The Billy That Died with its Boots on and other Australian Verse by Stephen Whiteside, illustrations by Lauren Merrick (Walker Books Australia, 2014) RRP $19.95
Reviewed by Dianne Bates
‘Wow! What a bewdy!’ were the first words that came out of my mouth when I saw the cover of this collection of rhyming poetry to suit ages 9 to 12 years. Whiteside has, according to the bio blurb at the back of the book, been writing rhyming verse for ‘over thirty years’ which totals ‘over 1,000 poems’ for both adults and children. He acknowledges (as do most Australian children’s poets) the support of the New South Wales School Magazine and has included the first publication sources of many of the poems in the book.
This is a joyful selection of poems which cover a variety of topics from birds and beasts, sport, weather (snow, rain, hail, shine), places (out in the bush, the ocean, the beach, around the house, in the garden, in the street) and Christmas. The book begins with three poems about dinosaurs and concludes with two poems (with instructions) for performance. That the two influences on Whiteside’s rhyming verse are Banjo Paterson and CJ Dennis are evidence with the rhythm and word play in many of his poems. There is also much fun here, as demonstrated in ‘I’d Like a Brontosaurus’ where the narrator tells of how he would care for one as a pet: ‘She’d have her vaccinations,/And her heartworm tablets too,/But I’d have to hide her safely,/Or she’d end up in the zoo.’ The poem continues with the housing arrangements (a gigantic oak kennel with scaffolding) that would have to be constructed. This is a long poem, but it thunders along in a jolly manner, with the narrator finally deciding, ‘I don’t want a brontosaurus,/No, a dog will do instead.’
Of particular interest to children are poems about tidying one’s room, how to eat watermelon (and losing the ice-cream scoop from a cone), Dad meeting a Martian, Santa (getting stuck in a chimney), and the comfort of home. The poet pays tribute to two heroes in a poem about Simpson and His Donkey, and with another four page poem, ‘The Sash,’ based apparently on a true incident when our infamous bushranger Ned Kelly saved a young boy from drowning. Many poems reflect on Australia and its climate, such as ‘The Fire’, a narrative over three pages that shows a family escaping a bushfire and the title poem, ‘The Billy that Died with its Boots On’ about a well-used billy (‘Its inside was clean,/With a lustrous sheen./Its outside was greasy and black’) that is ‘tossed from its pack’ and lost forever.
Also reflecting on Australia are poems about the beach (‘The Dumper’, ‘We Headed for the Beach Today’ and ‘The Seaside Cure’). There are also three football poems and one about cricket; the poem I liked best in this sporting section was ‘The Saucing of the Pies’ which is set in the ‘mighty MCG’ where spectators line up for their hot meat pies. Eating hot pies at the football is, writes Whiteside, ‘…a deeply Melbourne feeling.’
Occasionally Whiteside plays around with how the poems sit on the page. In ‘The Chinstrap Penguin’, written as a rap-style poem, many of the lines begin with ‘Doesn’t’; for example, ‘The chinstrap penguin/Doesn’t wear a hat./Doesn’t wear a cap’ and so on. In ‘The Tree for Me’ there is a lot of internal rhyme, while ‘Rittle Led Hiding Rood’ plays around with language which is sure to make children chuckle.
For the most part, Whiteside’s verses are vigorous, deserving to be read aloud for the greatest pleasure, and full of Aussie topics and spirit. There is much in this paperback for any reader to enjoy, both young and old, and much for Australians in particular to relish.
In 2013, Stephen Whiteside won the Golden Gumleaf (Children’s Poem of the Year) in the Australian Bush Laureate Awards. You can read more about Stephen in the A to Z of poets on this blog.
Note: If you would like to win a copy of this book, be the first to write to me at dibates@outlook mentioning the book’s title and including your name and postal address. All entries will be acknowledged by return email.