I adore Mem Fox and Julie Vivas’s Possum Magic, and yet every time I put the book down I forget just how good it is. Because it can’t have been that extraordinary, can it?
Well, yes, it is.
The basic story is simple, and neatly summed up in the flap jacket:
Grandma Poss makes bush magic. And her best trick of all is making Hush invisible. Now Hust will truly be safe from snakes.
But one day Hush wants to become visible again. Grandma Poss looks and looks, but she can’t find the right magic. Then she remembers. It’s something to do with food! People food – not possum food. So the two set off on what becomes a fascinating culinary tour of the cities of Australia to find the magic that will make Hush visible again.
What I love best about this book: item one, Grandma Poss and Hush. The relationship is so natural – casual and loving and open. There is no calculation, no hidden resentment. They are family, plain and simple. Item two, the illustrations. The illustrations are perfect for the text. They tell the story* without dully repeating the words. The pictures bring out the life and vibrancy and flow of the narrative. They add story, nuance, humour to a text already bursting with all three.
Oh! And the words sometimes rhyme (and always have rhythm) without being bound to rhyme or any awkward metre.
In short, this books should have been listed as one of the top ten books on my wishlist. (It is an occupational hazard of blogging to always find the perfect phrase, analytical point, or book just after a post is published.)
Bonus materials: the story behind the story and two recipes for foods in the food.
Ally is so excited to be going on a trip with her mother, and she can’t wait to draw all the animals that she’ll see. When she arrives in Australia she meets Pauline, an Aboriginal artist. The two soon become friends, and Pauline shows Ally that art isn’t always made with paints and paper – and that sometimes mistakes lead to the greatest discoveries.
Let me rave a little about the illustrations. The art – all lines and colours and swirls – is beautiful. This is the sort of art that inspires the reader and convinces them that they could draw, and in the next moment leaves the reader gaping with awestruck admiration, certain that they could never dream of patterns and lines half so beautiful, but wishing to try anyhow.
The story is as art- and friendship/mentor-focused as the synopsis promises; gentle and wondering and a good introduction to Aboriginal Australian views on art and possessions without being Educational or presuming too much. I loved how Ally is slowly won over by Pauline’s perspective and slowly lets go of perfectionism, of keeping art as static, permanent, framed and isolate. The last doublespread in particular is sheer magic. Fittingly, the artist herself is Aboriginal Australian.
Now if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to look at that cover some more and dig out my paints.
Lizzie is always playing and pretending.
She is always dreaming.
“Lizzie nonsense!” her mama calls it.
Lizzie and her mama and baby have a lot of work to do around the farm and their little pioneer house in the Australian bush while Papa takes sandalwood into town to sell, a trip that will keep him away for many weeks. Fortunately, Lizzie has an imagination – and so does here mama.
What I liked in particular about this story is that the picture reinterpret the words. If the text was read alone, Lizzie’s mama might come across as stern and dismissive of Lizzie’s make-believe. The pictures, which show a mother-daughter pair happy in the midst of hard work and isolation, reveal that Mama is fond of her small daughter and her wild imagination. Mama’s refrain of “nonsense” is teasing, not scolding, part of the daily banter of an affectionate family. The refrain becomes a denial that affirms what it denies, a pleased “pshaw” in the face of a compliment, the refusal that agrees.
The Old Woman Who Loved to Read is, like the other three books, about relationships. The relationship in this case is not between humans but between one old woman who moves to a ramshackle house in the Australian countryside, and her animal dependents. Readers who love wildlife will jump on this book. Watch for the little mice on every page! And for the duck-billed platypus, and tortoise, and rabbit, the iguana, the emu (?), and other animals. This is a comic story in the manner of The Napping House with visual effects reminiscent of Jan Brett’s The Trouble with Trolls or Beauty and the Beast and of Phoebe Gilman’s Something from Nothing.**
In other words, this is a sweet, funny, absurd, endearing story. There is plenty to gaze; each page is as heartily busy as the old woman herself is. Good for those with a fine sense of humour.*I read the story through once without looking at the words, and I got about 95% of the narrative flow – it would have been 100% except for the last page, which does require words.
**These are all great books, by the way.