Children’s Book Week, Australia

Since 1945, the Children’s Book Council of Australia has been promoting quality children’s literature in this country. It does so through activities, outreach, and through a venerable program of literary awards. These awards are celebrated every year in Children’s Book Week, and they’re an important event in the children’s literature calendar. Children, teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators and publishers eagerly await the announcements. The endorsement of the Children’s Book Council means a lot–it’s a stamp of approval for children’s literature that the judges regard as beautifully produced, well written and illustrated, and relevant to children’s lives. There are several categories, by age group and genre, and then there is the announcement of the overall winner, the Book of the Year.

Normally Children’s Book Week is held in August (towards the end of the Australian winter–a reliable sign that spring is coming…), but this year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is held in October. This week, in fact.

In a year which demonstrated how difficult the world can be, the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards have recognised thought-provoking and uplifting stories that allow young people to take on all challenges

https://cbca.org.au/

I must say, that although it has been a difficult year, it has also been a year in which the value of storytelling–of writing and reading, of producing and receiving stories–has been well and truly recognised. Even though in Australia the artistic community has been hit very hard by the impacts of the COVID-19 shutdowns (and our governments could be doing rather more to support creative industries in general), it’s very clear how much we rely on storytelling–to lift our spirits, free our minds, open up the world to our imaginations, and help us think through all sorts of issues. There’s something about immersing oneself in a book that is better for the brain that the jittery rush of doom-scrolling and constant panic about the state of the world.

I’ve been watching in admiration as writers and illustrators adjust their usual whirlwind of book tours and classroom visits to promote their works, and encourage the joy of stories–through zoom events, online conferences, twitterfests and more.

And so it’s wonderful to see the Children’s Book Council of Australia also adjust–one of Australia’s older literary establishments finding a way to celebrate storytelling in these strange times. The theme for Book Week this year is Curious Creatures, Wild Minds, and you can click on the link to see the program for the week.

And in terms of the Book of the Year, here are the announcements, made by well-known Australians: enjoy!

CBCA Book of the Year Awards 2020

–Elizabeth Hale

The Ghostly Governess, by Joan Aiken

As a child, I loved the stories of British-American writer, Joan Aiken. I still do. One of my favourites was ‘The Ghostly Governess.” (1953) In it, Mark and Harriet Armitage, on a family holiday in an old house by the sea, find themselves haunted by the ghost of an elderly governess, Miss Allison. She keeps them up at night, learning maths and deportment, history and Latin.

Miss Allison’s ideas of education are decidedly Victorian. While Harriet lies on her back-board to improve her posture, Mark learns Latin prepositions:

“Mark, let me hear you recite. You should have it by rote now.”

“A, ab, absque,” he began.

“Never let me see you recite like that, Mark. Hands behind your back, feet in the first position, head up.” Mark obeyed peevishly.

“Now begin again.”

“A, ab, absque, coram, de,

Palam, clam, cum, ex and e

tenus, sine, pro, in prae,

Ablative with these we spy.”

“Very good, Mark, though your pronunciation is a little modern,” she said. “You may open that blue tin and have a caraway biscuit.”

The children are not fazed by Ms Allison’s appearance, as fantastic occurrences happen quite often to the Armitages. (Their adventures appear in several short story collections, and have recently been collected in one volume, The Serial Garden.) Together, they search in the attic and find a copy of an old Latin Grammar, and work on their prepositions. “Not too many people have learned Latin preposition s from a ghost. That’s something,” says Harriet.

In Aiken’s world, ghosts are generally troubled by something from their life, and Miss Allison is no exception. When Mark stumbles over the dates of the rulers of England, and misdates Queen Anne’s accession as 1700, instead of 1702, the governess bursts into tears:

“Cedric, you wicked boy,” she sobbbed, “will you never get it right? how can you expect to be a success in life, if you don’t know your dates? And you going into the Navy, too.’ She hid her face in her hands, but through them they could hear her say, “I’m getting so old. How can I die happy if that boy doesn’t know the date of Queen Anne? All the others learned it.”

The children, who are getting tired from all their midnight lessons, realise something is amiss, and they seek advice from the owner of the house, a retired Admiral who lives in a cottage nearby. It turns out he is the Cedric who could not remember Queen Anne’s dates. They reunite him with the ghostly governess, who puts the question to him:

“Just you tell me one thing,” she said, drawing herself up and giving him a piercing look. “When did Queen Anne come to the throne?”

The children gazed at him anxiously, but they need not have worried. He had learned his lesson this time.

“Seventeen-two,” he said promptly, and they sighed with relief.

Miss Allison burst into tears of joy.

“I might have known it,” she sobbed. “My good boy. Why, now you know that, you might even become an admiral, and I can die happy.”

And as they watched her, suddenly, flick! like a candle, she went out, and there was no one in the room but their three selves.

This odd little story has stayed with me. I liked it then, and I like it now: the combination of Victorian schoolroom and post-war British seaside holiday, the resourceful children and the dedicated governess. Aiken’s daughter, Lizza, has written about it (and Aiken’s remarkable literary output, including novels for adults, children, mysteries, ghost stories, fantasies and more) here.

And it’s part of my Latin-life-story, such as it is: I remember, for instance, puzzling over the prepositions. What on earth were they? They must mean something. At first, this was because I had not learned Latin, and did not know what a preposition was; later, because this kind of rote memorisation was a foreign world to my school Latin classes, with extremely battered copies of The Approach to Latin (a 1952 textbook), reel-to-reel recordings of the Cambridge Latin Course, and a range of creative projects such as play-writing, Roman feasts, and reading competitions.

Nothing ghostly about it–indeed, the emphasis was on making things as lively as possible in our small classroom. But something about “The Ghostly Governess” must have stayed with me, because I was always aware that with learning Latin we were part of a tradition much older than we were, much older than our teacher and our school–I wondered about the kids whose graffiti-ed names festooned our battered desks and grammar books, and had a sense that the works we studied had been selected for us many years previously. Indeed The Approach to Latin was published in 1952, around about the same time as “The Ghostly Governess.”

And how wonderful is Miss Allison–a teacher whose dedication goes beyond the grave. I am not sure I would have liked to have been taught by her–especially not to have done deportment and embroidery under her gaze, but I do think that if she had been my teacher, I would, to this day, know my prepositions by rote.

–Elizabeth Hale

Sweepus Underum Carpetum–little bits of Latin in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing (2000) is a classic of Australian picture book art. It’s the story of a boy who is out and about looking for additions to his bottle-top collection, who sees a ‘thing’ on the beach–a great big, red sore-thumb of a creature, half coffee-pot, half-lobster, totally different from everyone and everything around it. The boy, being a boy, and thus perhaps open to moments of spontaneous creatiity, plays with the Lost Thing until dusk, then takes it home with him. His indifferent parents barely notice, but the boy realises the Thing needs to find a home of its own, and the pair set out on a quest that takes them through the city. It’s A dystopia: an anonymous industrialised city, where no one looks at each other, and communication takes place in formulae and rubber stamps.

It looks like the city of The Lost Thing is a very dull place indeed, and dullness is all-pervading and inescapable. The boy, for instance, is involved in collecting bottle-tops when he sees the Thing, and immediately returns to his collection once he has solved its problem: the tragedy of the story is that the Thing is never accepted, integrated, or even recognised by the society it stumbles into–its happy ending is to be sent back to where it comes from, taken care of by The Department of Odds and Ends, which the boy consults to find out where the Thing belongs.

Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing

The Federal Department of Odds and Ends helps the boy sweep the Thing under the carpet (or into the closet), in accordance with its motto, ‘sweepus underum carpetae.’) The boy narrates how he and the Thing make their way through the city until they find a mysterious doorway to a magical world, full of bright, colourful, curvy beings–the antithesis to the dull, angular city.

That’s it. That’s the story. Not especially profound, I know, but I never said it was. And don’t ask me what the moral is. I mean, I can’t say that the thing actually belonged in the place where it ended up. In fact, none of the the things there really belonged. They all seemed happy enough though, so maybe that didn’t matter. I don’t know. . .

Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing

It’s a slippery little story–the boy sliding out from any sense of knowledge or understanding of his actions, or of the Thing. Is he helping it? Is he shoving it out of the way? Is he solving a problem, or complicit in a continued set of injustices? Don’t ask the narrator. The subtitle of The Lost Thing is ‘A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to,’ ironically suggesting that those who don’t read it, or notice the story, are those who are in most need of a dose of creative thinking.

A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to…

But for those of use who ignore more important things, there is a great deal in The Lost Thing to enjoy observing. And for me, on my quest to chase up the Classical elements in Australian literature, there are the mottoes: each one from a different ‘government’ department. There’s The Federal Department of Information (ignorare regulatum); the Federal Department of Tubes and Pipes (plumbiferus ductus). The Federal Department of Economics (consumere ergo sum), The Federal Department of Censorship (illuminare prohibitus), and of course, The Federal Department of Odds and Ends (sweepus underum carpetae).

Tan’s sly sense of humour is in full view in details like these. These little dog-Latin tags are the only Classical elements that I’ve found in The Lost Thing. And they’re beautifully appropriate for the society of Tan’s novel–a long way from the vivid extravagance of Classical myth–the Classicism of branding and advertising, of signs and labels, of bureaucracy and pencil-pushers–Latin, the language of Virgil and Ovid, put into the service of administrative meaninglessness, perfect for a society of grey men, women, and boys, who look up only briefly from their bottle-top collections to notice the glorious Lost Things of the world, too busy to realise that they themselves are lost…

–Elizabeth Hale