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Top 5 Australian children’s picture books: to re-read until you go mad

Mem Fox + Judy Horacek, Where is the Green Sheep?

Mem Fox + Judy Horacek, Where is the Green Sheep?

Having two children has taught me a lot about narrative.

With the first child (my boy, McCool, now almost four), we did everything by the book, so to speak. We settled on a bedtime routine quickly, milk and three books. He was read up to ten books a day (and still is). He is fascinated by story, able to sit still and focus on the words, the detail. He is usually reluctant to read a new book, preferring to have one on endless repeat until he has memorised it and can read it himself.

With the second child (my girl, GG, now 18 months), the routine flew out the window from day one. She has absorbed the books, as part of us reading to McCool. She now sits on her own for a long time, looking at them in the corner. She brings favourites over to me at all times of the day. She still gets at least ten books but usually in bursts of passion (mine and hers). She is more interested in turning the pages, in noises and flaps, in dashing to the last page to see what happens. The only way I can get her to lie still when I change her nappy is to give her a choice of books.

But there’s no doubt that, regardless of their very different personalities, they both are drawn again and again to the same books. Sometimes books I’m truly in love with (the classics: Where the Wild Things Are; The Very Hungry Caterpillar); sometimes books I wish I never had to lay eyes on again (most of the mass-marketed Wiggles variations).

We’re lucky in Australia to have access to such a wide range of wonderful children’s book writers and illustrators (and publishers willing to look after them). My favourite thing is emptying the children’s piggy banks and being left to my own devices in the picture book section of a bookstore like Gleebooks in Sydney to wander and browse.

Here are the top 5 books in our household that have stood the test of time — for both the kids and me. These are the ones where I’m still able (after hundreds of readings) to truly enjoy turning the pages, to discover something new each time I read it.

WHERE IS THE GREEN SHEEP?

Mem Fox and Judy Horacek’s book is a masterpiece of narrative. I’ve learnt that children love Q+A. As I read ‘But where is the green sheep?’ my daughter answers ‘Mmmmm’ each time, enjoying the to and fro between us. The simple images give lots of chance for singing and acting the fool (the clown sheep, the sheep swinging around a lamp-post) and build in momentum to a climax, a page with a riot of sheep — Ned Kelly, Carmen Miranda, the ‘narcissist’ sheep — offering me the chance to branch off into all kinds of other narratives, before I start to whisper, and we find the little green sheep, sleeping and peaceful. The publishers, in all their marketing glory, decided to sell a soft toy of the green sheep, but my kids would never touch it. I always like to think they preferred the green sheep to be lost, missing, in their imaginations; they didn’t want to see it on their shelves.

Mem Fox & Helen Oxenbury, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

Mem Fox & Helen Oxenbury, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

TEN LITTLE FINGERS AND TEN LITTLE TOES

Mem Fox (she has contributed to so many wonderful books) and Helen Oxenbury’s tale of inclusion holds absolute delight for babies and toddlers. GG’s favourite word of the moment is ‘baby’ and in this book she sees herself reflected on every page, especially when there are actual illustrations of hands, fingers, feet, toes that she can measure her own against. The repetition gives her a chance to learn, and also the opportunity to see kids from different cultures to her own (she loves the image of the child with the penguin in the snow; and the child with the chicken in the heat). The personal link at the end where the mother kisses her baby three times on the ‘tip of its nose’ gives me lots of opportunities to kiss and tickle too.

Sonya Hartnett & Lucia Masciullo, The Boy and the Toy

Sonya Hartnett & Lucia Masciullo, The Boy and the Toy

THE BOY AND THE TOY

Sonya Hartnett’s foray into children’s picture books is, like everything else she does, unusual, with beautiful illustrations by Lucia Masciullo. It’s a melancholy tale of a boy on his own (his mum not mentioned, his dad away at sea). His father is an inventor and invents a toy for him, but this toy is jealous and starts destroying the boy’s world. The boy soon figures out there’s something not quite right and works out a way to trick the toy, creating a model of himself as a decoy. McCool has always loved this tale. He’s an independent boy, too, looking for answers, and this book elicits loads of questions: What is the toy doing? Where has the dad gone? What’s an inventor?

John Brown, Rose and the Midnight CatJOHN BROWN, ROSE AND THE MIDNIGHT CAT

This is my favourite children’s picture book of all time. I’ve no doubt handed down my passion, but both the kids love it. Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks’ narrative proves once and for all that the dark and mysterious have a place in children’s books, even those for very young kids. The glorious illustrations and the apparently simple narrative (that is, in the end, about approaching death) of friendship and loyalty means the book can be savoured on many levels. Just the opening page before the story begins is full of wonderful possibilities: the outside toilet (McCool is fascinated by this idea), the chicken coop, the tyre swing, the old car in the garage that doesn’t get driven, the black cat that’s always lurking. I have to hold back tears nearly every time I get to the page where John Brown, the sheepdog, is lying with Rose’s slippers, wondering why she won’t get up. It’s a lesson in pared-back, taut and controlled writing. Magnificent!

WHO SANK THE BOAT?

Pamela Allen, like Mem Fox, writes and illustrates classic after classic: the list is remarkable (others that we call favourites include the Mr McGee series, Black Dog, Shhh! Little MouseWaddle Giggle Gargle, Inside Mary Elizabeth’s House) and she makes it look easy (it isn’t, I’ve tried). Who Sank the Boat? again focuses on repetition and refrain, asking a question so that the kids can answer. All kids seem to be drawn to the tiny in narrative (the small creature, the speck of dust, the littlest battling against the biggest [us adults]) and the idea that it is the smallest of all (the mouse rather than the donkey) who causes the commotion, who sinks the boat, is a clever trick and source of wonderment that never seems to grow stale.

Pamela Allen, Who Sank the Boat?

Pamela Allen, Who Sank the Boat?

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE AUSTRALIAN CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOKS? OR THE ONES YOUR KIDS LOVE?

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Birds and the bees, shooting the breeze

Peter Mayles, Where Did I Come From?

Peter Mayles, Where Did I Come From?

My son McCool is three years old. He has a baby in his tummy. The baby is coming out through his belly button one day soon. It is a little boy. And he’s excited to see him. And wants to share this excitement with me. We’re reading a bedtime story called There’s a House Inside My Mummy. We read it a lot when I was pregnant with GG. I’ve noticed McCool always chooses his reading material according to who is reading. It’s a clever tactic to keep the grown ups interested. I get John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat a lot (because it’s my favourite). Poor grandma gets The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (because she has the patience to read it). We fight over who won’t read Horton Hears a Who! ‘It’s too long’, we moan, ‘we need some more VOOOOM’. Who would have thought us literary types would try desperately to avoid Dr Seuss. But we’re all happy when we land Walter the Farting Dog.

I try to tell him that only women can have babies (even if this isn’t exactly correct) but he doesn’t want to listen. He likes the idea of a little one sprouting from his belly. He’s been asking a lot of questions about babies in bellies. He has a little cousin arriving soon.

I think that perhaps it’s time. To talk about sex. But, really, where do you start? I always thought it would be fairly straightforward. Just answer the questions down the line. But the questions are so curly. And the answers aren’t much easier. And now I realise the dilemma. McCool still finds it hard to distinguish between the real and the fantasy. At what point does cold hard reality have to come slamming down? Can’t we keep the boundaries blurred for just a little while longer?

My parents (hippies I used to say) believed in being direct. I can remember the first time I found out where babies came from. Even though I would have read hundreds of stories on my mother’s lap, it is this book I remember most clearly. I was around the age my son is now, I guess. 1976. Something about the tone, the conversation, must have set it apart. Important. To be remembered. I remember the delicate, almost technical, illustrations of a child inside a mother’s womb. The anatomy. I remember the precise wording of the pages. There was no passion. This was scientific. No room for questions.

It’s grade 2 and I’m in the school yard. I’m swinging on the monkey bars (we had those in the playground then). I’ve been talking to my best friend Christina for an hour. About sex. About who does what. And how it works. What goes where. She hasn’t said a word. I have her undivided attention. I feel like I’m an expert. I say it all in a matter-of-fact voice. As if it’s no big deal.

There's a House Inside My Mummy

There’s a House Inside My Mummy

The next day Christina’s big sister comes up to me in the playground. She’s in grade 6. She says that I shouldn’t talk that way. The way I talked yesterday. That it’s dirty. And disgusting. She says I’m too young to know things like that. And, as she leaves, she says, Oh, and my parents don’t want you playing with Christina any more.

I don’t know why but I feel ashamed. As if I need to be washed. As if I’m rubbing off on people. There’s a collision between the message I’m getting (from my mother) and the message I’m getting (from my peers). For some reason, it’s the children around me who have greater impact. I’m left confused. I don’t talk about this with my mum. I learn quickly that bodies, what they do, how they express themselves, should be hidden, that sex is something to keep secret.

But mum perseveres. Later in primary school we move on to Peter Mayles’ hilarious What’s Happening to Me? and Where Did I Come From?, two classics that answered all the key questions in a comic tone. Just seeing the illustrations again now makes me giggle. I remember my mother and I laughing at the page that had all different shapes of breasts and arguing over which ones would be best: the pendulous; the throw-over-your-shoulder; the pert and neat.

I wonder now if there are any new books that I can read to McCool. Has sex education moved into the digital sphere (there’s probably an App available somewhere they can stroke with their fingers)? Or do we still return to the classics?

LET ME KNOW. HOW DID YOU ANSWER YOUR KIDS’ CURLY QUESTIONS ABOUT WHERE BABIES COME FROM? AND WHAT AGE DO YOU THINK IS IDEAL TO START TALKING TO THEM?

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