31 Mar 2010

Honey Mouse

It seems the reviewers don't quite agree over Honey Mouse. In A History of Australian Children's Literature (1971), the doyen of Aussie lit commentators, Maurice Saxby wrote:
Originally written for English children this is a pleasant production with sepia drawings by Margery Gill, useful for story hours, and of interest also to the younger reader because of its brief texts.
The writers of The Oxford Companion to Australian Children's Literature(1993), Stella Lees and Pam Macintyre, on the other hand rather denigrate the book. Read what they have to say:
Not all animal stories represent animal life so well. Inaccuracies abound... This poor example of the depiction of Australian animals perpetrates such inaccuracies as 'koala bears'. In Anita Hewett's Honey Mouse and Other stories (1957), which contains ten stories about Australian birds and animals, the animals are humanised, dressed, and the settings inaccurate. Koalas are again referred to as bears, and in the same natural environment the reader finds koalas, cassowaries, turtles, bats, dingoes and pythons.
Goodness, girls! Is it really that bad? Come on - it was written back in 1957. By an English woman. When I was growing up a decade later we called them koala bears as well. Everyone did back in the 'olden days'. Overseas they still do.

Honey Mouse is not a natural history book. It is a pleasant little animal fantasy useful for story hours and for newly fluent readers to read alone. Just like Mr Saxby said. While they're reading our kids will pick up lots of incidental knowledge about our Australian birds and animals. They'll be reminded that brolgas dance; that male cassowaries look after their eggs in nests on the ground, while the brush turkey hides hers in a big mound, and the platypus in a platypussary; that lyre birds are mimics; that jabiru stork eats fish; and that kookaburras laugh at misfortune. As if an Aussie kid didn't already know that bit:
"Kookaburra laughs," they said. "He laughs when he's happy and he laughs when he's sad. We hope he will always laugh. We like it."
There are no clothed animals, but they do talk. So what? Similarly, there are inaccuracies in environment. This didn't matter to us, one whit, because I don't think that's what the book's written for. Since we read the book as a read aloud I did substitute 'koala' for the old fashioned inaccurate 'koala bear'. We also discussed the fact that Green Turtles are unlikely to be carrying koalas very far on their backs and in fact spend most of their time in the sea, returning to the beaches only to lay their eggs. Good opportunity for a science lesson thought I, ever the teaching mummy.

Anita Hewett knows what kids like to read about, and she does it very well. They are light little moralistic tales using characters from our Australian bush. We liked it.

I was interested to read here of Hewett's upbringing in a strict Baptist family by a father who was Deacon, organist and Sunday School Superintendent. Anita taught the baby class. Despite later rebelling against her religious upbringing, Christian morals shine brightly throughout the ten little stories contained in Honey Mouse. Kindness, perseverance and consideration contrast with pride, indecision and forgetfulness. Lots of character building material here if you want it.

Fun too - just what the kids want. And they, after all, are the intended audience of Honey Mouse - not erudite reviewers in ivory towers.

Lizard Comes Down from the North is your classic Chinese Whispers tale. In it, little green lizard decides to make a long, long journey...
..."Over bushland and sand and grassland and scrub." And he hopped in the air with a squeak of delight because he felt gay and brave and adventurous.

Then Lizard looked up against the sun, and far above him the black-feathered swan beat his wings in the air, and called: "Why are you coming down from the north, you strange little thing with a scaly back?"
Doesn't sound too scary here, does he? Wait until later in the story though, where Lizard meets his alter ego:

"It's a long, long journey I've made," he said. "Over bushland and sand and grassland and scrub."

He hopped in the air with a squeak of delight, because he felt happy and safe and friendly."

Then Lizard looked up...and...he saw the wall, and over the top of it, the faces of Bower Bird, Possum, Platypus, Turkey, and Wombat.

"And what are you doing, up there?" he asked.

The five faces stared at the little green lizard.

"We're hiding from the dragon," said Bower Bird.
"He's coming down from the north," said Possum.
"He'll eat us all up if he can," said Platypus.
"He has huge shining scales, and a great lashing tail, and he's crashing along to the forest," said Turkey.
"What a time we've had!" said Wombat.

Lizard's small scales shone green in the sun as he flicked his tiny tail in the air. Then he pattered behind the wall, and said:
"Please may I hide behind your wall? I'm not very fond of dragons myself."

Oh dear.

I suppose you could use this story as an illustration of facing your imaginary foes, but we just laughed and laughed. Just as Lizard does when he realised what has happened:
"Oh my, I'm a dragon, I am!" he said. "Oh ho! I'm a dragon. A great fierce dragon!"
Then Lizard flicked his tiny tale, and he rolled on the ground with his legs in the air, laughing and laughing and laughing.
Shame the reviewers didn't read Honey Mouse the same way - as a delightful little book for young children. You can use it for character development if you choose to. We didn't. You can use it for nature study with some discussion too. We didn't. Jemimah learned from it anyway. She learned from the author herself - not from me getting in the way and telling her what she should know. She certainly doesn't believe that koalas talk, or that wombats tie strings to their tales so they won't forget. She does know that brolgas dance and platypus live in platypussaries though. Did you?

She also knows not to believe everything she's told. Perhaps someone should tell the reviewers that kids are not so naïve as they fear.

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