Where is the Green Sheep?
by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek
Published by Harcourt Children's Books
32 pages, 2004
Buy it online
When A Picture is Worth A Lot of Words
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Picture books perform an important function in children's reading. They give children the chance to develop a love for reading while snuggling up with family and, later on, to have the thrill of achievement when they read one themselves. There are two kinds of picture books -- the ones actually written for children and those whose authors and artists know perfectly well that adults are reading and collecting them and aim their work at the adult collectors rather than the children who are supposed to be the audience. I am pleased to say that this book is one of the former, aimed squarely at children, though it is a surprise for those who know the artist's other work to see her mark on this book.
Mem Fox is a well-known and much-loved Australian children's writer, whose picture-book Possum Magic is currently celebrating two decades in print and two million copies sold. For 20 years, children have been reveling in the story of a baby possum, turned invisible, which has to break the spell by eating its way across Australia, celebrating the country's different scenery and foods. There are other Fox books available, but that one, with images created by veteran book illustrator Julie Vivas, is Fox's classic, the one which has assured her immortality in her home country as well as farther afield.
Judy Horacek, on the other hand, is not known as a children's book artist or writer. In Australia, most adults know her as a cartoonist for the Age newspaper and the Australian's weekend magazine, specializing in gentle feminist cartoons that poke fun at the conventions of our society without ever being nasty about them.
Can this pair possibly get together to produce something that is different from their usual style, yet still says, "Fox and Horacek"? And will the child readers like it? Well -- yes. I think so.
The book is aimed at a much younger audience than Possum Magic. There is only one sentence per page. The story is basic, a search for "the green sheep," who doesn't turn up until the last page. Meanwhile, there is a joyous romp through the lives of sheep of various colors and occupations -- sheep bathing and juggling, doing cartwheels, dancing, traveling, fixing cars, skiing down slides, parachuting, traveling through space and still somehow always being sheep.
There is the wonderful playfulness of Judy Horacek, along with her gentle style, carrying over from her adult cartoons, though you can't, of course, be specifically feminist when your protagonists all look the same and are covered with wool! The sheep in these pictures don't actually wear clothes, despite the human activities they're carrying on. This is a positive -- there's something tacky about mother cats or bunnies wearing aprons and, in this case, the artist is giving a broad wink at the young readers. The pictures seem to be painted in watercolors, reflecting the gentle tone of the book. Why sheep? I don't know, but they're a lot more fun than the standard puppies and kittens of many picture books for younger readers.
It's a perfect book for bedtime reading with your toddler, who will love the repetition: "Here is the blue sheep ... here is the wave sheep ..." and, over and over, "But where is the green sheep?" It's like a chant and the child can be invited to chant the refrain, "But where is the green sheep?"
Just be warned, your child will want this read to her over and over again, as children do. You'd best be prepared to enjoy a good, repetitious chant with your snuggle. | November 2004
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.