I was never much one for history, preferring even today, to live and learn vicariously through faction. Fortunately, thanks to the talents of some remarkable picture book creators, biographical accounts of famous and not so famous people literally come alive, enhancing history in the most beguiling way. I am elated to share some of the non-fiction picture book standouts available today and to admit, I am richer for them.
There are about ten books in this fascinating illustrated series spotlighting some of history’s most notable female figures in arts, science, aviation, and commerce. From Frida Kahlo and Amelia Earhart to Marie Curie and Agatha Christie, each beautifully crafted book presents the story of these women from their childhood to their most well-known achievement. Vegara’s narratives are sincere and informative without being overtly florid or overloaded with facts and each book contains a pictorial time line of the featured woman at the end allowing readers to match their story with actual dates. The common theme that you can be whomever you wish to be and do whatever you wish to do, is what makes this series so attractive for young readers, and older ones thirsting for a sense empowerment. An absolute inspiring joy to collect and cherish.
I was but a babe in arms when Cyclone Althea swept across Townsville on the eve of Christmas in 1971 however, I will never forget the noise of it; the warning sirens, the howling winds, the pelting rain. We were hushed into submissive silence by the storm screaming to get through our walls; muted by the all-consuming blackness, the sheer force of it. And then afterwards, struck again with incredulousness; our roof still over our heads whilst every other in the street lay shorn off, twisted and deformed in backyards where they didn’t belong.
Images like these are hard to erase. A few years later, another cyclone, this one by the name of Tracy struck at a similar time of year, blighting a similar town, producing similar indelible memories for the survivors.
45 years on, powerful storytelling duo, Jackie French and Bruce Whatley mark this event with their new picture book, Cyclone. It’s hard to ignore the images of this beautiful work, as well.
Following in the same potent spirit of their Flood and Fire collaborations, Cyclone focuses primarily on a single tragic natural disaster, which had cataclysmic consequences for not only the community it affected but also many others across Australia. The results are profound and moving, yet also hopeful.
A storm brewed out at sea on the 24th of December 1974, yet the residents of Darwin hunkered down, unconcerned, too preoccupied with the imminent arrival of Santa Claus to worry about a fairly normal occurrence for them. When Cyclone Tracy unexpectedly swung and hit Darwin full in the face, she did so with such vehemence and force that the township was taken unawares. As the BOM quoted, ‘The entire fabric of life in Darwin was catastrophically disrupted, with the majority of buildings being totally destroyed or badly damaged, and very few escaping unscathed.’
French depicts this wholesale devastation with lilting verse that pays homage to the intensity of the storm as well as infusing the tragedy with a personal touch. The narrator, presumably a small expectant child waiting for Santa but faced instead with a wild beast who consumes their town overnight, is shown huddling with their family in their brick barbecue amidst a sea of destruction.
The poignancy of the situation and the degree of loss is beautifully rendered by Whatley’s pencil and acrylic wash illustrations. As with its two predecessors, I believe Whatley executed Cyclone’s drawings with his left (non-dominant) hand producing exquisite expressions of infinite detail and fluidity. Streaks, smears and runs feature in every landscape representing the force and chaos of the storm and later the pervading sense of new life, slowly seeping back, where ‘houses grow…day by day’ – my daughter’s favourite spread. The washed-out appearance and toned-down hues do indeed reflect the tone and look of a feature film reel likely to have existed in the 70s. The whole effect is goose bump raising.
Cyclone is an ode of sorts to the man at the end of the phone line French happened to answer one fateful day following the catastrophe of Cyclone Tracy as she manned the Information Section of the Department of Urban and Regional Development. She will never forget his despair, nor his tenacious courage to rebuild and move on.
Like Flood and Fire, and Cyclone Tracy itself, Cyclone is a telling testimony to the legacy of good that can emerge from ravaged lives and homes. It cites that humans are ultimately survivors, capable of adapting and ‘inventing ways to live with whatever challenges the planet throws at them.’ We are reminded to respect the forces of nature and learn from our mistakes; a significant observation for those who have endured a natural disaster and for those of our more recent generations who have not. Highly recommended.
A couple of months ago I revisited an iconic song by Eric Bogle, finding new breath in Bruce Whatley’s picture book, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda. Bogle found the words and Whatley the images that profoundly capture all the raw emotion, loss and resilience that epitomises the Great War of 100 years ago.
This collection of titles does the same. All commemorate actual events of WWI. Many embrace the incredible ANZAC legacy. Each is a significant work of art and testimony to real-life heroes who gave their youth, their souls, and tragically, their lives in the quest to protect sovereignty and country.
‘Not everyone wins medals, some heroes never do’, but this small collection deserves your attention as absolutely as those we’ll be commemorating during the 100th year Anniversary of World War One (and the Centenary of the Landing of Gallipoli this year). Because they should be remembered.
As the war first erupted in Europe, so we begin with the picture book, Ride, Ricardo, Ride! by Phil Cummings and Shane Devries. A young Italian boy’s love for riding his bike under the clear quiet skies of his village is shattered when the shadows of war appear. Devries’ splendid illustrations saturate the pages of Cummings haunting tale of human endurance. Evoking eloquence and beauty out of destruction and despair.
Mid-primary reader series, Australia’s Great War landed last year with Sophie Masson’s, 1914 and is followed this year by Sally Murphy’s, 1915. Each honour events specific to that time in history in spirited, easy to read novels that unite an absorbing mosaic of factual occurrences with engaging fictional characters typical of that era. Thoroughly engrossing with further releases due each year until 1918, this series provides an awesome framework for primary students to become intimately acquainted with the machinations and characters of the First World War.
Our oldest living ANZAC, Alec Campbell may no longer be able to march but the true-life story of his meeting with a young boy a year before his death is perceptively depicted in Gordon Winch’s picture book, The Last ANZAC. Alec ‘the kid’ Campbell’s encounter with James, is faithfully portrayed with the help of Harriet Bailey’s expressive illustrations, alternating back and forth from the deserts of Cairo and trenches of Gallipoli to present day suburbia. Ideal for the expanding minds of 5 – 7 year-old history scholars. Visit Romi’s full review, here.
ANZAC Ted is the debut picture book of author illustrator, Belinda Landsberry and encompasses two of my great loves: teddy bears and beautiful picture books for kids.
Landsberry uses gorgeous water coloured illustrations to complement a gently rhyming tale of a little boy’s beloved toy. But, Ted is a teddy bear of rather diminished appeal having survived the ANZAC campaign with the little boy’s digger grandfather. Worn, torn, and scary looking, he may score zero cute and cuddly points in the Toy Show at school but he is and was the unsung hero and much cherished mascot of the Gallipoli diggers who more than earns a place in this little boy’s heart. ANZAC Ted gets my vote too. Perfect for reading aloud with someone you cherish or soaking up the atmospheric sepia illustrations alone.
The Anzacs of course included the New Zealander’s so it is only fitting that popular Kiwi author, Peter Millet and illustrator Trish Bowles are able to share their remarkable picture book story based on another real life war hero, Freda.
The ANZAC Puppy is a tender rendition of the interwoven lives of Lucy, WWI solider, Sam and Freda, a harlequin Great Dane puppy who grew into a loyal and much loved good-luck mascot of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade 5th Battalion. Sam’s tale brought tears to my eyes and will warm the cockles of your heart. It parallels ANZAC Ted in many ways thanks to the stirring sensitivity the creators use to express these tales of nostalgia. My primary-schooler is always a bit dubious about reading ‘another wartime story’. Thankfully, picture books like ANZAC Ted and The ANZAC Puppy have assured her that not all conflict ends in tears and heartache.
The majority of these Anzac tales will suit primary aged readers. My Gallipoli by Ruth Starke and Robert Hannaford is an exceptional picture book with more sweeping appeal.
This phenomenal, clothbound presentation marries fictional characters with direct accounts in an epistolary chronological description of the months immediately before the first landing at ANZAC Cove to the Allied retreat in 1915, then onto to present day commemoration ceremonies.
Starke is genius at capturing the moment even if it did take place a hundred years ago. She masterfully connects the reader to all those touched by the doomed campaign to capture the Dardanelles: the diggers, their families, the Turkish countrymen, the nurses, the COs and, the war correspondents. First person recollections plunge us into their places of battle and pain with powerful precision. Hannaford’s fine charcoal, watercolour, and gauche portraits anchor their thoughts with tangible identities.
My Gallipoli reaffirms the futility of war but also underlines the courage, the tenacity and the hope that were crucial to the survival of thousands of men (and women) at that time.Each page, each Gallipoli recollection is a complete superb story unto itself.
My Gallipoli is a picture book of substantial implications for students of history and art and a glorious record of our inglorious past. My pick for in depth and animated Centenary discussion.
History can be a hard pill to swallow. It’s easy to choke on a diet of dried up, dusty old facts about dried up, dusty old people. Trouble is, what those folk did in our not so distant pasts was often fascinating and ground-breaking and well worth exploring. So how do you find the right sweetener to tempt young people to try a nibble of the past? You dish it up as a school play, garnish it with luscious imagery, and call it a picture book, of course!
This is Captain Cook by Tania McCartney and Christina Booth, is exactly how I like my history served up and, as it turns out, how my Miss 9 likes it too. The fact that she was able to recognise that these adventurous events occurred, ‘way before you were born Mummy’ at the time when the First Fleet began arriving, indicated that this fact-based picture book struck accord with her and her current class room learning.
McCartney skilfully navigates the reader through a carefully considered chronology of James Cook’s life. Miss 9 was keen to point out that the opening act is clear and clever, introducing us to Cook’s beginnings and the start of the school play in which his life is being portrayed.
Rather like a one-take shoot on a film set, This is Captain Cook retains the same illustrative perspective throughout the book. The reader has (second) row seats in the audience and is thus privy to not only the terrific parallel visual narrative of the audience members, but of every action that takes place on stage too. You may think this would have the potential to dissolve into dreariness but it definitely does not thanks to McCartney’s spirited narrative and Booth’s charming drawings.
If Miss 9 had more thumbs, she would hoist them as high as a top sail because she enjoyed the lively comedy used to gently reveal Cook’s personality (as it may have been) and his penchant for shiny buttons rather than just focusing on his noteworthy exploits and achievements. She found the latter much easier to ingest because of the humanisation of his story. Sitting through another telling of the ‘show’ was not problem either although she is quick to add that perhaps a life at sea would not be for her as it seems Cook was never ever able to have a pet dog; at least not in this particular production! An ubiquitous chook and comical cast of other avian members however, make a delightful reoccurring appearance throughout the performance, earning a standing ovation from me too.
There is a raft of exquisite subtle details in this tale about one of the most accomplished mariners and adventurers of our time all served up with just the right amount of frivolity and wit guaranteed to keep youngsters 3 – 8 years old and beyond tucking in. And, just like eating a bowl of vegies in the guise of Spaghetti Bolognese, they will hardly even realise that it’s good for them.
Before you get to the utterly endearing end pages (Bok Bok!), walk through Cook’s Gallery to view some of the real pictures and maps sections of this story are based around. You are invited to discover more through links by the National Library of Australia who announces that this picture book is not so much about ‘the questionable outcomes of exploration and settlement for indigenous peoples’ rather a focus on ‘the life of Captain James Cook as a mariner, father and adventurer.’
With the help of one cheeky chook, and McCartney and Booth, I think this objective has been admirably achieved. Somebody give these chooks a bouquet of flowers. Brava!
In just a couple more months, Australia commemorates the Centenary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli. Dozens of new titles are already marching forward to mark the occasion with heart-rending renditions of tales about ‘bloodshed, death, ruin, and heartbreak.’ This is how singer/songwriter, Eric Bogle views the futility of war.
It’s a timely message that fortunately more and more schoolchildren are gaining a deeper respect and understanding for through historic picture books like this one, And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.
Bogle’s iconic lyrics make your chest heave with anguish at the awful waste of life, yet rippling beneath the waves of depression, is an undercurrent of pride and admiration, perhaps borne from a determination to never ever let this happen again; and yet we do.
One wonders how so beautiful and wrenching a tale could be visually resurrected to deliver the kind of visceral impact young people will appreciate and gain from. Easy, you get a master with the surest of touches and the purest of hearts to illustrate it. You allow his colours to bleed across images that tumble across the pages, injured and torn, dirty and forlorn. You watch until your skin prickles with emotion and your eyes burn with tears.
Today, I am honoured to have that master at our draft table. Please welcome, Bruce Whatley. Here’s what he had to say.
Who is Bruce Whatley? Tell us one thing about yourself we are not likely to find on a web site.
If it wasn’t for my Mum I would not have the use of my right arm. Injured at birth, the damage to my right shoulder was such that she was told it would whither and be useless. Fortunately she refused to believe it and after nearly three years of massaging I held a spoon in my right hand for the first time. Since then I think I’ve held a brush as that’s the hand I’ve made my living with.
You’ve penned and illustrated many children’s stories. What aspect of children’s book creation do you prefer? Which do you regard yourself more proficient at and why?
When I write and illustrate it isn’t as if I write first then think ‘How am I going to illustrate this?’ It comes together like a movie in my head and I don’t really separate the text from the images. That’s why the text and images are so reliant on each other in my books, they compliment and bounce off one another to tell a more complex story.
I guess I think of myself as a better illustrator than writer because that is my background but I am enjoying writing more and more and as I get more confident am working on longer manuscripts. Doing both means if I hit the equivalent of writer’s block when illustrating I can put down the brushes and write for a while.
Can you name one title you feel exemplifies your work the best? Is it the title you are most proud of, or is that yet to come?
The book I’m working on now I am most proud of. This is the book I would give up all others to have published. It is a story I’ve written and though the illustrations use the simplest of mediums – the medium I am most comfortable with – lead pencil – they comprise extensive use of 3d programs to create a unique world and environment. This book will have no compromises. This will be the best I can do. ‘Ruben’ approx. 120 page picture book.
Recent picture book collaborations with Jackie French have focussed on dramatic occurrences such as natural disasters. And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, is no less powerful. What attracted you to take on and to fulfil a project of this emotional magnitude?
Because they were of such emotional magnitude. Success with wombats and ugly dogs had the potential to pigeon-hole me as a particular type of storyteller. I am always looking at ways of growing as an illustrator, looking for new ways of expressing the narratives. These books also enabled me to explore what I had discovered using my left hand. That I produce far more expressive and emotional images drawing with my other hand. Matilda is by far the most emotional book I have illustrated.
Did you ever feel emotionally challenged at any point of this book’s production (because of its heartrending subject matter)? If so why?
I based my illustrations on original photographs taken in Gallipoli at the time. Even though I needed to adapt what I was looking at I wanted the images to be based on reality as much as possible. When using photos this way especially when drawing details it is a bit like those ‘spot the difference’ puzzles you get in newspapers and magazines – you flick your eyes from one to the other to spot the differences. Similarly when you are copying an image you flick from the photograph to your drawing to make sure you are getting the right shape and size etc. It’s not so much about what you are drawing you are concentrating on lines, shapes and position.
I was doing this on one of the illustrations. It wasn’t until I completed the piece I realised what I thought was a rock was the hand of a dead soldier. I lost it at that point.
This was symbolic to me as it highlighted that we look without seeing. We watch the old veterans march and wear their medals. Old men. But we don’t see the 19 year old that watched their mates get their legs blown off. We do forget. And we still send our children to war.
You are enviably competent in a number of illustrative mediums and styles. Describe those you used and incorporated into Matilda.
As I said I’m always looking for new ways to illustrate. Matilda was done with my left hand – which has a mind of its own!!! I can’t write with my left hand and really I have very little dexterity when I use it – but depending on your definition I draw better with my left than with my right. I used a waterproof felt tip pen for the line work then an acrylic wash over the top. Using acrylics instead of watercolours meant I could work in layers without dragging the colour from underneath.
The predominant colour scheme throughout this book is one of solemn sepia hues stained with splashes of red. What mood are you trying to convey with this palette choice?
I guess it was influenced by how we normally see this period but also I wanted to reflect the mud and despair. Bright colours suggest hope and laughter – I don’t think there was much of that.
Your use of perspective at the start and end of this tale is both visually arresting and choking with emotional impact. Was this your intention? How do close up views influence the feel of a picture book story when compared to flowing landscape illustrations?
Faces are amazing things and I often have my characters looking directly out at the reader. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. I think that last close up opens that window a bit. (Interestingly I could not have achieved that intensity with my right hand.) Being so close also means it’s in your face literally. After watching from a distance suddenly you are confronted with the reality of the consequences.
I have never felt so exposed by a picture book as I did when I first laid eyes on Meet…Ned Kelly. The piercing stare of Australia’s most infamous bush ranger peering from the slit of his armoured headgear sliced through to the very marrow of my bones, anchoring the outlaw’s stare there as if to say, Want to find out more? I did.
I’m not one to wallow in history for too long; but I do find it compelling discovering new threads that help me appreciate how the fabric of a nation, its people and their culture is woven together.
Random House’s new Meet…series allows young readers to be similarly fascinated by picture books that tell exciting true stories of the real women and men of Australia’s past. And what more exciting a character than Ned Kelly?
Prolific children’s author, Janeen Brian, introduces children to one of the best known, ill-understood, and extraordinary tales of early Australian history, that of Ned Kelly. The sometimes misleading mystic and romance of bushranging is forsaken in favour of a straight forward, chronological telling of the facts of Ned’s life beginning with his not-so-easy childhood and ending with his untimely death in the Old Melbourne Goal in 1880.
However the story is anything but dull and lifeless. Brian leads us through Ned’s brief life with an objective clarity told in simple and effective bush ballad style verse. Each stanza is suffused with sufficient detail to allow us to develop a strong sense of Ned’s character and the treacherous times he occupied, featuring often unbalanced and corrupt systems of justice.
Ned is portrayed as a fair, brave young man but one who often found himself on the wrong side of the law mostly by misfortune, poor judgement, and ill-luck. His recurring stints in goal and unpopularity with the police ensured he and his family were regular targets for prosecution. The gaoling of his mother in 1878 was the catalyst for the birth of the Kelly Gang.
The gang escaped capture numerous times thanks to Ned’s long standing reputation amongst good friends, but following betrayal and the final calamitous showdown at Glenrowan Inn in 1880, not even Ned’s genius iron-clad armour could protect him from his ultimate fate.
It’s a stirring tale brought to life with the help of Matt Adam’s almost surreal illustrations that echo the lines and textures of a number of classic Australian painters and therefore add a rich authenticity to each scene. The font used throughout and for the timeline on the end pages reflects the feel of a wanted poster, many on which Ned’s name no doubt appeared.
I feel I better understand this young man, so vilified by the injustice of the day, after meeting him ‘face to face’ in Brian’s historic picture book. And I cannot imagine a more brilliant nor dynamic way for primary aged readers to explore our rich historic past.
Keep an eye out for my next post where we meet author Janeen Brian face to face and explore more about the author behind Meet Ned Kelly.