How not to cry when reading to your children

seven-little-australians

Don’t read Seven Little Australians, by Ethel Turner to them. I knew I was in trouble as the baby waddled off into the bush and Judy raced after him. All I could remember from reading the book as a child myself was that Judy meets a tragic end and that a tree was involved. I’d forgotten that  an act of self-sacrifice was also involved – Judy saves the baby from the falling tree but not herself, and this made it even harder to keep reading the book aloud to my girls without my voice cracking and tears falling. Suffice to say, I read those pages very slowly, relying on lots of pauses and deep inhalations.

And I am only joking about not reading Seven Little Australians to your children. Please do read it. The impression of reading the book when I was about twelve years old, and the deep sadness I felt at its conclusion has stayed with me as an adult and I remember it over and above many, many long-forgotten childhood reads.

Who might enjoy this book?

I bought a battered paperback copy from the Save the Children book-sale a few months ago and put it on the kids’ bookshelf, thinking that, in a few years, one of them might pick it up and read it. But my six and a half year old is now quite entranced with having long books read to her, a chapter every night. The book is a bit too advanced for her reading level, but she, and even her four and a half year old sister, have sat enthralled every night for a month as we worked our way through Seven Little Australians. I think the book could easily appeal to children all the way into their early teens.

When I began reading the first chapter, I thought that my daughter might not choose the book again the following night. The language is obviously somewhat old-fashioned – the book was published in 1894 after all. But as Ethel Turner writes, she addresses the reader – she is telling the story to them. The book begins, ‘Before you fairly start this story I should like to give you just a word of warning.’ And she then proceeds to tell the reader that the tale she is about to unfold is one of very naughty children and that it is something about the Australian landscape – ‘the sunny brilliancy of our atmosphere‘ – that contributes to their naughtiness.

Why the kids liked the book

There are a few things about this introduction that I think children find so appealing. The first is the idea that they are going to read about naughty children. What will these naughty children do? Just how naughty will they be? And what will happen to them when their naughtiness is discovered? I could well imagine that these thoughts were running through my daughters’ minds as we read.

The second idea that is appealing is that the Australian sunshine somehow makes these children naughtier than they might otherwise be. Anyone who has ever watched a couple of kids run around outside, unfettered by admonishments from adults to behave, will know just how easy it is for fun and sun to lead directly to a bit of naughtiness.

And the third reason the introduction grabs the attention of the reader is Turner’s way of addressing it to them. It reminded both me and my children of the Billie B Brown series by Sally Rippin – Rippin often invites the reader to guess at just what her heroine mught be up to. I had thought, without really thinking too deeply about it, that Rippin’s device was a contemporary one, but reading Turner’s book again reminded me of the long tradition of writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who did address the reader directly. And it also reminded me, as a writer, what an effective device it can be.

What else is the book about?

From there, the story traces all the mischief of the children – from Bunty laming his father’s horse with a cricket ball, to Judy depositing the baby at her father’s barracks so she can enjoy an afternoon of fun at the fair, to the children continually interrupting a dinner party in the hopes of taking plates of roast chicken up to the nursery, rather than bread and butter. It’s all good, innocent fun and daring – apart from Bunty and the horse – but the consequence of it is that Judy is sent off to boarding school, a place she promptly runs away from, setting in train the tragic events at the end of the book.

Reading the book is also a bit like a history lesson – we journey to an outback station and learn about shearing and cattle drafting and also the relations of the outback settlers with the Aboriginal people – all subjects that we haven’t much encountered in picture books thus far but all subjects that my kids wanted to know more about.

A great introduction to classic Australian literatureawwbadge_2013

My daughters didn’t cry at the end – they left that job to me – but I was asked quite a few questions about death and dying over the next few days, followed by a reenactment in the playroom of a baby doll being saved by one of my daughters from the certain death of being crushed by a soft fold-out kids’ sofa.

So, if you have children aged around 6 or 7 and want to enjoy a piece of classic Australian literature with them, then I thoroughly recommend Seven Little Australians to you. Just remember to have a box of tissues on the couch beside you!

*This is my first review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. I’ve written a bit about the challenge here.

12 comments

  1. Glen Hunting

    Funny how things from childhood can affect us like that. Certain songs from the Muppets have a similar affect on me. Did your daughters notice all that slowing down and deep breathing?

    Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis and (groan) Enid Blyton all addressed their readers, too. I duly copied the technique in my abortive scribblings when I was a kid. I thought I was being sooooo sophisticated!!!

    • I can’t remember CS Lewis or Lewis Carroll doing that – I’ll have to go back and have another look. But now you’ve reminded me, I do remember it was a trait of Enid Blyton’s as well. And no, the girls didn’t notice the slowing down and deep inhalations – well if they did, they didn’t ask about it!

  2. Oh, I *loved* this book as a kid and still have my old battered copy. I look forward to reading it aloud in a few years.

    • I’m very impressed that you’ve still got your old copy! I think I borrowed mine from the library, hence it’s not in my collection of dog-eared childhood treasures, along with Little Women, The Wizard of Oz, and various Enid Blyton books.

  3. Danielle Burns

    My kids are all grown up now but they all loved that old fave. We would all pile up on the beanbags and they would snuggle in real close – thnx so much for reminding me about that special parenting memory xx

  4. If you imagine you are going to read of model children you had better lay down this book immediately. Not one of the seven is really good, for the very excellent reason that Australian children never are.

  5. I read this book for the first time when I was 13, and now a number of years later, its still one of my favourite books. And until now, I’ve never heard anyone talk about or admit to reading it other than myself. Most people just give me a strange look. I’m glad I’m not the only fan of it 🙂

    • It’s funny isn’t it – I hadn’t heard anything about it either for years and years. It’s a bit of a lost classic, which is such a shame because it is a wonderful book. Hopefully we can help revive its popularity!

  6. Pingback: February 2013 Roundup: Children’s books | Australian Women Writers Challenge

  7. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge Round-Up | While the kids are sleeping

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: