The Duties of a Cat


The Duties of a Cat by Jenny Blackford (Pitt Street Poets, 2013) RRP $12.00

Reviewed by Dianne Bates

Described as a ‘softcover pamphlet’, this small (110 cm X 160 cm) chapbook with French flaps contains 12 poems by Blackford and seven delicate line drawings by Michael Robson. Each of the poems invites one to take a close look at cats that Blackford has obviously closely observed and documented.
The title poem, ‘The duties of a cat’ is divided into seven sections, each of which show cats’ movements, body parts, mischievous behaviours and hunting abilities. In the final section, Blackford humorously recounts the ‘noblest occupation for a cat, by far/is killing the bathmat.’ Underlying this and all of the poems in this appealing, crisply written collection is the poet’s love of and admiration of feline friends. In ‘En pointe in sheepskin boots’, Blackford asks ‘How can a/full-grown cat bear to restrain itself from crunching/through your teasing fingers, pink as wriggly worms?’ It’s almost as though the reader can literally, like the poet, feel a cat in their hands.

Pic Jenny Blackford with cat

Although Blackford is a regular contributor to The NSW School Magazine, she has also published poems in a wide number of adult literary magazines such as Westerly, Quadrant and Dreams and Nightmares. Some of the poems in this slim collection might be understood by prepubescent children, but the majority would seem to be for young adults and upwards. To give an example: a verse (in ‘Dream Hunt’) which would perplex even the best-read teenager, reads ‘Even the red-eared hounds who hunt with Hearne/respect the great white cat with eyes of flame/who runs beside their Winter King, chasing/the heavy-antlered stag that stole the Sun.’ In ‘Their quantum toy’, a line such as ‘gravity is stern as death/implacable’ and even the title ‘gravity’s their quantum toy’ is beyond the comprehension of the average child and probably most teens.

However, some poems, such as ‘Something in the corner’ which is about a cat scratching at a wall because of something it hears behind it, or ‘Blue mouth eerie open’, about a cat confronted by a bluetongue lizard, can easily be understood by younger readers. ‘Cat channelling his inner harp seal pup’ is fun, with a cat draped on a chair compared to a harp seal pup, ‘Only/the eyes are wrong…’

Blackford, like all good poets, has an original perspective and conveys this with rich, imaginative language, using words such as ‘winterplump’ and ‘sweet foolish lump of fur’ to describe a cat. I loved the ‘sweet wobble low on the belly’ of a stalking cat, and ‘under the honey sun his hidden eyes are/blue as summer sky.’

As one reads each of these poems it is clear that the poet has captured the essence of cat and done so in language that is sharply realised and often memorable. The poems would best be read aloud by adults and discussed with a child to get the fullest appreciation.

To order The Duties of a Cat, visit The collection is also available as an e-book.

Jenny Blackford’s poems and stories have appeared in Westerly, 30 Australian Ghost Stories for Children, The School Magazine and more.  Hadley Rille Books published her YA-crossover historical novel in 2009, and her first poetry collection, The Duties of a Cat, was published by Pitt Street Poetry in late 2013. She won the Humorous Verse section of this year’s Henry Lawson literary competition.

Speak Up! review

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Speak Up! Poems selected by Mark Carthew, illustrated by Annie White (Teacher Created Materials, 2013)

Reviewed by Dianne Bates

This 20 page hardback book is part of a series of poetry books meant for emergent readers, thus all of the poems here are short and easy to read. Some of the eight poems are traditional (Chinese, French, origin unknown, Jamaican and English) while the remaining few are by Dennis Lee and Emilie Poulsson (1853-1939). Most of the poems are about animals (chickens, mice and monkeys) and insects (bees and mosquitoes) while the penultimate poem is the well-known ‘Grand Old Duke of York.’

The book, like the others in the series, is just the right size for small hands, and is well-designed with large font and lots of white space. All of the poems, except for one, are contained on single pages. Illustrations are beautifully executed in muted colours by the Melbourne-based artist.

Teacher Created Materials is a publishing house based in California, USA. Production and design is by Australian-based packagers, Denise Ryan and Associates.

The Billy that Died with its Boots On


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.’

Cover of Stephen W's bookOf 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.

Stephen Whiteside

Wicked Wizards and Leaping Lizards

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Wicked Wizards and Leaping Lizards by Mark Carthew, illustrated by Mike Spoor (Random House Australia, 2006)

Wicked Wizards

Reviewed by Dianne Bates

Shortlisted for the 2008 Book of the Year by the Speech Pathologists of Australia, this is a collection of children’s poems, riddles, jokes and other bits and pieces to amuse young readers. Flicking through the pages, one is attracted to the book design which makes good use of white space and lots of font in different sizes. There are numerous speech balloons and signs, all embellished with zany, funny and well-executed black and white illustrations.

For a reader aged 7 and up, there are some laugh-aloud pages, such as the one of a witch and ogre chasing animals and a goblin down a hill, with the words, ‘Run, run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me…’ and, on the opposite page, under an enormous OOOPS! there’s the goblin landing head-first up the rear of a departing elephant.

There is lots to entertain any reader with this collection that’s crowded with illustrations and poems about a wide range of fantasy characters, including fairies, gnomes, goblins, elves, dwarfs and many more. The beginning sets up the reader to search through the pages for a variety of hidden objects as well as the answers to riddles such as ‘they love the dark/make mounds of scats/and hand from trees like acrobats!’ (Answer: Bats). Limericks abound about ‘a dashing young wizard named Dale’, ‘A chef from Bangkok,’ and ‘…a young ogre name Rose/Who had a huge wart on her nose’ and more eccentric characters.

If there are two words to describe this 112 page book, they are ‘energy’ and ‘entertainment’. No doubt the book will prove popular with young readers who will want to share its jokes, riddles and poems with friends and adults.


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Recent interviews with Doug MacLeod and Stephen Whiteside can be accessed via the Interviews ‘drop-down’ menu.



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The article/bio on Oodgeroo Noonuccal aka Kath Walker (contributed by Robyn Youl of Bacchus Marsh, Victoria) has been added to our POETS A-Z page.


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Flabbergaster, selected by Mark Carthew, illustrated by Ed Myer (Teacher Created Materials, 2014)

Reviewed by Dianne Bates

The title of this 28-page hardcover poetry collection, Flabbergaster, was familiar so I was not surprised to see that it was taken from a poem of the same name by Australian children’s poet, Doug Macleod (whose name unfortunately is misspelled at the foot of his poem about a little sister on a rollercoaster.) There are sixteen poems here, some by well-known international poets such as Myra Cohn Livingston, William Jay Smith and RL Moore, and some by Australians — Max Fatchen, Janeen Brian and six by Mark Carthew (one co-written with Brian).

Although it doesn’t say so on the cover, the theme of the book, ideal for children aged 7 to 9 years, is machines; these included a washing machine, an insinkerator, a toaster and a crane. It’s a lively and well considered selection of poems, each taking one or two pages and accompanied by colourful illustrations. One poem which particularly interested me is Carthew’s ‘The Droning Drain Machine’ which first appeared in his collection Machino Supremo (as did five other poems here). In his earlier book, the accompanying illustration and the text appeared over a number of pages to show the path of drain unclogger. In Flabbergaster, there’s a drain framing the double-page spread which ends with a brown blob that illustrates Carthew’s final lines, ‘MUD/MUSH/SLIMY SLUDGE/BIG/BULGING/BOGGERS/BUDGE.’

One of the poems that stood out for me was Charles Malam’s ‘Steam Shovel’ which begins with the line, ‘The dinosaurs are not all dead’ and then extends the metaphor to describe the shovel with ‘jaws dripping with a load/Of earth and grass that it had cropped.’ It’s so good to know that small children will have access to a book that demonstrates metaphor so clearly.

What is clearly obvious in all of the poems is the power of verbs to give energy and action to writing – words like ‘hook’, ‘hoist’ ‘bolt’, ‘weld’ that appear in ‘Construction Job’ by Myra Cohn Livingston. And Max Fatchen’s use of verbs like ‘Looping, lunging’, ‘swinging, clinging’ in his fast-paced poem titled ‘Dive and Dip’ which describes the experience of riding on a roller-coaster.

All in all, Carthew ought to feel well pleased by this collection. It is sure to be well used by teachers working with classes on the subject of machines. And the poems will surely be enjoyed by their students.

Poem of the Day

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Bad Sport

In the hush of night
with the door shut tight,
the toilet bowl goes bowling.
The toilet seat grows big flat feet,
and takes itself a’strolling.

But the toilet roll is a sorry soul
which sometimes goes berserk,
when it can’t cavort in toilet sport,
because of paper work.

© Bill Condon

Bill Condon has published several collections of poems including That Smell is My Brother, Rock and Roll Elephants and Don’t Throw Rocks at Chicken Pox. Bill’s latest book is a junior novel, The Simple Things (Allen & Unwin, 2014)