Stories in Stitches


I may have become obsessive during the recent Making the Australian Quilt exhibition at NGV Australia. (Getting nods from the visitor services staff is a clue that you’re there too often.) It was completely worth it to get to know my favourite quilts intimately.

Co-curators Katie Somerville and Annette Gero did a wonderful job, and I was fortunate to be invited to the opening.

A woman stands in front of a colourful quilt hung on the wall of an art gallery
Margaret Robson Kett in front of Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes NGV Australia

In Perth, about 2004, I went to a presentation by Dr Gero with my friend Sue, exquisite quilter and sister children’s librarian. The evening was hosted by WAQA  and meeting the Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes (pictured above) was the highlight of it. This splendid array of applique and embroidery looks like 42 covers in a picture book display. There are 32 nursery rhymes represented in 34 of the squares – Jack and Jill and The Queen of Hearts are depicted twice – and the eight remaining are popular stories and books.

The books were an important factor in dating the unsigned quilt – publication dates being more exact than the older nursery rhymes and stories. During that evening, I helped identify a block labelled ‘Amelia Ann’ as a book by Constance Heward, first published in 1920. (The title is actually Ameliaranne and the Green Umbrella.) Here she is.

Pictures from children's nursery rhymes on an old red quilt hanging on a wall.
Amelia Ann and her Green Umbrella at centre top of this detail from Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes.

The other books were Bambi, Brer Rabbit and a mysterious gem called The Forgetful Elephant which is peeping out from behind a dressing gown in this picture.

My increasing impatience with people exclaiming ‘Look! There’s Babar!’ (have I mentioned I saw this exhibition many times?) led me on a mission to identify this story. After a false (but charming) lead, I found it at State Library Victoria.

A children's story book with a red cover and the title The Forgetful Elephant.
Cover of the mystery children’s book depicted on Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes.

Unfortunately the book, like the quilt, is undated, but the noble cataloguers at SLV have estimated it as 1944. It was called ‘garish and vulgar’ by a leading Australian children’s literature critic  but that’s a bit harsh. Here’s the title page, which the unknown quiltmaker has used as the block design.

Black and white illustration of an elephant with pants on in a children's book
Title page and inspiration for block of the same name in Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes

There was another ‘story’ quilt close to this one in the exhibition : Child’s Nursery Rhyme Quilt by Amy Amelia Earl, signed and dated 1923.

A glass case with a appliqued and embroidered quilt depicting animals and people
Child’s Nursery Rhyme quilt by Amy Amelia Earl

These weren’t the only quilts made for, or used by, children – Mary Jane Hannaford’s delightful Good Night quilt, made for her grandson, was another. No doubt many a bored Victorian girl amused away a Sunday looking at tiny embroidered names and figures – some designed by book illustrator Kate Greenaway –  in a crazy quilt.

I began looking really closely at the nursery rhymes depicted on both of these quilts, which were companions in the exhibition, and wondering how and why particular ones were pictured. I was intrigued to see those from my childhood that my children never heard or don’t know (Dick Whittington), and to not see the most wellknown Anglo-Celtic one of their generation (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star).

I’ll be examining some of the rhymes, and how these quiltmakers represented them, in upcoming blogs. I won’t be talking about what the rhymes ‘mean’ – that’s covered by the excellent scholarship of the Opies –  but I will be looking closely at how their transformation into needlework has elevated them beyond the ditty.

I did say I may have become obsessive.







Pure Gold

I’m one of those waiters… I can’t just wait. I have to read.

Forget New Idea – my doctor’s waiting room has these beauties.

Books for children lying on a chair in a doctor's waiting room
Little Golden Book Library as found in doctor’s waiting room

I was particularly pleased to see them because I was shortly to depart for Auckland for the International Board of Books for Young People Congress. One of the Congress’s chief attractions was the opportunity to hear and see Leonard Marcus, author of the comprehensive history of Little Golden Books (A Golden Legacy).

It’s fascinating to read the history of these often maligned books.

Here’s one from my childhood, which plays into the broad perception of them as Disney retellings. I can’t remember seeing the film as a child but was given a Bambi toy made of bright red felt by my grandmother’s neighbour.  The toy maintains just this pose. (I still have it but he has requested not to be photographed in his present moth-eaten condition.)

Children's book with golden spine titled Walt Disney's Bambi
Not my childhood copy but close.


But here’s the one that was my real favourite, from one of the surgery volumes. As Marcus tells in his book, many fine children’s illustrators worked on these books. The pictures for this one were signed J. P. Miller. His experience working (for Disney, as many talented artists have) shows in the excellent design and layout of this tale.  As the story opens, he kills the flies attracted to his meal and embroiders ‘Seven at One Blow’ on a belt. This leads to a tactical advantage over a giant, which he exploits with characteristic folktale hubris to free his town.

Page from a children's illustrated book shows a man sitting crosslegged with cloth and scissors, taking a bite of bread and jam
The brave little tailor tucks in

The artist who worked for Little Golden Books that I most admire is Feodor Rojankovsky. The colour in all of his books is beautifully saturated, especially the deep reds and yellows which are truly golden, recalling woven and embroidered textiles of his native Russia. His interpretation of Frog Went A’Courtin’ won him the Caldecott medal two years before I was born. I encountered it at the St Kilda Public Library during my first job as a children’s librarian. I instantly loved his crayonned evocation of inter-species courtship and feisty Miss Mouse standing her ground – “Without my uncle Rat’s consent, I would not marry the President!” 

Here’s a page from his Goldilocks, for Little Golden Books.

Illustration from a children's book shows a little girl sitting on a bed piled high with quilts and pillows
Goldilocks shows her discriminating taste in bedding

In researching my recent Instagram homage to Dorothy Butler’s work (@babiesneedbooks) I came across his alphabet, also published by Golden Books but in a picture book format called Big Golden Books.

Cover of a children's alphabet book showing a toy horse made of letters
Feodor Rojankovsky’s Alphabet of Many Things

As a picture book critic, I’m forced to say that I think there’s evidence on some pages that Golden Books pushed Rojankovsky into this project. The quality of reproduction is not great, several illustrations are little more than roughs, and the usual miscellany that vocabularies result in makes for a jumpy read. All is forgiven for the rapturous endpapers.

Open pages of a children's book showing letters of the alphabet represented in many different styles
Rojankovsky demonstrates his versatility in the endpaper of his alphabet book

Since I read Marcus’s book, I’ve collected the Golden Geography and a few other titles, which there’s no space here to share.

I ran out of time in the waiting room and had to leave the books behind for child patients. As the photo shows, they’re well used.

There’s been a certain nostalgia-driven upsurge in interest in these books – the regrettable Everything I Need to Know I’ve Learned from Little Golden Books – and they’ve become fashion. Recent illustrators such as Dan Yaccarino have worked for Little Golden Books too.

Read the history, cast your mind back and let me know your favourites.

Mice and Hedgehogs and Rabbits, oh my


It’s been 150 years since Beatrix Potter was born.

State Library Victoria’s Juliet O’Conor has published this tribute, with a tantalising glimpse inside some treasures in the Library’s collection. Last year, an exhibition called Inspiration by Design at SLV featured original illustrations by Potter from the V&A’s collection. (I’ve written about the Crane illustrations from that exhibition in a previous blog post.)

Here’s the extent of my Potter collection – the remaining titles from a boxed set I bought on my one and only trip to London in 1984. That’s them, squeezing the Golden Books.

A white bookshelf with mostly children's books, spine out
Potters at bottom left

Their number has been reduced (from the original 23 in the box) to the titles that were my and my children’s favourites. My pre-parenting favourites were The Tale of Two Bad Mice and The Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle. Here’s that prickly laundress facing an ironing challenge.

A china figurine of a hedgehog in an apron holding an iron.
Mrs Tiggywinkle has her iron at the ready.

The idea that a hedgehog did the other animals’ laundry and mending directly references the huge domestic workforce that fuelled Victorian society.  The steamy claustrophobic kitchen where Mrs Tiggywinkle dips, rinses and presses, all the while gossiping about how her customers soiled their clothes, fascinates both Lucie and the reader. The attention to detail in Potter’s work has been commented on by critic Janet Adam Smith:  ‘The sage that Jemima Puddleduck nibbles to make her own stuffing, the crab-apples and green fir-cones with which Nutkin plays nine-pins, suggest the strawberries and columbines of Tudor and Stuart embroideries.’

My friend Anne’s family obviously loved her work too.

Children's books on a shelf, spines out
Potters with pottery pig

My children’s favourite books were Jeremy Fisher, Miss Moppet and the Fierce Bad Rabbit. I followed Dorothy Butler’s advice : ‘Don’t risk overlooking their capacity to captivate and the opportunity they offer to familarise the small child’s ear with precise, Victorian parlour language…As an antidote to the banalities of television utterance, Beatirx Potter’s easily available little books should not go unused.’ (p85, Babies Need Books) Sorry, DB – the kids were also the perfect age to enjoy the BBC’s charming adaptations of the stories in the mid 1990s.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing a friend’s copy of a beautiful rare edition.


Small cover of children's book with coloured picture of a rabbit.
Closed view of The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit special foldout edition.
Book covers with concertina pages spread out
Unfolded pages of The Fierce Bad Rabbit – concertina edition: read as it unfolds.


Back to Peter Rabbit to finish with. After publisher Frederick Warne’s initial rejection, Potter privately printed and distributed the book – comfort and inspiration for this aspiring picture book writer.When Warne reconsidered, they politely but firmly rejected the “improved” text suggested by Potter’s family friend Canon Rawnsley, which read in part: They sat down to tea / Too good-mannered to cram / and ate bread and milk / and sweet blackberry jam. 

Happy birthday, Beatrix.

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.