Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Amazing Babes: a picture book for kids and adults - Eliza Sarlos and Grace Lee

The first glorious aspect of Amazing Babes that tips you off balance in the most agreeable way is the surprise. When my review copy arrived in the mail, I was about to leave for an appointment; I had a quick look at the cover and the first page opening that simply contains the text, ‘AS I GROW …’ spread over two pages. I thought, Okay, it’s a book about babies, and popped it on my ‘to read’ pile. This book is about babes of a different kind, however, as I later discovered – to my delight. The second page opening contains the text, ‘I want the COURAGE of AUNG SAN SUU KYI’ with a striking illustration of her portrait, painterly, bold and arresting – in line with the simplicity and punch of the text. First tick: clever title – waggish and takes the definition of ‘babe’ to a new level. This book, as the title suggests, draws attention to an amazing array of women from around the world, both from contemporary society and history, who have wrought change by their inspiration, creativity, determination and bravery. The text continues, ‘I want the COMPASSION of MUM SHIRL’ followed by, ‘I want to BREAK THE RULES, like ELIZABETH GARRETT ANDERSON’, a different ‘babe’ to each successive page opening. Some of the other characters in this welcome and exciting addition to the world of literature for young people and adults alike are: Tavi Gevison, publisher of the online magazine, Rookie, and who at 15, had 30, 000 readers of her blog; Miles Franklin, feminist and author; Hedy Lamarr, actress and mathematician; Frida Kahlo, artist; and Malala Yousafzai, young Pakistani activist, who in 2012, survived a gunshot wound to the head and continues work for the rights of all children to an education. The list also includes the lesser known West African activist, Hadijatou Mani; barrister and British political figure, Shami Chakrabarti; and Liberian peace activist, Leymah Gbowee, to name a few.

There is much to love about this important work. It receives an enormous tick for the very idea of it. The text is compelling in its spareness and lexicon, with the ‘I want’ on each page invoking such words and phrases as; ‘moxie’; ‘conviction’; ‘commitment’; ‘vision’; ‘curiosity’; ‘fervour’; ‘feel empowered’; and ‘never lose the excitement of possibility’. The reader is positioned by the intersection of the evocative verbal text and Lee’s powerful illustrations – that adeptly capture an unspoken essence about each woman – to see much more than the sum of the parts. The women are presented as vibrant, strong, and essential. Another welcome surprise comes at the end of the book. During my first read-through, I expected to be researching the characters with whom I was unfamiliar. Sarlos, however, is one step ahead, listing a short biography of each ‘babe’ at the back. This portion of the text is aimed more at the adult or advanced younger reader, with a more sophisticated lexical set and writing style.
Amazing Babes is stirring, inspiring and significant. It is a text with the power to be a subversive influence on young and old, female and male alike.

Scribe Books, 2014

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 1, March 2014)

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