In Australia we are spoiled for fabulous picture book authors (and illustrators). From the clever prose and gorgeous illustrations of Graeme Base (Animalia; The Waterhole) for older picture book readers to the endearing storylines of Margaret Wild (There’s a Sea in My Bedroom; Kiss, Kiss!) for younger picture book readers. From Australian picture book classics which Australian children have been reading for generations, such as May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddle Pie, to newer picture books, such as Kathryn Apel’s This is the Mud. A favourite picture book author of mine, and of my children, too, is Mem Fox. We have many of her books on our bookshelf and they are much requested at bedtime. So what is it about Mem Fox’s books that makes both parents, teachers and children alike keep reading them over and over again?
Many of Mem Fox’s books are written in rhyme. As a writer who loves to write picture books, I know just how hard rhyme is to pull off effectively. It’s not just about finding the right words to rhyme, it’s also about rhythm and flow. Mem Fox’s rhymes always flow naturally and beautifully, giving her stories a lovely lyrical quality.
“It’s time for bed, little fish, little fish,
So hold your breath and make a wish.” (Time for Bed)
“Here is the near sheep. Here is the far sheep.
Here is the moon sheep. And here is the star sheep.” (Where is the Green Sheep?)
Mem Fox’s use of Australian animals as characters—characters who personify the Aussie spirit— tied in with other pieces of Australiana (food, places, slang terms), make her books feel like home to Australian readers, who can relate to familiar images and language evoked by Fox. International readers are introduced to peculiar creatures and new experiences from the land ‘Down Under’.
“Later, on a beach in Perth, they ate a piece of pavlova.
Hush’s legs appeared. So did her body.
‘You look wonderful, you precious possum!’ said Grandma Poss. “Next stop—Tasmania.’
And over the sea they went.” (Possum Magic)
“One night, beside a low camp fire,
They heard the men talk loud
about a boatrace way out west
That’d make all Aussies proud.
One said he’d give his two eye teeth
To be there at the race.
‘My oath, too right!’ the other said,
With longing on his face.” (Sail Away: The Ballad of Skip and Nell)
Young children love books with repetitive language and, when reading aloud, children will often join in because they can pick up on the repetitiveness. They can predict what will be said on the next page. My preschooler son will sit down with a Mem Fox book and read the book to himself from memory because the repetitiveness of the text, combined with the pictures, means he can easily remember the story and the words. This is a great precursor to learning to read. Mem Fox’s books are perfect for this pre-reading stage.
“‘Good grief!’ said the goose.
‘Well, well!’ said the pig.
‘Who cares?’ said the sheep.
‘So what?’ said the horse.
‘What next?’ said the cow.” (Hattie and the Fox)
‘I’ll get you a sweater when the weather gets wetter,
to go with the blouse with the ribbons and bows,
to go with the skirt that won’t show the dirt,
to go with the socks from the local shops,
to go with the shoes from grandpa.’” (Shoes from Grandpa)
Mem Fox’s stories are written in such a way that the reader just has to turn the page to find out what happens next. The stories often build to the climax. Where is that green sheep? What can Poss eat to make her visible? Will Skip and Nell make the race in time?
If you’re a writer of picture books, check out this very interesting article on Mem Fox’s site about her process for writing Where is the Green Sheep? http://www.memfox.com/green-sheep-secrets.html There are some fantastic gems of advice in there, including this:
” After twenty one years of writing for children, I’ve come to appreciate that the books young children like best fall broadly into two categories: either short books with a pattern, based on rhyme, rhythm or repetition; or short books with a really good story. They don’t like nostalgia books. They don’t like first person books. And they don’t like long books. Stories, or patterns: that’s it.”
For a great overview of Australia’s most popular children’s book authors, have a look at this article: http://www.cultureandrecreation.gov.au/articles/childrensbooks/
A side note in regards to Aussie Author Month:
One of the aims of Aussie Author month is to raise awareness and funds for the Indigenous Literacy Project – a project that aims to raise Literacy levels amongst Inigenous Australians living in rural and remote communities. You can learn more here: http://www.indigenousliteracyproject.org.au/ and you can donate to the project as part of Aussie Author month here: http://www.gofundraise.com.au/page/ausbooks
And don’t forget to check out all the other exciting things happening for Aussie Author Month.