Thursday, March 31, 2011

Possum Magic, written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Julie Vivas (1983)

Possum Magic (Voyager Books)I have long been a fan of Australian picture book author and literacy scholar Mem Fox; Boo to a Goose (1996) is one of my all-time favorites, and Time for Bed (1993) was the one book I read to Miss E on a nightly basis when she was an infant and toddler.  But somehow I managed to miss her most famous book, Possum Magic, until I spied it at a library sale a few weeks ago.   I ended up paying 25 cents for it but would have happily paid 25 dollars.

The storyline is simple but glorious.  Grandma Poss has used her magic to make Hush invisible, and thus not vulnerable to snakes. When Hush gets older, she asks Grandma to reverse the spell, only Grandma can't remember how to do it, only recalling that "[i]t's something to do with food! People food---not possum food."  What's a pair of possums to do?  Set out on a bicycle tour of Australia, of course, stopping to taste signature dishes at different points along the way!  Fox's prose is well-balanced and lyrical, making for an exquisite read-aloud.  Illustrations by watercolorist Julie Vivas are delicate yet witty, her animal figures   a perfect blend of realism and whimsy.

This is a---if not the---quintessential Australian picture book.  According to Fox's website, it's Australia's "best-selling picture book ever."  It's still being published in hardcover after almost 30 years, and has been performed as a musical and has inspired an orchestral piece.  And honestly, sometimes this makes for some momentary discomfort for American adult readers.  Geographical, cultural, and wildlife references are unfamiliar, and Fox doesn't cater to American sensibilities by explicitly identifying them as she goes.  The bush animals are recognizable through inference but are not labeled; cities and culinary specialties are clarified on the final page, through a map and short glossary, but first-time readers won't know to look for them.  But this is something that I really appreciate about it.  I admire its authenticity.  I like that it doesn't change "Philosopher's Stone" to "Sorcerer's Stone" and assume that we are too dumb or too lazy to figure out that a "torch" is a flashlight.   And I love that it challenges us to be cultural travelers rather than cultural tourists, to accept some uncertainty and confusion as we take responsibility for the work of cultural interpretation ourselves rather than expecting "others" to translate for us. 

Bonus: Watch a video version, narrated by Fox herself, here.

Miss E's Read:  "I don't have a favorite part.  I like all of it."  And she was not the least bit flustered by the wombats and Lamington ;)

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