'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Monday 10 October 2011

Guest Post: Author Betty Johnson

Kids Book Review is excited to have Betty Johnson talk to us about how her new book, 'Mrs Echidna's Dilema' - a gorgeous multimedia creation. Betty shares her love of animals, textile crafts and education with us. Grab a cuppa and enjoy!

‘Mum, can you make me some finger puppets, please?’ Not an unusual request for my daughter, who at that time was working in the early childhood sector. Over the years, I had made many resources for her – puppets and cloth books; multicultural dress-up clothes; fabric wall hangings for matching, sorting, comparing and classifying activities. This was just one more resource in a bulging cupboard of ideas.

My daughter had observed that as the children’s language developed, they became fascinated with either ‘farm’ animals, or ‘wild’ animals – but knew practically zero about Australian fauna. To stimulate their interest, she asked me to make some finger puppets of Australian animals. Neither of us guessed the roller coaster road of discovery we were about to embark upon!

We had many animated discussions on why the children were able to recognise the ‘farm’ animals. This was no rural area – there wasn’t a chook, sheep or turkey within cooee of the suburban setting. But there was a plethora of books and activities such as cards and puzzles, exposing the children to information and images of these animals.

There was native wildlife all about them; Kookaburras, willy-wag-tails, parrots of various kinds, crows and magpies, laughed, cawed, screeched or twittered at intervals throughout the day in the bushes around the centre. Yet the children referred to them all with the generic term ‘bird’. They did not attempt to differentiate them.

This really piqued my interest. I had grown up on a farm in the middle of last century sometime. Platypus swam in the creeks; we were even chased by cassowaries when we walked home from school (true!). Was it my environment, or something else that gave me my love for our native wildlife?

When making the original puppets for the children, my background as a science teacher came to the fore. There was a reptile (blue-tongued lizard) and a variety of birds; a magpie, a kookaburra and two parrots – a pink galah and a cockatoo, to see if children would notice the same / different beaks and colouring of these various birds.

When it came to the mammals, I ensured there were monotremes (echidna and platypus), marsupials (koala, kangaroo and possum) and even a placental mammal – a bat, because it had wings, and was the only placental mammal native to Australia I could think of...no, the dingo is a ‘ring in’!

The children loved the puppets! However, there were limited books – much less other resources – available at their level to extend their interactions. ‘Mum, I need a story....’ came the next request. So I wrote a story (as mothers do!) – a fairly convoluted tale to include all the animals.

Other staff members began borrowing the resource. ‘We need the story in book form for group time,’ was the next request. A book! That wasn’t on my ‘to do’ list at all! However, I was into quilting, so decided to use that medium to tell the story. Firstly, I had to cull half the animals to fit it into the limits of the design. Then the language used was thoroughly road-tested and simplified to accommodate the needs of emergent readers.

It was while I was stitching the illustrations for the quilt that the penny dropped for me. You see, all the embroidery was completed on my daily commute to the city. Fellow travellers would strike up conversation with me.

‘Oh, you’re stitching a hedgehog!’ they’d state.

‘NO,’ I’d insist, ‘it’s an echidna.’

‘Same thing...’

‘NO,’ I’d retort, ‘for a start, an echidna is a monotreme....’

‘A mono-what?’

‘Monotreme – an egg laying mammal’.

‘They lay EGGS?’

That conversation was repeated so many times over the first few months of the project that I realised WHY so few of the children knew anything about our unique Australian fauna.

At that time, that wonderful ad was being aired on TV: ‘Dad, why did they build the Great Wall of China?’ ‘Well, son, I guess it was to keep the rabbits out!’ The knowledge of the average Aussie about our unique fauna was at about the same level. The little information they had was inaccurate at best.

This prompted me to create a second set of embroideries. I stitched a companion quilt with basic facts about each animal encountered in the narrative – their life cycle, diet and habitat.

The rest, as they say, is history. The quilts became a book. It was designed as a resource for parents, teachers and carers – a one-stop shop of information about Australian animals. As the children ask the inevitable questions about the creatures encountered in the story, the correct information is there.

It is not only by observation that our children learn. They need exposure to illustrations and information at a level they can understand and absorb. During my childhood, not only did I see the animals in the wild – I had access to so many books (including encyclopaedias – no Foxtel, Discovery Channel, or TV in that era!). This enabled me to make significant connections between the information I gleaned and the animals in the environment in which I lived.

We need more Australian books and literacy-based resources introduced into our early-learning centres to create an interest in, and love and appreciation for, that which is uniquely Australian.

Mrs Echidna's Dilemma has wide appeal. The book, with its simple narrative, additional information on the animals encountered, patterns for finger puppets and DVD, was originally written as a resource for early learning centres.

For more info go to mrsechidna.com

To buy a copy go here.