Take a children’s book called Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, with empersoned flowers and fruits of the Australian bush as main characters, supported by a cast of small animals, heavily illustrated with pictures of little cherubic Gum Nuts running hat shops and cooking, and scenes of bush folk parties or sea horse races. Sounds cute, right?
On the contrary, the strange dark colours and themes of this story emerge from the first page. The protagonists are repeatedly lost, adopted, forgotten, rescued and abandoned by the good characters, and are kidnapped, threatened with being eaten, hunted down, and marked for murder by the wicked ones.
Disturbing events take place and are disturbingly illustrated: Mr. Frog is buried alive in Mrs. Snake’s dungeon which is also her larder; in an art gallery, the picture of a big bad Banksia man metamorphoses into the real thing; little Ragged Blossom falls into the black deeps inhabited by the giant squid; and then there’s the strange interlude of the Fish Sauce Shop and its inexplicable mantra.
Creepiest of all are the strange relationships. What are we to make of the Gum Nuts’ friend, Mr. Lizard, kind and brave but also feckless, untruthful and deeply unreliable? What of poor Mrs Fantail pinned, weeping, to the ground by her changeling lizard offspring, unable to feed or fly? And down in the sea, what about sensitive Ann Chovy, appalled by the totally genuine adoration of her terrifying lover, John Dory?
There is a sustained quality of nightmare running through the book, punctuated by enough harmless jokes and pictures of little chubby characters to make it bearable. As a young child I interpreted only the parts for which I was ready, gliding over the rest, but always compelled to return to the story for a subsequent, more mature, reading.