Stephen Whiteside’s Billy that Died with its Boots On

Stephen Whiteside, The Billy that Died with its Boots On and other Australian verse, illustrated by Lauren Merrick (Walker Books 2014)

coverDiane Bates, children’s writer and tireless children’s literature activist, recently set up the Australian Children’s Poetry web site. Its aim, she said,

is to, for the first time, give a national and international ‘face’ to Australian children’s poetry.

The website, which is well worth a look, may change things, but until now poetry written for children in Australia has struggled to have a public face. The School Magazine, published by the NSW Department of Education, has been a dependable outlet just short of 100 years, but its index fairly bristles with lovely poems that appeared there and then were seen no more (except in readers’ memories: in my time at the magazine we received regular phone calls from people trying to track down a poem they had read in the magazine 70 or so years earlier).

It’s always heartening, then, when a children’s publisher like Walker Books brings out a new book of poetry, especially one by a single author.* It would quickly become disheartening, of course, if the poetry wasn’t any good, but The Billy That Died with its Boots On delivers the goods.

The poet’s Introduction proclaims his life-long love of rhyme, and encourages readers to ‘find a brother or sister, or mother or father, or cousin, or aunt or uncle, or grandfather or grandmother, or simply a friend, and read a poem to them’. So be warned, if you give this to a young person as a gift, be prepared to sit still and be read to.

Not that you will suffer if that happens. The book is bursting with gleeful love of rhyme and bush-ballad rhythms. There’s nonsense, fantasy, word play, jokes (some laugh-aloud, some groan-worthy), historical narrative; the beach, the bush, the snow, the sports field; dogs and cats, cormorants and spotted quolls; dinosaurs and flying whales. It’s not hard to imagine a young reader becoming permanently addicted to rhyme if exposed to this book.

If I have a favourite poem, it’s probably ‘We Headed for the Beach Today’. I’d love to give you the whole poem, but it’s long and I don’t want to breach anyone’s copyright: suffice to say it lists all the things that could have gone wrong on a day at the beach but didn’t, mixing the all too common with the extremely unlikely, all in impeccably scanned, rhyming couplets, as for example:

No one grizzled. No one snarled. No one yelled or jeered.
We didn’t see a baby grab his daddy by the beard.
A change did not arrive to make the water dark and wild.
A shiny flying saucer did not steal a little child.

It’s perfect for learning off by heart and performing for your brother or sister, etc.

By way of full disclosure: Roughly half of these poems were first published in The School Magazine, many of them when I was editor. Stephen graciously mentions me in the acknowledgements, and also in his account of the book’s long gestation on the Australian Children’s Poetry site. I received a complimentary copy from Walker Books.
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* I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this is the only such book Walker have published. Far from it. The last page advertises Guinea Pig Town and Note on the Door, both books by Lorraine Marwood, another fine poet who has graced the pages of The School Magazine.

10 responses to “Stephen Whiteside’s Billy that Died with its Boots On

  1. I thought immediately of your undoubted interest in this book because of your time as editor of The School Magazine – so how heartening/affirming to see that in your final pars. I have a couple of god-children who will relish it now or in the future (one in Daegu in S.KOREA, one in Yackandandah, in north-east Victoria)!

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  3. I’m delighted for my cousin Stephen that his poems are finally getting this recognition. Writing has been a labour of love for him for many years; one from which he never expected to earn much money, but which has given him and his audience great pleasure.

    Your support and encouragement through the School Magazine was invaluable, Jonathan.

    • I doubt if publication will mean Stephen can give up his day job just yet, Richard, but it’s a beautiful book as befits years of labouring for love

  4. Nicola Robinson

    Thanks so much for the wonderful review, Jonathan! Close to my heart, this book is. So pleased for Stephen. (In the interest of disclosure, I project managed ‘Billy’ at WBA.)

  5. Thanks for commenting, Nicola. What a web of connection, yet I’ve never met the man!

  6. I would like to take the opportunity here to acknowledge the enormous amount of work Nicola put into the editing of the book, for which I am extremely grateful.

  7. Nicola Robinson

    Aw shucks, Stephen. You don’t have to do that! This book was a pleasure to work on.

  8. That’s nice to hear.

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