1918 – a double serving of australian classics

Unless I’m sadly mistaken, it seems to me that 1918 was a bit of a quiet year for literature.

Yes, Wyndham Lewis first published Tarr in 1918, but looking at a plot synopsis didn’t exactly do much for me. Intellectual people running around being intellectual? Not this week, thankyouverymuch. After tackling James Joyce a few weeks ago, I’m all intellectualled out for a while, I’m afraid.

Rebecca West wrote a book called Return of the Soldier in 1918; about a family dealing with the aftermath of World War One. It looks really interesting, and it’s really short (a definite plus when you’re on a tight schedule) but I just couldn’t get my hands on a copy in time to read it and write my review. It’s definitely going on my ever-expanding list of books to read in two-and-a-bit years’ time when I’ve finally given up on time travelling and I’m free to read whatever I like.

(Sigh…one day.)

Just when I was beginning to worry I’d never find something to read for 1918, I had a blisteringly simple idea: look closer to home.

Right here in Australia, two very important books were published in 1918. Both are written for children, both are illustrated by their respective authors, both are considered Australian classics.

But which to read? The decision was agonising.

So I read both.

This week on Book to the Future, I read and reviewed not one, but two books. Here they are…

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie

by May Gibbs

Published in 1918

May Gibbs wrote and illustrated many books, but her most enduring, endearing creation would have to be the characters Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. The pair starred in a series of books; with 1918’s Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie marking their very first appearance to the world.

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie are Gumnut Babies; tiny little children who wear gumnuts and blossoms as hats (and not much else). Gumnut Babies aren’t human children – May Gibbs explains on the first page that Snugglepot and Cuddlepie were born from buds. If it helps, think of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie as uniquely Australian fairies.

Upon hearing of the existence of terrifying, nature-hating creatures called humans from a wise old kookaburra, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie decide to venture off into the bush to find out what a human looks like for themselves.

In the middle of the night, the two foster brothers creep from their home and set off on a big, crazy adventure that sees them in all kinds of situations – from shopping for hats to riding on the backs of kangaroos to hatching eggs for a friendly bird to starring in their very own feature film – and trying to escape from the evil Banksia Men.

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie eventually do come face to face with a human being…and they’re quite surprised to discover that maybe, human beings aren’t quite as bad as they were led to believe…

On every page of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, the reader is greeted with May Gibbs’ iconic illustrations. Each image is drawn with such detail, I frequently found myself getting distracted poring over the pictures, examining them at length.

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie try on clothes, from page 43

But while I marvelled over the detail of the images of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, unfortunately, I can’t say I felt the same way about the actual story. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie moves along at breakneck speed, with one adventure following another following another in dizzying succession with nothing explained in detail and no time for the poor reader to stop and pause for reflection. There’s zero space for character development in Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. The only difference between Snugglepot and Cuddlepie themselves is that Cuddlepie, the adopted brother, is more cautious. That’s it. And then, there’s the Banksia Men, whose particular hatred of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie is never explained or justified.

Frequently, the slapdash narration of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie seems almost random, as if the story was improvised; or May Gibbs drew the pictures first, then wrote the story to match. As an adult reader, I expected a little more. After all, this book is considered an Australian children’s classic, and has been in print since 1918. Unfortunately, although I liked the pictures, I found very little to enjoy reading Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. The book was simply paced too quickly for me to stop and appreciate the events and characters it was describing.

May Gibbs’ writing is painfully childish at times. The first sentence reads “Here are the adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie”. The final three sentences are “Here is the end of this book. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie had many other adventures. I may tell you about them some day”. Great storytelling this is not…

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie‘s one saving grace is its message of environmental awareness. After they witness a human for the very first time, Cuddlepie turns to Snugglepot and says “I wish (…) that all humans were kind to Bush creatures like that”.

But then, in the very next sentence, our two heroes are whisked away on yet another adventure before young minds even have a chance to think about the impact of what they’ve just read…

Even though the copy I purchased contained the two other books that made up the series, I didn’t feel at all compelled to continue reading Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’s further adventures.

With their bare bottoms and their chubby faces, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie are definitely cute. But, really, cute just isn’t enough. Children deserve more than just cute. They deserve a good story, well told. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’ll find it within these pages…

~~

Official Book to the Future Rating:

Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!

Should I read it?

Not if you’re above the age of ten. Personally, I found the characters shallow and the hectic pacing was enough to give me whiplash. I’m considering a lawsuit.

In a word:

Undercooked.

~~

The Magic Pudding

by Norman Lindsay

Published in 1918

As soon as I read the first page of Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding, I knew I’d fallen in love…

The Magic Pudding has one of the craziest plots in the history of children’s literature – and therin lies its charm. Our main character, a debonair young koala called Bunyip Bluegum, is sick of living with his bewhiskered uncle and goes off to explore the world. But in his haste, he forgets to pack food, so when he smells the scent of freshly baked pudding wafting through the bush, he makes a beeline towards the scent.

Bunyip Bluegum makes the acquaintance of Bill Barnacle, a sailor, and a bold penguin called Sam Sawnoff, who let Bunyip Bluegum share their pudding before explaining to him their secret: their pudding is magic, and no matter how much of it is eaten, it is always replenished. It tastes however they decide it should taste – and what’s more, the pudding not only has arms and legs – it’s also got a foul temper. And it’s called Albert.

(See? I told you this was a seriously mental book…)

Thus, Bunyip Bluegum joins Bill and Sam, the puddin’ owners, and the rest of the story describes their attempts to guard their precious pudding from the greedy hands of Possum and Wombat – a greedy pair of professional pudding thieves.

The Magic Pudding is written in an enchanting mixture of prose and verse, and regularly, the characters slip into verse to tell a tale or merely to make a point. Norman Lindsay’s writing is clever, entertaining and often hilarious. I read The Magic Pudding over the course of two days on the train to and from work (the illustrations earned me a few confused stares) and frequently found myself laughing out loud (thus earning myself a few more confused stares).

Poetry of varying lengths is dispersed through the book – and there’s even one long tale, told by Sam, the penguin, that is returned to in snippets again and again throughout the book, used ingeniously as a framing device within the narrative.

There are a few slight problems with The Magic Pudding as a book for children, however. There’s a lot of comic violence. And a comment about Jews thrown in towards the end. And then, there’s the vocabulary, which purposefully employs words your average child won’t understand…

“The exigencies of rhyme,” said Bunyip Bluegum, “may stand excused from a too strict insistence on verisimilitude, so that the general gaiety is thereby promoted…”

– Norman Lindsay, The Magic Pudding, page 87

I do appreciate the way Lindsay doesn’t dumb his language down for children. But for a child reading The Magic Pudding on their own, this could pose a problem. This is the kind of book that begs to be read by a parent to their child. With its pictures and poetry, I’m sure any child will adore this book – and their parents will, too.

That reminds me – I’ve barely even mentioned the pictures! Norman Lindsay was one of Australia’s most renowned (and most controversial) artists, and the pictures scattered throughout The Magic Pudding illustrate the story beautifully. Towards the end of the book, there’s a courtroom scene, in which Lindsay’s talent for political satire is at its sharpest. Although, once again, this is an aspect of the novel that would probably be lost on children, I thought the manner in which Lindsay caricatured the law was brilliant.

Bunyip Bluegum, Sam Sawnoff and Bill Barnacle share pudding around the campfire, from page 37

There’s so much about The Magic Pudding to love. The completely original plot. The crafty plans of the pudding snatchers…and the equally crafty plans of our heroes to win their pudding back again. The way the book is divided into four “slices” rather than chapters. The repeated refrains of poetry throughout the book. The thoroughly postmodern ending – which I won’t spoil…

Just like the magic pudding itself, The Magic Pudding is a tasty treat for hungry readers of all ages. However, while the magic pudding itself will never run out…unfortunately, The Magic Pudding, the book, had to end eventually.

The Magic Pudding is one of those books you wish would just keep on going and going and going…

~~

Official Book to the Future Rating:

Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!

Should I read it?

Yes! Forget the fact that this is supposed to be a book for children – you don’t need children as an excuse to read this book. Read it for yourself, if you’ve got no kids. It’s funny, it’s entertaining, it’s well-written and it’s unique. I’m not an expert, but I reckon kids would love it.

In a word:

Delicious.

Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

11 thoughts on “1918 – a double serving of australian classics

    1. Everybody I’ve spoken to about Snugglepot and Cuddlepie – all they seem to remember is the Banksia Men. I don’t know HOW I managed to escape reading both of these books as a kid.

  1. Hey Michelle. I really have a thing for Aussie classics and The Magic Pudding didn’t disappoint. I especially loved this story as it took me back to my Trekking days where people of the future were freed from the need to earn an income because of the ability of the Replicator to provide anything that was desired. How great would it be and how would we spend our time if at least we had a Magic Pudding to provide anything we wanted to eat. Oh to be a gentleman of leisure.
    And to be enthralled by an young upstart koala who was able to think his way out of some pretty tricky situations, The Magic Pudding was a delight to read. Thanks for the recommendation.
    p.s. thanks for the rap a few posts back.

    1. Hi Marc! Glad you liked The Magic Pudding. The adult side of my brain did wonder why the three main characters were so damn possessive. Their pudding is the solution to world hunger and they want to keep it all to themselves?? Unfair!

      If I had a replicator, I’d be the size of a house. I’d just eat cheesecake for every meal.

      PS. No problem (c:

  2. Gosh, you know, to this day I’ve still not read The Magic Pudding! I do have memories of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, though, although with those twee names and creepy anthropomorphism I’m not sure I’d go back to it!

  3. Great site Michelle. I’ll read ‘The Magic Pudding’ again. Go ahead and read ‘Return of the Soldier’, only short but powerful. I loved the dual meaning of the title. I bought my copy on Kindle as I couldn’t even find a copy in a local library.

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