13.4.14

Girls' Stuff, Boys' Stuff *UPDATED*


We are looking at buying a bike for our soon-to-be ten year old daughter. This is the kind of option we have to choose between -- a dark, hard, 'masculine' boys' bike, or a prettified, frou-frou, pink and purple, flowery 'girls' bike. There seems to be no middle ground, no bicycle choice for a girl who might not like pink and 'girly.'

Even a dozen years ago, when my first daughter was born, things weren't this bad. Every damn thing seems to be genderfied these days. There's nothing neutral: bathers, building blocks, bicycles, guitars, are all aggressively gender-coded. I realise this is hardly an original observation but I feel increasingly exasperated every time I step into a shop. What kind of a gender panic is gripping our society, when every children's purchase has to be unambiguously labelled 'for males' or 'for females' only?

The last straw was when Evie saw a top she really wanted -- a black, long-sleeved top with a Tardis on the front. And it was in a box, labelled BOYS TOP. Not 'Child's Top' or just 'Size 12 Top.'

BOYS TOP. There were no GIRLS tops.

Fortunately Evie didn't care. She wears that top just about every day. Don't they know that girls love Dr Who, too?

*UPDATE*
Evie informs me that there are also gendered toy crossbow/bow and arrows available! Boys get a green and black 'Zombie Attack' nerf crossbow, to wipe out all those apocalyptic zombies and save the world. But girls get a pink-and-purple 'Rebelle' (nicely feminine) 'Heartbreaker' (!!) bow and arrow, so they can… break hearts? Play Cupid? Seriously, I am speechless.

9.4.14

Gulag Primary

We live near our primary school, about as near as we could be without actually camping in the grounds. We open the back gate into the laneway and the school is just on the other side of the fence. I'm the first to admit the convenience of this arrangement. If we're running late in the morning, a child can climb the low fence and sprint straight to class. At home time, I stand just outside out the back gate with the dog and wait for my offspring to come running across the playground. While I wait, I see the other laneway regulars -- families who live in the streets nearby, who use the alley as a shortcut. We smile and chat, and the dog runs to greet them.

Now I hear that there are plans afoot to build a new fence along the alleyway -- an eight foot high fence, impossible to climb. The neighborhood families will no longer be able to use the north fence as a handy shortcut; we will all have to walk the long way round. I could live with that, if there was a good reason for building a dirty great high security fence; but there isn't.

The reason, apparently, is 'safety.' Whose safety? Are they worried about children injuring themselves as they scramble over the fence? That doesn't seem to be the problem. No, 'safety' is, as is often the case in these situations, code for 'predators.' It seems there are concerns (whose concerns?) that the low fences of our primary school attract paedophiles, who lurk in the alleyway waiting to catch a child clambering over the fence and whisk them away. It's odd that in all the afternoons I've spent waiting for my children to come home that way, I have yet to set eyes on any suspicious characters; instead I see other parents, my neighbours, older siblings, schoolkids, walking home.

It's not huge high razor-wire fences that keep our communities safe. What keeps us safe is connections. Recognising and greeting each other every day; exchanging a few words of gossip, and a pat for the dog; holding someone's baby or their plate of cupcakes while they scramble over the fence; kids being able to say, 'That's Evie's mum,' and giving me a wave when they see me walk past.

If that fence goes up, I will not be happy. Not only is it a massive, unnecessary waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere (literacy support, anyone?)

31.3.14

Reading Newspapers

I love the Saturday newspaper (The Saturday Age, to be clear). I love sleepily wandering out in my dressing-gown to collect the two plastic-wrapped tubes off my garden path. I love peeling off the gladwrap. I love making my ritual Saturday morning pot of loose leaf English Breakfast tea. I love separating out the sections of the paper I'm interested in from the sections I don't care about.

I love carrying out the good bits of the paper and the pot of tea to the table on the deck (weather permitting) in the cool quiet early morning. First I read the Sports section, for football news and analysis (though as my team seems to be permanently relegated to Sunday twilight games, there's rarely anything to read about them). Next I peruse Domain, for real estate porn and architecture. Then comes Spectrum (which used to be A2). I skim the book section, so I know what I've got to look forward to, and read the publishing industry gossip column. Then I do the general knowledge crossword (with a little help from my friend Google; fifteen years ago I had an encyclopedia, a dictionary of quotations, an atlas, and sundry other reference books to assist me.)

By now I've drunk my tea and I'm ready for a short break -- hang out the washing, make some toast -- then back to Spectrum. By the time I've finished that, Michael will be up and making my coffee, and over coffee we will do the Good Weekend quiz. After that, scattered through the day, I'll read the news section, and then Insight, and by the end of the afternoon I will have finished Good Weekend.

It makes me very sad to think that in a few years, this whole weekend ritual might be a thing of the past, as newspapers migrate wholly online or disappear altogether. Because it just won't be the same. I read the paper online during the week, but nothing matches the anticipation of all the neatly folded sections piled beside my elbow, a feast of information ready to be consumed at my leisure, to the tune of birdsong and the aroma of English Breakfast tea.

26.3.14

Life After Harry?

We have a read-aloud crisis looming. At the moment, I'm reading Prisoner of Azkaban to the girls for the second (third?) time, having rapidly polished off Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets. But as Evie pointed out, she is currently reading Goblet of Fire to herself, and they have both been listening to Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince on audiobook in bed. Evie doesn't want to read Deathly Hallows as she deems it 'too scary.' (She cried when Dumbledore died, even though she knew from watching the film that it was coming. 'But it's so much sadder in the book...!')

So the question arises: what next? There are any number of books that I'd love to read aloud to my daughters: Seven Little Australians, Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming, the Bastable books of E. Nesbit. But it's Evie's turn to choose, and that means it's probably going to be a Warriors book. The last time I tried reading aloud a Warriors book, it didn't end well. This particular volume featured a disfigured cat called Brightheart, and after a chapter where poor Brightheart was teased by the other cats, Alice fled the room, howling that she NEVER wanted to hear this book again EVER because she felt so sorry for Brightheart. In vain, Evie has reassured her that Brightheart goes on to live a long and happy life, and becomes an Immortal (I think). No dice. The Brightheart book is off the list.

I'm just not sure if I can face 500 odd pages of cat drama...

19.3.14

Davey Warbeck Was Right?

"[Uncle Davey] was following a new regime for perfect health, much in vogue at that time, he assured us, on the Continent.

'The aim is to warm up your glands with a series of jolts. The worst thing in the world for the body is to settle down and live a quiet little life of regular habits; if you do that it soon resigns itself to old age and death. Shock your glands, force them to react, startle them back into youth, keep them on tiptoe so that they never know what to expect next, and they have to keep young and healthy to deal with all the surprises.'

Accordingly he ate in turns like Gandhi and like Henry VIII, went for ten mile walks or lay in bed all day, shivered in a cold bath or sweated in a hot one. Nothing in moderation..."

Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford, 1949

Apart from the stuff about the glands (unfashionable now), I wonder if Uncle Davey anticipated the 5:2 diet by 65 years? He certainly looks healthy enough, doesn't he!

17.3.14

Reading Retreat

I am not a sociable person. I require sustained periods of solitude to function properly. I was re-reading my diary the other day, back from the time when I used to have an office job, and reflecting on how exhausted I'd become at the end of the day. I used to blame the relentless nature of the work - it was a phone sales and data entry job, mostly - but now I suspect that a large part of my fatigue stemmed from being with people all day, and the numerous social interactions I had to undertake - a fresh round of small talk with each and every phone call! And I had to be friendly, and chatty, and sound interested! And in between phone calls, there were my fellow workers to interact with! No wonder I staggered out at the end of every Monday, practically catatonic with tiredness.

One way I can reliably win quiet, restorative time for myself is through reading. Since childhood, I've tended to hide myself inside a book. Now that my children have turned into proper people, demanding thoughtful interaction, I sometimes have to retreat from them into the peace of a book to recover my inner balance. The trouble is, they know exactly what I'm up to, and they don't like it. They insist on trying to talk to me while I'm reading, pulling my attention back to themselves. (How dare they.)

So those minutes I can steal during the busy times of the day -- at the stove, stirring dinner; at the table, scoffing lunchbox leftovers; maybe a quiet twenty minutes between putting away the washing and starting dinner preparation, while the kids are chilling after school -- become all the more precious. If I'm sprung, I have to put the book away and go back to being Mum.

But now I'm wondering, did I seek solace in books in the first place because I found people such hard work? Or have years of retreating into reading rendered me unfit for normal human interaction?

11.3.14

Reading Diaries: Yea or Nay?

When Alice started primary school, we had a reading diary. I say 'we', because I was the one who conscientiously filled it out every night. Every scrawled space with the date, the name of the particular excruciatingly dull reader we'd struggled through that evening, and her comments which I recorded because she couldn't (usually a noncommittal 'okay', though in fact she was more likely to shriek, 'I HATE reading! I can't do this! This is TERRIBLE!') and my dutiful signature, gave little hint of the nightly war we waged to 'get reading done.'

Filling out the diary became more desultory as she advanced up the school, paradoxically in inverse relation to her growing literacy skills. By the time it came to Evie's turn, I was exhausted. No matter, Evie was keen enough to fill out her own diary, though her enthusiasm dropped away eventually, too. 

When Alice went on her big Harry Potter binge, and when Evie plunged into the world of Warriors, we  didn't keep records. Now Alice is in high school, where they don't expect you to keep a journal of what you read, and Evie is in Grade 4, and she can read basically anything.

Evie is still expected to read for 'twenty minutes every night' and keep a record of what she's read -- how many pages, did she like it, etcetera. And I'm supposed to ask her comprehension questions to make sure she understands what she's reading. I'm not a naturally rebellious person, but this year, I've decided not to cooperate. I'm not going to make Evie keep a record of what she reads. I'm not going to set the timer to make sure she does her statutory 20 minutes. And I'm not going to cross-question her about the content either. I trust her to use her own judgment about whether this is a 'just-right' book, without totting up how many words she can't quite understand per page. Sometimes you have to encounter a word a lot of times before its meaning drops into place. I want her to read books that are just a little bit too hard, as well as old favourites that she knows by heart. And I want her to think of reading as a pleasure, a joy, not just another homework chore to tick off the list, not another square to fill up in the bloody diary. If that means that some nights, she doesn't read anything, that's fine. And if she wants to spend all day immersed in Half-Blood Prince, that's fine too.

6.3.14

Harry Potter Charades

The girls had a friend over at the weekend, and they invented a game that kept them occupied for HOURS. Watching TV in the next room, we would hear someone stomp into the library, announcing in a pompous voice: Hello everybody, I work for the Ministry of Magic... or a little shrill voice saying, Boo-hoo, I'm a sad House Elf, I got the sack...

It turns out they were playing 'What Harry Potter Character Am I?' (catchy name, I know). They'd found a list of every character in the Harry Potter universe, printed it out (see above), and numbered each sheet and character. Then they'd choose, unseen, a number combination (say, 5-18), look it up, and then perform it for the others to guess.

For example, if I had chosen 5-18, I'd be a Gryffindor Quidditch player... a Chaser... future wife of George Weasley...

Can you guess who I am?

3.3.14

Friends Reading

We watch a lot of Friends at our house. I was a fan the first time around (I especially got into the Chandler/Monica secret affair storyline, because at the time I was having a secret affair with my future husband, and I am a little bit Monica and he is a little bit Chandler.)

But Alice is a massive fan, and we have watched it on a loop approximately 4,782 times (seasons 3 -10 anyway, Gem doesn't seem to have the rights to the first two seasons, which is okay, cos they were not that great). There are many episodes we can almost quote by heart.

But recently I noticed something odd. In seasons 3 and 4, the Friends do quite a bit of reading. You often see Rachel or Monica in the coffee shop with a book. Rachel read Joan Didion at the beach. There were books lying around the apartments. Chandler bought a first edition of The Velveteen Rabbit for Joey's girlfriend (what a declaration of love!) One of my favourite episodes is the one where Rachel persuades Joey to read Little Women, then terrifies him, in the middle of an argument, by revealing, 'Beth dies!' She then takes it back, so he'll keep reading. But towards the end of the episode, Joey comes in, clutching the book. 'Beth's really sick... Jo's there, but I don't think there's much she can do...' Rachel hugs him, and says, 'Do you want me to put the book in the freezer?' (That's where Joey keeps the things that really frighten him.) I love that episode, and the fact that Beth doesn't actually die until Good Wives is neither here not there...

But something happens after season 4. The reading stops. Now you see the cast flipping through fashion magazines. The books disappear. The only appearance of a book after season 4 is when Joey discovers an erotic novel in Rachel's bed. ('Is the vicar coming over?' he asks her, leering.
'Joey!' she says sternly. 'Where did you learn that word?')

Why did the Friends stop reading?

26.2.14

Bluffer's Guide to the Western Bulldogs (2014 Edition)

It's been a long time since I posted anything about the Western Bulldogs; frankly, it was too depressing. We finished fifteenth out of eighteen teams last year. That's not very good, even I have to admit that.

BUT... there are some grounds for cautious optimism. I don't think we'll play finals this year, but I have reason to believe we'll be better than we have been for the last few seasons. Here's why:

1) The hoops are back
See the jumper in the picture above? Them's the hoops. Goodbye Robodog, welcome back to a sensible, proper, stylish football jumper. Anyone would play better in a great jumper like that. (The hoops actually came back last year, it's just taken a little while to start working...)

2) Footscray Football Club is back
This year, the Bulldogs have their very own VFL team. This means that our young players can play the positions we want them to play, not what might suit our affiliate club, who are only interested in winning the VFL finals, not the long-term development of OUR club. Also, FFC will play some games at the Whitten Oval. This is a victory for nostalgic fans who miss the old ground, our spiritual home. Can't wait.

3) We finished well last year
Yes, I know we ended up fifteenth, but it's also true that we won five games in the second half of the year, and had closer-than-expected finishes to a few more. Things seemed to be on the up; even in the games we lost, we were a lot more competitive.

4) How good do those kids look?
Libba is already elite, and should have been All Australian last year. Wallis is coming good. Jordan Roughead has quickly become a stalwart down back. But also keep an eye on Macrae (silky skills, and grew an extra 3cm over the summer!), Stringer (a beast!), Hunter (sooo smart), Hrovat (pronounced ROVE-at), Talia (maturing in the backline).
The most satisfying part of watching the kids is that quite a few of them are father-sons (Libba, Wallis, Hunter) which means we got them for a steal. Bonus: Talia is a grandfather-grandson! His grandpa played in the 1954 premiership!
Prediction: Tom and Tony Liberatore will be the first father-son Brownlow medallists. Yes, Libba jr is really that good.

It's still a development year, but hopefully, hopefully, we will start to see some signs that it's all coming together. Believe in Macca. He's got a plan.

24.2.14

Did JK Rowling Read This Book?

I have spoken before of my love for Monica Dickens, so I couldn't resist this first edition (1948), though I was pleased and surprised to discover today that Joy and Josephine is still in print. It's a lively, delightful version of the swapped-at-birth story; adopted at birth by the Abingers, grocers on the Portobello Rd, Joy/Jo might be the foundling daughter of a poor Irish girl, or she might be the niece of wealthy, titled, Sir Rodney Cope. She gets to taste the possibilities of both identities, and decides (or at least I think she'll decide -- I haven't quite finished it yet) to live out her life as herself.

But that's not what caught my eye! I offer for your consideration page 151:
"You'd have been captain of Second Netball this year, wouldn't you? I wonder who they -- gosh! Tonks will be it, I suppose." ... (S)he sped away to break the glad news to Tonks Tonkinson...
And then p 153:
There was nothing unusual about a girl of nearly fifteen starting regular work... Joan Lupin (was) already earning good money at the button factory...

Tonks AND Lupin?? In the space of two pages? Coincidence? Or -- is it witchcraft?

19.2.14

Phases

What's happening to me? I seem to have lost my hunger for kids' books at the moment. All I want to read is adult fiction; it's only grown up novels catching my eye. Is it a reaction to spending the holidays in the company of my children? Is it a subconscious longing for the company of adults, albeit in fictional form?

Look at that list over there to the right: hardly a kids or YA title among them, and the ones that are there are mostly book group assignments. Meanwhile, I have a still higher stack beside my bed, waiting -- books like Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, Margaret Drabble's The Pure Gold Baby, and Sumner Locke Elliott's Careful He Might Hear You.

I suppose at least the last one does have a child protagonist.

Or am I just turning into a grumpy old lady reader?


12.2.14

What We Pass On

It's stating the obvious, but we try to give our children what we value the most in our own lives.

I have some friends who have made certain that their children are getting music lessons -- one is learning violin, another has started flute, another studies trumpet. Each of these friends (at the very least) had music lessons themselves as a child; and for two of them, music has remained an important, even a defining, experience in their lives. Me, I never learned an instrument; I remain largely indifferent to the joys and benefits of music. So it's no coincidence that I haven't pushed music lessons on either of my children. Evie is still doing keyboard, but I'm lax about enforcing practice, and when Alice chose to give up last year, I didn't try to argue her out of it.

Other friends have made sure that their children take part in organised sporting activities: netball, football, tennis. Again, these are people who enjoy and value physical activity and team sports in their own lives. Michael has admitted that if he had sons, he would have tried harder to enrol them in cricket or football; as it is, we haven't tried too hard (ahem).

So what the hell have I given my children, I ask myself, since I'm obviously such a crap and lazy mother? No surprises here: the one thing I have persisted with is books. I still regularly read aloud to my children, even though they are now both capable of reading for themselves (and do). My idea of a fun excursion is "let's go to the library!" or "let's check out the second hand bookshop!" I am more inclined to buy a spontaneous book-present than take my girls clothes shopping.

I'm not saying that my other friends don't value books, or read aloud to their children: they do. But it's interesting to me that, even when other things can seem too hard, I will never stop pushing the words.

5.2.14

The Australian Books I Should Have Read (But Didn't)

When Kate Forsyth kindly asked me to contribute a guest post to her blog, she suggested that I could write about my favourite Australian children's books.

This got me thinking about all the Australian children's books I could have read, and should have read, and would have loved, had I read them as a child -- but didn't.

This is what I sent to Kate:

Even though I was born in Australia, and I have been an avid reader all my life, it is a strange but true fact that when I was growing up, I didn't read Australian books.
Though I was born in Melbourne, I spent most of my childhood in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, in a tiny town called Mt Hagen. My father worked there as a charter pilot, flying light planes in and out of isolated mountain villages, carrying all kinds of passengers and cargo - everything from cattle to coffins, sacks of coffee beans to cans of fish.
Mt Hagen was a very small town in those days (now it's the third largest city in PNG) but for some reason it had an excellent public library, in a dark little building near the market. It seems so unlikely that such a well-stocked library could possibly exist that I've tried to research how this could have come about, but I haven't been able to find out, and the library doesn't seem to exist any more. My best guess is that it was the result of some philanthropic impulse or charitable exercise: send a library to the Highlands! Whatever the case, I was the beneficiary. I read my way through shelves of wonderful children's authors: Joan Aiken, Louisa May Alcott, Arthur Ransome, Laura Ingalls Wilder, E. Nesbit, Leon Garfield, PL Travers, CS Lewis, Elizabeth Goudge and so many more. I've spent many rewarding years since, trying to recreate that library via second hand bookshops, with some success!
With no television, few shops or recreational facilities, there wasn't much to do in Mt Hagen except to read, and I read everywhere: at the table, under the blankets, sitting in trees. Like many children, I read my favourite books over and over again. Sometimes I borrowed the books just to put them under my pillow at night; I loved them so much and knew them so well that there was no need to open the covers.
I was especially drawn to books about magic, ghosts and time travel, memories and dreams. Some of my particular favourites were Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, CS Lewis's Narnia books, and A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley. Many of the books I loved best were by English authors, and when my family travelled to the UK (so my father could visit his family for the first time since he was twenty), I felt an immediate and intense bond with the English countryside.
I instantly felt that I knew this landscape, deep in my bones: the damp green fields, the spreading trees and sheltering hedgerows, the stone cottages and bluebell-filled woods. This was home, this was where I belonged, and when we left a few weeks later, I cried for days.
Weirdly, I felt no such connection to the Australian landscape when we returned to Melbourne on leave, even though I'd been born and spent the first six years of my short life there. I wonder now whether, after reading all those English books, the landscape of England had seeped into my imagination as a place brimming with magical possibilities. In contrast, the few books I read by Australian authors all seemed to be sternly realistic, about girls with ponies in sun-scorched paddocks, or, terrifyingly, about children surviving bushfires or plane crashes alone. There didn't seem to be a space in the Australian landscape of those books for magic, or fantasy, or time travel; no ghosts, no history; nothing for me to hold onto.
How wrong I was!
Of course there were books, Australian books, that knew about magic; but for some reason, I never managed to find them. It was only as an adult that I discovered wonderful books by Australian authors that might have given me the same sense of wonderful, mysterious power that I'd gleaned from those English fantasy stories. One of  the reasons I wrote Crow Country was to try to add to that list, and help a new generation of readers to realise how much magic and power lies in our own landscape.
Here are three of my favourite Australian books for children and young adults from the era of my youth, books I wish I'd found:


1. Playing Beatie Bow, by Ruth Park
How did I manage to miss this book? It was published in 1980, when I was 13, but for some reason it took me another thirty years to read it! The time travel element, so hard to get right, is handled expertly, and the scenes of early Sydney are wonderfully evocative. The love story is poignant and perfectly pitched.


2. Pastures of the Blue Crane, by Hesba Brinsmead
Not a magical story as such, but the descriptions of northern New South Wales are so gorgeous that the writing thrums. The story of aloof Ryl's discovery of her inheritance and her gradual connection with her estranged grandfather is very moving. The book's handling of racial issues was radically progressive at the time, though it seems awkwardly dated now; but this is still a beautiful book.


3. The Rocks of Honey, by Patricia Wrightson

Wrightson's books were the books I needed to read, but somehow never found at the right time. Her sensitive handling of Aboriginal mythology was revolutionary at the time; although she was criticised more recently for appropriating cultural content, many Indigenous leaders applauded her work, and she introduced generations of children to Aboriginal magic. I could have chosen half a dozen Wrightson titles, but The Rocks of Honey was one of the first I read and it remains special to me, a simple but subtle tale of magic and misunderstanding.

Also on Kate's blog, you can find an interview with me and a lovely review of Crow Country. Thank you, Kate, for inviting me, and for sharing such a generous review!

19.1.14

Reading In A Heat Wave

Last week we had a heat wave: four days in a row of 40 degrees plus. Fortunately, we have an air conditioner, which we rarely use, but in weeks like this, it's essential relief. We dragged mattresses into the library and the whole family, including the dog and the rabbit, set up camp there, occasionally venturing out to watch TV under the fan in the next room or to pull some fruit and yoghurt or icypoles out of the fridge.

And I read aloud. We've been on a Little House binge these holidays, and it seemed like perfect timing to pull out The Long Winter. As we sweltered, we read about blizzards buffetting the tiny town, Pa and Laura twisting sticks of hay to feed the fire, long dark days while the winds howled, nothing to eat but brown bread from wheat ground in the coffee mill, and then not even that…

At one point, Pa laments that progress is a mixed blessing. Railways and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves are wonderful things to have, but folks get dependent on them… just like electricity and TV and the internet and air conditioners… And even though the Ingalls family was battling temperatures of 40 degrees below zero while we were suffering 40 degrees above,* we were still there, huddled in one room, trying to make it through one day at a time, just like they were.

We finished The Long Winter yesterday. The cool change had come through, and we were thankful.

* Yes I know, they are in Farenheit and we're in celsius, but let's not quibble...