7 June, 2015, The Little Bookroom, North Carlton, Melbourne, Australia
Hey Diddle Diddle is 250 years old. It’s actually its anniversary this year. The rhyme was first published in Mother Goose in 1765 (although there are possibly earlier references to it).
A quick wiki search discloses that there are many theories including that it:
– describes the flight from Egypt;
– depicts the relationship between Elizabeth lady Katherine Grey and the earls of Hertford and Leicester; and
– deals with anti-clerical feelings over injunctions by Catholic priests for harder work.
Does that make any sense? What do you think kids?
Well that is perfect because most scholars think the verse is probably just nonsense – just plain silly fun.
So Tony has taken this fabulous nonsensical rhyme with its cat, a fiddle, a cow, a moon, a dog, and a saucy dish and a spoon and made it very much his own and I am here today to launch it.
Kids, stay with me because I have a few words to say which may be a little bit boring or possibly A LOT boring but I think it’s important to say them if we are to take picture books as seriously as they ought to be taken, for there is a tremendous amount of craft behind a successful picture book and this is indeed a successful book.
Picture books are an artful form. They are often done, but rarely done well. They rely on so many factors.
The language needs to be rich.
Unlike early readers, picture books give authors the opportunity to exercise their vocabularies – we writers get greater editorial freedom. This book is fun and it is funny in much the same way as Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes is funny, but like Dahl in his more reflective writing, it is also lyrical. Tony takes us back to the ‘scene of the rhyme’ and tells us that ‘the grass smelled like morning’ (isn’t that evocative?!). Because Tony is amusing, people forget the ‘great lug’ can also be poetic. It is this poeticism that makes Tony such a terrific writer.
If it’s a rhyme, the rhyme can’t be superfluous and it needs to well…rhyme!
This does. The meter is as consistent and the rhyme as effortless as that of Julia Donaldson. The rhyme is clever but it never makes the reader feel Tony is indulging an adult audience or including random facts just to incorporate two rhyming words.
The story must be well-paced
I love the way Tony has included 8 attempts at the moon jump – the double page silent-spread builds tension before the final crescendo as the cow tries for that last jump. Tony uses his rhyme to masterfully control the tempo of the story – indeed the reader slows and takes a big breath with the cow just before final takeoff.
Picture books need a perfect and satisfying end.
In this regard, picture books are much like short films and like short films, a number are let down by their endings. Tony is an elegant plotter and structurally this book is 32-page perfection. The return to the riddle at the conclusion delivers a punch-line that fully satiates the reader.
The illustrations have to be appropriate – they have to suit the tone of the story.
What a wonderful job Laura Wood has done here – her funny comic drawings are expressive and fun and she works tremendously hard with a very limited palette. Look at the gorgeous end papers – fields. But not only fields, fields by night. The other thing I love about Laura’s illustration is that they have their own narrative, supplementing the main story. Tony doesn’t tell us why the dish runs off with the spoon – it is perhaps another tale, but we certainly get hints of a blossoming relationship from Laura’s drawings.
Finally, I think picture books need to leave us with something.
By this I don’t mean bludgeon us with a lesson – I hate didactic books – but there does need to be something – no matter how tiny, that children can take from it. There is so much of my friend Tony in this book. I mean the man has taken a nursery rhyme and literally turned it into an Olympic sport. There is the Tony who never gives up. The Tony with unbridled grit who tried and tried to play league football. There is the Tony who for all his athleticism can also be a bit unco – a man who may indeed have tripped over his size 13 feet right up and over the moon. It is at its core, motivational fiction for children – the spoon hummed a tune, He called ‘Cow CAN Jump Moon’. This is a writer who went along to all his articled clerk interviews channeling Maria from the Sound of Music, literally singing:
I have confidence in confidence alone
Besides which you see I have confidence in me!
It is a tale of friendship written by someone who values his friends and knows how critical group support is — to play on a footy team, to study for a Con & Admin exam or to hack a photocopier to pieces with 20 of his fellow articled clerks. But finally, this is a story written by a father who looks at his gorgeous and gutsy son Jack who has to try so much harder to do things we all take utterly for granted. Like my friend Tony, this book is funny, but perhaps more importantly, it also has heart.
I was reading about a font that has been invented by a graphic designer with dyslexia. A font tweaked ever so slightly – with letters thickened in places so that it is easier for many people with learning disabilities to actually read. Such a simple idea but an idea that resonated because sometimes it is when we take something that is right in front of our nose and re-work it in a clever and different way, that the results can be most inspired. Like taking a riddle we all know as well as Vegemite on toast and completely re-imagining it.
It took the cow in Tony’s story 8 attempts to get over the moon. It is serendipitous that this is Tony’s 8th picture book. And like the cow, I’m quite convinced that it will be on Tony’s 8th attempt that he will reach dazzling heights. May it launch into at least 8 jurisdictions with the gusto of the cow on that final double spread, and we can all watch on as contentedly as the little dog Rover.
I am going to finish with my sons because they are among the intended target demographic for today.
‘This is a great book,’ I said this morning.
‘No, Mummy it’s not just a great book, it’s a very very funny book.’
In our household, there is no greater compliment.
‘Cow Tripped Over the Moon.’ I proclaim you duly launched. Reach for the Moon!