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

Tuesday 7 March 2023

Review: Phoenix and Ralph

'...First, the fires came rampaging up the valley, taking everything in their path.

Those of us who were here that summer got ready to run...'

And there is the opening to this harrowing yet hopeful picture book.

Goosebumps? I thought so. Prepare for more.

Canberran icon, Barbie Robinson, is an arts journalist, writer, book designer, photographer and arts advocate, whose support for locals and the wider community is legendary. In her new book, Phoenix and Ralph, she utilises her every artistic skill to bring us a fiery tale based on true life events.

The first spark is lit with the fires of January 2003, raging up the mountain towards Barbie's home, taking everything in its path. Then a last-minute wind change - and darkness. Silence. Despair.

Almost seventy per cent of the ACT's bushland was damaged in these fires and 470 buildings (including Mount Stromlo Observatory) were all but destroyed. As the fire licked at Canberra's outer suburbs, in just four hours nearly 500 people were injured and four lives were lost.

During the months of recovery, magpies begin to frequent Barbie's garden, angling for food. One plucky bird was dubbed Phoenix, the bird who rose from the ashes. The surrounding land followed suit and also grew, phoenix-like, budding green poking from blanketed ash. 

Forests recovered. People moved on. But they never forgot.

Enter The Black Summer of 2019/2020. Like a film and its shocking plot twist, the fires returned. I, myself, know. They were at one time close to my suburban home. Canberra was essentially surrounded. We were trapped. 

As Robinson writes, 'the losses were too great to count.' and 'People spoke of birds falling from the sky.'

Then - La NiƱa came. She's stayed for an unprecedented three years straight now, almost an apology for the terror of those fires.

And that's when magpies returned to Barbie's garden. History repeating, a bold little bird (dubbed Ralph) moves in to the street. He makes Barbie and her husband happy. There's hope he will bring his babies to meet them next spring when the shoots once again rise from the blackened soil

This beautiful book is a tribute to courage, community and the overwhelming power of nature and its ability to rise from adversity. Its themes are confronting yet with a light touch that suits children of all ages, perhaps from age 5 and up, depending on the child's sensitivity.

I love how the voice of Phoenix and Ralph is like that of a diary entry, as though we are sipping tea with a dear friend, listening to stories of heartache and hope. The result is warm and calm yet scarred and powerful.

Illustrations by Ian Robertson, a landscape artist who also witnessed both fires. His painterly, evocative illustrations capture the fear, desperation and tragedy of fire, as well as the quiet, the hope, the community. His use of incandescent orange and charred black peppered with clean white pages, poignant silent ruins - and the gentle warble of magpies - is a perfect nest for Barbie's lyrical text. 

Then there's that exquisite cover. It's little wonder this book goosebumped me page after page.

At the back of the book, notes about magpies, epicormic growth, the legend of the phoenix and more information on the 2003 bushfires.

Heartache and hope. It's a powerful combination.

Title: Phoenix and Ralph
Author: Barbie Robinson
Illustrator: Ian Robertson
Publisher: Writing with Light, $24.99
Publication Date: January 2023
Format: Hardback
ISBN: 9780648179948
For ages: 5+
Type: Picture Book