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.

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