Grade Four Brief: fill an entire exercise book with a collection of poetry based on the theme ‘Don’t’. ‘I hear don’t much more than do. I think that’s sad, how about you?’ was my interpretation of the theme. It featured on every page.
Outcome: I filled the book, each page boasting original arrangements of strangled rhyming verse duly supported by hand drawn illustrations. A masterpiece in my mind and possibly the last time I wrangled poetic devices into meaningful arrangements. Picture book writers like me, are advised to avoid them at all cost unless your name is Julia Donaldson.
So when The Billy That Died with its Boots On and other Australian Verse slid into sight, I immediately baulked. How does one comment on something she professes no expertise in? Am I even entitled to opinion? Could I appreciate this oral and written art form of storytelling despite my long absence from it?
Answer: Well, of course I am and I do, very much as it turns out because poetry above all else can cut straight to the heart and I’ve definitely got one of those.
I’ve long known of Stephen Whiteside but had never had the pleasure of reading his work, hearing his recitals or understanding the man, until our recent encounter at the SCBWI Sydney Conference earlier this year.
From beneath his trademark straw sun hat, which incidentally is equally at home in a frosty marquee or crowded suburban watering hole, radiates a man of admirable intellect, quiet charm and palpable talent.
Whiteside’s work captures the essence of an eclectic variety of subject matter but harnessing the unique tenor and spirit of our Aussie bush and life style is what anchors him most firmly to his art and maintains his involvement with various folk-art festivals throughout the land such as the Toolangi CJ Dennis Poetry Festival.
Adults enjoy his poems but he has found his true metier writing and performing for children, particularly primary-aged youngsters. The Billy That Died with Its Boots On represents his first collection of poems for children garnered over the years and embodying our iconic outdoors, sporting life and flora and fauna, with the obligatory alien thrown in for good measure. It’s an absolute joy to read.
Much but not all of Whiteside’s rhyming verse favours a pleasant anapaestic metre, which he comfortably mixes up with longer, lyrical story lines and short snappy four-liners. Nearly all of them raise a smile; some will have you chuckling out loud. Occasional paper cutout illustrations by Lauren Merrick add pep and character. Enjoy them all with a cuppa in one session or better, at random, one or two at a time whenever your fancy calls. Great for tapping into the short term attention spans of young minds.
Personal favourites are; Dad Meets the Martians, The Saucing of the Pies (in time for the footy finals), The Ice cream that Hurt and Eating Vegies; all adroit mirth filled mirrorings of minute slices of everyday life. Other titles, Two Little Raindrops and The Mane of a Horse for example, are sensitive metaphoric masterpieces written from the point of view of their inanimate subject matter; a raindrop, a puff of wind… quite lovely.
It’s poetic magic that should be gobbled up by young readers while their creative hearts and minds are still open to this style of sustenance. The Billy That Died with its Boots On and other Australian Verse would make a beautiful addition to primary class room book shelves too. Only one thing could improve this collection – to have Stephen Whiteside himself read each poem out loud, as intended. Now that would be worth sitting through Grade Four all over again.
To loosely quote French poet Charles Baudelaire: ‘It is the hour to be drunken! To escape being the martyred slaves of time, be ceaselessly drunk. On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you wish.’ For readers under 18, I recommend you begin with this, poetry.