceedings mostly by virtue of hindsight; this story has happened many years earlier, and in that time the narrator has had time to gain some sort of over-arching perspective. In other words, the owl is perhaps a motif for the narrator. Personally, I think the owl should have been depicted as a ‘pointy eared’ kind, since at one point Caleb mentions this about the narrator.

European Owl
Night Time Madness by Douglas Smith reminds me of the architecturally detailed illustrations of Caleb.


Published 1996 by Era Publications which is, these days at least, an educational publisher.

Also available in soft back

And digitally on iBooks.

Sadly, Steven Woolman died young at age 34, back in 2004. He had already illustrated at least 25 distinct works.

Gary Crew is a prolific Australian author who writes children’s books and young adult fiction which sometimes crosses over as adult fiction.


The Ratcatcher by Roald Dahl

In this short story the first person narrator and his friend have a rat problem so they call on the Ratcatcher. The man they meet is very much like a rat himself, with long,sulphur coloured teeth, pointed ears and black eyes.

The man was lean brown with a  sharp face and two long sulphur coloured teeth that protruded from the upper jaw, overlapping the lower lip, pressing it inwards. The ears were thin and pointed and set far back on the nape of the neck.


Trying To Save Piggy Sneed

This is a short story about a man who was bullied, in which the other characters are forced to confront their own behaviour towards the bullied man after something unfortunate happens. The story is from Irving’s collection of the same name. Piggy Sneed (we don’t learn his real name) is taunted and teased by small-town children, who see a resemblance between the man and a pig:

We never bothered Mr Strout [the icebox man] either (because of his ice tongs and his fabulous aggression towards dogs, which we could easily imagine being turned towards us). But the garbage collector had nothing for us — no treats, no aggression — and so we children reserved our capacity for teasing and taunting (and otherwise making trouble) for him.

There were so many reasons for calling him ‘Piggy’, I wonder why one of us didn’t think of a more original name. To begin with, he lived on a pig farm. He raised pigs, he slaughtered pigs; more importantly, he lived with his pigs — it was just a pig farm, there was no farm house, there was only the barn. There was a single stovepipe running into one of the stalls. That stall was heated by a wood stove for Piggy Sneed’s comfort — and, we children imagined, his pigs (in the winter) would crowd around him for warmth. He certainly smelled that way.

Also he had absorbed, by the uniqueness of his retardation and by hisproximity to his animal friends, certain piglike expressions and gestures. His face would jut in front of his body when he approached the garbage cans, as if he were rooting (hungrily) underground; he squinted his small, red eyes; his nose twitched with all the vigor of a snout; there were deep pink wrinkles on the back of his neck —- and the pale bristles, which sprouted at random along his jawline, in no way resembled a beard. He was short, heavy, and strong — he heaved the garbage cans to his back, he hurled their contents into the wooden, slat-sided truck bed.

John Irving, from Trying To Save Piggy Sneed.
Home » Australia » Page 4

Possum Magic by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas

Possum Magic is a classic Australian picture book by Mem Fox. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BboBeS-vhjg


Grandma Poss uses bush magic to make a child possum (Hush) invisible so that Hush won’t be eaten by snakes. (I’m going to put aside the fact that snakes seem to ‘see’ via vibrations, so an invisibility superpower wouldn’t necessarily protect her…) But soon, Hush longs to be able to see herself again, the two possums make their way across Australia to find the ‘magic food’ (quintessentially Australian food) that will make Hush visible once more. Each  year on Hush’s birthday they eat the same food ‘just to make sure Hush doesn’t turn visible again’, thereby creating a kind of mythology about why (white) Australians eat certain foods as celebration.

In case you were wondering just how deep it’s possible to go in the analysis of a seemingly simple children’s story such as this one, Carolyn Daniel has much to say about Possum Magic in her book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature. First she points out that this is an example of a Quest Narrative.

Mem Fox’s Possum Magic is a quest narrative, following an ancient tradition in which a hero strives for something of value such as treasure or a beautiful woman. In this storybook the quest is for personal identity, a universal, internalized, and significantly contemporary goal. Grandma Poss makes Hush invisible to keep her safe from snakes. Hush has lots of adventures but there comes a time when she wants to be visible again. Most pertinently Hush wants “to know what [she] looks like.” In Julie Vivas’s illustration Grandma Poss leans over a pool of water witha  fuzzy outline of Hush beside her. But Hush has no reflection in the mirrored surface of the pool. Because she is invisible she lacks subjectivity and, therefore, agency.

The food in Possum Magic is obviously important, but did you know how important?

But Grandma Poss has trouble finding the magic to make Hush visible again and, although Hush tells her she doesn’t mind, “in her heart of hearts she did”. Eventually Grandma remembers that, “it’s something to do with food. People food—not possum food”. And she and Hush set off around Australia to find the food that will make Hush visible.


The foods that Grandma Poss and Hush eat are seen to be quintessentially Australian and their journey is a search for national and cultural identity as well as visibility or subjectivity. Fox’s narrative suggests that an individual’s sense of self does not arise spontaneously but is derived by literally consuming culture. By eating these significantly Australian foods Hush becomes visible and can be recognized as having a legitimate place within Australian society; she thus eats her way into culture. This reflects and supports the notion that ‘we are what we eat’ and that food narratives teach children how to be proper human subjects.

When we say this is an ‘Australian’ picturebook we should be careful to acknowledge that it represents a particular part of Australia and not its whole. She also offers a great example of the word ‘metonymically‘, which comes in handy when talking about picture books:

Applying a post-colonial reading to this storybook, which was published in the early 1980s, it is pertinent to point out, however, that the national and cultural identity Fox writes about is limited: geographically to the coastal regions of Australia and gastronomically to exclude indigenous foods and flavours.

In Fox’s narrative food is the magic that makes Hush visible. It constructs her as a subject and thus may be said to stand in, metonymically, for culture itself. For Michel Foucault culture is the magic that makes individuals visible. Following Nietzsche, Foucault argues that cultural discourses of truth, power, and knowledge distinguish between normal and deviant behaviour, thus determining individuals’ actions and constructing them as subjects. For Foucault power does not “crush” individuals; it does not need to because

[it is] one of the prime effects of power that certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses, certain desires, come to be identified and constituted as individuals… The individual is an effect of power, and at the same time, or precisely to the extent to which it is that effect, it is the element of its articulation. The individual which power has constituted is at the same time its vehicle.

In Fox’s story the consumption of certain foods constitutes Hush as an individual. The various foods might be said to carry certain discourses or stories about what it means to be Australian, including lifestyle, attitudes, desires, and even power relations (who gets the biggest slice?). As Hush consumes these foods, she also consumes Australian-ness and is constituted as an Australian. As a visibly legitimate Australian subject Hush embodies culture or as Foucault puts it, she is an “effect of power.” Simultaneously she is also “the element of its articulation.” Hence by her annually repeated consumption of proper Australian food/culture she confirms, for all those (child readers) now able to see her, just what it means to be Australian.

And the feminist reading:

Having eaten into Australian culture, Hush is visibly an individual. Grandma Poss is additionally visibly designated as specifically female by the apron she wears (notably she is the only character in the book who is clothed). Judith Butler argues that the body is “always ready a cultural sign” and is “never free of an imaginary construction” as either male or female. To Foucault’s argument that there is no position outside power/knowledge,” Butler adds there is no classification outside of the culturally assigned binary opposites male and female. For Butler embodying culture means acquiring the necessary skillls, “bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds,” to “constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. Butler argues that the bdoy is a politically regulated cultural construct,” “a signifying  practice within a cultural field of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality”. Gender is an “act” which is both “intentional” and “performative”. It is “a strategy of survival within compulsory systems” performed through a “stylized repetition of acts” under “duress”. For Butler then, gender is performed rather than possessed. Its performance must be reiterated repeatedly in order that the illusion appear natural. Each and every successful performance reiterates the systems of power relations that produce the illusions in the first place. Even something as simple as Grandma Poss’s apron reinforces the systems of power relations that produce the illusion of femininity. The apron is a symbol of domesticity, a stereotypical accoutrement of the maternal figure in children’s fiction. Grandma Poss’s apron is metonymic of culture; it defines her and serves to reiterate the definition of proper femininity.

I didn’t grow up in Australia, but live here as an adult, so I approach this particular picture book both as a foreigner and as an outsider.

Possum Magic Numbers inside
There is now a counting book to accompany the original story.


Strong Sense Of Place

There are now a lot of Australian picture books which star local fauna. Many of them are fairly pedestrian, introducing the young reader to the names of the creatures and perhaps what they eat and their circadian rhythms, but this story is particularly well done because of the mixture of local fauna (beautifully anthropomorphised), Australian food (for humans), Australian geography and Australian dialect. Few Australian picture books manage to combine all of those things, and so Possum Magic has become for Australians like a celebration of Australia. Indeed, this is a book by an Australian, written for Australians, and there was a time when this in itself was something to be celebrated.

In the years that I’d been reading to Chloë I’d been shocked and dismayed by the very few Australian books available for Australian children so I determined to write a very Australian book.

Mem Fox

Not every member of the international audience appreciates the book’s content. I suspect this is a reflection on how many books are exported from America, compared to the very small proportion imported to America:

Another book we had to read for school and another weird one. It was included with our history lessons and we had to read it to coincide with Australia. A lot of new words included with foreign animals, that make it difficult to learn because there’s nothing telling us what the animal is, even though there are pictures. So for example, you have a page with lots of animals and words that talk about wombats, kookaburras, dingoes, emus, and bush magic. To a 5 yr old with no knowledge of these animals, it makes it very confusing. We had to stop and talk about each one, but still, it was hard for him to remember the difference. Our lesson includes a song about kookaburras that my son really likes, so now after we’ve learned the song, it’s easy to remember the word, but the book wasn’t as helpful in that. Still, if you’ve the time to explain all the stuff in the book, it gives somewhat of an idea of some of Australian animals. Not enough info to be helpful, although the pictures were nice.


The consumer above is describing, nay lamenting, that they as parent are required to have a dialogic reading experience with their own child.

The Wacky Plot Does Not Need Explaining

Perhaps one difference between writing for young children and writing for adults in general is that in picture books an author can present any number of strange and unlikely things, and the audience will accept it — not as fact, but as a part of the story. So it is with Possum Magic; of course you turn invisible with a potion, and of course the only way to make yourself visible again is to travel around the country eating typically Australian junk food. Anything is possible in a world where possums talk, and wear glasses and sneakers. Things do make sense within the world of the story (somewhat): ‘…which is why Grandma Poss had made her invisible in the first place’.

To extend this idea a little further, though it is true that young children will accept almost anything  in a well-written story, this is precisely the reason we need to be careful about offering them stories with a modern ideology. When there is the symbolic annihilation of non-whites and female characters, and world-views which should have gone the way of the dodo, it’s not that the child reader doesn’t notice; it’s because these ideas are being so thoroughly taken on board that the ideas themselves seem invisible.


Not every picturebook author can get away with this: Half rhyming, half not rhyming. But Mem Fox does:


Grandma Poss made bush magic./She made wombats blue and/kookaburras pink.

She made dingoes smile and emus shrink.

Not rhyming:

But the best magic of all was

the magic that made Hush INVISIBLE.

How exactly does Fox get away with this combination? The rhyming accompanies the most magical parts of the story, for example when Grandma Poss is looking at her recipe books. When she’s not rhyming, she’s making use of some other technique, such as alliteration or repetition…

Rule of Three

Again, this popular technique is employed here, with three sequences that begin with: Because she couldn’t be seen…’


Julie Vivas is a master of watercolour. A lot of picturebooks have been illustrated with watercolour used as a kind of textured fill, but the watercolour line in this book is delicate and precise.

An artistic problem that Julie Vivas would have had to overcome is, ‘how to depict an animal that is invisible’? She deftly resolved this issue by painting a furry outline.

possum magic invisibility

The white background allows the detail and texture of the paintings to shine.

Below is the image from the front cover. The magic is represented by colourful stars.

One reviewer on Goodreads notes that Grandma Poss reminds him of Grandma Moses off the Beverly Hillbillies. I suppose Grandma Poss might be the picturebook version of the Cool Old Lady trope. Like Grandma Moses makes medicine in an old copper stiff, Grandma Poss uses bush magic to protect her grandchild from snakes. One distinctive thing about possums is their big, dark eyes. Vivas has made the most of this feature by giving Grandma Poss a pair of glasses. Notice how the characters have been drawn to be as endearing as possible. Even the names are endearing: Hush and Grandma Poss (shortened from possum, which is in itself a very Australian thing to do).

possum magic apron and stars

The character illustrations are full of life. Notice the children sitting on the form bench; they are not just sitting, but absolutely in motion, drinking a juice box, leaning forward, biting into lunch.

possum magic grandma


496 words

Between 30-32 pp, depending on the edition

Published 1983, this was Mem Fox’s first book. She famously didn’t find it easy to find a publisher, but we say that of any book that took off later, don’t we? Almost all books, no matter how classic they become, find it difficult to get a placement at a publishing house.

Older editions of Possum Magic feature a map of Australia with place names. I wonder why publishers have decided to take this out of earlier versions (or perhaps it is simply an Australian/International publication difference, in which case Australians wouldn’t necessarily need a map).


Other Australian classics include Shy the Platypus and Wombat Stew.

Shy The Platypus

Like Possum MagicWombat Stew is a popular musical for children. My daughter went to it on a class trip in kindergarten and loved it.

Wombat Stew


Perhaps you’re sufficiently familiar with a specific place/culture that you’re able to introduce a lesser-known animal or plant or custom or food to a young reader.

Possum Magic is a kind of faux-folktale, in that the story explains why Australians eat certain foods once per year on their birthdays. What other aspects of a young reader’s life could be ‘folklorised’ in similar fashion?

Welcome Night Poems chosen by Richard Brown and Kate Ruttle, Illustrated By Nick Maland (published by Cambridge University Press, 1996
Welcome Night Poems chosen by Richard Brown and Kate Ruttle, Illustrated By Nick Maland (published by Cambridge University Press, 1996
Welcome Night Poems chosen by Richard Brown and Kate Ruttle, Illustrated By Nick Maland (published by Cambridge University Press, 1996
Welcome Night Poems chosen by Richard Brown and Kate Ruttle, Illustrated By Nick Maland (published by Cambridge University Press, 1996
Home » Australia » Page 4

Tough Boris by Mem Fox and Kathryn Brown

Tough Boris Mem Fox

Tough Boris is an Australian-American pirate picture book published in 1994. As fodder for stories, ocean piracy has never been out of fashion. Especially in stories with an implied readership of boys, the pirates of modern picture books are often comical rather than scary; jovial rather than evil. Pirate stories bear little to no resemblance to the actual crime of piracy, which is alive and well in the world today.

Boris von der Borch is a mean, greedy old pirate–tough as nails, through and through, like all pirates. Or is he? When a young boy sneaks onto Boris’s ship, he discovers that Boris and his mates aren’t quite what he expected.


What is the allure of pirates, and what kind of stories can they tell the modern reader? In this particular story, ‘pirate’ is a visual metaphor for ‘masculinity’. This is the age of the antihero; for adults see Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire etc.

Marjery Hourihan breaks down the difference between pirates and heroes in her book Deconstructing The Hero:


Marjery Hourihan, Deconstructing The Hero

This picturebook breaks down the dichotomy between pirates and heroes.


As is increasingly common in high quality modern picturebooks, a very simple text is complemented by a series of illustrations which depict the bulk of the narrative. The text simply lists a number of attributes of a pirate called Boris von der Borch. The illustrations tell the story of the time the pirates went shore to search for hidden treasure. (They have a map.) The pirates find a boy on shore and steal his violin.

Tough Boris All Pirates Are Scruffy

It’s not clear how the child gets onto the pirate ship afterwards — perhaps the pirates stole the boy as a slave, or perhaps the child somehow managed to find his own way onto the ship (less likely, perhaps?) but either way, we see the child looking on as the pirates scuffle and fight, not knowing what the violin is for. The child stowaway breaks into Boris’s cabin one night and takes it back, seeking refuge below deck until he is found by a hoard of scary-looking pirates. When the boy plays the violin for the pirates he is accepted as one of the passengers. Then, Boris’s beloved green parrot dies of unknown causes.

The violin case is used as a coffin for the parrot, then ‘buried’ at sea. Boris gets one of his worker pirates to row ashore in a dinghy. But this trip is also to return the stowaway to the shore. After enjoying his time onboard the pirate ship, bonding with the scallywag pirates, getting to know what they’re like, he is now abandoned, alone once again on a beach. Boris has given the boy back his violin, perhaps because he will always be reminded of his beloved parrot if he were to keep the violin, and the boy.


This is a picturebook which rewards close reading of the illustrations. Indeed, the reader is unlikely to grasp the full story upon first or second reading, as explained by this Goodreads reviewer:

I didn’t really like this book at first. But it fit well for our pirate book club parties. Then after I read it for the tenth (or so) time, I discovered that I really liked the tender story told in the pictures and not in the actual words.

Because of the dual storyline, either the text or the pictures is likely to appeal to a different audience:

[T]his is a story for young little kids, like my nephew, who think pirates are cool. Pirates are all tough, pirates are all massive, pirates are all scary, pirates are all scruffy. Little kids get that, and agree with it. That is a pirate as little kids know him. The word story was the one my nephew was responding to. Tough Boris is also a story for older kids, but *that* story is told through the pictures, and that story is more complex and more suspenseful than the story told in words. The story in the pictures is the one that my eight year old niece was tuned in to. Where the two stories, merge, though, is in the end, and that ending is appropriate to both the word story and the picture story.


Front cover aside, the story begins on the colophon page, where a boy looks out to sea at a ship. Unless you notice that the boy is holding a violin case, you may not realise that the violin initially belonged to the boy. There is no scene in which we are shown the pirate taking the violin from the boy. This is significant; the story is written by a character as storyteller — by the character of the boy, supposedly a long while after the story happened (Once upon a time, there lived…) , and during this time the boy has had time to reflect on the pirates’ true characters, ameliorating them somewhat. Boris is spoken of with unlikely affection, given that he stole the boy’s violin; ‘pirates are all like this, and so it was no surprise that Boris was too.’

This is the case for any unlikely picturebook narrative, but one interpretation is that this entire story is the wish fulfilment of a lonely boy who plays on the beach, wishing some pirates would turn up. The stereotypical dress and characterisation of the pirates, from the golden hoop earrings to the eye-patches to the parrot on the shoulder all point to a scenario which has been wholly imagined.


We see some juxtaposition in the illustrations — Tough Boris wears traditional pirate garb (as do all of the pirates) but if you look closely at the pattern on his red coat, you’ll see it is embroidered in flowers, which would look perfectly at home on the apron of a kindly grandmother. Although he has the typically haggard face of a fairytale pirate, he gazes lovingly into his parrot’s eyes. He is more interested in the parrot than in the treasure map held before him. His smile is part grimace, but a smile nonetheless.

Boris seems less tough than he might otherwise in juxtaposition with the other pirates, who we never see smiling. It seems it wasn’t actually Boris who stole the violin, but the pirate with the eye patch and the blue and white stripes. Boris has been canoodling with his parrot all the while. It’s not Boris who holds the pirate flag. Boris stands around, or out of the action, much like the boy. We see Boris in pyjamas (a slightly vulnerable state of dress) but the other pirates are always ‘in costume’.

The boy’s integration into the world of the pirates is symbolised by the red kerchief, which he first wears around his neck, then ties around his head, pirate-style.

The young reader is encouraged to identify with the child character, not just because the character is a child, but because of the point of view of some of the illustrations. We see ‘over-the-shoulder’ shots (or versions thereof) first on the aforementioned colophon page, with the boy sitting on the hanging rock, looking out to sea, and again on the ‘He was greedy’ page, in which the boy is high up at the top of a mast, looking down onto the deck as we do.

On the following page, the haggard, evil, Tough Boris seems somehow vulnerable, clutching such a delicate object as a violin, not knowing what it is for but nevertheless treasuring it.

“All pirates are greedy,” we read on the following page, as we see the boy take the violin. The boy, too, is ‘greedy’ (insofar as one can be greedy, taking back one’s own property). The boy is now a pirate. We have seen him two pages back untying his red kerchief from around his neck, and next time we see him (peeking out from the stairs leading below deck) he has fastened it around his head.

The parrot joins the boy below deck, as a bridge between the world of the pirates and the lonely life of the boy.

The loop of noose-like rope hanging from the ceiling below deck seems portentous after we know the fate of the green parrot. The parrot sort of saves the boy from the swipe of Boris’s sword by coming between them.

We don’t know how much time passes before the parrot dies. When we learn the parrot has died, we are shown a long shot of the ship, when all of the proceeding scenes have been medium shots and medium close-ups of life onboard. Death is bigger than anything we know or can depict — the long shot is therefore a good choice. Not only that — the metaphor of ‘out to sea’ springs to mind, as a description of the state of mind of the recently bereft.

It is the boy who approaches the pirate in his grief, and supposedly offers the violin case as a coffin. The pirate and the boy are shown with matching body language — heads down, slumped. The boy is halfway through the door — he is halfway to becoming a pirate, with Tough Boris as a father figure.

Of course, he doesn’t quite make it. He is abandoned onshore. Notice the large ship with the dinghy being towed behind it — a father/son metaphor.

Tough Boris final scene

The message of this picturebook comes through loud and clear: Fathers cry, not just sons. Feelings of abandonment and loneliness and grief are good reasons to cry.


Published by Puffin in 1994.

Mem Fox is one of Australia’s best known children’s book authors and literacy experts, perhaps most famous for Possum Magic, published in 1978 and which has since become an Australian childhood classic. By the time she wrote Tough Boris she had already published about 20 picture books.

Illustrator Kathryn Brown is American, making this an Australian/American collaboration. Brown has illustrated a number of picture books as well as written her own.


Here is a list of kidlit about pirates from CLCD, including books for older readers, not just picturebooks.

Pirate Jenny by Nina Simone. 

The lyrics are about a scrubber woman from the south who dreams of ruling the world by becoming a pirate and killing the people who keep her in her place. Her imagination helps her get through the day, where she is told to get on with her scrubbing.


Photos of a pretty cool pirate themed bedroom

When Pirates Ruled America, a podcast

Home » Australia » Page 4

Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs

Mr Chicken Goes To Paris Cover

Mr Chicken Goes To Paris is a carnivalesque picture book about a chicken who goes to Paris on holiday.

For a whiff of the Foreign, film makers often turn to France and especially Paris. The same is true in children’s films, from “Ratatouille” to “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” And the same is true in children’s books.

Jerry Griswold, Paris in Children’s Books


Not a high concept book — indeed, a chicken goes to Paris. For a holiday. It’s what it says on the tin. This is a third-person version of someone’s summary of a trip, of the kind it’s possible to get quite bored of, unless, of course, the holiday maker happens to be an enormous chicken. A reader’s enjoyment of this story will depend on how funny they think huge chickens are.

There is no real story to this poultry’s holiday and each page jumps to one of Paris’ famous tourist attractions.

– 3 Star Goodreads Review

I’m approximately 30 years older than the target audience, I thought this was rather adorable.

– 4 Star Goodreads Review


The main drawcard of this story is the disproportionate size of the chicken, who grows larger and larger as the story progresses. Ostensibly, this is because Monsieur Poulet eats too much delicious French food. As a side note, my only criticism of this book is that it is suggested Mr Poulet go on a diet. I’m no fan of mentions of dieting in children’s books because of the huge pressure on young people (especially on girls) to look slim. The story would have worked without that, as in Avocado Baby, an old book I remember from childhood, in which food is seen as nourishing, and can be used to bulk a picture book character up to a ridiculous extent nonetheless.

Avocado Baby John Burningham Cover

Here is Mr Chicken on a plane:

Mr Chicken On The Plane
Illustration by Achille Wildi, circa 1955
Illustration by Achille Wildi, circa 1955

Someone pointed out on Goodreads that Mr Chicken looks more like an alien than a chicken, and I hadn’t considered until then that this is probably intended. Mr Chicken is indeed an ‘alien’ in Paris, in the foreigner sense, and this books becomes a metaphor for not fitting in because you look different. As someone who lived for a year in a tiny Japanese village where the only other white person was the French guy who owned a restaurant, I can tell you that being a significant minority really does impact the way you experience life. And everyone should ideally experience that once. If that’s not possible, there are always books.

Mr Chicken At An Art Gallery

Notice the use of colour (or lack of it) in the illustration above. Mr Chicken is conspicuous not just because of his size (and because he is a chicken) but because he suddenly feels bright yellow, emphasised by the unsaturated sepia tones all around him. You’ll notice the bystanders looking with fright and surprise at Mr Chicken, though the comedy happens when none of them do a thing. Indeed, when Mr Chicken asks someone to take his photo, the someone politely agrees, as if seeing an enormous talking chicken is an everyday event.

The interesting thing about this is that children are often required, when reading picture books, especially, to believe that talking, house-dwelling animals are a thing, or at least, a stand-in for humans. This book isn’t quite like that. The reader is required to understand that a giant talking chicken in Paris is an unusual thing, even in the fantastical world of a picture book. Indeed, unless the reader gets this joke, the book is just another talking animal story.

This is exactly why an understated text is the perfect choice. If you were to read the text without the pictures, you’d find that it’s rather boring. The contrast between The Everyday of the text and The Fantasy of the illustrations creates a pleasant irony, and allows the story to work as a comment on difference.

I know educators are always looking to link picture books in with the curriculum, and this book includes a number of French words which would be useful in a primary school or beginner high school French program. (There’s a list of the words with their meanings on the front endpapers.)

This book would be a useful cross-curricular resource if themes such as Paris, France, tourism, foreign language, etc. were on the agenda.

3 Star Goodreads Review


It would be easy to think that these scampy looking illustrations don’t require much in the way of skill, but I can assure you it’s as difficult to produce something sketchy and full of movement as it is to produce something more photorealistic. These illustrations are in the style of Quentin Blake or Ronald Searle.

[Searle’s] work has had a great deal of influence, particularly on American cartoonists, including Pat OliphantMatt GroeningHilary Knight,  and the animators of Disney’s 101 Dalmatians.

He was an early influence on John Lennon‘s drawing style which featured in the books In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works.

– Wikipedia

I’d love to know how long it takes Leigh Hobbs to produce each sketch. For all I know it takes ages. The point is, it looks very fast. Line drawings are coloured with rapid-looking colour washes which do not keep within the boundaries of the lines. Like Mr Chicken himself, the colour is its own ‘rogue visitor’, out-of-place.

This sketchy, un-careful way art style is well-suited to tall tales which are humorous. I also love photorealism in tall tales — in that case we can marvel that something like that might really exist — but when the illustrations are sketchy like this, the reader is told very clearly via the pictures that this cannot possibly exist. Come on, share the joke with me.

Another advantage of this kind of art is that the people look like no one and everyone both at once. With dots for eyes and one sausage-type of nose, these people are without their own personalities — they are just people. However, the washes suggest everyone is nonetheless a white person, and I know Paris is not quite that white these days, and certainly not in the tourist spots.

The other nice thing about unfussy, sketchy styles is that young readers are given confidence to keep drawing. Most children draw confidently, but most then lose that confidence and stop drawing altogether. If your young reader is in danger of leaving behind their creative years, show them this book then sit down to sketch a few ridiculous scenes together, revelling in the joy of creating something unique, even if it’s not ‘good’.

(It’s worth mentioning at this point that Leigh Hobbs is an art teacher and that his illustrations are ‘good’. It’s the illusion of easy execution we’re working from, here.)

I think of myself as an artist first and a writer second.

Draw lots, write lots. Look at art books. Not just children’s books. You can never draw too well.

– Leigh Hobbs


Leigh Hobbs has written/illustrated at least 20 books and is therefore one of Australia’s best-known children’s authors. The Old Tom series was turned into a TV series.

First published in 2009, paperback edition published 2011. This seems to be the most popular of the Mr Chicken books. If not, it’s the easiest to get a hold of. The book is reasonably large — always the best choice for books about humorously large subject matter. This is one aspect of print books that is not as easy to replicate in apps. Apps are better for ‘peephole’ or suspenseful stories, which culminate in a gradual revelation of surprise, perhaps by requiring the readers to scroll/tilt/press.


One of my own childhood favourites is an American book called The Biggest Sandwich Ever written by Rita G. Gelman, illustrated by Mort Gerberg. My teacher read it when I was five and then I convinced my mother to buy it for me via Lucky Book Club. Like the enormous chicken in Hobbs’ books, the enormity of the sandwich is fascinating to a young reader. I can’t explain why, but kids love incongruities and especially incongruities of scale.

The Biggest Sandwich Ever Cover

For a more contemporary comparison, this time about an enormous teddy bear, see Jez Alborough:

Another book (in French) about an animal in Paris. Perhaps because Paris is known for being the city for lovers, it’s particularly incongruous and humorous to see an animal do the tourist thing there.


Back in 2011 a study was released which showed that boys were almost twice as likely to appear in children’s books as girls. The ABC (Australian) produced a radio piece on this and interviewed a local author, who happened to be Leigh Hobbs. Leigh Hobbs says something like, “I hate this kind of crap.” Meaning, people whinging about diversity. He then went on to say that for his books, at least, the gender was even. If you listen to the piece all the way through, you’ll find the journalists did a count up of Leigh Hobbs’ books and found that his books are gender imbalanced in typical fashion.

I wonder if Leigh Hobbs has changed his mind after listening to the radio piece. I’d love to know if he has, because every time I look at this book, which my daughter really loves, I’m reminded of his radio splutter, and few things annoy me more than white men who simply won’t acknowledge that the space that white men occupy in the world is indeed disproportionate.

Eloise in Paris by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight
Eloise in Paris by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight

Mr Chicken Lands On London was released in 2014, currently available in hardback.

Home » Australia » Page 4

Where Is The Green Sheep?

Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek cover

Where Is The Green Sheep? is an Australian picture book written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Judy Horacek. I know many preschoolers who count this as among their favourite books. It has certainly been a favourite around here, and my daughter has memorised it.

Part of the magic is to do with the fact that this is a book which encourages dialogic reading.

What is dialogic reading?

The process of having a dialogue with students around the text they are reading. This dialogue involves asking questions to help children explore the text at a deeper level, including defining new words, analyzing the components of a story and being able to talk about the text.



The reader is introduced to a number of different kinds of sheep (making use of various simple adjectives), but at various points asked, ‘But where is the green sheep?’ The green sheep appears on the final page, of course. The sheep looks green because it is fast asleep under a green bush.

This technique offers a touch of the postmodern. Anthony Browne makes picture books for older readers, but like this one for the preschool set, encourages readers to examine the pictures for camouflaged Easter Eggs. Young readers will be better positioned to read the more sophisticated Browne books if they’ve been exposed to Where Is The Green Sheep? as two- and three-year-olds.

The Anthony Browne example below is from Look What I’ve Got (1980).


First, there is the simplicity of language. Some (more complex) picturebooks introduce young readers to new situations and, as a consequence, to new words. This book is a real ‘comfort’ read. There will be very few words a 3 year old doesn’t already know. I’m guessing this is the reason my own daughter managed to memorise it, and it makes an excellent early reader, too, as emergent readers will be able to memorise the sentences and then connect them to the text.

Sometimes when reading a picturebook I think, ‘Gosh, who would have thought of that, and isn’t it clever?’ This book has that effect on me. Mem Fox’s brilliance as a writer for children comes from her ability to see the world in a slightly off-beat way. Of course a sheep sleeping under a bush looks green, but who else would have thought of it? This is exactly the way a child thinks, before learning that no, the sheep is still sheep-colour — the bush is distinct but green.

That said, for all we know the inspiration to make the sheep green due to the bush came from the illustrator. But since I have to guess I’d say the author and illustrator worked quite closely on it. The nice thing about the final page is that there is nothing in the text which mentions the bush. Any mention of a bush would be redundant, since there’s a picture of one.


This was the first book illustrated by Judy Horacek, who has since gone on to illustrate more, including Good Night, Sleep Tight and The Story of Growl.

Horacek’s illustrations are full of bright colours, and the shapes are outlined in black lines. Notice that board books also tend to make use of this illustration style — I think I heard that young eyes are better able to focus on pictures with clear delineations in form, and this book has me wondering if children prefer this style of illustration even after their eyes have become accustomed to subtle gradations of colour. Or is it that older children have learnt that illustrations done in this style have been created just for them?

Children respond very well to humorous faces on animals, especially. The faces of the sheep are two dots for eyes and a curve for a mouth. The open mouths sometimes offer more in the way of expression on these sheep. (Many anthropomorphised animals in picturebooks are drawn with eyebrows even though animals don’t have eyebrows simply because it’s difficult to convey the full range of human-like emotion without them.) Here, the personalities of the sheep are conveyed mainly via their body language. A red sheep does a ‘handstand’ on top of a hill, using only one leg. (See picture above.) The humour of this is amplified because we’ve just been shown a blue sheep standing like an everyday sheep, in a paddock. The blueness of it is ridiculous enough. In other words, the ‘ridiculousness’ of the illustrations build up gradually, with the sheep starting off more sheep-like, progressing into being more human-like, and eventually ending up in ‘tall-story‘-like situations such as standing on the moon.

Here Is The Bath Sheep – but sheep don’t have baths!
And Here Is The Bed Sheep – but sheep don’t sleep in human beds!

So not only do sheep have baths like people, they are also literate!

When adjectives are introduced they are exaggerated for humour. The thin sheep is a very thin, unlikely looking creature; the wide sheep is equally unlikely.

Each sheep in this book looks happy. There is a real carnival feeling running all the way through.

My daughter’s favourite page is what I will call the ‘Where’s Wally Sheep page’, just before the end, in which we are shown an entire page of sheep: playing in a sandpit, flying with angel wings, wearing a tropical fruit hat, eating a birthday cake etc.

My kid likes to use her fingers as legs and make a play out of walking around the scene, joining in with the cake-eating scene, wishing the sheep a happy birthday. It was me who introduced this possibility to her on one reading, and now we must linger every single time. In effect, this is a ‘look’ page, similar to a page of Richard Scarry’s lookbooks, and is designed to be gazed at for a while before reaching the climax. Interaction occurs when the child and adult co-reader are given the opportunity to ask questions: ‘Why do you think that sheep might be crying?’ Despite the simplicity of illustration and language — and perhaps because of it — this story reaches far beyond the page, extending into the reader’s imagination.


Published by Penguin imprint Viking, Australia 2004.


Simplicity wins the day. Margaret Wise Brown was another author who mastered simplicity of plot to great effect. A standout example is Goodnight Moon.

Home » Australia » Page 4

Asian-Australian Children’s Literature

There are only a small number of Asian-Australian authors writing about Asia in children’s/young adult fiction and there are very few books where the first-person narrator or main character is Asian or Asian-Australian.

Also surprisingly, there are very few Australian works with Asian content that have been translated into an Asian language – translations are primarily made up of award-winning or well-known Australian authors (such as Pamela Allen and Mem Fox) and works that invoke iconic imagery of Australia such as the bush and the Anzac legend.

While anime and manga are growing in popularity globally, there are very few such works published in Australia or by Australian writers for children or young adults. Queenie Chan and Madeleine Rosca have written original English language manga, and Emily Rodda’s Deltora Quest has been adapted into both anime and manga, so it will be interesting to see what the future holds with respect to these issues.

How Children’s Literature Shapes Attitudes To Asia, The Conversation

Here are a few examples:

  • The Little Refugee by Ahn Do
  • The Tale of Temujin by Sarah Brennan
  • Samurai Kids by Sandy Fussell

The Rainbow by Gary Crew and Gregory Rogers

Published in 2001 by Lothian Books (an imprint of Hachette Children’s Books specialising in Australian tales), The Rainbow is an adventure story about three boys who find something gruesome in the wild. I was reminded a little of Stand By Me.


This story is written from first person point of view, and the reader is therefore encouraged to identify with this voice. This is the voice of a younger brother, who tags along with his older brother and friend. Like the reader, the first-person narrator is an outsider. This makes it easy to identify with him. In the picture above, the narrator is shown trailing behind. The two older boys are together, both physically and emotionally. The younger boy is also a bookish boy, who writes of his love of storytelling. He loves that his teacher reads Robinson Crusoe aloud. This is the sort of character oft picked to be the narrator: Such lovers of everyday beauty are the best characters for picking out details.

The landscape is distinctively Australian, with the ochre pastels depicting local fauna. Pastel is a good choice for depicting characters who stand in for the ‘everyreader’. Pastel does not allow the depiction of fine details, so like the most rudimentary smiley face icon, these featureless faces could be anyone. They could even be you. There is also something eerie about a featureless face, and this book offers eerie in broad, Australian daylight. The strength of pastel as a medium is in its ability to render texture. The texture of the footpath looks beautiful on the page. The picture of a boy’s shadow next to a police officer’s feet also gets around the problem that medium to close up shots would have — the boys’ faces are able to remain indistinct to the reader.


Death is uncomfortably close in this story — the circle of life is explored from the start, when the little brother expresses concern about feeding one little fish to a bigger one. The older boy tells him that this is the law of nature. ‘I don’t suppose you ever eat lamb roast on weekends?’ In this way, child readers are asked to think about their own role in the cycle of life and death.here is the story of a girl’s drowning years before. The illustration to accompany this text on the recto side of the page shows dark corners, shaded from the sun by trees, and dark water holes which remind me of traditional illustrations of Waltzing Matilda. (And we all know how that ended.) Even the father is gone, mentioned in past tense. The ephemeral nature of objects themselves is also part of the story. ‘My drawings for the Audrey were gone, although that was to be expected. Certain things aren’t made to last.’

There is big talk of the kind frequently seen in storybooks — the bigger boys tell the younger, more gullible boy made up tales about things they have seen floating down the river, including a hand waving from a caravan. The younger boy says it was probably The Queen, lending a little bit of humour, and this almost always has the effect of making a dark tale darker.

And then all three boys get spooked after happening upon bones. The carcass looks ominously human. After alerting an uninterested policeman, they learn that these are dog bones. Although there is no human death in the world of this story, it is just distant enough to be a menace. In many stories for children, dogs are as human as the characters, so although the death is brushed off by the adult, the death of a dog is significant for a child. It is a death all the same.

There is another small death, of sorts, at the end of the book when the younger boy sits by a window. Geoffrey and Bruce are no longer interested in playing with him much at the creek — they only go down to the creek if they can take girls. This is the death of childhood, seen first in the older boys, but which is inevitably coming for the younger one too.

What about the crystal, found when the narrator went back to the creek to look for his mother’s lost hammer? The crystal makes a rainbow across his page, like the one he saw right before they found the dog bones.

Rainbows can symbolise many things of course, but in The Rainbow I think that the intermittent appearance of rainbows symbolise those flashes and memories of childhood we get, even after the mystery and childlike wonder of the world has dissipated. Like the character in Chris Allburgh’s The Polar Express, this child narrator grows up, but manages to cling onto some of the beauty of boyhood.

Norton’s Hut by John Marsden

Norton's Hut John Marsden

Norton’s Hut is an out-of-print Australian picture book, the second picture book written by John Marsden, and illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe.

The following notes are from Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 04: Author and Illustrator Devices presented by David Beagley, La Trobe University, podcast available on iTunes U.


When a young group of hikers gets lost in a blinding snow storm they find shelter in an abandoned hut. Inside the hut they find a man who ignores them and by morning has disappeared. After they are rescued, they question whether the strange events really occurred.

The cover of Norton’s Hut depicts a lonely, tiny hut. The weather contrasts with the window light. We know what time of day it is by the light in the sky. Gouldthorpe illustrates in a photorealistic way.  Illustrator Gouldthorpe is from Tasmania, though this book is not set in Tasmania. The cover gives clues, but whether the clues are accurate, we’ll have to read the book to see. Covers can be red herrings.

What Is A Red Herring?

Red herrings are false leads intended to keep the sleuth and the reader guessing, or send them off-course, making the big reveal more surprising.

This is a technique required in mysteries of all kinds.


The peritext can also contain specific elements to place the story. In picture books we often need the peritext because there’s nothing in the story to tell us, for example, that it is set in a concentration camp. Title pages are a part of the story itself.

The end papers in Norton’s Hut are a black and white depiction of a snow landscape.


On page one we see someone tramping. The point of view positions the reader as if we are walking behind; we are one of them. “We caught our first glimpse of the hut late afternoon…” There are two pictures, one laid over top of the other. This is a montage effect often seen with photographs. You stick a lot of photos together to get a full panorama.

This is for two slightly different effects: First it’s time-lapsed. It’s also to position you in relation to the characters. You’ve looking down on them. The reader gets the idea of the passing of time, the difficulty. The reader is encouraged to pass judgement about the characters.


The bird is a crow or a raven, often used in literature, particularly old literature going back centuries, as a symbol of death, more specifically of big strugglefields. Why not a rosella or an orange belly parrot? The beautiful birds that we have through those eastern ranges of Victoria are not in the picture. The crow looks down on the group. This is particular use of form and structure and symbolism, where the picture gives suggestions. This point of view gives an idea of the vastness of the landscape, and the loneliness of the group.


The girl indicates something to the group and the reader is encouraged to turn the page. Now it changes hugely. A couple of things are emphasised. We continue this photo sequence as if it’s been put in a scrapbook. Wide angle shot, middle distance, close up. It’s now stormy. Was the girl pointing at the hut, at the sky, at the map? “Beyond the distant governors the clouds churned…” The words create an emotional/visual effect of storming and froth on the water. Overlapping of the pictures indicate sequence of action: things are moving quicker. Now they’re going down the hill. But they’re also disappearing. There’s an urgency to quick, catch up to them!


The next page is a good example of framing: Pointing out the thing that matters by having everything else around it focused on it. On the first (title?) page it is clearly the window with the light.


Next we go inside the hut. “We knocked and opened…” This sentence makes good use of commas, inserting hesitancy.

The sentence with commas is followed by a tumbling type of long sentence.


This page makes use of lighting effect. Inside is the fire, to illuminate characters. We get side-lighting, looking down at them from the ceiling and up at them from the floor and how they’re silhouetted by the light. When we can’t see the face of the character (due to lighting) this seems ominous. The words and pictures work together to change the pace and emotions of the characters.


There is contrast in the words and contrast in the pictures. This is trying to make us think of something in particular. With half a face, just a nose and a cheek, this is all we’re going to see of this character’s face. We get the full face shots of the hikers, but this is all we see of him. Framing around the fireplace.

Outside, mist and cold and cloud flooded over the peak.

But the words explain that inside, they’re warm. So there’s contrast between inside and outside. The words carry more than just their dictionary meaning: Poetic devices: alliteration and other repetition of sound, repetition by use of similar meaning words, words with onomatopoeic resonance, metaphor “the terror of gust”, “snow stung at the door”.


The pictures get more claustrophobic: inside sleeping bags, inside the hut, enclosed by the white frame.

The illustrations reflect the influence of cinema. Closer and closer and closer views. Individual close ups of characters. The slow, wide-angle pan. This story uses a lot of cinema technique.

In the morning the man had gone, but we…stayed three days trapped inside the hut.

What’s the mystery? Again time lapse photography is used to depict the passing of time. There is a series of photos again showing the lapse of time. They’re looking out the window, and they’ve found things to do: Braiding hair, looking out the window, brushing teeth. We also have the idea of scrapbooking and diaries.

The red herring: There are clues in each picture to the resolution of the story. You only see them when you go back from the end of the story and realise what those clues are. Some are red-herrings and some scream out, ‘This is what the story’s about.’ But the reader doesn’t know on first reading. This is an example of delayed decoding in picture books.


The final image reflects the first: We’ve returned to the sweeping vista — freedom at last. There’s been a change in colour from the yellows and browns to the sky-blues. There’s been a change in tension — a release after the storm. Continuing the release of tension, the characters do a lot of hiking — a lot more action. Again there is the time-lapse technique, and a POV which puts the reader in relation to the characters again.

But looking back, the characters can’t find the hut. The reader’s eye is drawn to where the hut ought to be, with the characters gazing. There’s even a little photo superimposed over the top of it — a telescope view, pulling it out from where it is in the scene to highlight that bit.

We camped that night by clinker’s cold lake…

This story is open-ended, no resolution, yet you’re given a resolution. Red herrings: ‘Christmas 1955’. The shadow puppetry that they’re doing — a wolf. The little match game could almost be a swastika. (But neither of these last two things have anything to do with the story.)


The reader contributes as much to the story as the illustrator and writer. The story that you enjoy may not necessarily be the same story that other people are getting. Don’t ever assume there is only one story in any given book. There are as many stories as there are people to read it.


Authors and illustrators make very deliberate choices. Would this story have worked if Gouldthorpe had used cartoon/comic characters, or little animals rather than humans? Probably not as well. The photorealism allows the reader to place ourselves in this situation.


Picture books for older readers such as this one include intertextuality (cinema references) and explores sophisticated emotion. When reading a picture book, read the whole book. Don’t just read the words. As readers grow older it is presumed that words become more dominant than pictures. As we get older we want more from our books. We find them in words, but also in pictures.

The Colour Of Sky

In Western cultures at least, little kids first learn to draw with a blue or (black for night-time) sky, and a yellow orb for the sun. In reality, sky can be many different colours.

And the sun is actually white, but that’s a different blog post.

Why is the night sky turning red? from Discover Magazine

Watch As Clouds Convince You You’re Underwater from io9

The illusion that lets you see ghosts of clouds, from io9

Why does the sky look green before a tornado? from Mental Floss

Changing the colour of the sky is a great way to significantly alter the mood of an illustration. A blue sky is cheerful, a stormy sky foreboding, an orange sky indicates evening, or early morning, and a purple sky might convey a fantastical or magic world.


Paris, view of the Seine, Night Mathias Alten, 1899
Paris, view of the Seine, Night Mathias Alten, 1899
Alfred Trueman Motor Boating magazine
Alfred Trueman Motor Boating magazine
1929 Swedish poster for a film version of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES Richard Oswald, Germany, 1929, uncredited illustrator
1929 Swedish poster for a film version of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES Richard Oswald, Germany, 1929, uncredited illustrator
Kinuko Craft - Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave yellow sky
Kinuko Craft – Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave yellow sky

What if you change the colour of the sky after the rest of the artwork has been done? I read a hint lately in a digital art manual which suggested filling a top layer with the colour of your sky, then setting it to multiply blend mode. This will tint the landscape/cityscape or whatever to the appropriate hue, since the colour of the landscape is influenced by the colour of the sky above. I haven’t had a chance to put this to use, but I did try it out anyway on an illustration I’d already done, and I do believe it would be a good way to get the sky matching the landscape, if you end up with a hue which draws attention to itself, or in which the sky looks somehow separate from the land.

Mikhail Bychkov - Tales of Scandinavian Writers
Mikhail Bychkov – Tales of Scandinavian Writers
Dean Ellis (1920 - 2009) 1979 book cover illustration for Bandersnatch by Kevin O'Donnell Jr
Dean Ellis (1920 – 2009) 1979 book cover illustration for Bandersnatch by Kevin O’Donnell Jr
Mikhail Bychkov - Tales of Scandinavian Writers
Mikhail Bychkov – Tales of Scandinavian Writers
Belgian artist  Pol Ledent ‘Magic Autumn’
Belgian artist Pol Ledent ‘Magic Autumn’

Header painting: John Muirhead – The Calm before a Storm 1881