The Stranger Beside Her

 

Some books you read because you’re interested in them. Some books you read because your bookclub prescribes them. And some books you read because both elements happily collide.

That was the case with crime writer Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, the multimillion-copy-selling book about serial killer Ted Bundy.

Truth be told, my knowledge of Bundy was limited—I wasn’t even certain on which continent he committed his crimes—so I embarked on The Stranger Beside Me with a relatively blank and open mind.

The Stranger Beside Me has an eerily unique perspective: author Rule, a cop turned crime writer, used to volunteer alongside Bundy at a suicide prevention line. Despite nearly two decades’ age difference, the two were firm friends—and friends long before Bundy became infamous. Rule had actually obtained a book contract to write about the mysterious serial killer plaguing her hometown who was, then unbeknownst to her, her friend Bundy.

The book sees Rule grapple with her dual roles as objective writer and subjective friend as she tries to determine if the person she knows could be capable of such heinous crimes. Crimes that involved—it was later determined—using guises of broken limbs to lure unsuspecting women into his car so he could rape, strangle, and brutally bash them. Crimes that often involved the victims’ bodies not being found for a very long time—if at all.

Charismatic and apparently caring, Bundy would walk Rule to her car at the end of her helpline shift and urge her to be careful as she headed home. In contrast, her detective friends would joke that they’d call 911 if she got mugged on her way out of the police station she’d visited for a story in the middle of the night.

And so goes Rule’s and Bundy’s relationship and Rule’s book: a nuanced insight into Bundy’s capacity to be both personable and a psychopath, and a reminder that all of us are capable of both great good and great evil.

The crimes detailed in The Stranger Beside Me are shocking and continue to stay with me—including one incident I won’t spoil but that suffice to say makes me afraid to go to the bathroom in the dark in the middle of the night.

And so they should be—Bundy’s crimes shouldn’t be sensationalised or excused.

But Rule also includes a solid amount of levity to give readers brief reprieves from the terrifying crimes. One year, for instance, Rule sent Bundy two birthday cards because, as she notes, Hallmark doesn’t issue cards that say both ‘happy birthday’ and ‘happy arraignment’.

And after Bundy escaped from incarceration just after one of his lawyers finished making arguments for why the death penalty should be off the table for Bundy, that lawyer wryly commented: ‘That’s the poorest show of faith in this argument that I’ve seen yet.’

Still, Rule is sensitive to Bundy’s victims and their families—is conscious that the flip side to his sensational, fascinating crimes are people and families whose lives have been irreparably shattered.

As she writes: ‘Because Ted murdered so many, many women, he did more than rob them of their lives. He robbed them of their specialness too. It is too easy, and too expedient, to present them as a list of names … All those bright, pretty, beloved young women became, of necessity, “Bundy victims”. And only Ted stayed in the spotlight.’

Bundy at one stage refers to himself as having a ‘disposition made of duck feathers’—indeed, the thing that’s striking about Bundy is his Teflon-like characteristics. If this book showed me anything, it’s that it’s astonishing just how little evidence police truly had on him and how few charges actually stuck.

Likewise, that Bundy had an astonishingly misplaced confidence in his own legal knowledge. He had just two years of law school under his belt, but often tried self-representing and, as a minimum, instructing lawyers on what and how they should argue his case. He fired so many lawyers during the various legal proceedings I found it difficult to keep up with who was who.

But when he expressed his frustration at his ‘inept’ representation, the judge commented mildly that all the lawyers had passed law school and the bar exam and that submitting to his instructions might be akin to submitting to surgery at the hands of someone who had just a year and a half of medical school study to their name.

Fortunately, some (however small) good came from Bundy’s crimes, not least the establishment of Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VI-CAP), a centralised database that ensures law enforcement professionals share information and serial killers like Bundy (and the Golden State Killer I’ve written about previously) aren’t so easily able to operate in anonymity through isolation.

The book’s blurb states that Rule is the world’s number one crime writer, however such a thing is determined. While I can’t confess to have read any of her other books, of which there appear to be many, and while I think her unique relationship to Bundy is what sets this book apart from similar biographies or crime books, I will attest to its veracity: If there’s one Bundy book worth reading, it’s Rule’s.

Sharing the Spirit of Australia Remembers with Allison Paterson

Allison Paterson has always had a deep connection to Australian history and culture, and her writing reflects more than just research or fiction. Her picture books include Granny’s Place and Shearing Time; reminiscent of her childhood memories of growing up on a farm. Allison also immortalises her ancestory with her wartime, award-winning books, Anzac Sons; based on letters written on the Western Front.

Using her teacher-librarian status and forseeing a gap in the market, Allison has gone on to produce a new series for primary school students. The first of the nonfiction titles includes Australia Remembers: Anzac Day, Remembrance Day and War Memorials. This is an absolutely stunning documentation of colourful facts, phenomenal photographs – old and new, illustrative posters, quotes and glossary, all presented like a beautiful magazine with easy-to-digest and visually engaging chunks of information across twelve short chapters. The book covers topics and proposes readers consider commemoration and showing gratitude, what ANZAC and its spirit means, the importance of annual ceremonies and the significance of symbols and traditions. It also includes relevant hands-on learning activities to further deepen the readers’ understandings. Australia Remembers is an important resource that emanates with a sense of engaging the community spirit and extending the legacy of those we ought to always remember. A must-have for Remembrance Day and Anzac Day.

Allison Paterson discusses her writing life and tribute to her ancestors with us today!

How did you come to be a writer? How have you managed the shift from teacher-librarian to author and presenter?

Writing has always been in my life, but the decision to resign from an awesome job as a teacher-librarian to pursue writing as a career came only a couple of years ago. It all began with the publication of Anzac Sons – the story of my ancestors in WWI and a collection of hundreds of letters they wrote from the Western Front. I quite firmly believe that I wouldn’t be a full-time writer today if it had not been for my grandfather and his brothers – they were writers too!

The transition from being a teacher-librarian was not difficult. I’m very comfortable with author talks and workshops in schools. I love inspiring kids to write! Being prepared to diversify and look for opportunities, such as mentoring, editing and writing for magazines all helped the financial shift. The toughest things for me are marketing, and I’m slowly learning how to run a business! I also found that being available and saying ‘Yes!’ opens more doors as well, including doing some casual educational consultancy work with Big Sky Publishing.

You’ve written several non-fiction titles on the Anzac history for children and adults, as well as fictional picture books that tie memories together with a great Aussie flavour! Do you have a style or genre you feel most comfortable with? Why is the Australian culture such a strong influence in your writing?

I spend most of my time lurking around in the past so historical fiction and non-fiction are certainly my favoured writing genres and where I gravitate to in a book shop or library. I’m a very proud Australian. I love the people we have become and our awesome landscape. I feel very connected with the land and when I travel to the place where I grew up it always feels like going home. My place!

Australia Remembers: Anzac Day, Remembrance Day and War Memorials is a valuable resource for primary students to be able to connect with the traditions of Anzac Day and Remembrance Day, in essence, to keep the memories of war and its recipients forever alive and celebrated. What are the most significant points you’d like your readers to take away from this book? What do you hope it will achieve?

I hope that readers develop both an understanding and respect for the role that our armed services have in the development of our wonderful country and the way of life we enjoy today. It is designed to ensure that the next generation shares the history and traditions of our important commemorative occasions. I also hope it encourages children to find out about the experiences of their own ancestors.

There are bountiful resources available for teaching and learning about Australian war history. What are your favourite educational lessons or resources to suggest for parents and educators following the reading of Australia Remembers?

Australia Remembers has inbuilt activities and discussion starters and is supported by extensive teacher notes which are available on my website, or on the Teachers page at Big Sky Publishing. My favourite lessons can be found in the notes, but if there was one I would pick it would be to explore your local memorials. Find out about the service of those in your local community.

The next book in this marvellous series is Australia Remembers: Customs and Traditions of the Australian Defence Force. What can you share about your research for this title? How many more titles in the series have you got planned?

Australia Remembers: Customs and Traditions of the Australian Defence Force is underway and will be released in 2019. It explores the history of the Army, Navy and Air Force in Australia, along with the shared and specific customs and traditions which have developed, sometimes over centuries! It will be a terrific resource for answering the questions which arise around our commemorative services. The whole series plan is a work in progress and we have lots of ideas that we are exploring for future titles.

Anything else of excitement you’d like to add? News? Upcoming projects? TBR pile?

I’m very excited that my first YA novel will be released early in 2019 with Big Sky Publishing. We’ve just finished the edit and the cover is awesome! Follow After Me is about finding a lost part of yourself in the spirit, words and actions of those who came before. Its themes include family, Anzacs, the Australian landscape, rural life and the past! This time though there are two coming-of-age protagonists, one of today and one enduring the events of World War I. It is written in a parallel narrative that converges with the discovery of a collection of WWI letters and a growing sense of connection to place that cannot be ignored. Here’s a snippet from the blurb:

A war to end all wars, a tiny key and a rural Australian property that binds across the generations. Two young women living a century apart discover who they are and where their hearts belong.

Wow! Brilliant! Thanks so much, Allison, for your generous answers to our questions! All the best with your writing! 🙂

Visit Allison Paterson at her website, and on her Australia Remembers book blog tour here.

Big Sky Publishing

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Meet the Frugalwoods

I set to reading Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living for three not-entirely-deep reasons:

  • The title seemed intriguing. I mean, what’s a frugalwood?
  • I’d just finished reading The Barefoot Investor and figured a book about frugality was a good way to continue refining my financial plans and processes.
  • The book was in demand at the library, which is the book-reading equivalent of seeing a long nightclub queue and figuring it that club is the place to be.

So, despite not having known anything about the Meet the Frugalwoods or its author, I was sufficiently intrigued.

While Meet the Frugalwoods didn’t explicitly impart financial advice in the same manner as The Barefoot Investor, it did chart the story of how a couple of 20-somethings had scrimped and saved enough to pay cash for their dream home and be financially independent by their early 30s.

And that’s without hyperbole but with plenty of mistakes. ‘I’m astounded at how many ways there are to waste money, and at how many of them I’ve personally fallen victim to,’ author Elizabeth Willard Thames writes, which is heartening. She wasn’t, like the kinds of people I tend to find write these kinds of books, born impossibly good with money and had been saving since she was seven.

Instead, Willard Thames kicks off the book with explaining that she found herself finishing uni with good grades but little to no experience and struggled to find anyone who would hire her. She eventually landed herself a job in New York that paid just US $10,000 per year and found herself having to live in a pretty dire Brooklyn neighbourhood and develop some extremely good money-conserving skills on the fly just to survive.

It seems like that forcibly lean year set her on the path to ensuring she never had to feel so financially stressed again. As she writes: ‘While I’m pretty sure the phrase “extreme frugality” sounds like penance, it’s actually the exact opposite. It’s deliverance … Frugality opened up my mind to what I can do with my life, as opposed to what I can buy.’

She makes some salient points throughout the book, not least: ‘It’s not about how much you like or dislike your job. It’s about how dependent upon it you are for your paycheck.’ Also: ‘Buying clothes didn’t automatically make me more confident or more beautiful; it just automatically meant I had less money.’

Meet the Frugalwoods centres around the premise that Willard Thames and her husband aimed to have enough money saved up so they could work if they chose (which they do choose), but that they don’t need to work to survive. It’s an aim almost everyone could relate to.

Spoiler alert: The couple achieved that and more, saving more money than I just about thought possible. Willard Thames even went so far as to give up make-up, a crutch she’d used to bolster her self-esteem since she was 14, and the couple used YouTube to teach themselves how to do their own haircuts.

All of which is probably a little extreme for most of us, but which illustrates what’s doable if you’re motivated enough.

But saving money isn’t the only boon. A byproduct of frugality, Willard Thames writes, is that it’s good for the environment because it involves ample use of second-hand items: ‘I’m of the belief that you can’t buy your way green because consumption, by its very action, usually has a negative impact on the environment.’

Not having known what a frugalwood is or what the book was going to be like other than the fact than it seemed to be in demand worked out ok for me. Meet the Frugalwoods was a pleasantly interesting, thought-provoking, and ultimately useful foray into frugalism and a no-nonsense look at achieving financial independence.

While I probably wouldn’t give up haircuts (and frankly couldn’t be trusted to cut my own hair—not now, not ever), there are plenty of other areas where I’m saving money and others this book has inspired me to try.

Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy

I’ve written before about rescue goat animal sanctuary Goats of Anarchy (GoA), founded by event planner turned goat rescuer Leanne Lauricella. GoA cares for goats in need of a home, which often includes special-needs goats (AKA ‘robogoats’) who require prosthetics and/or carts to help them get about.

Lauricella has previously released children’s picture books about some of GoA’s residents, including Polly and her Duck Costume (a blind goat with a neurological disorder who is becalmed when she is swaddled in a duck onesie) and Angel and her Wonderful Wheels (a tiny black and white fainting goat who’d lost the tips of her ears and toes to frostbite and who’d survived some unnecessary amputation surgery and now gets about with the help of a custom-built cart).

Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy: How my Little Goats Taught Me Huge Lessons About Life is Lauricella’s latest book, but this time aimed more as a gift book for adults. Hardcover and petite-sized, the book features stunning images of many of the farm’s residents, including through a collage and some full-page portraits in the book’s initial pages over which I pored for minutes before eventually turning the page to start the book’s text. Also, its cover image is stellar.

Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy tells a little more about how Lauricella started rescuing the goats and what she’s learnt from them along the way. The super-short chapters are organised by themes of change, finding purpose, unconditional love, strength, confidence, patience, grief and courage, fight like a goat, and hope.

As with Lauricella’s previous books, the 120-page book’s writing is simple, spare, functional. It’ll never win prizes for the prose, and the advice-giving summaries at the end are a little rah rah and redundant, but it definitely gets the job done.

Especially in the latter sections, which recount some fairly difficult times around some of the goats we fell in love with, not least Lawson and Mellie, who both had terminal heart conditions. Having witnessed their stories via GoA’s Instagram, I cried some ugly tears reliving their stories via this book.

And really, if you do nothing other than skim the chapters and enjoy the images before bouncing off to social media to follow GoA, then Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy has done its job.

My three wishes for any future books Lauricella releases is, first, I’d like to put in a request for an Ansell the Destroyer book. AKA a book about an incredibly intelligent, curious, accidentally mischievous, and often misunderstood goat named Ansell who survived a horror of a start to life and has an unrivalled gentleness and zest for life. No hints, or anything.

Second, that Lauricella engages a professional writer to write above book and also to really uncover and convey the deeper stories we know exist about GoA. For example, just how hard it is to do the job she’s doing. The current books are a little superficial when we know there are some significant and significantly compelling stories that warrant telling.

Third, that she discusses how she can manage the farm financially. GoA is a registered charity, yes, but that can’t be the whole story. As someone who adopts ex-battery hens, I know only too well how expensive their medical care can be and really, really want to know how Lauricella is making it all work—is the charity pumping along or is she getting by by the skin of her teeth?

Regardless of these last two quibbles, Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy would make a good present for someone interested in animals and animal rescue, and would make an adult companion to the children’s book range Lauricella has published. At the rate she’s going with book releases, her books could comprise the entire range of Christmas presents I’ll be getting for the different people in my family.

Trace Times Two

I wasn’t familiar with Maria James or her 38-year-old murder cold case. The single mother from Thornbury, Melbourne, was stabbed 68 times in her bedroom one weekday morning by a person or persons never definitively identified. Coincidentally or otherwise, she was killed the morning she was going to confront the local priest about molesting her young, disabled son Adam.

What I refer to as ‘Trace times two’ are the astonishingly good podcast and book by the same name about James’ unsolved murder and the people tangentially affected by it—first, and foremost, her patient, polite, generous, trusting sons.

Brought to us by the team at the ABC, led by ABC journalist Rachael Brown, Trace features Ron Iddles—whose name literally condenses to ‘Riddles’—the kind of detective you’d definitely want investigating your or your loved ones’ untimely deaths, should they occur. James’ murder is the first case Iddles encountered as a fresh-faced 25-year-old homicide squad inductee and it’s the one case he hasn’t yet successfully solved.

For Iddles and the many people affected by James’ death and the events that occurred around the time of her death, re-opening investigations into the case is painful and an enormous responsibility—something Brown struggles with: ‘… we’ve been lost down countless rabbit holes. We’ve asked people to relive their nightmares and brought on tears, many of them our own.’ She also writes: ‘… interviewees unwittingly place a great amount faith in us, complete strangers, in handing over their story. It’s like a blind date with potentially far more damaging consequences.’

It’s also a blind date that almost came to nought, with Brown having first to fight to get the podcast picked up and second to ensure it got to see the light of day: ‘This is a story that’s crawled under my skin, stayed there, and is screaming to be told,’ she wrote to her bosses. ‘I set out to find if a priest murdered Maria. If one did, it’ll be a first for Australia’s modern history. Given the current climate of the Royal Commission, it’s a question that must be asked.’

Indeed, the tale is incredibly timely.

While it would be easy to dismiss the podcast and book as just another dip into the true crime wave (there are, admittedly, a lot of true crime podcasts finding their way to iTunes), this one is top-tier quality. Apart from stellar investigative journalism and storytelling, Trace times two breaks new ground of the ilk that Serial and Dirty John have before them, leveraging all available skills and platforms and giving a sense of what could be possible. As Brown writes:

‘It’s an odd synergy, this podcast’s reliance on old-school journalism techniques (federal roll checks, microfiche searches, handwritten letters), alongside the innovative element of interactivity, but that’s where I think its beauty lies …’

Trace the book is a handy companion piece to the podcast (and also works as a standalone text). I’d highly recommend reading it alongside or after listening to the podcast to enrich the podcast-listening experience. Here’s hoping Brown is able to help James’ sons and dogged detective Iddles find the answers they’ve been searching for for almost four decades.

Review: The Barefoot Investor

The Barefoot Investor book isn’t new, but it’s one I’ve simultaneously been intrigued by and slightly dismissive of. I thought: Surely it’s a bit gimmicky? But I figured it’s unfair to write off a book before even reading it, so I recently dug in.

Reader, I’ve been wary of it for no good reason.

While Scott Pape’s The Barefoot Investor isn’t the best written book I’ve ever encountered, and I at times found its text and analogies a little cheesy and hyperbolic, I’ll also heartily acknowledge that that’s not its need or design. Rather, the book is functionally and accessibly written serves its purpose well.

That purpose is to make confusing and overwhelming financial issues interesting and understandable to lay readers. And also to offer an alternative to budgeting, which is akin to dieting and destined to fail.

Providing the advice in three parts with the umbrella themes of ‘plant’, ‘grow’, ‘harvest’, under which sit chapters that include information about scheduling a monthly date night to eat good food and make tackling financial talk fun, ‘domino-ing’ (i.e. lining up and knock over in planned succession) your debts, buying your own home, and maximising your super. None of which sound particularly exciting, but each of which are peppered with gems of achievable information that neither require a finance degree nor a tonne of time, and that together provide a cohesive approach to well and truly sorting yourself financially.

For example, I ended up downloading a useful spending tracking app and slightly tweaking my mortgage and superannuation set-ups based on some of the takeaways. I’ll be contacting my bank to renegotiate my mortgage interest rate once they’re open on Monday. (Pape handily even provides a script for such renegotiations.)

Through reading this book, I finally started to understand how not to budget, which has always seemed boring and inflexibly strict, but how to split money among buckets that then ensure there’s always money available at short notice for unexpected expenses while simultaneously building compound interest. For the first ever time in my life, I actually found myself enjoying reading about and figuring out how to finesse my finances. If that isn’t a resounding sign of the success of a book, I don’t know what is.

Hearteningly, Pape’s advice is about long-term financial control and comfort rather than getting rich quick. It’s solid, measured advice that he revisits and revises annually to ensure its information and pop culture references are still current.

So I happily write that I stand reminded that books become bestsellers for a reason. The Barefoot Investor conveys crucial information in ways that suit lay people like me. Which is to say it cuts through the guff few of us understand. It’s definitely worth at least a flick through if not a proper sit-down read.

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the book about a serial rapist and killer whose crimes terrorised Californian communities and have long stumped authorities, popped up on my radar the same way it did for many people: because of the tragic story behind it.

Writer Michelle McNamara died unexpectedly in her sleep while partway through writing the book. Her bereaved husband, actor, and fellow writer Patton Oswalt stepped in and, along with McNamara’s researcher and an award-winning author, finalised and published the book. Oswalt also recruited Gillian Flynn, AKA she of Gone Girl writing fame, to write a foreword.

All of which is heart-warming, but that hints that the book might be a bit patchy or uneven. So I’ll be honest that I didn’t know what to expect when I cracked its spine, and that at best my expectations were low.

But McNamara’s astonishingly good writing and storytelling that gets layers down deeper than traditional true crime tales is absolutely gripping. And, as with all quality writing, seems effortlessly so. Oswalt and co. have used editor’s notes to flag where they’ve assembled chapters or segments based on McNamara’s notes. The transparency is to be applauded, but in truth almost not needed—the book hangs together fairly seamlessly.

Essentially, the book documents McNamara’s efforts to uncover the identity of a prolific and bolshy rapist and serial killer variously termed the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, the Ransacker, and later, by McNamara, as the Golden State Killer (GSK) whose crime spree is as bizarre as it has been seemingly unsolvable. Well, until recently. But more about that later.

While I originally thought the book’s title might have been a reference to McNamara’s death during sleep, but it’s actually a reference to the GSK’s ominous threats to his victims, which took the form of words like: ‘Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark.’

Some 50 women were bound, gagged, and brutally raped in their homes during his crime wave, and while it started out being women alone, couples were later targeted, with the men tied up in another room and the GSK taking odd keepsakes from his victims’ homes. Around 10 people were killed, with authorities still attributing other unsolved crimes to the GSK as DNA analysis and cross-jurisdictional co-operation improves.

In fact, as McNamara outlines, it was the lack of sharing of information between police forces that in some ways allowed the GSK to operate as he did. As one rape victim who lived in a southern suburb not thought to be frequented by the GSK told the police when they eventually arrived to rescue her: ‘Well, I guess the East Area Rapist is the South Area Rapist now.’

McNamara wrote: ‘A forensic match between the cases didn’t exist, but a feeling did, a sense that a single mind was at work, someone who didn’t leave many clues or talk or show his face, someone who strolled undetected in the middle-class swarm, an ordinary man with a resting-pulse derangement.’

The GSK disappeared just as suddenly as he appeared, with people postulating theories about what ended his efforts as that he was either incarcerated for another crime or dead. That didn’t stop people working together and individually for decades to solve the mystery, and McNamara features cops and crime scene forensic specialists and Reddit-hosted enthusiasts alike as she tries to identify the GSK.

Without wanting to ruin the ending, there have been some significant developments in the GSK case since the book was published. Which in no way diminishes it. I’d just recommend trying to resist googling the case until you’ve finished McNamara’s book.

Oswalt has written an afterword that talks about the daughter now growing up without McNamara, who asks: ‘“Daddy, why do you and Santa Claus have the same handwriting?” Michelle Eileen McNamara is gone. But she left behind a little detective. And a mystery.’

Posthumously publishing McNamara’s book is perhaps the greatest tribute he could have made. Meanwhile McNamara’s tireless work arguably at least partially contributed to authorities solving the GSK case. Make sure you allow some time after reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark for some serious GSK googling.

Review: Lost Connections

Sometimes someone writes a book that simultaneously highlights an obvious truth and reveals previously unknown issues. That’s the case with journalist Johann Hari’s Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions, a book that both exposes how many of the things we’ve been told about the causes and cures of depression are not scientifically accurate—and have even been disproven.

My entry to Lost Connections was actually listening to a podcast of Hari speaking on a panel at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. He was so passionate and so knowledgeable and entertaining a speaker, and his subject matter so startling and yet confirming of a nagging feeling I’d had for a while, that I bumped reading his book to the top of my list.

Combining an anthropological look at depression and conveying it in accessible feature article-style chapters, Hari steps the reader through his own decades-long experiences with depression and quest to figure out what what causing it and how on earth he could cure it. Like many others, he had found that despite being told that depression was caused by a dearth of serotonin in the brain that could be rectified by an antidepressant tablet, he was still depressed.

Employing his social research training, he started investigating the subject and met with experts. His book documents the startling but also common sense answers to what’s causing depression. For starters, it’s not a chemical imbalance in the brain or a lack of serotonin, as we’ve long been told. That was a hypothesis put forward by scientists way back that was quickly disproven, but that the pharmaceutical manufacturers picked up and continue to run with.

Frightening and depressing, much?

But while this rigorously researched book (seriously, I can’t quite get over how much peer-reviewed academic research Hari has found and how many experts he interviewed) did cause me moments of despair as it tipped everything I thought I knew about depression on its head, it ultimately comforted me.

Converting dense, dry scientific material into a gripping tale catering to a wide, non-scientific audience along the lines of authors Rutger Bregman and Malcolm Gladwell, Hari finally makes depression make sense. He also continues beyond identifying the issues, documenting the solutions.

Those solutions are perhaps the most interesting part of the book and range from a diverse community coming together to protest social housing evictions to prescribing socially and environmentally meaningful gardening.

I read Lost Connections in short snatches while waiting for meetings or queuing up for public transport, which allowed me to cogitate over its topics and meaning. Suffice to say, I’d recommend the book as both an absorbing read but also a thought-provoker or conversation starter. As Hari notes, with depression rates climbing, current depression treatments clearly aren’t working. Lost Connections does, as a minimum, prompt a rethink.

The Book That Helps Nurture Australian Native Bees

September in Australia means many things to many people, but it means all action stations for those of us who care for bees as bee colonies ramp up their warm-weather activity. In northern hemispheres, the bees come out of hibernation, but in temperate tropics like Queensland they simply double their pollen-collecting efforts. Meanwhile beekeepers like me set about splitting healthy colonies to create new safe homes and double the number of bees to help protect the environment.

I’ve written previously about the vegan beekeeping I do for European honeybees—that is, beekeeping that focuses on ensuring bee and hive health rather than producing honey. But I’ve written little about the equivalent native beekeeping I do. And the book that helps me do it.

There are thousands of Australian native stingless bees, and I have four hives of tetragonula carbonaria, one of the more common social bees (where social means they live together in a hive rather than pottering about solitarily). More the size of fruit flies and foraging not more than 500 metres from their home, these bees are often overshadowed by their European cousins, who are much more visible to the naked eye and who travel between five and 10 kilometres to gather food.

University of Queensland entomologist Tim Heard has been studying native bees for decades—you could say he was interested in them before they were cool. But with no sting (technically, they can nip when they’re really unhappy with you), being super low maintenance, and taking up so little room they could live on a balcony, native bees provide invaluable pollination services to their local environment. Which explains why their popularity has surged in recent years.

For those of us who now give native bees homes, Heard’s book is basically gospel. Written based on thorough scientific understanding, but in lay terms accessible to those of us who are not entomologists, The Australian Native Bee Book includes in-depth information about how native bees operate, as well as crucial step-by-step information for constructing and locating hives to the precise specifications that allow native bees to thrive.

It’s also packed with photographs that illustrate points and show what’s possible in terms up set-ups and support. Combined, and despite its not entirely attractive cover*, this book is a goldmine of information and images every person caring for native bees should access and learn.

 

*I get the brown might match some of the colours of the hives’ inner workings, but it’s still a terrible cover choice. And reprint or revised editions should rectify this.

Revisiting RBG

I’ve written previously about both the RBG book and documentary, but having just turned the last page of the book, I’ve been reminded that the book alone warrants special attention. Because the New York Times bestseller RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dedicated to ‘the women on whose shoulders we stand’, is phenomenal.

Tracing the life and career of US Supreme Court judge and human rights advocate Ruth Bader Ginsburg (AKA ‘RBG’), RBG is written by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. They are, respectively, a then law student who started the Notorious RBG Tumblr ‘digital tribute’ and a journalist who interviewed Knizhnik and was captivated by the RBG story. It’s a stellar combination, seeing the book balance feature writing-style compelling narrative further informed by solid legal depth and detail.

And its diverse but cohesive 195-odd pages contain something for absolutely everyone. The book chapters are, for example, named after Notorious BIG’s song lyrics. An artist who runs a women’s graffiti collective illustrated each chapter title. The pages are punctuated with memes and artworks, as well as photographs—some seen before, some not—of RBG at work, at the opera, or spending time with her family.

There are annotated versions of RBG’s judgments that highlight the poise, finesse, laser-like sharpness, and subtlety with which she weaves together her judgments. And there are summaries of her dissenting judgments and reasoning, which sounds dry but is actually a brilliantly succinct way to appreciate both RBG’s intellect and just how vast her contribution has been to shaping legal and cultural history. (Seriously, her dissenting Voting Rights Act judgment is iconic: ‘… Killing the Voting Rights Act because it had worked too well … was like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”’)

Not hired because she was a woman, despite finishing top of her class, fired because she was pregnant, and paid less because she was a woman and her husband earnt a decent wage, RBG has encountered and overcome more discrimination in her lifetime than many of us could imagine. Better still, she’s not just overcome it, but made it easier for other women to at best avoid and at worst overcome it too.

‘RBG has been extraordinary all her life, but she never wanted to be a solo performer. She is committed to bringing up other women and under-represented people, and to working together with her colleagues even when it seems impossible,’ we read. Meanwhile the ever humble RBG says: ‘I just try to do the good job that I have to the best of my ability, and I really don’t think about whether I’m inspirational. I just do the best I can.’

A ‘firebrand’ concealed in an apparently conservative casing, RBG belies Gloria Steinem’s adage: ‘Women lose power with age, and men gain it.’ RBG’s tale is one that should be read and appreciated by women and men alike because she makes you not only see the world and inner workings differently, but she inspires you to imagine what we can, without raising our voices and by bringing others along with us, possibly achieve.

Review: Eggshell Skull

I should preface this post with a warning that it is about a book about sex crimes, which might be confronting for some readers.

But Eggshell Skull wouldn’t be effective if it wasn’t evoking discomfort.

Let me back up.

Eggshell Skull is the tale of a daughter of a cop, law graduate, and District Court judge’s associate Bri Lee (AKA she of Hot Chicks with Big Brains) who is, by way of the juxtaposition of these three elements, uniquely positioned to discuss the Australian justice system’s handling of sex crimes. She went from helping facilitate sex crime trials in her role as an associate to being a complainant navigating the system as she sought justice for sex crimes that were committed on her by her older brother’s friend when she was just in primary school.

Her own life and work experience should have prepared her adequately for what was to come. But that’s the point of the book: the system is so difficult, so imperfect, and so arguably segmented and broken that even with her background and a strong support network, making a complaint, then seeing it all the way through to its trial conclusion, was inordinately grim. ‘The more I learned of the huge, “blind” justice system,’ she writes, ‘the more I learned that it was just as human and fallible as everything and everyone that created and preceded it.’

Also, she notes: ‘Nobody tells you that if you want to press charges against the man who molested you, you still have to go to work, get jobs done, and interact with people as though you’re a normal human being … You’ll still drop the roast you just made, and miss your bus, and run out of toilet paper.’

There are so many parts of the book that both shocked and resonated with me (and, going by the number of people who have bought the book and flocked to panels Lee has been on, many others). These include the parts about the number of women who excuse themselves from sex crime trials because they themselves have been victims of sex crimes and cannot bring themselves to sit through (much less do so impartially) a trial about that very subject.

These also include the number of defence barristers who go out of their way to strike women from the jury—with eight free-pass ejections available to the defence, it’s highly possible to stack, or at least strongly influence, Australian juries. (Interestingly, as Lee has herself flagged in subsequent interviews and panels I’ve seen, the British legal system from which we adopted this practice no longer allows eight strikes because it’s widely recognised just how much it can skew outcomes.)

These include too that sex crimes are less often committed by paedophiles and more often by opportunists—who are frequently very ordinary, suburban men. A 2011 report found that most offending occurred in the home, without the use of a weapon or violence, and the offenders are known to the victim. This runs counter to the violent-attack-by-a-stranger narrative. Lee notes unsurprisingly, but sadly, sex crime trials that feature weapons and non-white defendants have higher conviction rates.

Meanwhile the female complainants seem to simultaneously need to show that they are both desirable enough to have been raped, but that they did not consent to it. As Lee outlines, the perfect complainant is a cute little girl who you can’t ask which contraception she is on or how short her skirt was or how many drinks she’d had. It’s not, as in one case that played out before her, a woman who had been drinking with the guy, who was on the pill, who was combative when questioned, and/or who was medicated for anxiety and depression.

‘The case felt like a David and Goliath battle,’ Lee writes. ‘”There’s no evidence apart from the complainants story,” they kept saying, but what evidence what evidence was she supposed to bring? So many of them were terrified, submitting to intercourse to avoid the punches or cuts that, ironically, would have helped them secure a conviction. So many took months or years to come forward—then, despite showing monumental strength in making a report, they were cross-examined about their “inexplicable” delay.’

The ‘eggshell skull’ legal principle that lends the book its title is, as Lee explains: ‘The premise is that if Person A were to have a skull as thin as an eggshell, and Person B struck them on the head, intending only to punch them, but in fact killed them, Person B is responsible for the damage they cause … a defendant must “take their victims as they find them”’. That is, you can’t absolve yourself of some responsibility because someone had a weakness or pre-existing condition. You are responsible for the full extent of their injuries.

Lee flips that premise, considering what it might involve if that person is educated, articulate, feminist, and prepared to stand up, speak out, and fight back. That, combined with the juxtaposition of Lee’s insight as a police officer’s daughter turned complainant forewarned and forearmed with a law degree and experience working in the courts but no longer interested in pursuing a career in law, is perhaps what is most powerful about Eggshell Skull. Lee sits both inside and outside the system enough to be able to articulate its problems and its potential solutions.

For example, Lee skewers arguments that you can’t shift the presumption of innocence for sex crime defendants. As she notes, we do in fact already have equivalents: If you car is found to have been speeding or drugs are found in your house, as the car and house owner you are presumed to be responsible and have to prove otherwise.

Which is a hint of what I suspect will be Eggshell Skull’s legacy. Apart from being a gripping read most people will cancel plans for and inhale in a few short sittings, the book’s legal and social justice issues will continue to resonate. More than a misery memoir, Eggshell Skull has real potential to help shift how we handle sex crimes from initial complaint to final trial outcome.

Side note: I learnt from this book that the mural I ride past on my daily work and uni commute is actually by the fantastic Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Apparently it’s entitled Eyes are Singing Out. At Law school, I’ve heard them reference it as the eyes looking up at the judiciary and warning them that they’re being watched and their behaviour must be exemplary. Which surprised me. I’ve always considered it a rather intimidating mural denoting that defendants are being watched and judged by a jury of peers. Who knows. Maybe it’s meant to mean both ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The first words on the first page of The Tattooist of Auschwitz read that the book ‘has the quality of a dark fairytale’. Indeed, it does. Journalist and foreign correspondent Hugh Riminton’s quote continues: ‘[The Tattooist] is both simple and epic, shot through with compassion and love, but inescapably under the shadow of the most devouring monsters our civilisation has known.’

Not much more needs to be said about the book, other than that it should be read, for Riminton’s statements both sum up my sentiments and do so more eloquently than I ever could. And while I inhaled the eminently readable The Tattooist in one three-hour sitting when it first came out, it’s taken me some time to get round to writing this blog post about it—the subject matter was so stellar and so moving I needed some time to gather my thoughts.

For anyone who is still unfamiliar with the book, which has been a bestseller since its launch and which has undergone multiple reprints, it is a fictionalised account of a non-fiction story: that of concentration camp prisoners Lale (pronounced ‘Lah-lay’) and Gita (Ghee-ta) Sokolov.

The prologue begins with Slovakian Jewish prisoner Lale tattooing the number 34902 on Gita, the woman who was to become the love of his life, in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942. Conflicted about his role in inflicting pain on his fellow prisoners, but also aware that he must do whatever he can to survive, Lale finds that his tattooist role provides him safe passage around the concentration camps and extra rations, both of which he leverages to help himself and others. Deftly woven throughout, and offsetting the horror, is Lale and Gita’s love story.

‘To save one is to save the world’ is a phrase uttered in, and that aptly captures the tales contained within, The Tattooist. The book was originally conceived as a screenplay, with author Heather Morris capturing Lale’s story through interviews and penning drafts that eventually became a novel. Morris spoke wonderfully eloquently about the book and the interviewing and writing process on Conversations with Richard Fidler. I highly recommend listening to that interview in tandem with reading the book.

The Tattooist is invaluable because we have little true insight into what it was like to actually live—well, exist—inside those concentration camps. And there are moments that continue to haunt me. For instance, Lale regularly encountered the infamous doctor Josef Mengele, who prowled the tattooing line, looking for victims, and who has since been revealed to have committed all manner of heinous medical research on prisoners.

Likewise, the prisoners were forced to play out a macabre game of football against the guards, while ash from the perpetually running crematoria rained down on them. Lale later had to walk into the crematorium to identify a prisoner by their tattoo, only to be cruelly jibed by the SS officer in charge of him: ‘I bet you’re the only Jew who ever walked into an oven and then walked back out of it.’

‘Are you sure you’re not a cat?’ the same SS officer asks Lale at one time because he survived so many moments that would otherwise mean certain death. It’s a thought that had crossed my mind too, because although the tale is incredibly compelling, just occasionally I couldn’t quite fathom how Lale had survived when so many others hadn’t. Undoubtedly, his ability to speak multiple languages and his charisma were contributing factors.

Still, some questions remain for me: What happened to the tattooist who preceded Lale and who gave him his chance? And Aron, who saved him from Typhus? And was Lale not terrified having the SS know Gita was his girlfriend? Surely they’d have used that to torture him? Perhaps one day, with others having read the book and recognised overlaps with their own or their relatives’ stories, those questions will be answered.

Side note: While I would unhesitatingly recommend The Tattooist to anyone and everyone and stump up a case for why it should be on school and university reading lists, my one wish is that the book was non-fiction rather than fiction. Hazarding a guess, I’d say the author and publisher elected to couch it as fiction to cover themselves for any facts they couldn’t definitively verify—of which there were likely many given that so few people who could attest to their veracity are still alive. But still: The Tattooist is essentially a retelling of one man’s recollection of actual events, however surreal they may seem, and it jars slightly for me to have the tale fictionalised.

Regardless, my hope is that The Tattooist not only succeeds as a novel, but also as the film Morris and Lale originally envisaged it to be: with Brad Pitt playing Lale and Natalie Portman playing Gita.

Under the Lights and in the Dark

In Under the Lights and in the Dark, sports writer Gwendolyn Oxenham notes how women’s sport is the antithesis of American sportwriter Gary Smith’s answer to the ‘if you could trade places with any athlete’ question. ‘I probably wouldn’t,’ he famously said. ‘For the most part, they’ve had to whittle down their lives so much to excel at something that their possibility for personal growth is compromised.’

Female footballers (soccer players), however, have to work, study, and generally juggle many, many, many commitments outside football. If anything, their personal growth accelerates.

Under the Lights spotlights some of the challenges women have had—and continue to have—to overcome in order to play football. As she notes in the book’s opening pages: ‘Dozens of players across the world shared their stories and their time. Whether from Liverpool or Lagos, Tokyo or Kabul, Kingston or Paris, here’s one thing that was always true: at an early age, they found the game and held on, driven neither by money nor fame—only the desire to be great. Here are their stories.’

Featuring a mix of well known and periphery players, and grouping tales under some key themes such as low or even non-existent salary, homelessness, and motherhood, Oxenham exposes some of the issues women face simply to play the sport they love.

One of the most striking is the bizarre and terrifyingly powerless experience of playing in Russia, where the team may or may not be run by, and acting as a money-laundering cover for, the mafia. Under these dubious conditions, the players are beholden to a coach and manager who forces them to take ‘vitamins’, both orally and via injections, that one player, on returning to the US and undergoing medical tests, determines to be anabolic steroids.

Another obstacle Oxenham exposes is the decades-long consequences of women’s football being banned in Brazil from 1941 until 1979 courtesy of a law that stated that ‘women will not be allowed to practi[s]e sports [that] are incompatible to their feminine nature.’

Women can now in theory legally play football in Brazil, Oxenham notes, but they’re being prevented from playing by other means. Santos, for example, was until a few years ago the best women’s football team. Was, because the club cut the entire team in 2012 in order to stump up cash to keep male footballer Neymar (AKA he of the ridiculous rolling that inspired countless 2018 World Cup mockery and memes) by paying him one million reals (US$558,000) a month. He was later sold overseas anyway. How Neymar can live with himself allowing the women’s team to be cut for him, I cannot conceive.

Motherhood is another theme Oxenham explores—specifically, how, just as in office-based workplaces, pregnancy and motherhood hampers or more often ends women’s football careers. Of the 24 teams and 552 women who competed at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Oxenham writes, only 11 players were known to be mothers. Most of the national teams have no mothers, due to cost, commitment, the absence of maternity policies, and an all-round lack of support.

But Oxenham also highlights some of women’s football’s triumphs. Portland and its women’s team the Thorns, for example, are the town and the team that shows the rest of the world how women’s football and women’s football support should be. One of the iconic banners its avid supporters have painted is a quote from The Little Prince: ‘It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important’. Where ‘wasted’ can be read as ‘done it for the love of the game’.

About women’s football, but also about much more pervasive issues that affect women in society more widely, Under the Lights and in the Dark is yet another invaluable documentation of the issues women face and the progress they are making. With any luck and a lot of hard work, in the future female footballers will soon just be under the lights.

Beyond The Backyards – Nature Non-Fiction Picture Books

Picture books enable children to escape and experience worlds quite unlike their own. Non-fiction narrative picture books enhance those journeys even further. The following collection entices young readers to gaze skyward, creep through leaf litter and explore worlds in and beyond their backyards.

Backyard by Ananda Braxton-Smith & Lizzy Newcomb

Backyard is as it says; a whimsical exploration of a normal suburban backyard, that on closer inspection is anything but normal. ‘Sweet-tooth bats’ flit about the dusky evening sky, tawny frogmouths sit ‘as still as wood’. There is tiny movement everywhere and for one ‘sleep-moony child and star-eyed dog watching’, the world comes alive despite their close proximity to the city.

Visually sumptuous and satisfying, this picture book encourages mindfulness and evokes calm and imaginative thought. Captivating language coupled with sensory illustrations on every page will have youngsters revisiting this celebration of creatures great and small again and again.

Black Dog Books August 2018

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CBCA 2018 Shortlisted EVE POWNALL Information Books #2

I’ve already blogged about the CBCA shortlisted Younger and Older Reader books.

In two parts, I’ll now look at the Eve Pownall Information Books.

Amazing Australians and their Flying Machines by Prue and Kerry Mason, illustrated by Tom Jellett (Walker Books)

This book is structured chronologically with a focus on inventors and aviators we’ve heard of including Lawrence Hargrave, Nancy Bird, Charles Kingsford Smith, Rev John Flynn of the Flying Dr Service; and those we may not have heard of such as Dr William Bland (who appeared before Hargrave) in the 1850s.

The structure and writing styles provide variety: words in the aviators’ voices; 3 Amazing Facts about most aviators; and ‘Did You Know?’ columns. The book acknowledges difficulties for women in the past who wished to fly.

Some interesting information from the book:

George Taylor In 1909 he flew a glider from Narrabeen, NSW. His wife Florence also flew, tucking her long skirts into her bloomers. At age ten Taylor wrote an essay, ‘The Future of Flying Machines in Australia’. He was a cartoonist and suffered from epilepsy.

Bert Hinkler In 1921 he flew the nine hours from Sydney to Bundaberg wearing a suit and tie. His RAF flying instructor was Cpt W.E. Johns, who wrote the Biggles books.

Like Lawrence Hargrave, children could make box kites. The ‘e-how’ website could be helpful. It suggests using dowel, bendy straws and a plastic/vinyl tablecloth. https://www.ehow.com/how_4882168_make-box-kites.html Alternatively they could make gliders or paper planes.

M is for Mutiny! History by Alphabet by John Dickson, illustrated by Bern Emmerichs (Berbay Publishing)

Structured as an alphabet book, this book is set during British colonisation of Australia but also explores ongoing preoccupations such as L is for land rights.

The M is for Mutiny section could be linked with another book in this series, William Bligh: a stormy story of tempestuous times. Children could discuss why this letter has been selected for the book’s title and suggest alternatives from the book. 

I is for Island could lead to reading the graphic novel, The Mostly True Story of Matthew and Trim by Cassandra Golds and Stephen Axelson.

Decorative Patterning is used for sections such as J is for Jail and N is for Nurture. Children could select an alternative description for one of the letters e.g. C is for Convicts (instead of Cook) and create decorative patterning in Bern Emmerichs’ style.

Left & Right by Lorna Hendry (Wild Dog Books)

Like last year’s shortlisted book by this author, Gigantic Book of Genes, this is a glossy science publication with high quality photos. It includes seamless explanations of left and right with clear examples for children to understand.

It includes a clever idea where children hold their hands out in front and touch their thumbs. Their left hand forms an L shape (helping them remember which hand is left).

The author recognises that it is easy to mix up left and right and looks at situations where right may connote good and left signify weak or bad. For example, in Albania it has been a crime to be left-handed.

It features symmetry, spirals, clockwise and anticlockwise, and the compass.

The author includes incredible information, such as ‘Nearly all kangaroos are left-handed… Parrots use their left feet to pick up food.’ ‘Female cats tend to be right-handed, and male cats … left’. And when driving, island nations tend to drive on the left-hand side of the road.

 

 

CBCA 2018 Shortlisted EVE POWNALL Information Books

I’ve already blogged about the CBCA shortlisted Younger and Older Reader books. In two parts, I’ll now look at the Eve Pownall Information Books.

Do Not Lick This Book by Idan Ben-Barak, illustrated by Julian Frost (Allen & Unwin)

Min is a microbe. She is small. Very small. In fact, so small that you’d need to look through a microscope to see her.

I know from comments by a young family that this tactile, interactive book about microbiology has great appeal. The title is provocative – tempting and almost urging children to lick the book. Min the microbe guides the reader through the informative content, which is well designed with bright comic style illustrations and high-quality photographs. The information is clever, irreverent and quirky. It probably reflects the creators – a team consisting of writer Idan (quiet loud thoughts), Julian (who likes comics and toast) and Linnea, the scientist.

Children could consider, ‘Where will you take Min tomorrow?’ Like the book, they could take Min on a journey using a mix of photographic backgrounds, cartoon characters and written text.

Hygiene is taught and encouraged using reverse psychology. Teachers and parents may use the book to reinforce good hygiene (without losing the text’s inherent appeal).

Koala by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Julie Vivas (Walker Books)

Koala is most appropriate for the very young. It traces the experiences of a young koala achieving independence.

The writing is both literary and factual: providing parallel texts which are particularly useful for children who prefer one style over the other and to expose readers to both forms. The illustrations are distinctive for their rounded lines and shapes.

Children could make finger puppets using the following free template http://www.makefilmplay.com/kids-crafts/how-to-make-this-koala-finger-puppet-with-a-free-template/ or cut rounded shapes from felt (and sew and stuff) to make a koala. They could use these to re-enact the koala’s movements.

Koala is part of Walker Books’ excellent ‘Nature Storybooks’ series. Others include Claire Saxby’s Big Red Kangaroo, Emu and Dingo; and Sue Whiting’s Platypus. This could also be a good opportunity to introduce the classic Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall.

The Big Book of Antarctica by Charles Hope (Wild Dog Books)

This is another big, glossy production from Wild Dog Books. The photos are exceptional. There is minimal written text and key words are shown in large coloured font.

Antarctica is studied in the Australian curriculum and this book covers explorers, scientists, transport, ice, plants (moss, algae, plankton), and much about animals and birds, e.g. giant petrels who vomit on anything they think is a threat (page 37). Climate change and global warming also feature (page 60)

Ice is looked at on page 22. There are many experiments about ice in other books and online to extend this subject.

Children may also be interested in looking at Antarctica in real time via web cams http://www.antarctica.gov.au/webcams

Incredible Journeys – Picture Books That Show Us The Way

Picture books have an incredible ability to not only reflect life but also reveal new and previously unknown aspects of it. For children, nearly everything they are experiencing is new and unknown, which is why these next few picture books are so incredibly useful for showing them the way. This selection features incredible journeys made by humans, animals, spirit and much more. Venture into a journey of enlightenment with them.

Migration: Incredible Animal Journeys by Mike Unwin and Jenni Desmond

This superbly presented hardback picture book features 48 pages of astonishing animal journeys. Complete with easy to use contents page and a world map that depicts the actual trips each animal makes, this stunning collection is a must have on any classroom shelf.

Unwin prompts readers to imagine themselves as a baby swallow who, after just leaving its nest in England now must contemplate a flight over 10 000 kilometres away to Africa. Awarded travel and wildlife writer, Unwin then describes the migratory long-distance journeys of 20 different animals; why they make the effort and how they survive the trek. Some you’ll recognise like the monarch butterfly or the magnificent wandering albatross but did you know that the globe skimmer dragonfly performs a round-the-world trip of over 10 000 kms, as well?

Sumptuously illustrated by Jenni Desmond, Migration takes us across the planet, through its skies and over its oceans in the footsteps, wings and fins of some of the world’s truly greatest travellers. This is one literacy odyssey you and anyone five years and above must experience.

Bloomsbury Children June 2018

Waves by Donna Rawlins Heather Potter and Mark Jackson

Waves is another visually arresting, historical picture book that presents in similar ways to Rawlins’ well-loved picture book with Nadia Wheatley, My Place. Following a time line commencing some 50 000 years before to the present day, Rawlins takes us across the seas with various children and their families as they embark on journeys of emigration, redemption, hope and escape. Each child shares a brief snapshot of their on board experience through captivating vignettes of narrative, allowing their stories to come alive. Their situations are not always pleasant indeed most are laced with tragedy and hardship, but for those who survive their trip across the waves, the destination is often a kind of salvation.

Rawlins includes descriptions at the end of the book about each of the fictional characters, their cultural origins and suggested reasons for setting off into the unknown in the first place. She points out that if you are not an Indigenous Australian, then members of your family must have made a journey across the waves to arrive at this island called Australia at some point in time. This really does give one pause for thought and invites energetic discussion between young people and their family members about heritage and ancestry, not to mention the issues of immigration and asylum seekers.

Thoughtfully illustrated by Potter and Jackson, Waves acknowledges the journeys of those who come across the sea in search of a better existence in a supremely considered and engaging way. Recommended for readers five years and over.

Black Dog Books imprint of Walker Books June 2018

Let’s Go ABC! Things That Go, From A to Z by Rhonda Gowler Greene and Daniel Kirk

For those who prefer their travel infused with a bit more levity, cast your eyes on this fanciful non-fiction title. This contemporary A B C picture book dedicates a page to each letter along with accompanying verse and the most eye-stunning illustrations. Transportation has never been portrayed with such enthusiasm or detail. Animals from around the world ride, skate, vroom, sail, drag and float their way through the alphabet with non-stop vigour. I never even knew there were 26 modes of transport. Greene carries us across water, air, through ice and snow, by track and wheels with ease and planeloads of interest.  Kirk cleverly includes a zoo-full of animals whose names share the same letter as the letter featured in each popping illustration. Kids from the age of two and above will no doubt have hours of fun hunting these down and matching them up – as I did! Top marks.

Bloomsbury Children June 2018

Spirit by Cherri Ryan and Christina Booth

Sometimes not every journey takes us where we expect. Things happen, plans change. How do you cope when that happens? This is something very small children often struggle to accept. How they acknowledge these mental explorations of change and resignation is crucial in determining how they develop tolerance and empathy.

Spirit by debut author, Cherri Ryan, imbues a sense of determination within readers through the actions of a small child. This girl constructs a toy ship she names, Spirit and launches her in her backyard pond. Spirit’s maiden voyage is successful and the girl rejoices, dreaming of expeditions further afield or seas, as it were. Before each journey, the girl lovingly tends Spirit, oiling her decks; carefully trimming her sails, certain of her abilities to triumph every watery endeavour, each more challenging than the last, until one day, Spirit encounters rough seas, loses her way and capsizes.

This book tenderly captures the essence of childhood hope and the expectations built around it. It explores the notions of anticipating outcomes beyond our control, but remaining stalwart enough in spirit to find ways around life’s obstacles. The delicate correlative objective between the girl’s boat and her own will to succeed gently pulls readers along an emotional journey of exultation, despair, and finally celebration.  Booth’s sensitive depiction of Spirit’s creator is both timely and thought-provoking. Her heart-warming illustrations add another dimension of lucidity and movement to this tale, which nurtures the notion of never giving up and remaining true to your spirit. Symbolic sublimity for 4 – 8 year olds.

Black Dog Books imprint of Walker Books July 2018

Visiting You: A Journey of Love by Rebecka Sharpe Shelberg and Andrea Edmonds

No life itinerary would be complete without a journey of love. I reviewed this one earlier this year and recommend it as a rich way of exploring feelings, perceptions and relationships. Here’s a snippet of my former review. You can read the full review, here.

This story, celebrating the immense power of love, possesses an enigmatic quality that hums throughout the book from beginning to end.

Shelberg’s thoughtful poetic narrative balances beautifully with Edmonds’ poignant watercolour vignettes and spreads. The gentle balance of colour and emotion reveal memories and the child’s growing understanding that he need not fear strangers who appear gruff and scruffy, different and intimidating. That beneath the obvious differences of a person, there often dwells a story worth sharing and a reason to love. This is a mighty concept to grasp in our modern day world of stranger danger and our first world tendency to look the other way for fear of becoming too involved. The commendable thing about this tale is that it does not encourage reckless, unchecked interaction with strangers – the child is always within his mother’s supervision – but rather it promotes a phenomenal sense of humanity, of not judging a book by its cover and … of caring.

As Ian MacLaren once said, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be Kind. Always.”

I love the message of … connecting with ourselves through others. Of cultivating empathy; a mindset we should all aspire. Visiting You encapsulates this mindset exceptionally well. Full marks.

EK Books March 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Be Brave – Picture Books that Celebrate Overcoming Doubts

Being brave, is less about being courageous and more about ignoring your fear because you simply cannot afford to waste any more time on it. Overcoming doubts and anxieties is something children face every day. Picture books like these encourage a heightened awareness of one’s own feelings and capabilities and in doing so banish fears and promote determination.

Where’s Bear? by Sarah Elliott Smyth and Nicky Johnston

Sophie represents a whole playground of children who spiral into anguish after they lose a precious toy, or in their eyes, a stalwart playmate. When Bear goes missing, Sophie embarks on an apprehension-filled journey in search of him that will have little ones perched on the edge of their seats. Thankfully, the cute ending reunites and delights. Johnston’s winsome illustrations elevate this heart-warming story of facing your fears and tenacity to the next level. Utterly endearing, this story will warm the cockles of your heart and encourage very young children to ‘never stop hoping’.

Empowering Resources February 2018

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The Adversary

Trigger warning: The book this blog features is contains distressing subject matter, so may not be suitable for all readers.

About two years ago, I had the misfortune to be very, very peripherally affected by the real-life playing out of a most bat-insane story—one that involved a guy I vaguely knew having spent 15 years pretending to study medicine and practise as a doctor.

Without going into details—in part because the story’s so bizarre that I could not do it justice and in part because I don’t think it’s my story to tell—what I will say is that I and everyone else who knows the story has spent the better part of the past two years grappling with the ins and outs of it and basically going: What the hell?

So I was online and ordering The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception quick sticks after a friend recommended it. The story, which is of a man who spent 18 years pretending to study medicine and practise as a doctor before murdering his wife, their two children, and his parents, as well as attempting to murder his mistress, was notorious in France but largely passed me by in Australia. Until now.

While I don’t for a moment suggest the two tales have much in common other than faking medical careers, I was keen to see if someone else had been able to resolve the questions that remain unresolved (or even unanswered) in my own life: What prompts someone to fake doctory? And how on earth do they manage the logistics?

The how and the why clearly drive the book, as author Emmanuel Carrere parallels aspects of his own life with Jean-Claude Romand’s, at least in part to try to compare and contrast and ultimately understand Romand’s actions. For instance, the book’s opening paragraph reads startlingly matter-of-factly:

On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent–teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son. Then we went to have lunch with my parents, as Jean-Claude Romand did with his, whom he killed after their meal …

Reading this book was more than a little eerie, as what may seem like an objectively interesting tale felt for me like deja vous as Carrere steps readers through the reaction to finding out that nothing about Romand was as it appeared:

Everyone was wondering: How could we have lived beside this man for so long without suspecting a thing? Everyone tried to remember a moment when some suspicion, some moment that might have led to some suspicion, had almost crossed their minds.

Romand’s life was ultimately a house of cards, but it seems no one had had their suspicions raised sufficiently to warrant investigating: Romand claimed he worked at the World Health Organization, but a simple phone call after the murders revealed there was no such person employed there. Romand wasn’t listed on the global list of physicians and had never graduated medical school, and so on, and so on—the details, once finally investigated, didn’t hold up.

While I was hooked enough to look forward to reading snippets of The Adversary before going to bed, I felt rising sadness as I approached its end. Carrere’s short tale is undeniably absorbing—so much so it was named a New York Times ‘Notable Book’)—but ultimately reflects my own frustrating findings: No one can truly know anyone else, and the kind of person who will fake being a doctor for decades is arguably not someone of whom you can make sense.

So while I was disappointed that the book wasn’t able to provide the answers I was after, I did really appreciate that it gave us some. At the very least, I got a sense of the logistics of maintaining and funding such a lie for so long. And I got a fuller sense of a man who could too easily be painted as two-dimensionally evil.

Whether you were or weren’t familiar with the 1993 murders, The Adversary is a fascinating read. At a mere 191 pages of easy-to-digest writing, it’s the kind of book you can quickly finish but that will remain front of mind for some time.

Understory: A Life with Trees by Inga Simpson

I was fortunate to facilitate a session with Inga Simpson and Tony Birch at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2016. I had been following their literary careers by reading their writing as published and have continued to be absorbed by their exemplary work.

Inga Simpson sees the world through trees and hopes to learn the ‘language of trees’. Understory: A Life with Trees (Hachette Australia) is nature writing in the form of a sensory memoir. It traces her life in ten acres of forest in the Sunshine Coast hinterland alone and with N and her two children.

The book is beautifully and aptly structured as parts of the forest. ‘Canopy’ includes chapters on the Cedar, Grey Gum, Rose Gum and Ironbark; ‘Middlestorey’ features Trunk, Limb, She-oak and Wattle; and ‘Understorey’ focuses on Sticks and leaves, Seedlings and Bunya, amongst other natural elements.

Inga Simpson lived in the forest for ten years. As ‘tree women’ and ‘word women’, she and N wanted a ‘writing life’. They referred to themselves as ‘entwives’, a term from Tolkien, and named the writing retreat they established, ‘Olvar Wood’, from Tolkien’s The Simarillion. The retreat was an oasis for writers but, along with financial and other problems, its demise is foreshadowed throughout the memoir. We celebrate and agonise with the author through the refurbishment of her lovely cottage despite ongoing leaks and mould; the acceptance of her debut novel Mr Wigg, the completion of Nest and the winning of the prestigious Eric Rolls prize.

Readers are welcomed into the forest through the author’s words: ‘these small acts of tending … [tell her] story of this place’. Also memorable are the author‘s acts of tending the forest: clearing weeds, cutting timber and replanting. She recognises and absorbs ‘Indigenous concepts of country [which] include a responsibility to care for the land’.

Once her eye becomes attuned, she discovers flame tree seedlings and young cedars that were already in plain view. She learns to take time to look for the ‘details and patterns and signs just waiting for my eye to become sufficiently attuned’. As part of this process the author develops ‘nature sight’, where living creatures such as sea turtles and sea eagles, reveal themselves to her.

Inga Simpson concedes that she may not have achieved her desire to become ‘fluent’ in ‘the language of the forest’ but she has become ‘literate’ and literate enough to share her knowledge and understanding through lyrical, unforgettable words.

Inga Simpson’s website

My review of Tony Birch’s Common People (currently shortlisted for the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards) is here.

Cheers for Women on International Women’s Day – Picture Book Reviews

International Women’s Day is celebrated annually on March 8th to commemorate the women’s right movement. Surrounded by much controversy over the years, global marches still signify and stand for a shift in gender equality and mistreatment. So, with a strengthening power in facilitating strong girls and women, and equally credible boys and men, let’s celebrate this significant day with a couple of influential and empowering picture books for children in the early years.

Inspired by one of the largest political demonstrations in history, the Women’s March in January 2017, The Pink Hat by Andrew Joyner is a jubilant celebration of women’s rights in a subtle and playful tone. This is not a book that shoves political issues at children, but rather a quiet sentiment of coming together as a community with a sound common ground and purpose. The entirety of the book culminates with the focus on the pink hat, the symbolic object uniting the town – the women, the children, the mixture of cultures and races, and ages, and even some men. All of Joyner’s superlative illustrations present in shaded black and white line drawings, except for the pop of the fuchsia pink beanie and some pink rosy cheeks.

The hat begins with a grandma, a beautiful representation of a dignified, and very tech-savvy, woman who loves to knit. The cosy knit is then transported on its progressive journey as it is passed from the paws of her playful cat, to a ‘hard-to-reach’ place, acts as a comforter for a baby to the snatching jaws of a runaway dog, and into the hands of a young girl who enjoys its many uses. And one day the girl discovers that her beloved pink hat has begun a movement of its own, with a rally of pink hat-wearing people gesturing placards with “Women’s Rights are Human Rights”, “Girl Power”, “The Future is Feminist”, plus more.

The Pink Hat is a story that promotes awareness and discussion of the events of the social campaign, without being didactic or heavy-handed. It is rather an engaging and enlightening read that sparks the thought for cause and effect, in more ways than one.

Random House Australia, January 2018.

Now here’s a book that celebrates women! With over 70 inspirational women in history, it’s Three Cheers for Women! by Marcia Williams. This large face non-fiction title is jam-packed with fascinating information, vivacious cartoons and fun commentary by supporting characters. It is a terrific resource for the primary classroom or bookshelf at home, with so much to pore over and discover.

Beginning back in Ancient Egyptian times, the first female to feature is Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt c. 69 BC – 30 BC. In comic-style, illustrated text boxes and speech bubbles we learn about how Cleopatra came to rule at eighteen years old, to be overpowered by her younger brother and then regained the throne by raising a winning army until her death at age 39.

To follow in the same page formatting are fearless fighters like Boudicca; Warrior Queen of the Iceni, and Joan of Arc; the Teenage Warrior. As eras progress we meet queens such as Elizabeth 1, legendary authors like Jane Austen, pioneers in health including Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie. There are the Human Rights Activists, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), and Malala Yousafzai (1997- ) who became champions in helping underprivileged people and standing up for equal rights. Our own Cathy Freeman features, too, as Olympic hero for uniting a nation and fighting for the rights of Indigenous Australians.

The book concludes with pages identical to the classifieds section of the paper, listing more amazing women in leadership, sports, creative, pioneering and scientific roles. And a final note from the author leaves a task for the reader; many women had to be left out of the book, but who will you add to your list of inspirational women and girls?

Three Cheers for Women! is absolutely fascinating, written with a mixture of factual interest and candid anecdotes to keep readers engaged at their own pace. Never discounting the achievements or abilities of boys, this one really empowers girls with the power to do something world changing.

Walker Books U.K., November 2017.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Review: The Trauma Cleaner

The Christmas–New Year break contains but two priorities for me: to rest and to read books.

Strangely, given its slightly heavier subject matter, Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay & disaster was one of the books I was most keen to read at this time.

In truth, I was attracted by both the concept and the cover art. The former is that the book is the biography of Sandra, whose work concentrates on cleaning premises that range from sites of hoarding to crime scenes. The latter is the simple but sharp contrast between a white background and slightly wrung bright orange plastic glove. On a semi-gloss cover that could, arguably, be wiped down with a wet cloth if needed.

While trauma cleaning is in and of itself a macabrely fascinating concept (Krasnostein quickly explains that it is a little-known but necessary business for crime scenes and the like—police and other emergency services aren’t there to clean up), Sandra’s story is even more so. Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra was, as the blurb explains, ‘a husband and father, drag queen, sex reassignment patient, sex worker, businesswoman, trophy wife …’

So yeah, there’s a lot to this tale.

The book’s first lines are actually the lines on Sandra’s business card, stating that ‘excellence is no accident’ before listing the types of services she offers. These include hoarding, methamphetamine lab, and death-scene clean-up, as well as odour control.

All the endlessly fascinating things that happen in the shadows and that provide insights into humanity. If this book shows us anything, it’s that these situations are but the extreme manifestations of the issues of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and more that we all grapple with at one time or another. Sandra included.

As Krasnostein writes: ‘Sandra knows her clients as well as they know themselves; she airs out their smells, throws out their weird porn, their photos, their letters, the last traces of their DNA entombed in soaps and toothbrushes. She does not, however, erase these people. She couldn’t. She has experienced the same sorrows.’

Adopted and then abused by her adoptive parents and trying to come to terms with being transgender at a time when it was even less accepted than it is now (if it even is now), what Sandra has gone through is soul-searchingly sad.

Seriously, the book’s opening chapters made me wonder how she survived much less triumphed over her childhood, and I can only imagine how confusing and difficult and stressful it would have been facing a lack of acceptance as well as medical scrutiny when trying to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Not to mention the fact that Sandra underwent all of this around the time of HIV’s arrival. It’s also heart-swellingly impressive just how much she’s managed to make of her life, rebuilding it time and again.

Krasnostein notes that Sandra is immaculately dressed at all times. And that she’s also accompanied by an oxygen tank to help her manage a respiratory condition that is exacerbated by the kinds of dusty, fume- and mould-laden environments in which she works. Trauma cleaning is brutally physical work: ‘See, people think “cleaning” and that you need a bucket of water and a cloth … We need crowbars, spades, rakes, a sledgehammer …’ Sandra explains.

At 260 pages, this book is of average length, but is so accessible and I read it so quickly that those 260 pages felt short. I still have questions. For instance, Krasnostein writes that she first encountered Sandra at a forensic support services conference. I wondered immediately what prompted Krasnostein to attend one. And I wanted to know more detail about Sandra in general—she so utterly fascinated me.

But I’m similarly conscious that there were many rabbit warrens Krasnostein could have gone down. Each life within Sandra’s life just about warrants a book of its own, so it would have been an unimaginably herculean task for Krasnostein to contain the tales to one book. Which she did well, giving mostly equal airtime to key times in Sandra’s life: her childhood, moving out of home and marrying, grappling with her gender and sexuality, careers she’s had, violence she’s endured, loves she’s lost, and how she’s had to repeatedly rebuild her life and finances multiple times.

My only criticisms of the book are that there is too much of the author in it and the text suffers a little from overwriting and thesaurus syndrome. While I’m sure Krasnostein felt a strong personal connection to Sandra’s story, Sandra’s story alone was so rich and compelling that it really needed to stand alone. Likewise, there were times when it felt like prose was over-explained. The story itself was so strong it could have been told matter-of-factly. Likewise, Sandra’s memory loss and subsequent unreliable narration were referenced too often. They just needed to be mentioned once at the beginning and left at that.

But these are small quibbles about what is ultimately an ambitious and refreshingly different book. Sandra’s is a little-told story that warrants greater attention and respect. I hope to read some follow-up articles or books about her—I get the sense she has many more incredible lives to lead and many more stories to share.

Review: Songs of a War Boy

I knew the gist of Deng Thiak Adut’s story via media grabs, but I didn’t until a few days know he’d written a book: Songs of a War Boy.

(For anyone unfamiliar with Deng’s story, he was, at just seven years old, forcefully conscripted from his family and his remote village in South Sudan to fight a civil war about which he had little to no understanding. Deng subsequently spent years undergoing cruel training compounded by malnutrition, disease, very little medical treatment, and no formal education.

Some fortunate circumstances saw him rescued from his dire situation by one of his older brothers. Together they sought refuge in a Kenyan refugee camp before Australia eventually offered them a home. Through his brother’s encouragement and through Deng’s own fierce determination, Deng has gone from a child soldier who knew no English to an accomplished lawyer with his own law practice in Western Sydney. He is also, no biggie, an Archibald Prize featuree (that’s a technical term).)

In the Songs of a War Boy’s foreword, Journalist Hugh Riminton writes that ‘it is impossible, on meeting Deng now, not to be in awe of him. And that is before you know where he has been. This book tells that story […] It would be unbelievable, were it not true.’

Those unbelievable elements include how much trauma Deng has experienced in his short life and how many near misses he has had with death. Seriously, there are so many moments it’s almost incomprehensible how he survived any much less all of them. But as he outlines, that trauma haunts him—mostly at night while he’s trying to sleep.

Co-written with Ben McKelvey, Songs of a War Boy is accessible and inspiring. The way Deng describes his experiences so eloquently and so matter-of-factly is startling. And far from gratuitous or graphic—I’m squeamish as all get-up and I coped. In fact, it’s arguably the most human description I’ve yet read of what it was like to be a child soldier.

Songs are hugely important to the Dinka people from which he comes, Deng explains in the book’s opening pages. Songs are, as Deng describes them, their ‘avatars’, ‘biographies’, and how Dinka morality, culture, and laws are passed on.

But Deng doesn’t have any songs—they’re reserved for those who have undergone manhood initiation ceremonies. Ceremonies Deng missed out on because he was taken to be a boy soldier. He observes: ‘It is a strange fact, though, that war could make one less of a man.’

This book is, as the title suggests, Deng’s song (or songs). It also shows his life beyond being what could have been an all-defining role as a conscripted child soldier. As a byproduct, both the book and the speaking engagements Deng now regularly completes also go some way to changing peoples’ perceptions of refugees.

As Deng writes of his speeches: ‘I knew that people came to hear about war and sadness and a past that was so unusual for them, but I also knew that they left thinking about how normal my present was—and how much I was like them … If you can relate to me—a reformed child soldier coming from one of the most isolated and disadvantaged nations on earth—then there are few refugees in Australia that you can’t relate to.’

Without getting overtly political, at a time when it seems as though the Australian government is doing all it can to ensure we don’t relate to people seeking asylum, it’s arguably more important than ever to read books like Deng’s. And Songs of a War Child makes this far from a chore. I read it in three sittings and I finished it wanting more. My hope is that Deng writes a follow-up.

Review: Watching Brief: Reflections on Justice and Injustice

The opening of Julian Burnside’s book Watching Out: reflections on justice and injustice reads: ‘This book does not set out to equip the lay reader to mount his or her own litigation. Neither is it designed to help law students pass their exams …’

Which made me chuckle. Clearly Burnside, barrister and QC, spends a lot of time fielding questions about both. (And I’ll not deny that, having recently returned to study Law, I wasn’t looking for exam answers but I was looking for some sort of inspiration and guidance.)

Probably most recognisable to Australians as a leading voice on and advocate for human rights—particularly in relation to refugees—Burnside is an experienced lawyer whose insights into the justice system are worth taking note of. Unbeknownst to me until I read this was that he was actually one of the barristers who acted in the infamous Tampa case in 2001. He was also involved in the equally well known Maritime Union of Australia v Patricks Stevedores case.

A friend of his pointed out that Australia doesn’t have a justice system, but rather a legal system. That sentiment, expressed on page one, sets the book’s tone. As Burnside writes, he’s interested in justice rather than law.

What follows are chapters that likely first lived as standalone essays or columns and that discuss little known and puzzling aspects of Australia’s legal system. For example, that the people who judge whether people seeking asylum will be granted refugee status are not lawyers and are more likely to be reappointed if their decisions align with the government’s stance (read: they reject applications).

In these chapters Burnside also explains how, unlike courts, which have checks and balances designed to catch biases and errors, there are no such checks and balances in place for these asylum-seeking tribunals. As in the aforementioned tribunals overseen by people in whose interest it is to bias results toward rejection. Frighteningly, until 2001 it was impossible for a court to overturn a decision because of an error of law.

Burnside also outlines some abominable details of the facilities in which Australia locks people seeking asylum. Facilities that stem from the Labor- and Liberal-alike position that Burnside terms as: ‘We are so worried about you drowning, we will punish you if you don’t drown. That will persuade others to stay at home and face persecution.’

That punishment includes being detained indefinitely in places like Woomera—bearing in mind that that facility now seems luxurious when compared with the more recent Manus and Nauru—which held 1500 people, which was three times its designed maximum, had just three toilets for that population, and at which women had to make written applications for sanity napkins.

Then there’s the legislation that made it illegal for medical professionals to report human rights abuses (such as child sexual abuse) they witnessed in detention centres—something that is normally unquestionably fundamental to their jobs. But in addition to outlining the facts and faults of the justice system, Burnside also outlines his thoughts on its opportunities and solutions. So it’s not all reading in outrage. It’s reading to learn about the facts rather than the fear-mongering, and to encounter some heart-swelling inspiration from someone who’s working to right the legal wrongs.

Burnside also explains some fascinating legal aspects, such as the poorly understood Cab Rank Rule. That is, that barristers don’t pick and choose who they represent. Rather, if they are offered a brief commensurate with a fee and legal matter related to their experience, they are obliged to accept the brief. At least, they are barring something like a conflict of interest such as that they are Jewish and are being asked to represent a neo-Nazi. So next time someone says something like ‘How can they represent such as such who’s been accused of such and such hideous crimes?’, people like me can knowledgeably (but not know-it-all-ingly) refer to the Cab Rank Rule.

Watching Out also provides insight into Burnside’s human side and, arguably, the abuse he’s copped throughout his human rights-advocating career. It seems he regularly receives hate mail. About which he has a brilliant sense of humour: ‘The people who write actual letters are a very forgetful bunch; they never remember to put their name and address on the letter, so it was not possible to reply to them’.

But Burnside does reply to people who write him emails—even entirely abusive ones. What he has found is that replying politely to even the rudest of emails often triggers a quite polite response. Burnside estimates that some people change their minds and others at least get to the point where they don’t agree, but are civil about it, better informed, and appreciate him taking the time to discuss the issues with them.

All of which is to say that there’s a bunch of interesting, if eclectic, information contained within this book. If I had one criticism to make, it would be that there could have been some smoothing out of the chapters. There is often unnecessary repetition and re-explaining of concepts. This likely relates to the fact that I suspect they were, as I mentioned before, published as separate essays or columns and simply collated.

Also, if I’m honest, I bought Watching Out thinking I was buying Watching Brief: reflections on human rights, law, and justice. Although I get the sense that Watching Out is a continuation of the Watching Brief subject matter and themes, and I would have ended up reading it too, so no matter. In the meantime, I recommend reading Watching Out. I’ll report back once I’ve read Watching Brief.

Utopia for Realists: Revisiting Ideas of Universal Basic Income

I dare say that few of us truly understand why our work and welfare systems are the way they are, and that many of us have thought, in at least in passing, that things seem a little back to front.

Dutchman Rutger Bregman has done more than think about the this-system-seems-broken concept. He’s researched and penned a case for universal basic income (UBI)—a foundational amount of no-strings-attached money for everyone—and other similarly counterintuitive concepts such as opening up international borders. (The latter warrants a post all of its own.) In the pragmatic, evidence-based Utopia for Realists, Bregman shows how these things could be not far-fetched idealism but economically viable realities.

‘The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones’ is one of economist John Maynard Keynes’ famed quotes, which Bregman employs to emphasise his point. (Forewarning: Bregman quotes quite a few economists in this book.) And while many of the theories discussed in the Utopia for Realists have in truth been around for donkeys’ years, Bregman reintroduces us to them via fresh, illustrative case studies and wider historical contexts. Iconic popular culture cartoon The Jetsons even rates a mention.

A historian by trade, Bregman conveys traditionally fairly dense, dry subject matter in an accessible, engaging, storytelling- and context-based manner. That is, I actually kind of understood some of these concepts and their potential once Bregman had parsed their data. (Bregman’s Conversations with Richard Fidler interview also provides an audio overview of the book’s theories, and is fantastic to listen to to boot. I highly recommend queuing it up in your podcast rotation, stat.) Take the case studies for addressing poverty and, by happy proxy, a host of other issues.

One London-based 2009 study involved providing 13 men who had been sleeping rough long term with a modest, no-strings-attached sum of money. These were men who had spent decades on the streets and on whom the government inadvertently spent swathes of money through things like policing.

It turns out that, instead of frittering away the money as anticipated, the men were incredibly frugal and thoughtful in the way they spent it. Some even had some cash left over at the experiment’s close. This free-money experiment also saved the government a bunch of money as the need for policing and its ilk decreased.

Similar case studies, such as ones where entire poverty-wracked towns in Kenya, Uganda, and Namibia were provided a UBI, demonstrate equivalent results: people spent the money not on frivolous items but on things such as repairing homes and starting businesses. Although in the case of a Canadian experiment from decades ago, it’s only recently that they determined these results.

That’s because of a change in political climate mid-trial and a resultant nervousness about spending money analysing a ‘mincome’ (minimum income) experiment to give an entire town a UBI. It was one thing to have given away free money in the past, the powers that be surmised. It would be another to continue throwing money after it. So the analysis was shelved. Until recently.

It’s a sliding-doors moment because things might have been very different today if those decision-makers had had the courage to see the analysis through. It turns out the UBI was a resounding success and, rather than making people lazy, it improved life and society on a range of fronts. Truancy and teen pregnancy rates decreased, students stayed in school longer, and mental health issues and domestic violence rates improved too.

Similarly, a study of American First Peoples who benefited from the opening of a casino, of all things, reported similarly positive results. Bregman included this study to demonstrate that being poor affects your IQ and something as simple as having access to money improves it. Bregman cites economist Charles Kenny’s wise, if slightly circular, observation: ‘The big reason people are poor is because they don’t have enough money.’ He also cites, what is possibly my favourite quote of the book, which is from economist Joseph Hanlon: ‘Poverty is fundamentally about a lack of cash. It’s not about stupidity. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.’

To reinforce these quotes, Bregman points to findings consistent across these studies that giving money to people is more effective in addressing poverty than creating complicated bureaucratic and punitive-in-nature systems for them to navigate. Especially when their decision-making abilities are crippled by what’s termed a poverty-induced ‘scarcity mentality’.

Bregman cites George Orwell’s quote that poverty ‘annihilates the future’. It’s a statement Orwell was qualified to make having experienced poverty firsthand. UBI is, Bregman argues, an idea whose time has come, and I’m inclined to whole-heartedly agree.

Does Utopia for Realists contain all the answers to all the world’s problems? Obviously not. But it’s commendably at least trying to spark a rethink of how we’re rather unsuccessfully approaching wicked problems. The question is whether the people who have the power to introduce UBI and other similarly innovative concepts—to un-annihilate the future, if you’d like—are paying attention.

Leveraging Laws Levers for Environmental Good

‘A man cannot despair if he can imagine a better life, and if he can enact something of its possibility.’

ClientEarth’s* epigraph (above) is, fittingly, American novelist, poet, and environmental activist Wendell Berry’s famous quote. I say fittingly because environmental lawyer James Thornton’s career and, by proxy, non-fiction book ClientEarth embodies that sentiment.

An American lawyer currently living in London, Thornton has practised environmental law, which is a relatively new concept, since its early days. He’s been instrumental in shaping and shifting the law to better protect the environment. This includes helping remove some of the onerous costs that prevent people suing companies running roughshod over environmental protections.

Thornton cut his teeth doing things like suing a businessman negligently running a pig factory farm. The businessman had nothing but contempt for complying with legislation designed to prevent environmental degradation resulting from the farm’s waste. That contempt and cockiness cost him a substantial amount of money.

With litigation like this, Thornton developed a reputation for cleverly using the law as a stick when necessary, but more readily as a tool for tackling injustice and as an antidote to despair. ‘Irresponsible businesses and governments need to be faced by two realities,’ Thornton writes: ‘that people object to them so strongly that they stop buying their projects or voting for them; that the law makes life so difficult for them that they have to change their behaviour.’ The pig farmer experienced the latter.

‘ClientEarth’ is two things. It’s the name of the environmental law organisation Thornton founded and still runs. It’s also the name of the book he and his partner of 25 years, writer and academic Martin Goodman, have penned to document the tale of the ground-breaking legal organisation that leverages legal mechanisms to change or enforce environmental law. (As Paul Steinberg says in the book: ‘If you want to change the world, change the rules. A rule is just an idea with an anchor attached to it.’)

As the primary storyteller in this book, Goodman explores the tale from a biographer’s perspective. Thornton’s thoughts intersperse Goodman’s chapters. Although less sophisticated in storytelling capacity, Thornton’s chapters give voice to his thinking around particular issues or key moments.

ClientEarth is an important book for a variety of reasons, not least because with climate change accelerating and few world leaders even attempting to apply the handbrake through good environmental policy and outcomes (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump), people are looking for information about what non-politician-led mechanisms might be available. (Illustrating the hopelessness and incredulity people currently feel, ClientEarth points to the Tom Toro cartoon with a family sitting around a campfire. ‘Yes,’ the father says, ‘the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.’)

Environmental law is fewer than 50 years old, so its parameters and power are still being determined. Regardless, it is, according to Thornton, the answer to the what-can-we-possibly-do question with which people are grappling. But Thornton alone cannot create or enforce all the environmental laws we need, which is why a book outlining and analysing how he’s achieved what he has, what hasn’t worked, and what environmental law’s potential might be, is crucial.

One issue that’s plagued action is, he notes, that the environmental lawyers who tend to help NGOs—and I realise I’m making sweeping generalisations here—are young, activist lawyers with lots of enthusiasm but, due to their relative inexperience, little heft.

Another observation is that there’s room for a range of activist approaches, and ClientEarth’s approach is designed to complement rather than compete with approaches like that of Greenpeace. The thinking is, as it’s put more memorably, that: ‘Each superhero has their superhero skill, but you need a bunch of them.’

ClientEarth is well told—an experienced writer at the tiller draws out the key stories and keeps it the right side of being dry textbook-y. That said, it’s a book that’s more gripping in some chapters than others, and its niche audience is undoubtedly one that has an interest in the law and its levers.

Which I do. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve headed back to uni to study Law with the express purpose of incorporating environmental law into my existing career. But I’ve since recommended ClientEarth to—read: thrust the book at—various friends and family who haven’t got legal backgrounds, all of whom have been able to take away plenty of invaluable information from it.

ClientEarth is comprehensively researched, with chapter-by-chapter endnotes for further reading or fact checking if you have the energy for it. And even if you don’t, ClientEarth’s chapter content alone imparts a hope-imbued sense of what’s possible if we can strategically shift society’s legal levers in the environment’s favour.

*Yes, it is one word. Yes, it’s troubling me and I am itching to uncouple the two words logically.

Dim’s Christmas Crackers Lists – Bag the Best Kids’ Books

If you are like me, knowing there are only 41 days left until Christmas fills you with silent terror. You know it’s not about the presents. You know you’ll want (have) to give some, anyway. You’ve heard books tick all the enduring, educational, entertaining boxes as far as kids’ gifts go, but how do you choose without going crackers? During the next 41 days, I’ll share a cluster of the best kids’ books of 2017. Hunt them down for your Christmas stockings.  Hold on tight though, we’ll be going faster than a turbo-charged reindeer over black ice.

List # 1 Non-fiction Picture Books

At the Beach I See by Kamsani Bin Salleh

Striking board book series featuring elegant artwork and lyrical text. This one is useful for forging connections between our beautiful seashores and new creatures. Ideal for 2+ year-olds.

Magabala Books August 2017

Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines by Prue & Kerry Mason and Tom Jellet

Jellett’s character-filled illustrations bring this fascinating assortment of historic aviators to spectacular life. From Lawrence Hargrave to John Flynn, ‘Smithy’ to Nancy Bird, numerous significant figures in the history of flight and aviation in Australia are described using first person narrative and fact-based prose. Amazing facts are included along with modern day updates. Perfect for aeroplane enthusiasts from 8 years upwards.

Read Romi’s full review, here.

Walker Books Australia 2017

Fierce Fighters Predators by Paul Beck and Lee Martin

If you love Deadly 60, you’ll be mad for this beefy full-colour collection of some of the world’s most formidable predators. Ridiculously fearsome and astounding photographs accompany an incredible list of hunters from apex predators such as lions and sharks to the less ubiquitous platypus. Scientific facts and stats provide just enough information without obscuring the teeth baring drama and are paired in side-by-side showdowns – anglerfish vs. pelican eel, for example. An awesome addition (with stickers and poster!) for the would-be marine biologists and nature lovers aged 6 – 14.

Becker & Mayer! Kids July 2017

All Aboard the Discovery Express by Emily Hawkins, Tom Adams and Tom Clohoshy-Cole

Move over Orient Express, the Discovery Express has arrived, platform one. This is a glorious pop-up, pull, and flap creation allowing readers to embark on a thrilling journey back in time with Nancy Delaney, geographer, explorer and all-round adventurer. Choco-block with puzzles and fascinating facts, Nancy escorts you from Paris to England, the US and beyond on a spellbinding journey of discovery about trains, planes and yes, automobiles. Even submarines are included in this book, which is more of a code-busting adventure romp through history. Highly recommended and ideal for sleuths and transport spotters from 10 years+.

Quarto Group September 2017

Continue reading Dim’s Christmas Crackers Lists – Bag the Best Kids’ Books

Kids Will be Rapt to Find these Wrapped this Christmas – Part 1

It’s time to get organised for the festive season so I’ll be beginning with Part 1 of my Christmas gift suggestions today! These selections are for the busy, hands-on builders in your life. For worldly explorers, air travellers, and magical realm inquisitors, there’s an interactive gift here for you.

The Discovery Globe Build-Your-Own Globe Kit is the perfect choice for an action adventure into exploring the world. Kitted up in a neat fold-out box with World Explorer’s Guide on the left and spinning globe pieces packaged on the right, you can study the world to your heart’s content…and even make your own!

The Guide consists of easy-to-follow instructions on building your globe, which then acts as the prop for all the amazing facts, natural wonders, famous faces and topics that you’ll be finding out about. Each piece fits together to represent an Earth consisting of different types of land (ie. oceans, freshwater, tropical rainforest, etc), and icons of the animal world and human life. The completed construction measures 47cm tall, and actually spins like any other globe!

Leon Gray and Sarah Edmonds cleverly designed the book with content divided into manageable parts and informative, colourful illustrations representing graphics, keys, diagrams and maps. Sections include The Earth in Space, the Sun, Land and Water, Biomes, Natural Wonders, Endangered Animals, Travelling the World, people, arts, food, plus more.

With fascinating information, glossary, interactive questions and things to find on your spinning model, The Discovery Globe is a marvellous cultural, scientific and geographical package that will have young curious minds enthralled for hours. For ages six and up.

Quarto Children’s Books and Walker Books, October 2017.

Next to fly into your Christmas stockings is the Busy Builders Airport kit. Build your own 92cm airport play set with punch-out models to put together, and fold out runways and puzzle pieces. You can construct everything from a jumbo jet to propellor plane, helicopter and ground controllers, the terminal, baggage truck and control towers. What fun!

The Awesome Airport Action guide, written by Timothy Knapman, includes everything you need to know about life around aeroplanes. It is a child-friendly introduction to airports and what to expect when travelling. The text is energetic and engaging, but also informative enough to provide children from age five a clear concept of the different facets of air travel. The booklet begins with checking in to the terminal and handling baggage and security, moving through to planes, vehicles, their parts and preparation, the roles of ground crew, take off and the in-flight adventure, and finally landing. Cute cartoon characters with their little speech bubbles and solid graphics with the various details to peruse give the feel of a fun advertisement that entices your interest.

Gorgeously packaged with a velcro tab, Busy Builders Airport encourages young pilot enthusiasts and world travelling wannabes, or even those yet to embark on any flying adventure, with plenty of knowledge and role play action that will have them soaring to great heights.

Walker Books Australia, October 2017.

Build the Dragon is a very cool gift to give a 7+ year-old fanatical about fantasy, myths and legends. Eye-catching from any bookstore shelf, this book and model kit will certainly spark a flame amongst dragon lovers.

Dugald Steer, fanatic himself on the subject of myths and legends with numerous books in his ‘Ology’ series, presents this spectacular world into dragons. In fourteen parts over 32 pages, learn about these beasts’ anatomy, their history, their worlds and their supernatural powers. A suitably archaic-type text is interwoven between the captivating multi-media illustrations by Jonathan Woodward and Douglas Carrel. This unique combination of artists brings this book to life with their mix of exotic drawings and realistic images.

And to add even more sensation to this already captivating non-fiction/fantasy resource is the 46-piece, 3D moving model of a Western dragon that you can build yourself! Kids will fall head over heels for this magnificent addition that includes 40cm of dragon goodness with its motorised flapping wings and gnashing jaws.

Build the Dragon is a highly appealing, interactive guide to living out one’s dragon obsessions. Primary school children will surely be able to show off their expertise in all things magical realms, and engagement with their miniature dragon replica will certainly enliven their imaginations even further.

Quarto Children’s Books and Walker Books Australia, November 2017.

Stay tuned for more Christmas gift ideas! 🙂

Picture Books Steeped in History

From sea to air and up into space. A substantial ship voyage. Amazing aeroplane feats. And a rousing rover exploring the red planet. Three different modes of transport literally transport us back in time with their historical significance, teaching us so much about how we got to where we are today. All inspiring, all empowering. Here are a few prodigious picture book stories steeped in history.

Ten Pound Pom, Carole Wilkinson (author), Liz Anelli (illus.), Walker Books, October 2017.

The true story of an almost thirteen-year-old Carole Wilkinson, Ten Pound Pom tells of the auspicious journey of a young girl and her family immigrating from England to Australia in the early 1960s.

Post World War II, under The White Australia Policy, a scheme called The United Kingdom-Australia Free and Assisted Passage Agreement promised emigrating British sunshine, plentiful food, higher wages and space to live. Ex-servicemen and children could travel for free, and other adults paid only £10, dubbing these migrants as ‘Ten Pound Poms’. The inclusion of facts explaining The £10 Migration Scheme, glossary, and the ship Arcadia, in which Carole’s family travelled, gives the book a depth and validity that is so neatly etched into this fascinating and personal story.

With a few packed boxes of furniture and precious belongings, and a small amount of knowledge about this foreign land, the dream of a new life for the Wilkinsons in Australia was to become a reality. A whole season and 11,397 miles sailed on the SS Arcadia later, the family had ventured into uncharted waters across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, along the Red Sea, through the Indian Ocean and the roughs of the Great Australian Bight to their Adelaide destination. All the while, a young Carole learns of different cultures, experiences new sights and even makes a new friend.

Wilkinson re-lives her time on the “huge floating hotel” in her own childlike voice, and her impressions of life as a new resident in Australia clearly come from a place of fond memories. The illustrations by Liz Anelli superbly capture the elements of the era and the snippets of Carole’s diverse experiences. The pictorial features add energy and information, including maps, scenery and items of interest, breaking up the text to allow readers to absorb each part in manageable chunks.

As a part of the ‘Our Stories’ series, Ten Pound Pom is a valuable, appealing non-fiction/narrative resource for studying history and sharing migration stories. Capturing the hearts and minds of readers in middle to upper primary, and beyond, this book is perfect to pore over for the purposes of research and for pleasure.

Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines, Prue & Kerry Mason (authors), Tom Jellett (illus.), Walker Books, April 2017.

This time we travel by air as we explore the fascinating history of the development of aviation in Australia. In Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines, we are indulged with the stories of ten brave pilots beginning in 1851 through to 1935.

Ex-convict Dr William Bland patented an idea in the 1850s for an Atmotic Ship to journey from England to Australia in a mere few days, as opposed to the norm of the exhausting three month sea voyage. The balloon flight was dubbed as dangerous, and so literally never took off.

We then discover the invention of the cellular box kites that Lawrence Hargrave believed could give the stability needed for flight in 1894. Following that came the glider of George Taylor in 1909, the first heavier-than-air flying machine successfully airborne over Narrabeen Beach. The narrated and factual absorbing text and images continue to delight us with stories from the brilliant air skills of Commanding Officer of the Australian Flying Corps, Richard Williams in 1917, Ross Macpherson Smith’s winning success in the 1919 Great Race from London to Darwin, plus more inspiring heroes including Nancy Bird, the youngest woman pilot in Australia to gain her commercial pilot’s licence at the age of nineteen.

Each double page spread is littered with interesting historical aviation information, speculative personal recounts, and amazing pilot and general knowledge facts. Tom Jellett’s retro-style cartoons interwoven throughout the army-themed coloured pages add the elements of character, humour and verve to support the material and collection of photos.

The authors, Prue and Kerry Mason, inspired to research Australian aviation history after purchasing their own vintage aeroplane, have provided a sterling non-fiction volume of interest for aeroplane enthusiasts and keen history buffs. Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines carries its weight in gold (or air) as an empowering and uplifting primary school vehicle.

Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover, Markus Motum (author, illus.), Walker Books, October 2017.

This is the story of Curiosity; a Mars rover sent to far-off places, and I mean far-off places, to discover whether there has been, or ever will be, life on Mars. Here is another out-worldly experience steeped in history that will not only fascinate, but enrich our imaginations and ‘curiosity’ with many unanswered mysteries of the universe.

With its illustriously large landscape orientation, varied text sizes and pictorial layouts, Curiosity certainly lives up to its space-themed nature. The spreads are generously ‘spread out’, leaving plenty of ‘space’ to digest and conceptualise the given information and images. Markus Motum’s diagrammatical, clean and aerodynamic style of graphics suitably provide the book its authenticity, effectiveness and allure.

So why the desire to explore The Red Planet? Scientists believed there was once life on Mars, but for humans to travel in a rocket would take 350,000,000 miles, and the possibility of not returning. That’s where the Mars Rover comes in. With NASA’s ongoing trials and tribulations of previous missions, a more advanced rover was designed and developed in California – the process of equipment and technology inventions are explained in the book. Curiosity, as she was named, was transported across the U.S to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, where she was launched into space in November 2011. 253 days later the rover carefully landed with precision. “Touchdown confirmed. We’re safe on Mars!”

With the well-considered inclusion of a timeline of Mars missions from 1964-5 to present to complete the book, the study into climate and geology and the preparation of human exploration shows there is hope still of answering those curious questions of microbial life. Motum’s celebratory book of Curiosity’s fifth year of exploration on Mars is targeted towards kids and adults alike, using a first-person voice from the rover’s perspective. The inclusion of facts is so comprehensive and never compromised, making this a valuable resource to study and treasure.

Feeling Good – Books to Increase Awareness

Getting to know oneself and understanding the world that shapes us is one of the first steps to feeling good about oneself and the world in which we live. This handful of books addresses the art of awesomeness and why it’s important to live it.

It’s OK To Feel The Way You Do by Josh Langley

Langley’s little books of BIG messages about self-help and self-esteem are house favourites. Neither overtly moralistic nor sermonic, they present beautiful messages of love, understanding and hope, accompanied with novel, cartoon-esque illustrations.

Continue reading Feeling Good – Books to Increase Awareness

In the Shadow of Man (AKA Jane Goodall’s Remarkable Influence)

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love or feel like Jane Goodall influenced their lives, so I don’t pretend to be a bigger Goodall fan than the next person. ‘At least one person at every book signing tells me that In the Shadow of Man [hereafter referred to as Shadow] was instrumental in their deciding on a career with animals,’ Goodall writes in the book’s preface. ‘Usually there are several people in the same line who want to thank me for influencing their lives in some way or other.’

Her work had, for instance, an undoubtable impact on, and was a precursor to, one of my favourite books, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. That award-winning book concentrates on Canadian primatologist turned writer Andrew Westoll’s time working in a sanctuary for chimps rescued and retired from medical research.

Like the people who queue up at Goodall’s book signings, I too would like to say that I’m ever so grateful that she has done what she’s done in this world. Because for me, as for so many others, Goodall’s been a particularly powerful role model. That is, one who did what no one thought could be done and most thought was outright crazy. I’m particularly impressed that she wasn’t contained by the traditions of the time that expected her as a woman to focus not on obtaining knowledge and sharing it, but on settling down in suburbia and raising a family.

As someone who has spent their entire life feeling round-peg-square-hole about their desire to have an animals- and environment-focused career, there are few women to I’ve been able to look up to and—in my own feeble way—attempt to learn from or emulate.

It seems I’m not alone after all, as Goodall notes this a few pars later in her preface: ‘Shadow, I think, has been especially significant for women. Hundreds—perhaps thousands—have been inspired to attempt things that they had only dreamed about.’

Shadow, which documents Goodall’s first and ground-breaking forays into chimpanzee observations, has been around for quite a while. I hadn’t read it for complex reasons even I don’t entirely understand: I doubted it could tell me much more about Goodall that wider popular culture and articles, which highlighted key elements, already had. I simultaneously worried that the book wouldn’t live up to my altogether-too-high expectations.

I’m glad I did finally get round to reading it. It’s given me a more holistic understanding of Goodall and her successes, as well as her stumblings on the way to them. Those include that the chimps were terrified and wary of her for months and months and months, and that she contracted malaria and did not have any medication to treat it because a doctor had misadvised her that there was no malaria in the region. Then there are the wrenching moments, such as when the chimps contracted polio. That’s not something I’ve heard a lot of pop culture discussion about.

The book also helped me marvel at the intelligence of the chimps, not least at Figan cunningly leading other chimps away from food so he could double back and score himself an unshared feast. Or how a juvenile chimp kidnapping a younger sibling was an ingenious way of getting their mother to leave a termites nest at which they had otherwise decided to stay.

Goodall quotes her then husband Hugo as describing observing chimps in remote wilderness in Africa as ‘…like being spectators of life in some village. Endless fascination, endless enjoyment, endless work.’ For me, it sums up perfectly what a career involved in studying and caring for animals entails. But I’m sure most other people knew that. I just wish I’d stumped up and read Shadow earlier. Suffice to say, I’ll be delving into Goodall’s subsequent books soon.

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Review: This Is Going To Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

I have a terrible habit of carefully selecting a new book—often one that’s been sitting on my bedside table for some time—to read on longhaul flights, only to be distracted by a shiny new book at the airport while waiting to board. I invariably end up rather guiltily but compulsively buying said distracting book and squishing it into my backpack.

Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor was one such impulse airport purchase. I was loitering in a bookshop in Heathrow airport waiting for the airline to announce from which gate the first of my interminably long flights to get back to Australia would depart. (Why they couldn’t announce it more than 30 minutes before the plane left, I don’t know. Surely they knew where an A380 was going park. But I digress.)

I get to call myself a doctor these days, but I’m of the non-medical variety because my family is genetically, pathologically squeamish. That doesn’t stop me gravitating toward books that are about not so much gruesome medical details as the experience of what it’s like to work a medical doctor’s job.

This Is Going To Hurt features, as the subtitle suggests, excerpts from diaries Kay kept during his years navigating the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) junior and slightly more senior doctor positions. (He’s long departed the medical world to be a writer and comedian—presumably much more fun jobs that still manage to leverage all that hard-learnt knowledge.)

And it is, to be concise: achingly insightful and funny. I read the book non-stop during my flights, foregoing sleep and new-release movies for it, closing it up only briefly to ingest airline food, and only then because space and awkwardness temporarily prevented me wielding both a book and cutlery. The book is ab-clenchingly hilarious, although the best bits—of which there are many—are probably not entirely suitable to discuss on this family friendly blog, or simply require a little more context than I can provide.

Essentially, the book provides a glimpse into the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed junior doctor experience. Specifically, how nothing could quite prepare (Adam) Kay for the NHS’ bureaucratic efficiency slash inefficiency: ‘Day one. H [his then-girlfriend whose identity has been protected] has made me a packed lunch. I have a new stethoscope, a new shirt, and a new email address: [email protected]. It’s good to know that no matter what happens today, nobody could accuse me of being the most incompetent person in the hospital,’ Kay writes. ‘And even if I am, I can blame it on Atom.’

But his email address is trumped by that of his friend Amanda Saunders-Vest, whose hyphen they spelt out: [email protected].

This Is Going To Hurt also outlines the kinds of truth-is-stranger than fiction moments Kay frequently experienced, such as receiving an all-staff email about ensuring all samples were sent to the lab, stat. What prompted the broadcast was a psych patient who had been transferred to the respiratory ward with pneumonia. He’d been discovered scavenging and ingesting sputum samples the previous day.

There are some slightly more serious undertones to the book too.

The book blurb says: ‘Welcome to 97-hour weeks. Welcome to life-and-death decisions. Welcome to a constant tsunami of bodily fluids. Welcome to earning less than the hospital parking meter. Wave goodbye to your friends and relationships…’

This Is Going To Hurt shows the slow unravelling of Kay’s relationship and documents myriad missed family or generally fun occasions through unending work commitments and last-minute emergencies. Also, I learnt from this book that (in the UK, at least) all junior doctors change hospitals on precisely the same day every six or 12 months—on what is known as ‘Black Wednesday’. I *think* this happens in Australia every January. ‘You might think it would be a terrible idea to exchange all your Scrabble tiles in one go and expect the hospital to run exactly as it did the day before,’ Kay writes. ‘And you’d be quite right.’

One review I read of This Is Going To Hurt (or rather Kay’s related show, which draws on much of the same material), mentions that the reviewer spent the first 40 minutes laughing and the next 10 crying. That’s an accurate summation of what I experienced.

Kay’s penned an open letter (in what could possibly be considered a rethink of the equivalent of an epilogue) to the Secretary of State for Health at the book’s end. Its opening sentence discusses how a Harvard Law professor once suggested we should seal the nuclear codes in a live human’s heart. The thinking was that if the president wanted to wipe out a bunch of people from a distance, he first had to cut open and likely kill one person up close and personal. Likewise, Kay argues, the Secretary of State for Health should truly comprehend what junior doctors are subjected to in terms of punishingly gruelling hours, comparably low pay, and terrifyingly enormous responsibility.

Apart from wondering how Kay found the time or energy to keep these diaries along the way, but eternally grateful that he did, I wholly recommend reading This Is Going To Hurt. It’s relevant even to those of us based outside the UK because the experience—and the pressures—is undoubtedly transferable.

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Shakespeare Saving Lives

I’m more than slightly hesitant to admit that I’ve never really liked Shakespeare. Mostly for the same reasons I don’t really like poetry—there is greater depth and elaboration that requires the brains and requisite patience I don’t possess in order to unpack the prose.

So it unsurprisingly took having Shakespeare Saved My Life recommended to me a few times before I finally picked up a copy. What finally sold me on reading the book was that it was about an academic’s life-changing in-prison teaching program. That’s something I’m definitely interested in.

I’ll preface this blog with the spoiler that even after reading this book—good though it was—I still don’t really like Shakespeare. But I do have a vastly greater appreciate of his—or her, depending on which ‘who actually was Shakespeare?’ theory you adhere to—prowess.

I also have an appreciation for—or rather despair of—prison systems around the world. Rehabilitation and educational opportunities are crucial, but unpopular with taxpayers, so programs like Laura Bates’ are few, far between, and constantly up against the wall.

Apart from having to navigate massive university teaching loads as a junior academic not yet able to secure tenure, Bates had to navigate prison bureaucracy and puzzlement. The Shakespeare-teaching program was actually the first of its kind, so Bates had to undergo standard prison guard training to learn to handle situations lest she find herself smack bang in the middle of a riot. If she wanted in, she was essentially told, she could have in, but the prison guards were unlikely to be able to or even have time to get to her if or when things went south.

And, as she wrote: ‘I quickly learned that it wasn’t the noisy ranges but the quiet ones—eerily quiet—that I needed to worry about.’

‘Female on the range!’ was the primary catcall in her initial visits. Over time, though, that changed to the more accepting ‘Shakespeare on the range!’

That’s not to say things went entirely smoothly. The term ‘gunned down’ referred to bullets of liquid-y products like urine, semen, and faeces. And there was plenty of bureaucratic farce, not least relating to the bulletproof vests the guards and Bates were instructed to wear to ‘protect’ them. As one guard said: ‘If we fall over in them things, we’re like a turtle on his back. [Freaking] dumbasses in Central Office!’

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Shakespeare Saved My Life centres around Bates, a newbie academic who stumbles across the power of teaching Shakespeare to prisoners. On the prisoners’ part they, despite the apparent chasm of time and life experience between them and Shakespeare’s tales, are able to relate to and learn from the texts.

They’re also able to translate the texts into terms even I can digest. Take, for example, this foreword to Hamlet: ‘Tell me if this has ever happened to you: Your uncle kills your father and marries your mother as he steals your inheritance. Your good friends try to trick you into your grave, but you trick them into theirs instead…When it’s all said and done, you kill your crazy girl’s brother and he kills you—but not before you finally kill your uncle. It was a rough month, to say the least.’

The star pupil and inmate is Newton, who is as intelligent as his moniker suggests. He’s also apparently the rotten-est of rotten eggs. When Bates met him, Newton had spent a record 10 years in ‘the SHU’ (read: isolation). But upon reading his thoughtful text interpretations, Bates quickly went from ‘I can’t work with this one’ to ‘there’s something incredible about him’.

‘It seems like you can spend time on just about each passage and come up with three different conclusions,’ Newton says at one stage. Hear hear. Although in my case, it’s more likely that I struggle to come up with a single interpretation of any given passage.

His insights into Shakespeare are simultaneously greater than any I’ve ever previously encountered and also more linked to real-life. He also absolutely adores Shakespeare: ‘When it comes to literature, Shakespeare is the equivalent to 2-Pac in the rap industry, Led Zeppelin in the rock industry, Michael Jordan in the world of basketball, or Muhammad Ali in the world of boxing. He is the man!’

I can’t say I’ll ever feel smart enough to like Shakespeare, but I heard myself going ‘huh’ a few times while reading Newton’s insights into them. If that’s the closest I’ll get to accessing, understanding, and actually enjoying Shakespeare, then it’s A-Ok with me. And if Shakespeare is helping people who are incarcerated, and therefore helping rehabilitate them ready for release into the community, then it’s doubly A-Ok so.

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Fantastic Camouflages and Where to Find Them – Picture Books

Fascinating creatures and hidden characters reside in every nook and cranny in this wonderful world. You have the chance to discover their exact locations, even when cleverly camouflaged from plain view. Explore beautiful and exotic landscapes while you search through these delightful picture books.

Can You Find Me?, Gordon Winch (author), Patrick Shirvington (illus.), New Frontier Publishing, September 2017.

Widely acclaimed author Gordon Winch, together with the charismatic artwork of Patrick Shirvington, present this Australiana vision of beauty in our natural scenery.

From long, grassy tufts, to trees on the shore and nestled in amongst green leaves and winding branches are a secret collection of furry, feathered, scaly and ‘sticky’ animals just waiting to be uncovered. Whether it’s a grasshopper in the long grass, a king parrot within leaves and fruit, a leaf moth atop a pile of dead leaves, a gecko scampering on the muddy forest floor, a stick insect in sticks, or a seahorse weaving through the seaweed, the camouflage premise is the same. And Winch’s words hail clearly and repetitively; “I live in… I look like… That is why I am hard to see. Can you find me?” With their own distinction, the watercolour smoothness of fluidity and unifying tones cleverly mask each animal within its surrounding, however visible enough for young readers to play the game.

Can You Find Me? is an enchanting book for inquisitive early years children who will no doubt forever be on the lookout for hidden creatures wherever they may go.

Gecko, Raymond Huber (author), Brian Lovelock (illus.), Walker Books, October 2017. 🦎

As a part of the Nature Storybook sets, like Claire Saxby’s Koala, Emu and Big Red Kangaroo, author Raymond Huber and illustrator Brian Lovelock present this narrative non-fiction beauty, Gecko, that sleekly combines story and fact to create a most captivating read.

A scurrying gecko juts between sunning and guarding himself in the brightness of the day, but as the sun begins to set, food is on his mind. His food is also on his entire body as he peels and consumes his own skin! Apparently they shed their outer skin several times a year. Gecko also has clever ways to protect himself from predators as he alters his skin’s inflections, colours and folds to camouflage and hide his shadows. But Gecko becomes the target of a ferocious leaping rat, stealthily escaping the prying jaws by dropping his tail. And with one final defence of his territory, Gecko is safe and self-sufficient.

The illustrations are remarkable with their textured and vivacious watercolour and acrylic background speckles and splashes, beautifully replicating the gecko’s appearance and natural characteristics. Equipped with page numbers, information on geckos and an index, Gecko acts as a practical reinforcement for primary students to study different text types and the fascinating world of the lizard species. 🦎

Where’s Wally? Destination: Everywhere!, Martin Handford (author, illus.), Walker Books UK, October 2017.

“Have you found Wally yet?” If you haven’t had the chance to find the famous wanderer and his intrepid travellers, or if you just can’t get enough and want to share the experience with your young ones, now’s your time! I’m fully stocked up on Where’s Wally? books (see my post, Wally Turns 30!), but now with Destination: Everywhere, the magical search continues.

This beautiful, large square hardcover with embossed linen spine is a Wally-fan’s delight. It includes twelve of the classic scenes with brand new twists, turns and playful meanders across the globe. In The Great Portrait Exhibition, Wally-Spotters are asked to scrutinise over the individual paintings, and even spot something that can “go and come back again”. A new collection of fantastical creatures and phenomenal people are clustered together in a gazillion frames – your job to match a given set with those in the main scene. More scenes follow with identifying localised portraits in amongst the larger picture, such as particular dinosaurs in the Jurassic Games, finding the corresponding Wally silhouettes in The Land of Wallies, and conducting a one-eyed Jolly Roger flag spotting search in Pirate Panorama. There are other games like manovering through mazes and sorting shapes and symbols, to keep your eyes peeled and fingers dancing all through the book.

Once again, Where’s Wally? contains a pint of quirkiness and an ocean of vibrant colours and life. Destination: Everywhere! will transport its audience to the vastest of places only to get lost in the most minuscule of details. Still a classic!

Our Mob: Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal literature and other art forms are transforming Australian culture at the moment. The recent Melbourne and Brisbane Writers’ Festivals were both opened by Aboriginal speakers, including dual Miles Franklin winning author, Kim Scott. Leah Purcell’s play script, The Drover’s Wife, won overall Book of the Year in both the NSW and Victorian Premier’s Literary awards. Other Aboriginal authors are also winning major awards with Bruce Pascoe and Ellen Van Neerven recent stand-outs. The ten-year anniversary of Alexis Wright’s Miles Franklin award win for Carpentaria was celebrated at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival this month.

The new sumptuous coffee table book art book, Our Mob, God’s Story also showcases Indigenous Australians through portrayal of their religious beliefs using their traditional form of story-telling through pictures. It is edited by award-winning Christobel Mattingley, known for championing and sharing Aboriginal stories in Maralinga, the Anangu Story and Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story and other books and by Louise Sherman. It is endorsed by Noel Pearson and Boori Monty Pryor, who was the inaugural Children’s Laureate and winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary award (children’s fiction) for Shake a Leg.

The editors spent over four years collecting the artwork, striving to include works from as many language groups as possible. 115 paintings were eventually selected, including two by Yvonne Edwards whose story is told in Maralinga’s Long Shadow.

A glowing range of colours and styles create dynamism throughout the book. The genesis of each artwork is explained and often a brief description of the form and media is included. Some of the Biblical text is also written in language and there is a glossary of symbols.

Creation by Glendora Naden

Creation stories proliferate. They range from Glendora Naden’s earthy, symbolic Creation to Bronwyn Coleman-Sleep’s vibrant Sunflowers (Garden of Eden). Traditional stories from the Old Testament include Kristy Naden’s patterned Noah’s Flood, Rupert Jack’s stunning dot-painting, Abraham (featured image at top), and Gail Naden’s sand and ochre Weilwan Waters II.

Born for You by Julie Dowling

Julie Dowling magnificently uses both Aboriginal iconography and European Renaissance-style portraiture in Born for You and Grace Kumbi employs flowing lines and dot work in Three Hunters.

The aerial perspective of Central Australian artwork is demonstrated in Imiyari Adamson’s Tjulpun Tjulpunpa (Desert Wildflowers)

Tjulpun Tjulpunya (Desert Wildflowers) by Imiyari Adamson

and sinuous symbols show The Greatest Love of All (Bronwyn Coleman-Sleep).

Tree of Life by Amata women

A group of Amata women created the rich, well composed Tree of Life.

As the introduction to the book outlines: “Some narrow-minded missionaries did not seek to understand the culture… Others with a wider vision, sought to learn the heart languages of the people among whom they lived…In this book 66 artists from over 40 First Nations of Australia share their vision of Christ, human and divine.”

Our Mob, God’s Story is a beautiful and significant art book. It is an affirmation and celebration of Australia’s first peoples and those who hold Christian beliefs.

Three Hunters by Grace Kumbi

Hopefully it will also help to achieve its aim of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

Amazing Creatures of the World – Stunning Non-Fiction Books for Kids

When non-fiction texts are presented in the most visually and perceptively- arousing ways that leave the mundane behind and turn into a curious adventure of the wild variety. That’s what these following graphic information books about nature’s amazing creatures do to nurture and sharpen our hearts and minds.

A is for Australian Animals, Frané Lessac (author, illus.), Walker Books, August 2017.

Internationally renown for her striking illustrations is USA-born, Frané Lessac, artist to books including Pattan’s Pumpkin (by Chitra Soundar), Simpson and his Donkey, Ned Kelly and the Green Sash, and Midnight (all by Mark Greenwood). Her remarkable A is for Australia (review) precedes this stunning addition; the factastic tour, A is for Australian Animals.

A necessary introduction neatly begins the book at ‘A’; a map of Australia surrounded by general facts about the unique qualities of our native fauna. What’s to follow is a detailed alphabetic collection of fascinating facts and characteristics all the way through to ‘Z’. With one or two animals featured on each double page spread, this resource is a compendium of colour and life. Each page is divided with large, bold headers and accompanied by smaller font paragraphs interwoven between the pictures. Beautiful, vibrant earthy tones in a production of silky gouache and etched naive-style paintings capture the eclectic mix of wildlife characters in their surroundings.

Equipped with animal distribution maps in the index and enough mind-blowing information to forge the most knowledgable animal experts, A is for Australian Animals is a highly valuable and engaging learning tool for students in primary school. I am now a fan of the long-necked, mosquito-devouring oblong turtle!

Koala, Claire Saxby (author), Julie Vivas (illus.), Walker Books, August 2017.

One particular favourite is the native Aussie fluffball- the koala. With other best-selling Australian animal themed books by award-winning non-fiction author Claire Saxby, including Emu and Big Red Kangaroo (review), here is a gripping exploration of the symbolic Koala.

Written in both a story tale and informative format, and masterfully illustrated by the legendary Julie Vivas (Possum Magic), Koala’s journey begins high in a tree fork with his nurturing mother. But he is old enough to look after himself now, and being challenged by another male sees little Koala lost in search for another home. Factually, males fight in their need for a mate between late spring and the end of summer. Navigating his way around the bushland and avoiding dangers like predators and human deforestation, Koala eventually finds his own tree where he is safe and independently sufficient.

Here is a book that is so beautifully descriptive, with sensational watercolour scenes you could hang on your wall. Koala enforces enough compassion to reinforce proactive pledges for wildlife sustainability, but is also simply a pleasurable and captivating read for its primary school aged readers.

Rock Pool Secrets, Narelle Oliver (author, illus.), Walker Books, April 2017.

With her final contribution to the children’s literature world, the superlative Narelle Oliver leaves a lasting testament of her undeniable passion for the creatures of our world and her abundance of talent. Oliver has blessed us with numerous award-winning treasures, like Baby Bilby, where do you sleep?, The Best Beak in Boonaroo Bay, Sand Swimmers, and this last one; Rock Pool Secrets.

A scrupulously crafted linocut print, etch and watercolour portfolio of art make up this glorious exploration into the shallows of the pools. Each spread contains secrets nestled in and amongst the exhibition of line, shape, colour and texture. Cleverly integrated lift-the-flaps intersect between what is hiding and its unveiling. Whether it’s bubble-coloured shrimp tangled in seaweed, rock-fronting, ‘bumpy’ starfish, octopuses in ink clouds, or turban sea snails sealed in their shells with ‘lids called cat’s eyes’, there’s plenty to peruse and discover in this satisfyingly magical, concealed realm of the rock pool.

Beautifully descriptive turns and phrases add more depth and interest to the stunning visuals that facilitate factual knowledge about this richly diverse world of sea organisms. Huge amounts of detail to be learned about some of the smallest and most fascinating creatures! Children from four will absolutely delight in the Rock Pool Secrets search, but it will be no secret how much they love it!

Wild Animals of the South, Dieter Braun (author, illus.), Walker Books, June 2017. First edition by Flying Eye Books, London.

German author-illustrator, Dieter Braun, presents a spectacular array of animals from the southern hemisphere in this delectably gorgeous encyclopaedia-style graphic volume. Wild Animals of the South is the sequel to Wild Animals of the North.

A powerfully persuasive introduction leads the opening with a dedication to the wonderfully colourful, diverse, rich and rare wildlife that lives within these pages. Unfortunately, many will, and have already disappeared. What would the world be like without the power and beauty of these creatures in the animal kingdom? Despite their unique differences, their individual ways of living, it is with such importance that we take cognisance; “their will to live and their freedom” is what ties them together.

The book is divided into five regions; Africa, South America, Asia, Australia and Antarctica. Fun, fascinating and witty facts of various animals are explained in short paragraphs (just the right amount to prevent brain-overload!), along with its common and more scientific name, and striking, crisp and textured prints that fill the large-face pages. Meet majestic lions, impressive giraffes and even the unceremonious mantis in Africa, the glowing toucan and lazy sloths in South America, and zesty crocs, powerful kangaroos and our cuddly wombats in Australia, plus so much more!

There are 140 pages, including a pictorial index of each animal in their region, of breathtaking images and banks of useful, modest and age-appropriate information to add to your brain trust. Wild Animals of the South is a must-have resource for any home or school bookshelf.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Natalie Haynes, Randa Abdel-Fattah & Yassmin Abdel-Magied at the SWF

As part of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival Student Sessions, I was fortunate to host a couple of sessions with British stand-up comedian Natalie Haynes and facilitate one with Randa Abdel-Fattah and Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Natalie Haynes

Natalie became one of the most popular presenters at the festival. She’s probably better described as a performer, though, because she brings ancient history and the ancient mythic world alive and into the present for her audiences.

She reworks stories for her own purposes, drawing on her expertise in the ancient world and on making it relevant today. She stands out because she can share her knowledge on stage, screen and in her books in a rivetting way.

Natalie is a classicist and a comedian, an unusual combination. She used to be a stand-up comic, but retired when she realised she preferred tragedy to comedy. Her quick wit and incredible knowledge enabled her to effortlessly command the stage.

Natalie’s new novel The Children of Jocasta was published in May. It’s a re-telling of the Oedipus/Jocasta/Antigone tale and will make you fascinated by mythic history (if you’re not already). An earlier book, The Ancient Guide to Modern Life explores philosophers such as Plato, Ovid and Agrippina the Younger.

Natalie Haynes

Randa Abdel-Fattah & Yassmin Abdel-Magied

In our session about ‘Mono or Multi-cultured’ at the Wharf, Randa Abdel-Fattah, who examines issue of racism, multiculturalism and human rights in Australia through her novels and essays, explored what contemporary multiculturalism and racism look like in Australia today with activist and author Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Randa has written Does My Head Look Big in This?, When Michael Met Mina and other novels, particularly for young adults, as well as essays. When Michael Met Mina is an important story because it gives both Michael’s view – a popular guy coming from a racist family – and Mina’s – an intelligent young woman whose family was killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, forcing her and her mother to flee by boat. The novel airs many issues and opinions – true and false – such as people saying that ‘potential terrorists are hiding among boat people’ and people who want to be able to say, ‘Merry Christmas’ without offending anyone; to some darker-skinned girls feeling they have to use skin-whitening creams and others being intimidated and vilified. The novel gives diverse viewpoints. It’s great to read because we are exposed to different perspectives and then make up our own minds. It shows the power of literature to create understanding and empathy.

Randa has also been a lawyer and has a PhD in Islamophobia in Australia.

Yassmin is well known through her media appearances and I’ve learned from reading her memoir, Yassmin’s Story (which she wrote recently while in her 20s) that she loved reading Enid Blyton and her favourite character was, as you might expect, George; she deliberately created slang at school; she channels Beyonce in time of need; she loves sharing stories on stage and she learned in debating that she can argue any side of an argument!

Yassmin also won Young Queenslander of the Year in 2015; as a teenager co-founded Youth Without Borders; is an engineer; worked on a rig and loves cars.

I cannot do these intelligent and articulate authors justice in their explanation of structural racism and other issues here. I do suggest reading their books and online articles to gain a greater understanding of, particularly, racism in Australia.Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people sitting

 

Book Week: the CBCA Eve Pownall Books, Part 2

Fabish: the horse that braved a bushfire

By Neridah McMullin, illustrated by Andrew McLean   Allen & Unwin

Another amazing animal in the Eve Pownall shortlisted books is the horse, Fabish. He was an old horse who rescued the yearlings from the terrible Black Saturday bushfire. The trainer rescued the finest race horses but couldn’t look after them all so he set Fabish free with the yearlings. He discovered every single one safe after the decimating fire but didn’t know where Fabian had taken them.

Picture book form is an apt medium for this true story. Important Australian illustrator, Andrew McLean, is an expert in painting our countryside and animals and Neridah McMullin has crystallised the events into a riveting tale.

Primary-age children could no doubt imagine where the horses may have found safety. They could write and draw their possible experiences.

These creators have published other very worthwhile books, such as McLean’s A Year on Our Farm and Bob the Railway Dog and McMullin’s Kick it to Me and KnockAbout Cricket.

William Bligh: a stormy story of tempestuous time

By Michael Sedunary, illustrated by Bern Emmerichs Berbay Publishing

This tale begins in 1808, 20 years after the First Fleet, when soldiers arrest Governor Bligh. It then retrospectively tells the account of the Mutiny on the Bounty before returning to Bligh’s attempts to quell both the Rum Rebellion and John Macarthur.

Michael Sedunary’s writing is picturesque and colourful; personalising Bligh’s life and endeavours.

Bern Emmerichs’ illustrations are intricate and patterned.

Surprisingly, blogging and social media appear in this book. Bligh’s log (now kept in Sydney’s Mitchell Library) relates blogging to the gossip, printed pamphlets and handbills of the period. Macarthur’s ‘tweets’ against Bligh are viewed as the social media of the time.

The first Australian political cartoon (adapted here) shows Bligh dragged from under his bed by Major Johnston’s men. Propaganda is explained and readers are asked to think about how ‘simple slogans and labels are meant to stop us thinking any further about things.’

More surprises appear when readers are asked to consider who is the hero or villain – Cook or Bligh? (Cook ordered many more floggings than Bligh.)

Other books in the series are What’s Your Story? and The Unlikely Story of Bennelong and Phillip.

 Enormous congratulations to Berbay Publishing for its Bologna Award.

 The Gigantic Book of Genes

By Lorna Hendry   Wild Dog Books

This is a glossy science publication with high quality photos. It includes seamless explanations of genes and genetics with apt examples for children to understand.

It has incredible information, such as ‘If you took all the DNA in your body, unwound it and stretched it out into a single strand, it would reach all the way to Pluto and back.’

Readers are asked: which has more genes: a grape or a human? (the answer is on page 32)

We are reminded that tongue-rolling and widow’s peaks are genetic.

No doubt every reader will be amazed when they clasp their hands to see if their left or right thumb is on top. (page 59) Try it!

And genetically all humans have 99.9% of identical DNA. We are almost exactly the same.

Book Week: the CBCA Eve Pownall Books, Part 1

The Eve Pownall Information Books this year span the ABC, animals and history.

They highlight several small, independent publishers, who should be congratulated on their excellent publications.

Spellbound: Making Pictures with the ABC

By Maree Coote    Melbournestyle Books

Spellbound also won a 2017 Bologna Ragazzi Award. It’s a large, sumptuous hardcover in three parts: architecture, animals and people, and features typography (letter art) where images are created from letters that spell their names.

Young children could find the letters in the illustrations. Older readers could appreciate the typographic poetry (shape poetry) where the meaning of the text is enhanced visually.

I spoke to the creator, Maree, on the day before she flew to Bologna to receive her award, who explained that she has restricted herself to using existing fonts.

There are three levels of difficulty within the book’s examples: 1. any letters that inspire a picture can be used 2. only use letters of the correct spelling of the subject’s name 3. only use correct spelling and only 1 font per letter (see page 3).

This book helps understanding of Visual Literacy. (See page 3 for line and shape, and page 63 for patterns.)

Children could use Macs, or equivalent, to create their own letter art.

There is even a mini tutorial on how to create animals using only letters.

 A-Z of Endangered Animals

Words and Illustrations by Jennifer Cossins       Red Parka Press

The Introduction explains how the high animal extinction rate is due largely to humans, and also introduced species such as rabbits and foxes, in Australia.

Everyone can help by reusing and recycling, keeping beaches clean and not wasting water.

The book is well-designed; it’s clean and clear.

It is structured with one animal representing each letter of the alphabet.

Information on the left-hand page includes conservation (e.g. endangered or vulnerable) status; current population; description of the animal and where it lives; and an interesting fact such as no two tigers have the same striped pattern, and eastern gorillas use basic tools to gather food.

Each animal is illustrated on the opposite page.

Primary-aged children could focus on Australian endangered animals and present information using the same format, possibly to make a class book.

Amazing Animals of Australia’s National Parks

By Gina M. Newton    National Library of Australia

Like A-Z Endangered Animals, Amazing Animals of Australia’s National Parks shows which species are endangered, vulnerable or threatened (their conservation status).

Every state and territory is included, so readers may be able to visit one.

The structure is organised by environments and habitats such as woodlands and grasslands (the Bush), wetlands and waterways, arid zones and coast, oceans and islands.

Each habitat has a double page, followed by one page each for selected animals.

Read this book to discover more about our wildlife and how to care for the environment

There are high-quality photos, interesting ‘fast facts’ and a glossary.

I will write about the 3 other Eve Pownall shortlisted books in another post.

I Don’t Believe it’s a Picture Book! Astonishing reads for all ages Part 1

Picture books are a unique marriage of art and words. Occasionally, not even the words are needed. A picture book can evoke emotions so intense, you’ll wonder how so few images and words managed to resonate such an immense amount of feeling in such a short space of time. This is what I find so utterly attractive and astonishing in well-written picture books. Today, we reveal a few that not only take my breath away, but also astound me with their cleverness, humanity and sheer depth. Enjoy. Continue reading I Don’t Believe it’s a Picture Book! Astonishing reads for all ages Part 1