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There was great excitement on the opening day. All the artists and other queer people went to see the pictures. When Snugglepot saw the portrait of the Banksia man it looked so real that he felt quite nervous. The great eye seemed to blink at him; he stood rooted with horror. Then suddenly the picture burst open, and out from the frame sprang the Banksia man, almost on top of him.

Welcome to Children’s Literature Week. Given the purpose of this blog, a seemingly never ending endurance test undertaken so that I can stay in this wonderful country, what could be more fitting than to choose a classic Australian book? May Gibb’s enduring tale of gumnut babies and their adventures in the Bush is both beautifully told and comes with a series of wonderful illustrations.

Cuddlepie is orphaned by a freak gust of wind that sweeps him away from his mother’s arms, travelling across a great distance. He is rescued from a dreary fate by a kind Nut and taken in to live with his family. In this manner the two baby Nuts, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie become foster brothers. Growing up together in the bush the two become strong and fat. May Gibb’s illustrations depict them as little cherubs running along trees and through the grass, wearing a nut-shell for a hat. One day an old Kookaburra comes to the neighbourhood and tells a story about some mysterious creatures known as Humans. The two Nuts are entranced and Snugglepot decides to steal away in the dead night to find some, even though the Kookaburra has warned them how dangerous the large beings can be. Cuddlepie is more wary and insists on observing humans from a distance.

Together they travel across the bush and encounter many dangers. They make a frightening enemy in Mrs Snake, who plots with the violent Banksia men to capture and kill the Nuts. Thankfully they also meet some great friends along the way, Old Mr Lizard who always manages to pop up in the nick of time and the brave Mr Frog, as well as the other friendly creatures of the bush, such as possums and various birds. The two brothers also befriend little Ragged Blossom, a brave flower who helps rescue them from the evil Mrs Snake and afterwards becomes their closest companion. The three friends travel through the bush to the Big Bad City and even down into the depths of the sea and have many exciting adventures together. The hairy Banksia men are never far behind though and they have to contend with other villains such as deceptive tramps and a greedy John Dorry fish. Always looking out for one another, the three heroes face countless threats, kidnappings, plunges from terrible heights and undersea monsters.

This is a delightful book, full of excitement and wonderful characters. The two innocent Nuts always just manage to skirt disaster as they explore the incredible world they live in. There are some sad moments too, such as when the brothers find a poor possum caught in a metal trap. Gibb’s pictures are a fantastic accompaniment to her story and in particular her drawing of the trapped possum, with its round, wet eyes, is heartbreaking. My favourite picture is of the Fish School


The book has the simple line – Ragged Blossom and Snugglepot sat very still in school and learnt of the many dangers that beset the lives of the Fish Folk.

Then you look at the picture and it shows the Fish children gazing at images of hooks, nets and predatory birds. There’s even a boy with a dunce cap on in the corner and an advancing lobster about to bite the teacher’s webbed foot. It is a beautiful picture.

May Gibbs book warns Australian children of some of the dangers of the bush, but also teaches them to respect and admire it. When the Nuts finally see a Human they learn that they’re not all bad and as the Old Kookaburra says, if not for the bad things in this world, there would not be good either.

I enjoyed every moment of this book. I guess it speaks to the kid in me.

 

Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar, and bad – and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.

I find it amazing how often a story heralded as a classic soon becomes divorced from any sense of what made it special in the first place. I am sure everyone is familiar with the story of Tom Sawyer and can conjure up in an instant the appearance of Tom’s friend Huckleberry Finn. The story has been filmed countless times, there was even a Soviet version in 1947, but to people of a certain age who grew up in the 80’s, I imagine this is the version you are most familiar with. What I find surprising is that my would-be ‘knowledge’, of the book is a pale and diluted imitation of Twain’s work, still full of wit and vigour.

There’s a line in The West Wing that I’ve always been fond of – Ich hub uuz deh gebracht which apparently is Yiddish for ‘I’m having the strongest memory’. When I started reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I suddenly found myself remembering an afternoon sitting in class in a Christian Brothers school in Ballyfermot, Dublin. The teacher would sometimes read books to us, including J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe inspiring in me a life-long love of reading, particularly fantasy novels. On this day she read to us from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and chose the scene where Tom meets Becky Thatcher. My teacher enjoyed putting on the accents and started to imitate that high-pitched drawl common to Southern belles. Suddenly I felt my cheeks burning, my shoulders tensed and I found myself trying to squeeze beneath my desk. Strange new feelings of excitement, embarrassment and shame came over me. It was very unsettling, the sensation alien and perplexing.

It strikes to the heart of Twain’s writing, however, which is to depict the adventures of his child heroes in the American South with all the nostalgic innocence that is demanded, but also allowing for the adult intrigues and mysteries that children witness without fully understanding.

Tom Sawyer is an impulsive, yet fiercely intelligent young boy, living with his Aunt Polly, half-brother (and snitch) Sid and cousin Mary. He is forever getting into scrapes of one kind of another, fighting in the streets, or exploiting the gullibility of the other children. He runs a rapid trade in bartering marbles and curiosities. The incident with the white picket fence that occurs at the beginning of the novel is two-fold scheme of Tom’s that allows him to pocket the many odds and ends offered to him by the other boys in tribute, and fool his Aunt into thinking he has completed his punishment. He enjoys playing Robin Hood with Joe Harper. They both know the book by heart and recite each line as they trade blows. The arrival of Becky Thatcher sets Tom to wooing her, with his own particular take on ‘engagement’.

Of course Huckleberry Finn is the most well-known of Tom’s companions, who lives the kind of life that Sawyer desperately wants to lead. While he goes to school and attempts to learn Bible verses for prizes, Huck Finn wanders the town at his leisure, sleeps wherever he chooses and does not care to dress in his Sunday best. One night the boys stumble upon a sight that terrifies them, something far more horrible than anything they could have dreamt of in all their imaginary adventures as pirates on the high seas, or thieving in Sherwood Forest. The murderous Injun Joe stalks Tom’s dreams as he tries to decide what to do in this all-too-real adventure.

Twain writes in a manner that is familiar and warm, yet also cutting. Real romance and real adventure occur in childhood, everything afterwards is just an echo. His descriptions are dense, yet essential to the breezy mood. A beautiful read.

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