Friday, June 15, 2007

They Don't Write Books Like They Used To...

I got to talking to S. at work yesterday about some of the classic Australian books for children, like Blinky Bill. They're books that usually get passed over when people talk about Australian literature, or commemorated with a wide range of cutesy-images.

I don't know whether you could call this image cutesy, though!

I read Blinky Bill once, perhaps twice when I was a kid, and the cutesy images aren't really what I remember. I think I identified with the Blinky character, who was usually getting into scrapes and/or trouble. They were very witty, too - the one line I remember from Blinky Bill is the comment Blinky makes when a friend loses his shoes: 'His feet have just dropped off.'

This one that I found yesterday just about sums up the meaning of Blinky Bill for me - the combination of childish innocence and childish delight in things that are just a little bit off:

As a glance at these images, on Project Gutenberg, will show, the books were also full of odd fantasias, derring-do, pure evil, stern patriarchal figures, fun, pathos, delightful characters, chaos, greed, and shameless sadism. The Blinky Bill stories were written and illustrated by Dorothy Wall, evidently a lady of many talents. You can read all about Ms Wall and her talents here, but I think this illustration says more about her - and with more wit, too.

Norman Lindsay's famous illustrated book for children, The Magic Pudding, is probably just as iconic as Blinky Bill, (although I doubt that people outside Australia would know anything about either of them.) Like Blinky Bill, the book was about a peripatetic koala bear, 'Bunyip Bluegum', although the real star of the book was the Pudding. The Pudding was called Albert, walked, and spoke, but this wasn't what made it magic. Albert was magic because he* was a 'cut 'n' come again puddin''. Which meant you could keep on eating him, and he would never diminish in size.

Maybe this is what made him so cranky:

Clearly, this cantankerousness has had some impact on his later reputation in literature!

The Magic Pudding was a great book. It had adventure and humour aplenty, and at the end of every day, the characters would all sit around and eat Albert thoughtfully while digesting the events of the day. There were also plenty of songs and slapstick, making the book a wonderful, wonderful classic.

I also got a copy of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie when I was a kid. Written and illustrated by May Gibbs, the book was a story of 'gum-nut babies' who were always under threat of being kidnapped by those Banksia men. May Gibbs characters were mostly plants (albeit plants that talked and walked), but the stories stretched from land to the depths of the ocean: they were great!

I suppose you could make a case for these sort of stories about native animals and plants (or puddings) being given arms and legs and clothes as a kind of environmentalism. You know, the authors anthropomorphise wildlife because it's easier for us to sympathise with them that way. I enjoyed the adventures and romps the characters got into more than anything else (and, in the case of The Magic Pudding, the idea of eating one of the characters rather appealed to my ravenous child-self.)

There were other books, including Dot and the Kangaroo, which were later turned into a whole swathe of films that we were made to watch at school. Pre-eminent in the genre is perhaps Lindsay's The Magic Pudding, but there are plenty of other, similar books that have their place in the scheme of things.

I'd be rather curious about international equivalents to these books. When I was in the States, I picked up one of the Freddy books, about a clever pig who lives on a farm. I think it might be somewhere in Iowa.

*Albert is a boys name, though I'm not sure if gender distinctions apply to puddings...


Tim said...

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie is probably my first reading memory. When I was very young my parents would leave my bedroom door open and the hallway light on while they were still up, and I distinctly remember picking up S&C and reading it to myself in the half-light. My parents have told me that once I started reading to myself in bed they basically gave up on telling me to turn my light out and go to sleep. As long as I was quiet and stayed in bed reading they didn't care how late I stayed up.

nailpolishblues said...

I took my dad to see the movie of The Magic Pudding when it came out. It's his favourite children's book. I don't think I'd even read it until then though I'd been through the others in my childhood, repeatedly.

I'll take Freddy over the fob :p

Steve said...

Tim, I sometimes suspect you are a re-incarnation of some Aussie kid from the first third of the 20th century. Your tastes in childrens literature is so retro, and I say that as someone probably (I don't know) 20 years your senior.

I find, and have always found, Australian children's classics a complete bore. But then, I find most Australian literature and film not to my taste either. My reading as a child, if you are interested, ran to Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck comics (Carl Barks was great), real life space and science books, science fiction written for kids (there was a lot of it in the 1960's, including a series which had interplanetary adventures lauching from the spaceport at Woomera!)

From England, I read the occasion older Enid Blyton adventure book. (I can't remember if it was the group of five or four that I read most of.) There were a few "Just Williams" in there too.

But anything about talking koalas, kangaroos and puddings: just no interest whatsoever at any age.

Maybe I am re-incarnation of an American kid?

TimT said...

I don't know, Steve, all of those books I mentioned there are pretty good examples of a well-established genre of animal/adventure stories, where every chapter you get a new adventure, usually ended by the adventurer coming home again and going to bed. (A similar structure is in Enid Blyton, for instance.) There are examples of that sort of thing from all over the world!

Anyway, they were just part of my reading habits. Good thing I didn't tell you about my fondness for Mrs Pepperpot!

TimT said...

Actually, in the ones I mentioned the animal fantasy element is stronger than the idea of them coming home at the end of the day after getting into scrapes. I think they're all tramps in The Magic Pudding, for instance.

I think back in the 80s Australia was going through one of its temporary spasms of jingoism and so there were a lot of 'Magic Pudding' pantomimes and 'Dot and the Kangaroo' films on offer, especially to me as a school kid (dontcha love government indoctrination?) Maybe that accounted for the proliferation of May Gibbs/Dorothy Wall/Norman Lindsay texts on offer.

Yoram Gross did a Blinky Bill TV adaptation for a while, which was kind of amusing, but generally none of these kitsch-jingoistic adaptations have a patch on the original.

crmurton said...

In 1980 or thereabouts Mickey Mouse was made King of Moomba. This generated a cry of protest from the Fitzroy left, who were horrified that such a gormless American rodent could be chosen for this important position.

Their alternative suggestion was Blinky Bill, who then was virtually forgotten by 90 per cent of Australians. It caused a big Blinky Bill revival, with republication of the books, and graffiti around Melbourne. One at the Burnley Railway Station read BLINKY BILL SHALL RISE! (this was right next to FIGHT GROWING FASIST STATE to which somebody had helpfully added, 'and misguided education?'

TimT said...

Ah, jingoism at work! As for myself, copies of Blinky Bill, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and The Magic Pudding were to be found amongst my families library. Blinky Bill was particularly interesting, as it existed in an old 1940s/50s edition that put together all the Blinky Bill books, with illustrations.

We also had a Tinka and his Friends book, something about an Aboriginal child called Tinka who was apparently friends with all the mystical spirits on an outback station.

The book also had a splendid ad for Violet Crumble on the back, depicting children running after a Bi-Plane scattering Violet Crumbles out the back!

RG - parental politico said...

the banksia men used to scare the crap out of me so never really got into snugglepot and cuddlepie. i still look at those seed pods with suspicion.

BUT what about bottersnikes and gumbles (by s.a. wakefiled)? gumbles were squishy things that resembled milk-bottle lollies, and bottersnikes were festy, warty, snarly looking green things that ate/chased the cheeky gumbles. LOVED those books.

magic pudding was the first 'grown up' book i read and again, was slightly scared by the surly nature of albert and was disconcerted by everyone eating him.


TimT said...

This has just been edited and reposted, here. Oh yes, R G, I remember the Bottersnikes and the Gumbles all right!

Bwca said...

ooooh I love collective nouns ... a procession of caterpillars etc.
so i did a search and got-
"Australian Koala Foundation
There's no collective noun for a group of koalas moving around together because koalas don't move around in groups like dolphins or some birds Koala Facts - Cached - Similar pages -
ABC Online Forum
We think, since koalas are solitary, there is no call for a collective noun - at most you would find only 3-4 in a group,"

The Blinky Bill drawings are just lovely. I feel sorry for modern kids - my 4 year old grandson has 176 games on his gameboy and lives in another State so I cannot be reading him storybooks to convert him
and yes 'rg-parent politico', the Banksia Men scared me too.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, these take me back. I had totally forgotten about Mrs Pepperpot.
I, too, liked the idea of eating the Pudding - if only to shut him up! And he changed flavours if you turned him halfway around....

I visited the house designed by Norman Lindsay in new south wales last year - strange and beautiful. I recommend it.

And now I have been reminded of the Bottersnikes and Gumbles, I think I need to read them again :D They used to squeeze themselves in jam tins! And then they rose en masse against the 'fasist state' by forming one GIANT GUMBLE!

I can also dimly recall visiting a 'Snugglepot and Cuddlepie' garden and restaurant in Victoria many years ago. I don't know if it is still there - the main room was shaped like a giant gumnut.

Anonymous said...

@RG - parental politico -

Many thanks!! I've been trying to remember the name 'Bottersnikes and gumbles' for about 15 years. I first flicked through it in a doctors waiting room and loved it. I figured I'd buy it later but I forgot the name and nobody knew it based on my description of the characters. A really fantastic imaginative book.

Thanks again!

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