For three decades Possum Magic has been enchanting Australian children. Since 1983, it has sold more than four million books. With so many copies out there in a population of just over 22 million, it’s not surprising that Mem Fox’s classic young children’s tale is on the bookshelves of so many Australians. Julie Vivas’s colourful, quirky illustrations have played an integral role in Possum Magic's ginormous success. They bring the playful possums and the Australian bush to life in swirls of magical star-shaped leaves.
One could argue that a similarly brilliant synergy exists between author and illustrator in Let the Celebrations Begin!, another young children’s book with enchanting characters, tenderly drawn by Julie Vivas of Possum Magic fame – although written by the acclaimed children’s author, Margaret Wild.
Like Possum Magic, Let the Celebrations Begin! has had its share of accolades, but it’s not a book you find on too many shelves. The reason is this: Margaret Wild was inspired by a line in a fairly obscure book by Gwen White, Antique Toys and their Background. White talks of a small collection of stuffed toys made by Polish women in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It’s about planning a liberation party for the children of the camp.
The story is narrated by Miriam, a young girl old enough to remember the chickens in the yard of the home she once knew. Now she lives in Hut 14, Bed 12, and the chickens she remembers were fatter than David, a skinny-legged 4-year-old boy born in the camp.
The book never so much as mentions the concentration camp directly, but we see an overview of the huts and barbed wire in the opening pages. We do know everyone’s hungry. Miriam talks of how she never liked chicken skin or fat, but now… well, now she would "gobble it all up – skin, fat and bones.”
The people Vivas draws are lively and engaging, albeit painfully thin. Their hair is shaved and they’re dressed in rags. To be sure, this is a tale that emerges from one of humanity’s bleakest periods. However, its desolate landscape, so sensitively created and compassionately illustrated, carries a sophisticated message of the power of hope and the bonding strength of kindness.
But would you read it to your child?
Consider this: within the corpus of children’s literature, horror is pretty much stock in trade. One only need think of all the monstrous parents, wicked stepmothers, kidnapped children, ogres, poisonous witches and executioners that we all encountered at a very young age. We think nothing of grandmothers who are gobbled by wolves, princes blinded by thorn bushes and decapitated giants. Come to think of it, the bible has a fair share of ghoulish stories to impart as well. Take for example, Samson. He fights lions, has his eyes gouged out by the Philistines, and finally pulls down a temple killing himself along with many others.
Sally Goddard Blythe, an expert in child development, is the director of the Institute for Neurological-PhysiologicalPsychology. In her book The Genius of Natural Childhood, she acknowledges difficult issues that fairytales raise, like say the death of a parent as in the case of Cinderella, but she argues that these stories have a very clear and important purpose in that they help prepare children for the real world. She goes on to say that children need to learn that life isn’t necessarily fair, and it isn’t always easy, and that there is “joy and sadness, love and loss, growth and degeneration”. One might also add, war.
People who experience persecution and genocide carry it along in their collective psyche. It comes to be part of who they are and how they define themselves. For example, the Holocaust was a giant prompt in the foundation of Israel. It goes hand-in-hand with the oft-muttered phrase, “Never again”. Closer to home, Anzacs visit places of their wartime horrors – Gallipoli in Turkey, Hellfire Pass in Thailand, or Sandakan, where the death marches began in Borneo. These are sites where many young men died, be it in battle or of disease and starvation. Australian war-site pilgrims write in visitors’ books and intone in memorial ceremonies, “Lest we forget”.
Memory of tragedy lives on regardless. We want our children to know our history.
The question then becomes – when do we begin to teach them? I’d suggest there’s no better place to start than in books like Let the Celebrations Begin! Not only will children take in what they’re able, but in this tale set in the very worst of places, Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas have chosen their words and created images with such care and compassion, that the story is a beacon of much that's good about humanity.