The original Crane

The observations on the work of illustrators and designers Edmund Evans and Walter Crane by Janet Adam Smith stuck with me ever since I first read her 1948 book Children’s Illustrated Books. Viewing the V&A Inspiration by Design exhibition last year at State Library of Victoria, I was delighted to find Crane’s work. (There were also illustrations by Randolph Caldecott and Beatrix Potter in the exhibition – that’s another post.)

Watercolour illustration from a 19th century children's book
A page from Walter Crane’s book for children A Baby’s Bouquet

Crane’s The Baby’s Bouquet was displayed as two books : one the finished copy, and the other the artist’s sketched ideas. As usual, the second, the dummy, was the one I pored over longest. In the published copy, the sun is presented as a golden orb with a firm black outline in three different positions to help the viewer to appreciate the passage of time in ‘The Little Disaster’. His increasing glee at the chaotic scene in the farmyard is shown with knowing eyes and a widening grin. In the dummy, it appears as a lemony circle with whiskery rays and no expression. The unseen work and thought which led the artist from one to the other, is the most interesting and mysterious to me. Something I’ll never experience but still delight in thinking about. So I wanted to re-read the Adam Smith, half-expecting that the quote I’d remembered wouldn’t be there at all. SLV’s copy is in offsite storage so I had to speak to a staff member to order it. (She was very conscientious in letting me know the book’s age – I like to think that this is because she thought I was a student who needed a contemporary text.) It was worth the wait when I found it.   He always worked with the two-page spread in his mind’s eye.

Sheet music and watercolour illustrations to accompany the song The Little Disaster
Doublespread of The Little Disaster, a song from The Baby’s Bouquet by Walter Crane

And this, an affirmation for the endpaper tragic that I am.   [Crane’s] ideal was the illuminated medieval manuscript, of all the elements that went to make a book – type, colour, decoration and proportion of paper he tried to make a harmonious whole. He advised other book illustrators to make a light line for light type, to design endpapers “delicately suggestive of the character and interests of the book” but not competing with the illustrations: they should be “a kind of quadrangle, forecourt, or even a garden or grass plot before the door.”  

Another publisher’s view is that ‘some librarians don’t like the story starting there.’ This one does.


Roy’s Writing


In 2015, my mini quilt celebrating the war service of my paternal grandfather toured Australia and New Zealand as part of an exhibition called Lest We Forget. It’s a tribute to William Roy Robson (always called Roy within the family.) He was with the New Zealand Ambulance Corps in France from early 1916.

Fabric folded and pieced into pictorial quilt with soldier's portrait
Roy’s Writing mini-quilt 25 x 25cm

The full exhibition has been made into an ebook – Roy is number 151 – and you can read there how it was made.

Here are some entries from Roy’s diary which he kept throughout his military service in France.

Sat 8th July 1916

Usual number of sick today. Very few wounded. ..We had just got to bed about 10 when they started to put them (shells) over the town again, so at 10:30 we had orders to evacuate to the cellars. At 1am we returned and got into bed again with no more disturbance until Reveille at 6am.

Wed. 12th

Received 5 letters today, 18th and 25th May. My afternoon off. Answered letters. While I was writing Fritz put over 400 shells into the town, thick and heavy. Went round to cemetery after tea. Over 270 there now. Fairly busy day.

Fri 14th

We were stirred out early this morning and on going down found things going ‘some’. The rush had started just after 4 and until 12 o’clock we never stopped. Over 130 wounded were first through, mostly with 4 or 5 wounds. Over 100 stretcher cases. For 6 hours I stood almost in the one place changing men from the trench stretchers onto clean stretchers with blankets and so on. At 12 the sick started to come in and it was 4 o’clock before we got clean and had a chance to have a wash and something to eat. Over 150 all day. Cause of this was an unsuccessful raid by 1st Otago (Battalion). 20 got back out of 190 odd, the remainder being killed. Received parcel from Hilda today.

Thur 20th

This morning 40 of our fellows were sent down to help the Australians about 10 miles away. Owing to being on duty in the Casualty ward, couldn’t get away. I was left on my own in Ward 2. Had a very busy time. Some of our fellows returning this evening and the remainder in the morning. The ‘Aussies’ attempted an advance but were dreadfully cut up. Estimated casualties of 7000 or 8000! Very excited air duel in the evening. One of our very small planes chasing a ‘Taube’ and driving him off.

He survived, with a lung damaged by gas, was treated in England for a year and returned to New Zealand and married Hilda. His children Ken, Colin and Barbara are pictured here with him as he prepared to go back to Europe in 1937 on a business trip.

A black-and-white photograph of a man holding a baby with one boy on either side.
William Roy Robson with his children c1937

Colin was my father – both he and Ken are gone now -and Barbara now has the quilt hanging in her home in Tauranga, New Zealand.

If you’d like to read more, my cousin Nigel Robson’s excellent transcription and scan of the diaries are available from National Library of New Zealand.

I’ve been privileged to work, in a small way, with Gregory Crocetti and Briony Barr of Scale Free Network on their first two children’s books. I’m proofreading their latest book, a graphic novel called The Invisible War, over the next week or so.  Roy would have known the microbiology firsthand.



Books few and far between

The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary includes ‘few and far between’ as one of its definitions of rare, and that leads me into the subject of books that have survived one (or more) childhoods.

My friend Pam lent me this treasure.

Quippy was written by Olive L. Mason and pictured by Walter Cunningham,  first published by John Sands in 1946.

Cover of small pink cover of children's book
Cover of Quippy: a story for three year olds

Quippy’s mother leaves her duckling behind while she waddles off to visit his aunt. Quippy is confident that he can find his own food but the worm wriggles away, the butterfly flies away, the frog hops away, and the little fish stays at the bottom of the pond. Will Quippy still be hungry at the end of the story?

child's writing on endpaper of children's book
Endpaper of Quippy showing early writing by owner of book

The young Pamela pencilled her name in the front, and used the endpaper to practise writing the letters S I L A with a second go at the S. If this ownership statement wasn’t enough, the peeling binding and cracked covers shows how much it was loved – but this hardy 12 x 15cm gem survives.

A story for three year olds is written on the cover, and Quippy is a sturdy do-it-himself toddler figure. Quippy’s mother, like the best of her fictive breed, has her own concerns which take her out of the story early on – leaving Quippy centre stage. The illustrator Cunningham ensures that he stands out on every page with a gold-coloured lithographic line as his silhouette, airbrushing his lurid yellow and orange against the muted flat colours of his environment.

How hard can it be to catch food, anyway? Cunningham shows the duckling’s unsuccessful attempts to capture prey on land. A worm, beckoning like a pink finger; a butterfly with a face like your grouchiest neighbour; a fat, leggy frog – all elude Quippy. He is shown pursuing them against a generic background of grasses, rushes and a range of different coloured flowers. It’s when he takes to the water that Cunningham brings real movement and drama to the story. The playful ripples made by Quippy’s swimming – broad blue lithographic lines –  become predatory swirls that threaten to overwhelm the hungry duckling.

Illustration from children's book showing a duck diving underwater
Text: Down, down went Quippy, right to the bottom of the pond, chasing that little fish. When the fish saw Quippy so close behind, it darted beneath some of the big rocks that lay at the bottom of the pool.

The desperation of the bubbles signalling Quippy’s fight to stay underwater contrasts with the sardine-smugness of the potential dinner in its cave.

A yellow duckling steps out of the water in an illustration from a children's book
Text: He waddled out of the water to rest for a while.

Even after he has this narrow escape, Cunningham has one last ripple snag Quippy by the ankle. There is no ‘happy’ ending, as there often isn’t in a toddler’s bid for independence. Exhausted, he is discovered asleep ‘where his Mother found him’.

A delightful detail of the book is Cunningham’s colophon for the series.

picture of a dandelion flower with inscription
Illustration by Walter Cunningham with inscription

The dandelion reappears as a dedication, in full flower, as part of the end matter.

Picture of yellow flower with dedication to children from children's book Quippy
Illustrated dedication in form of flower with banner

Other titles include Wish and the Magic Nut, Binty the Bandicoot and a sequel, Quippy and Soot. I’ll be checking them out at State Library of Victoria.

A bat or a book, or both

I’m looking back on my favourite events of Rare Book Week in the City of Literature.

Melbourne Cricket Ground is a sporting arena known by my football-mad son as ‘Mecca’. Two years ago we took the tour together, and that was my first tantalising glimpse into the Melbourne Cricket Club Library. As we walked up to the G for the recent Hawthorn v Essendon game, it was just possible to see the members with papers in the library armchairs, making the most of their reading time till bounce down.

It didn’t even occur to me to look for children’s books on that first visit, but the library does have a collection.

Timber shelves with children's books displayed in front
View of children’s book collection at the Melbourne Cricket Club Library

The session I’d registered for (Collecting Sport Revisited) was aimed at grownups, though. The RBW program promised a ‘stimulating and entertaining panel discussion on what people collect, use for research, and enjoy reading in the world of sports books, magazines and related ephemera.’

MCC Librarian David Studham introduced a panel of distinguished sports writers and, to my delight, opened the discussion by asking each of them what their earliest reading was.

John Harm’s family was ‘a book family’ – his father was a clergyman. Watching and listening to sport was given an extra dimension when young John could read about it as well: ‘It was where the big characters were brought to life.’ Frank Tyson’s books and Football the Australian Way were early gifts, and from there he graduated to libraries and eventually his own higher education in history. Reading about the rigours and conventions was interesting, but it was the storytelling aspect -‘the beer in hand at the bar’-  which appealed most to Harms and is characteristic of his Footy Almanac.

I remembered Football the Australian Way as a staple of the public libraries where I worked in the 1980s. Researching this post, I reserved the wrong copy at State Library of Victoria – it had no dust jacket to photograph. Opening the book evoked another memory from those public library days.

title page of book about football
What’s left of the title page of SLV’s Football the Australian Way

Someone with a razor blade had removed their favourite pictures and it makes for a disjointed read, to say the least. (SLV has a proforma in the front noting the damage.) In this picture, it makes an oddly pleasing peek-a-boo to the chapter headings.

Black and white photo of footballer with text
Chapter by Kevin Sheedy from Football The Australian Way

The picture thief didn’t think Sheedy worthy of his attention and you’ve got to love that heading.

Christian Ryan reported that the only books in his house were by Doris Lessing, and he was too busy playing cricket every day to read. Brought up in Darwin post-Tracy, the school and local library were not great. His first book purchase (‘I did a million chores to get it’) was R. S. Whitington’s Australians Abroad. There was a romance to following overseas cricket tests in print, and he read it to bits. Literally, as it wasn’t well-bound. A re-reader, now and then, he said he will read something 100 times before moving on, and the non-sporting childhood favourite that fit into this category was The Girl with the Silver Eyes.

Gerard Whateley had two libraries in his childhood home. ‘Mum’s was in the lounge’with the World Book encyclopedia’, and ‘Dad’s was in his office’. From those shelves, he can remember Tangles by Max Walker, and ‘a book by Tony Greig’. Home-delivered newspapers were daily reads. His favourite writer is Les Carlyon : ‘the Melbourne Cup wasn’t officially over until you’d read his article in the Age the day after.’ The written words matter tremendously and the link from sport to reading is a natural one. Whateley shared his philosophy of children in bookshops – ‘let them roam free and see what they find’ and described his two-year-old observing this to the letter and poring over a $160 book on Tasmanian trains. Naturally this warmed my heart.

Russell Jackson’s parents weren’t big readers themselves, but believed in reading to him and his older brothers at night. He was not allowed to touch his older brothers’ bats or their books. This sharpened his desire to have both of these for his own – his parents bought him One Summer Every Summer by Gideon Haigh. This book was the one that introduced him to the idea that everything viewed the summer before (just once, pre-YouTube) could be re-lived over and over in print. He haunted the local Trash & Treasure where he picked up this gem.

Cover showing artist's impression of great cricketers of the present and past
Cover of Russell Jackson’s Trash’n’Treasure find

Over 600 pages of photos and captions, which Jackson conceded wouldn’t be published today, but was ‘a revelation’ to him as storytelling. SLV’s razor-fiend had left this one alone so I could page through it – it resembled a black-and-white cricket Pinterest.

It was very pleasant sitting there as the discussion ranged over Wisden-collecting, bindings, and whether or not James Joyce was a Richmond fan and I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want it to end. But I did have a chance on the way out to look at the children’s collection. David Studham observed that recent surge in sports-themed publishing for kids echoes that of the nineteenth century.

Spines of children's books
Sport books for children from three centuries at the MCC Library
Children's books displayed so that their covers can be seen
New additions to the children’s collection on display at the MCC Library

I can see Bomber Baby on these shelves one day.

20 years on from 24 Robbers

Everyone who works with children’s books dreams of sharing their favourites with their own children. Like most dreams, the reality can be different.

My firstborn seemed to like most of my selections from my own collection.  When he was 2 years old and grabbing things from the library’s picture book boxes himself though,  I had to read his choices. This was one of them. Undistinguished, I thought, not as good as The Napping House.

24 Robbers
Cover of Audrey Wood’s Twenty-four Robbers

A mixture of counting, spelling, and eating : the mayhem that results when you give in to the demands of robbers.  He loved it so much that we couldn’t leave the library without it.  He laughed out loud when I read it, no matter how many times in a day. I finally managed to buy a new copy and so this is the battered one I am keeping “for his children”, he says.

photo 2 (1)Not last night, but the night before…Happy birthday Robert.

Cranes under Construction

Moving to Southbank Towers, an apartment building close to the heart of Melbourne, brought many new views. But the one that interested and inspired me the most was the one out of my bedroom window.

A view of a building under construction with tower crane attached
Prima Pearl under construction

In the summer of 2012, the Prima Pearl was being constructed across the street. I joked with friends that I had come from 16 acres to the 16th floor. Like most jokes, this glossed over the truth, but my transition from rural to urban dweller seemed extreme enough at times.

At this time I also became a fulltime Professional Writing and Editing student at RMIT with an ambition to test myself as a writer : after many years as a reader and critic of children’s books by other people. To this end, I enrolled in the Writing for Children elective offered by PWE – the Picture Book component of this subject was taught by Sue de Gennaro.

Walking and tramming to the Carlton campus, I began to notice other cranes at work.

Cranes are silhouetted against a cloudy sky in suburban Carlton
Cranes in Carlton against a cloudy dusk

Thanks to RMIT’s technical library – it started its life in the nineteenth century as the Working Men’s College – I browsed excellent textbooks about the engineering of cranes. Most of these, like my neighbour, went right over my head but one had an excellent phrase that stayed with me:

The load lead line goes over the sheave

And then runs under the boom.

This convinced me that there was poetry, and a picture book, in my fascination.

Sue challenged all of her students to think about and present a picture book text visually, as well as in manuscript form. Thank goodness I had an artist resident with me at the time to help me with this assemblage.

A map, blueprint, toy truck and child's artwork
Early visuals

My first draft of A Construction of Cranes stripped the action back to basics and that led to a long lovely procrastinating time wondering how to represent the more technical aspects in a form friendly to the preschool audience who, like me, looked upwards whenever a load was in flight.

The manuscript developed with the help of many people. I’d like to particularly thank an early reader who asked, Where’s the heart? and my fellow student, writer and book designer par excellence Caitlin Ziegler.

I hope that the finished picture book will be as multi-faceted and magnificent as the Pearl that beams into my windows today.

The one that started it all (maybe)

photo (4)

This book is number 1

because it’s the book that showed me, as a five-year-old and beyond, how a picture book really works.

The simple device of showing little Cottontail and grownup Cottontail in the same powder blue dress help to move the reader through space and time. The defiance shown in the illustration above adds volumes to her retort in the text. There were so many details to pore over  – the gilded room heaped with Easter eggs and the intricacies of the housekeeping while Cottontail was away, all in the muted apricots, lemons and browns that made their own confection. No sugary aftertaste though, despite the wise old rabbit giving her magical shoes so that she can give an egg to the boy who most deserved it. I remember skipping or hopping over that bit so that I could get back with her to the dear little house and count her children as well.

It’s in a much-loved state – the corners are rubbed and the Western Australian silverfish have eaten off the spine. But the pages are still bright, and she is still refusing to eat that carrot.

The current climate of re-packaging has not passed her by. Here’s a recent reprint.

Cover of The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes
The Country Bunny upsized

My idol, Dorothy Butler, calls it ‘An old book…of singular if inexplicable appeal to the young’ and recommends it for five-year-olds. Babies Need Books gets it right again.