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Posted by Lisa Hill on December 29, 2009
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Posted by Lisa Hill on May 18, 2013
Here in Australia we really are remarkably lucky that we have a thriving children’s literature industry, and there are Aussie authors producing terrific books with an Aussie flavour for the emerging 6-9 year old reader. It can be difficult for a children’s librarian to find books for this age group: they want to read ‘chapter books’ with interesting plots but the text needs to be easy-reading without being formulaic or patronising.
Random House’s new Lulu Bell series features a heroine who loves animals. (Her pets include two large dogs, two cats, and a rabbit.) She, aged 8, is the practical one in the family: her siblings Rosie aged 6 and Gus aged 3 are into those fantasies familiar to us all from costumed appearances of angels and superheroes in shopping centres. Their mother is an artist and their father is a vet, and since they live adjacent to the vet hospital Lulu helps to care for injured and orphaned animals, which in Lulu Bell and the Birthday Unicorn includes a runaway pony.
With ten excited six-year-olds coming to Rosie’s birthday party Dad is needed on deck and Lulu needs to organise the lolly-bags, but nonetheless Lulu goes to help him rescue the horse. A gorgeous white pony, it is then brought back to the family’s backyard while the police try to find its owner. Disaster strikes when Gus lets the pony into the kitchen where it demolishes the beautiful mermaid cake, half an hour before the guests are due to arrive. It is Lulu who saves the day with creative ideas and a use for the naughty pony which readers can probably guess from the title.
There’s another runaway in Lulu Bell and the Fairy Penguin. This time it’s a dog which chases a little penguin on the beach, and Lulu captures the dog and guards the penguin till Dad arrives to take care of its minor injuries. This is a series for ‘girly’ girls: while Lulu is clever, resilient and resourceful, she is into colouring in and ‘decorating’, and *sigh* she squeals with shock when some boys squirt water at her instead of squirting them back. She wants to do fairies for the school mural and she builds a fairy palace with the flotsam and jetsam at the beach. It is *sigh* her brother who destroys the palace, but (this sounds mean, but teachers trying to avoid gender stereotyping will understand) I was pleased at least to see that it’s the girls who succeed in restraining the runaway dog and it’s the boy who grazes his knee that cries.
Lulu’s adventure with the penguin provides her with an idea for the mural that links with the school community, and there’s a happy opening ceremony at the end starring the heroine because it’s her design that is chosen. (The happy ending also includes finding the missing cat and her kittens as well, but I was a bit mystified as to why a vet wouldn’t have had the cat de-sexed as any responsible cat owner would.)
The text is easy-reading, with lively B&W illustrations on most pages, and there are more to come in this series.
Random House have also sent me The River Charm by the same author, but that’s for older children. According to the synopsis at the Random House website:
A river pebble on a charm bracelet has an astonishing true story to tell, of one family’s bravery and survival in harsh colonial Australia . .
When artistic Millie visits a long-lost aunt, she learns the true story of her family’s tragic past. Could the mysterious ghost girl Millie has painted be her own ancestor?
In 1839, Charlotte Atkinson lives at Oldbury, a gracious estate in the Australian bush, with her Mamma and her sisters and brother. But after the death of Charlotte’s father, things start to go terribly wrong. There are murderous convicts and marauding bushrangers. Worst of all, Charlotte’s new stepfather is cruel and unpredictable.
Frightened for their lives, the family flees on horseback to a stockman’s hut in the wilderness. Charlotte’s mother and the children must fight to save their property, their independence and their very right to be a family. Will they ever return together to their beautiful home?
Based on the incredible true-life battles of Belinda Murrell’s own ancestors, one of Australia’s early artistic and literary families, the Atkinsons of Oldbury.
It sounds an ideal book to appeal to 10+ readers but at 320 pages it’s quite long and I’ve got rather a lot of junior fiction to pre-read for school, so I’ll have to get back here with my review of The River Charm some time in the future.
Posted by Lisa Hill on May 16, 2013
This book is a disappointment.
I borrowed the DK Atlas of Exploration from the library for my Year 3 and 4 students whose project this term is to identify the best (most useful) books for finding out about Explorers of Australia. (I will upload this new Australian Curriculum History unit later this year when I’ve finished teaching it and have tidied it up).
Like most books of its type, Atlas of Exploration is meant only to be a general overview and students can’t expect to find a great deal of detail about an area of interest. Even though we might expect that the exploration of the last continent might be considered rather important to the rest of the world, Australians are used to being a bit of an afterthought in non-fiction texts published in America or the UK. If there’s a page or two acknowledging our part of the world that’s about the best we can hope for, even in a book that purports to follow the world’s great explorers.
However, when it came to checking out the interactive CD-ROM, even these low level expectations weren’t met. There are icons to click so that students can follow the voyages of various explorers – but not one of them is an explorer who came to Australia.
Don’t waste your money.
Title: DK Atlas of Exploration
Publisher: DK (Dorling Kindersley) 2008
Source: Kingston Library.
Posted by Lisa Hill on April 21, 2013
Curious Minds, by Peter Macinnis, is a lovely book. I stumbled across it when I was at the library picking up a book I’d reserved (Simone Lazaroo’s (2006) The Travel Writer) and I’ve been reading it on and off over the weekend.
Australians often forget just how odd our flora and fauna seem to Europeans. That Wallace Line which defines the boundary between our fauna and what’s in the rest of the world was only recognised in 1859, but long before that travellers’ tales were full of strange rats, greyhounds that hopped (i.e. kangaroos), swans that were black in defiance of Aristotle*, and double-ended reptiles. Curious Minds is the story of the naturalists who came to our shores and began to identify and classify our strange animals. It’s fascinating reading.
It starts with my favourite ‘pyrate’ and his ‘hippototomus’. William Dampier (subject of Dampier’s Monkey by Adrian Mitchell) visited Australia twice in the 17th century, and most importantly for science, wrote a book about his travels afterwards. In A Voyage to New Holland (1699) he wrote about a massive shark that his men captured, which had in its mouth an animal still seen only rarely today :
Its maw was like a Leather Sack, very thick, and so tough that a sharp knife could scarce cut it, in which we found the Head and Bones of a Hippototomus, the hairy Lips of which were still sound and not putrified, and the Jaw was also firm, out of which we plukt a great many Teeth, 2 of them 8 Inches long and as big as a Man’s Thumb, small at one End, and a little crooked, the rest not above half so long. (cited on p. 14)
But even before Dampier, there was Willem de Vlamingh (1640-c1698) with his Dutch crew . They were searching for a ship lost at sea when they found themselves on an island they named Rottnest, (Rat Nest), in honour of the quokkas that they saw everywhere. These cute little creatures will scamper up to visitors in hope of a treat – and from what I’ve seen they get a completely different reaction to an approach by rats – but then maybe sailors at sea were more used to rats than we are today…The men and women who observed these curiosities were indefatigable. From the time of British Settlement, semi-professional and amateur naturalists gathered specimens, dissected them and sometimes (bravely) ate them. They preserved their specimens with varying degrees of success, and they did their best to take them back, dead or alive, to Europe. More in keeping with the way contemporary conservationists work, they also described them in painstaking (if sometimes inaccurate) detail, and drew or painted illustrations of them. The book is lavishly illustrated with full colour pictures from the National Library’s collection and some of the botanical paintings are so beautiful one might almost buy two copies of the book to cut out and frame them.
Naturalists were not, however, always popular on board. According to Nicholas Baudin (read more about him in my review of Encountering Terra Australis: The Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders by Jean Fornasiero, Peter Monteath and John West-Sooby), the single-mindedness of these enthusiasts could be rather a headache …
More anxious than the rest, they had pestered me from the moment they dropped anchor to allow them to go ashore, and I had been obliged to give my permission in order to be rid of them I must say here in passing, that those captains who have scientists, or who may some day have them aboard their ships, must, upon departure, take a good supply of patience. I admit that although I have no lack of it, the scientists have frequently driven me to the end of my tether and forced me to retire testily to my room.
(The Journal of Post Captain Nicolas Baudin, 1802, translated by Christine Cornell, 2004, cited on p24)
I was very pleased to see that the contribution of women is acknowledged in this book. I had read about Georgiana Molloy (1805-1843) in The Complete Book of Heroic Australian Women but I had never heard of Amalie Dietrich (1821-1891). Molloy came to the Swan River Settlement with a ‘genteel love of gardens and plants’ but was worn out with childbearing and the drudgery of pioneer life when an amateur botanist called Captain James Mangles heard about her interest in plants and struck up a correspondence with her, asking her to collect specimens for him. She sent him remarkable new species, complete with viable seed and pressed specimens that were ‘far better than those sent in by professional botanists’. Tragically, she died aged only 38. Dietrich, on the other hand, was a professional collector. Although the biography written by her daughter is unreliable, Dietrich seems to have had training in collecting herbs from her husband, and when the marriage failed, she sailed for Australia to collect specimens for a private museum in Hamburg. She appears to have been undaunted by Australia’s most deadly species: she is thought to be the first European to capture a taipan, and may even have gutted a 6.7 metre crocodile. There are wasps named after her, and her collection of spiders formed the basis of the first study of Australian spiders.
Our little Aussie platypus is one of the most intriguing animals on the planet, and the story of George Bennett (1804-1893) shows just how this elusive creature has fascinated scientists for so long. His quest to breed the platypus was never successful – and like many in this period he sent rare and valuable specimens back to England instead of retaining them for Australia’s fledgling museum – but still, he made a remarkable contribution.
Curiously though, considering that Sir Joseph Banks is a Big Name in Botany,** his erroneous assumptions about the lush meadows of Botany Bay nearly cost the lives of the First Settlers in 1788. There were ‘no farmers, no naturalists, no botanists, and nobody who understood mining or geology’ in the First Fleet and since they arrived in the middle of Sydney’s scorching summer, they almost starved to death. It was up to the chief surgeon John White to accompany the governor Arthur Phillip when he went exploring, and he sent drawings, specimens and his journal back to England. Macinnes also tells us about the mystery of the so-called Watling Collection which consists of paintings which were the first scientific descriptions of several Australian species, including some such as the magpie goose which is now extinct in Sydney.
Macinnes has an engaging chatty style, enriching his stories of these remarkable men and women with quotations from their journals and anecdotes about their lives. But it is no hagiography: he is alert to the temptations of pride and hubris, professional jealousy and dishonesty. There was occasional recklessness, unconcern for the safety of others, and single-minded selfishness. He acknowledges the improper appropriation of Aboriginal artefacts and remains ‘in the name of science’ and he recognises the limitations of those whose enthusiasm was not matched by preparedness or organisational skills. He is staunchly patriotic, devoting the latter part of his book to those naturalists who were either born here or settled here permanently and were the foundation of an Australian-based scientific community. These include Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller (1825-1896) who founded Melbourne’s own Botanic Gardens; Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-1895) whose exquisitely illustrated travel books chart the transformation of her opinions about the Australian bush from dismissive to enthusiastic; the Scott sisters, Harriet (1830-1907) and Helena (1832-1910) whose artwork, says Macinnes, has never been bettered; and Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872) who was lost to natural science through childbirth – her studies of birdlife are just gorgeous.
I was especially taken with Macinnes description of Von Mueller’s protégé Ellis Rowan (1848-1922):and the challenge to her artistic credentials:
In open competition with male artists, she had again taken out a first-class award [the first was the gold medal in the Melbourne Exhibition] and the boys’ own hissy fit brigade began to squeal. Not to put too fine a point on it, the chaps were outraged that a mere woman (and a mere flower painter at that) should again beat them. (p.142)
It was a sign of mean-spiritedness to come, but today her collection is the pride and joy of the NLA.
There is a delightful chapter about William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865) and his bunyip skull and Macinnes reminds us to ‘think kindly on Macleay, for he was a creature of his time and society … [and] … an original thinker, an extremely clever observer, and an encourager of others who were keen to pursue natural history’ (p. 152)
What shines through this lovely book is a sensitivity to the courage of people who set out for the unknown and to the curiosity that drove them to search for knowledge.
Highly recommended as a gift book or as a science, art, or history resource for every secondary school library.
Visit Peter Macinnes’s website to see more about Curious Minds.
* Aristotle used the example of white swans as an irrefutable fact, i.e. because all swans were white, etc.
** One of our loveliest plants, the Banksia is named after him.
Author: Peter Macinnes Title: Curious Minds, The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists Publisher: NLA Publishing (National Library of Australia), 2012 ISBN: 9780642277541 Source: Kingston Library
Availability Fishpond: Curious Minds: The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists
Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers
Posted by Lisa Hill on April 15, 2013
Somewhere in the archives of the War Memorial in Canberra, there is a small diary scribbled in pencil. It was donated by The Spouse’s family because old Eric was a gunner in the 7th Field Artillery Brigade and he was awarded the Military Medal in The Great War. Before he lost his leg in the conflict he recorded his impressions of the first tanks to arrive on the battlefield so it’s a most interesting document. Transcribing this diary is an eventual retirement project for The Spouse.
We had always thought that this would be a fairly straightforward task, but now that I have read Kitty’s War by Janet Butler, I realise that there is much more to a war diary than first meets the eye. What’s not in a war diary can be just as interesting as what’s in it… and what’s in it, is sometimes not much about war at all, but rather about changes in identity because of the war.
When Kitty McNaughton sailed away to do her bit as a nurse, she, like most of the other volunteers aboard, had never been out of Australia. The war (which everyone expected to be over soon) was an opportunity to see the world, and she devotes many pages to describing the journey. The troops and nurses were ferried to Egypt on the troopship Orsova, which was formerly a passenger liner. So this young woman enjoyed all the excitements that are common to cruise ships today: games and sports, fancy dress parties, a crossing-the-line ceremony, fancy dinners and so on. But there is no mention of any serious flirting because nursing was still cultivating a respectable image to counter Dickens’ Sarah Gamp. Kitty was always conscious that her diary was going to be read by others, especially her mother, and she is circumspect about what she writes.
That’s why, later on, when she’s nursing on the island of Lemnos, when she writes about the four young men who became important to her, she always refers to them as ‘boys’ or ‘youths’, and she always records the presence of some other person, making it clear that she is never alone with a young man. She is careful to adopt a sisterly tone, sometimes maternal, never romantic. Reading between the lines, we wonder what her feelings were, especially when we know that for most of the young men thrust into relentlessly all-male company for long years in that war, that mateship offered no outlet for emotional release. Men could talk about their feelings to women, but not to each other…
What’s also noticeable is that she doesn’t write much about the shocking injuries she encounters. Butler says that this is because Kitty feels constrained by her audience: these horribly mutilated young men often dying in dreadful pain were the husbands, sweethearts, brothers and sons of her friends and family back home. So, like others reporting to those at home both formally and informally, she maintains the conspiracy of silence about their suffering in order to protect them from the awful truth. It is when she is nursing German soldiers on the Somme that she finally feels able to write about the horror of what she witnessed, because they are Other, and she can describe their injuries and how their needs were addressed.
What is also most interesting about this period, is that for the first time, she indirectly acknowledges her own skills. A modest and self-effacing nurse had to be careful about this, because it was not thought seemly for women to have ambitions beyond their gender-assigned roles. It was in reading the passage below that I realised the importance of documents such as Kitty’s dairy being interrogated by an historian:
I have eleven with their legs off and a cuple [sic] ditto arms & hips & heads galore & the awful smell from the wounds is the limit as this Gas Gangrene is the most awful thing imaginable, a leg goes in a day. I extracted a bullet from a German back today, and I enjoyed cutting into him … the bullet is my small treasure, as I hope it saved a life as it was a revolver one… (p.130)
Now when I first read this I recoiled at the idea that Kitty ‘enjoyed cutting into him’ – to me it felt as if she was enjoying a sort of vengeance against the enemy. But what Butler’s analysis reveals, from looking at the diary in its entirety and comparing it with a host of other documents and diaries, is that what Kitty is enjoying is being entrusted with the scalpel and being allowed to perform procedures that traditionally were the sole preserve of male doctors. To read Kitty’s self-effacing diary at face value without realising that it deliberately undercuts her own achievements is to overlook that Kitty was in fact a very good nurse indeed: she received commendations; she was mentioned in dispatches; she was in sole charge of the whole Bosches Line of German wounded (more than one huge ward of very serious cases); and she was allowed to undertake surgical procedures as well.
What is also revealed by this rare documentation of the suffering of the German soldiers is that it offers Kitty emotional release. She describes her distress at the confronting injuries and the pitiable state of soldiers arriving with maggot-infested wounds, an outlet which is promptly closed when Allied soldiers arrive and she no longer gives herself permission to write about them.
Butler analyses the Conscription Referendum in terms of how it impacted away from home; the class issues including the hostility from Imperials to Colonials; and the decline of the ‘war diary’ from a place to share matters of interest to its role testifying to grief and despair. The appearance of gaps, when for long periods of time Kitty can find nothing of interest to write about, signals that the relentless tide of the wounded is contributing to what we would now call stress. When she is on the Western Front after the Somme, Kitty and her friends succumb themselves to illness, and she openly acknowledges it, perhaps in part because her own mother has died and she longer feels that she has to hide her suffering. (There is a remarkable pair of photos in the book that shows the impact of this ongoing stress on Kitty’s appearance. The nurses joke that first their hair goes, then their teeth and then their reputations, but it was true: the bad diet and the appalling conditions made Kitty’s hair go grey while she was still only in her thirties.)
While close female friendships were nurturing and supportive, they could not salve the ongoing stress entirely. This is especially true when Kitty is transferred to a clearing station near the front line, where the nurses are carefully chosen for their suitability and monitored for signs of strain. Where the official histories make no mention of the fact that the nurses are much closer to danger, Kitty and other nurses write about it in detail. She has to undergo gas training before the transfer, and we know from the diaries of other nurses that their clothes stank afterwards of the gas. Kitty also records shelling, missiles falling into the camp and the crash-landing of two allied planes in the field beside it, but she does not record her own bravery, as for example when she is ordered to fall back because of an impending German attack and refuses to go. Yet there is a striking absence of any commentary about the sick and wounded, at a time when the casualty rate is shocking. Medical officers reporting to their professional journals provide information about the horrific situation that is omitted from Kitty’s diary, and the testimony of a Matron O’Dwyer confirms that nothing – not even experience at the base hospitals further back from the front line – could prepare nurses for what they were to encounter at a clearing station. But Kitty’s experiences here are at war with the identity she has crafted for herself within this diary: as a tourist, a recorder of culture and a chronicler of the affairs of women, of family and of Anzac glory. (p. 181) In her four months at this clearing station, she does not know how to write about the relentless flood of seriously wounded men in pain.
There is so much more that I could write about this brilliant book but I will confine myself to recommending that if you read just one book about the ANZAC experience, it should be this one. Butler’s humane analysis covers much more than just the experience of one woman at war, and the issues raised by this book have been the subject of many conversations with friends and family while I’ve been reading it.
The book includes B&W photos of Kitty, comprehensive notes, a select bibliography and an index.
The launch at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance was a slightly more sombre affair than other book launches I have been to. Held in the visitor’s centre, proceedings began with a recitation of the Ode of Remembrance, and the book was launched by Colonel Jan Mc Carthy ARRC (retd) from the army nursing service. Many of the people there were descendants of Kitty McNaughton who shared the author’s pride that the story of this remarkable young woman has been told at last.
Highly recommended for teachers of Australian History, teachers teaching on the topic of War, and teachers teaching Gender Studies.
Author: Janet Butler
Title: Kitty’s War
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP, and autographed on the night by the author!
Or direct from UQP.
Posted by Lisa Hill on February 16, 2013
Random House has just sent me a new release that is bound to be popular with adventurous 7+ readers who love dinosaurs: the series is called Robert Irwin Dinosaur Hunter and there are four titles, with a further four due for release later this year:
The books feature Robert Irwin of Australia Zoo fame and his adventures as a keen dinosaur hunter. The first one, The Discovery, features Robert enjoying his ninth birthday present, a trip to the Dinosaur Museum at Winton. He has a friend called Riley (who is the object of some rather patronising characterisation) and he makes an improbable discovery of a fossil which leads to some not very convincing time travel. No 2, Ambush at Cisco Swamp finds Robert and Riley at Cisco Swamp in Texas for an alligator survey where his dinosaur fossil takes him back in time again, and yes, Armoured Defence, set in the Canadian Badlands (No 3) and The Dinosaur Feather (back in Australia at the Australia Zoo (No 4) are more or less exactly the same formula. I suspect that most kids are not going to mind the rather weak narrative at all, but will appreciate the familiarity in much the same way as they appreciate the weak narratives and predictable characterisation of Enid Blyton books. At least these are Australian!
For older students investigating marketing, decoding the copyright page might be an interesting exercise. The publicity material and the website tell us that the books are ‘co-created’ by nine year-old Robert Irwin and his name is the one that’s on the copyright page. His cute picture is on the front cover too – but the title page suggests that the series is actually written by author Jack Wells. Robert Irwin is also ‘proud that his illustrations appear in the books’, and so they do, identified as ‘drawn by Robert Irwin’ at the back of the book where the facts about the dinosaurs are, but the copyright page names the illustrator as Lauchlan Creagh who presumably did the full-page B&W drawings that feature within the text. (The books aren’t as profusely illustrated as you might expect in books for this age group). There is also a message enticing the reader to scan the QR code on the back of the book, which could lead to an interesting discussion about the use of these codes as part of an advertising strategy.
It’s tempting to dismiss the series as a clever marketing exercise, latching onto the popularity of young Robert Irwin and the tourism that goes with him, but the books will appeal to young readers, especially boys at that difficult age when they start to abandon reading. They will like the adventure, the humour, the field guide at the back of the book and the easy reading, and unless they have been under a rock and have missed the hype about the junior Irwins, they will enjoy identifying with the famous young hero as well. I think they will be very successful in school reading schemes of one sort or another, and that parents will happily respond to pleas to buy the next one in the series.
However, they’re not as well written, well plotted or as exciting as Penguin’s Extreme Adventure series (Puffin) by Justin D’Ath, which I read to my Year 5 & 6 students when we do our Extreme Holidays projects (researching landscapes of the world, you can download the unit from here). Hopefully the Dinosaur Hunter series would lead young readers on to explore these titles as well: