Firstly, I’d like to say something about Ford Street Publishing, a small press that punches well above its weight and encourages new writers and artists. In 2012, it published the exquisitely beautiful In The Beech Forest, written by veteran Gary Crew and illustrated by teenage artist Den Scheer, whom I believe will be the next Shaun Tan. I give away my review copies because of the lack of space on my shelves, but that was one with which I couldn’t bear to part. (I was hoping it might get a Crichton award for new artists, but it didn’t even score a Notable in that year’s CBCA Awards, which tells me that judges can get it wrong sometimes, as they did when the classic Animalia failed to win the CBCA Awards many years ago.)
Now there’s this new picture book with Gary Crew again and another new artist, Naomi Turvey, who was completing her Diploma of Illustration in 2012, the year when In The Beech Forest came out. And it’s also a gorgeous piece of work, from the fairytale-style cover to the tinted watercolour sketches inside.
Despite being set in New South Wales’s Blue Mountains, the story isn’t especially Australian. It could be anywhere. In fact, it’s basically a fairytale with the grim(pardon the pun) flavour of the typical folk tale, well suited to the author of so much scary fiction.
Martin is the runt of the family. His father is a forester and he has two older brothers who mock and jeer at him. His father makes it clear he is not valued. So Martin spends his days in the forest, making friends with the local wildlife and thinking of the cuckoo that is dumped in another bird’s nest, abandoned by its mother as he was.
It never, of course, mentions that the young cuckoo throws out its foster siblings to get all the attention of the parents - but that is very relevant here.
When his brothers are carried off by an eagle to be fed to its young and his father makes it clear that he wishes it had been Martin instead of them, Martin wanders off and, finding the feathers of a baby eaglet, sticks them on and replaces it in the eyrie, opening his mouth for food that includes his former forest friends, thinking they are his real brothers because they have sacrificed their lives for his (not willingly!).
See? Grim fairytale!
But there is a positive ending I won’t spoil for you.
This is not a book for young children. It’s more for older kids and for the kind of adults who collect picture books. But there’s plenty to discuss in class, about bullying and family troubles, and whether you could consider Martin as a good guy. Even the art themes merit discussion - there is a lot to notice in these pictures, which are much more than just an illustration of the story they accompany.
And if the story isn’t really Australian, the art is, with long eucalyptus leaves, rocky landscape and gum tree trunks. This is an artist to watch out for and congratulations to Ford Street for discovering her and for another beautiful book.