Jasper Jones author delivers a darn good yarn of a different kind

Jasper Jones author delivers a darn good yarn of a different kind

October 21, 2022

Trying to define the nature of meritorious children’s literature can be a complex task. Experts generally offer as a baseline that intrinsic, life-affirming values should be present without the story being overtly didactic. Consistent with this, Craig Silvey, the author of Rhubarb, Jasper Jones and Honeybee, reliably reflects that which is authentic and honest and brave in his stories.

While his previous books have been written for older readers, Runt is a beautifully produced chapter book, perfect for mid to upper primary-school children. It features 11-year-old Annie Shearer, who is short for her age, has brown hair and brown eyes and must negotiate the tricky terrain of her deceivingly simple, rural world. Her best friend, a mongrel dog named Runt, is also of an indiscriminate appearance. Annie rescued Runt when he was running amok in the little town of Upson Downs, and so the two outsiders bond and face life’s adversities together.

Craig Silvey has written a delicious novel about an 11-year-old girl and her dog, Runt.Credit:Daniel James Grant

While Annie lives with her family on a drought-affected sheep farm, it becomes apparent that money worries aside, her mum is a frustrated fashion designer, dad a frustrated horticulturist and teenage brother a frustrated Evel Knievel. To break the impasse of their poverty, Annie seizes upon an opportunity to pay the “overdraft on the overdraft” by entering Runt in a lucrative dog-agility competition to be held in London. Runt is fast, nimble and loves to herd the shearers’ sheep. A major obstacle for Annie to overcome is that Runt can only perform when nobody is looking.

Another hallmark of children’s literature is that it must entertain the adults. As parents and friends, we smuggle books these days through the hell-pass of electronic devices and into the world of our children’s beautiful minds. So as an undercover book dealer I can say I thoroughly enjoyed Runt. The creamy textured pages were a pleasure to touch and turn.

I enjoyed Annie, the anxious little hero who feels compelled to fix everyone and make the world right, a compulsion that often afflicts sensitive children and that is rarely addressed in literature. Clearly, the literary merit of children’s books is aided by enduring characters such as the lovely Annie; and we can also factor in humour.

Silvey has great fun with language and wordplay. When a competitor in the wood-chopping contest chops off his foot, the local paper reports the unfortunate “Axe-ident”. Earl Robert-Barren is the avaricious villain who is forcing the farming community to sell up its land and another aptly named villain, Fergus Fink, is a dirty rotten cheater.

Sarah Acton’s joyful illustrations reflect the warm nature of the book; her lively, sketchy illustrations are suggestive rather than being over-drawn.

And when appraising children’s books let’s not forget the bliss of a darn good yarn. After many adventures, Silvey doesn’t hold back from an Enid Blyton happy ending in which everyone in Annie’s family is blessed with happiness that flows like lemonade and job satisfaction is granted to all.

Runt by Craig Silvey; illus., Sara Acton is published by Allen & Unwin, $19.99.

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