In an era of glossy covers, embossed reflective highlighting and even 'bling' on our book covers to compete with the next best thing on the shelves it is a great tactile and sensual delight to discover a book that evokes memories of favourite books of old, time stilling simplicity and finger tempting textures.
A mouthful of words I know. I think like that because I was a child of the famous Cole's Funny Picture Books, those wonderfully rich and full volumes of everything serious and funny, ridiculous, educational and challenging. Books that you went back to over and over again and, I will confess, I still do. So what a delight to my senses to dip my hand into a large envelope that arrive this morning via the postie to discover a textured, matt, minimally coloured book for me to review.
But we must not judge a book by its cover...so they say. Well, the cover often gives a taste of what will be revealed inside, so judgement can begin at the cover.
Australia Illustrated by author Tania McCartney (and her debut as an illustrator) (EK Books, ISBN: 978-1-925335-21-7), didn't let me down in any way. That old fashioned girl in me was excited by the cover but what of the inside? What of the story it would tell? How far should that old fashioned sense of tactility go, especially for the younger reader? I couldn't wait to find out.
This new book from McCartney offers a journey for young and old and more importantly young and old together. We journey through fresh, funky and up-to-date images dancing and resting on each page with the textures and colours sampled by the reader on the cover. Even the end-papers, simple and basic, are a visually tactile delight. It was as if my brain was a little confused by the new smell of the book and at times I thought I could smell it's oldness as well.
We journey through the sections of the book discovering Australia through fresh eyes, and eyes that remind us of what we have forgotten or taken for granted. It is light, funny and insightful. We learn about each state and what it has to offer in the way of food, culture, lifestyle, people, community, environment, flora and fauna. Each state is represented well (an important thing for a Tassie girl, we are often left off the map or incorporated into Victoria). There is something for everyone, with some elements being safely understood by the adult reading to the child which cleverly makes us grown-ups feel welcome.
What I loved most of all about my Cole's Funny Picture Book is that you could discover something new each time you visited it. You didn't have to read it from front cover to end and you could spend an eternity pouring over the details of any given page. So I will describe Australia Illustrated as having an air of 'Cole-ism' to it. It is a book that takes you on a journey, to be shared with others or taken solo. It is a travelling book, to take with you as you visit the places it describes, a memory book, to remember the places you have been or even a book of hope, where you dream of going and can journey on the pages until you get there in reality.
I need to comment on McCartney's illustrations. In her debut as a published illustrator she has set the bar high. If there were ever any doubts (I'm talking about the creator here, not the audience) that she was up to the task then that has been shown to not be true. McCartney's simple yet characterful children and adults speak to us clearly and warmly about life in Australia. Her diversity and use of colour, gender, age and ethnicity represents this country so well. Each character belonging on the page and an essential part of this country. They are not token, PC placed characters, they have ownership of this journey and invite us to join them in it. McCartney's clever use of watercolour, digital design and enhancement pulls together a well balanced visual feast that we will never tire of. I am excited to see her emerge as an illustrator after many years as a successful author for children and adults and dearly hope this is the beginning of a huge feast of books from her drawing desk.
It is hard to pick a favourite element in this delightful book. It is a very balanced and easily read journey both as a narrative and as a visual story but there was one page that struck me, one line that really grabbed me and that would be the environmentalist in me, I can't help it.
On the page entitled Endangered Animals, McCartney cleverly uses a gently but obvious image of a Red Cross nurse overseeing a short list of animals that are endangered in Australia. There just isn't room to feature them all but the line that states 'and this is only a small selection, which is not good at all!' grabs you and causes you to think.
Congratulations to Tania McCartney on her illustration debut and creation of this beautiful sensory book for all ages. Well done to the team at EK Books who have given this book a home in the publishing world so we might all enjoy it's delights.
Australia illustrated is being released November 2016 through EK Books and will be available at all good bookstores.
(Reviewers note/confession: As a reviewer I need to be impartial and honest about the books I present to my readers. In the Australian Children's and YA publishing industry, most creators know each other and sometimes we know each other quite well. Often we review books created by our friends and peers (this is hard to avoid) and I endeavour to maintain a professional approach to this task. My opinions of this book and others I review are not because of friendships but from a genuine response to great literature for children.)