13 January 2013 by

A wonderful piece, nicely compliments my post some time back on Princess movies adults can stand.


But seriously, y’all.

The traditional Disney Prince has about as much sparkle and panache as something completely lacking in sparkle and panache. He has  a creative name like “The Prince” “Prince Charming” “Prince Phillip” “Prince Eric” or “Prince Adam” (that’s the actual name of the Beast, apparently), and no personality. Ok, well, the Beast has a personality, but the only thing anyone else does is be obsessively fixated on some girl he met once in the woods.

Has anyone ever thought that maybe the reason that little boys (generally) don’t like playing princess games is because there’s nothing for them to DO? What prince is actually interesting enough that a little boy would want to dress up like him? What prince actually does anything that a little boy (or anyone for that matter) would want to do? Hey, Mom, today I’m going to roleplay as Prince Charming. I will stand…

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Childish things and death

4 June 2012 by

Last week I attended the funeral of a dear friend’s father, which meant attending mass at the Catholic church in the parish where I grew up.

For the better part of 18 years, I spent every Sunday morning and often other days of the week besides in that cold — I’d forgotten just how cold — imposing bluestone church on the top of the hill.

On the very rare occasions these days that I attend mass — the time before was for the funeral of a friend’s father, too — I become overwhelmed with nostalgia. Not because of any desire whatsoever to return to the Catholic faith. But because I miss that simpler time when everything happened for a reason.

Christos Tsiolkas expressed a similar sentiment in his autobiography Jump Cuts (with Sasha Soldatow) when he wrote, ‘I miss God.’

It’s not that I want God back. I just miss having an easy explanation for everything.

 At the moment my child is obsessing about death, specifically the death of her parents. She worries aloud who will love her, cuddle her, read stories to her if we die. She tells me if we die, she wants to die, too.

I’m not alarmed by this. There’s something about having a child that brings back primordial memories of what it was like to be a child.

Having her ask to close the cupboard doors in her bedroom for fear of monsters emerging from those dark spaces, for example, reminds me I also used to need the cupboard doors closed at night for the same reason. And hearing her fret about her parents dying reminds me that I used to fret about the same thing at her age, too.

Thing is, when I was feeling fretful, my parents — both practising Catholics back then — had a comforting narrative they could give me about how all good people (I don’t think they were so gauche as to suggest you had to be baptised) went to Heaven when they died, where we’d all be reunited for eternity in a kind of glorious garden party.

Not a narrative I can use to comfort a weeping six-year-old with a secular upbringing.

Instead, I abandoned the bedtime story I’d picked out and took a book from her shelf called No Matter What by Debi Gliori.

The story has two characters, Small and Large, a mother and child in the form of foxes. It opens with Small feeling ‘grim and dark…playing toss and fling and squash’. Turns out Small is worried that nobody loves him, or that nobody would love him if he was difficult, or if he was dead.

My child’s eyes lit up when she saw the book. ‘I want to read this with you,’ she said, ‘because it’s just how I feel.’

So she read the part of Small and I read the part of Large and by the time we finished with, ‘Love, like starlight, never dies’, she’d moved on from her fears about dying and fell asleep trying to figure out how high a number she could count that would express how much we love each other.

It’s not the Bible. But I thank Debi Gliori for a narrative we can both make sense of.

Here are several outstanding books I’ve found useful for raising tough topics.

The Boy and the Toy by Sonya Hartnett with stunning illustrations by Lucia Masciullo is the story of a boy whose father invents the best toy in the world to keep the boy company. The toy seems marvellous, until anything else the boy shows interest in disappears and things start to get sinister. A cautionary tale about how jealously is the death of friendship.

Nobody Owns The Moon by Tohby Riddle describes the life of Clive Prendergast, a fox – ‘one of the only wild creatures in the world that can successfully make a life for itself in cities’ – and his friendship with Humphrey the donkey. Humphrey is doing it tough and often has no fixed address. But fate delivers tickets to a theatrical opening to the two friends, and Humphrey’s life is transformed for a day. Riddle says the story is dear to him for its idea of inner wealth, a kind of resilience of spirit. It’s also a gentle introduction to the issue of homelessness.

Also by Tohby Riddle (I recommend everything he’s ever written/illustrated), The Singing Hat tells of how Colin Jenkins’ life is thrown in chaos when a rare bird nests on his head during a nap and at his young daughter’s urging, he decides ‘it was not wise to interfere with nature.’ ‘From that day on…[p]eople divided into two groups: those who didn’t seem to mind what he had on his head, and those who did.’ This book is about having the courage to stand out from the crowd, and not only the hardships but ‘the most beautiful and improbable things’ that result.

Colin Thompson is another author/illustrator whose picture books are reliably wonderful. The Big Little Book of Happy Sadness and The Paper Bag Prince are both takes on the themes of loneliness, resilience and hope. Falling Angels is another book to help with discussions about death, particularly of a grandparent. In this story, Sally discovers she shares an ability to fly with her grandmother. ‘Some people see the world with their eyes,’ Sally’s grandmother tells her. ‘Some people see the world with their hearts.’ As Sally’s grandmother ages, she revisits all the wonderful places she has been ‘and when she came to her favourite place, she took her last breath and stayed there forever.’

All these books can be read for pleasure, too, with no didactic intent. None are preachy.

Any picture books you recommend for raising tough topics with children?

Children’s Book Festival 2012

26 March 2012 by

The Children’s Book Festival is aptly named, being a celebration of children’s books and in the tradition of all good festivals, having so much on offer as to make it impossible to do justice to it all.

When I read out the festival program to my six-year-old and asked her whom she most wanted to see, without hesitation she nominated Sally Rippin, author of the Billie B Brown books.

I was happy about that, being a Sally Rippin fan myself. Given some of the inane, poorly written fiction targeted at young girls, Billie B Brown is a breath of fresh air: well written stories with a feisty heroine at the centre who might well be my daughter’s peer.

Perhaps it was no surprise then to hear Sally Rippin describe how Billie B was inspired by her own childhood as a ‘bossy older sister’. Billie B Brown – The Beautiful Haircut, for example, was based on Sally’s own experience of cutting off her younger sister’s pigtails. The moral of the story, she told her audience was, ‘when you play hairdressers, don’t use real scissors.’

We saw Sally as part of a Meet the Author session in Queen’s Hall at the State Library of Victoria (where I last visited for a very fun photo shoot). Sally talked about how the character of Billie B developed as a combination of her experience and the imagination of illustrator Aki Fukuoka, who has been known to look and dress like Billie. I like that Billie is named in part for Billie Holiday.

Sally read Billie B Brown and the Copycat Kid to her rapt audience, before adjourning to the Readings Signing Tent, at which point I realised what a rock star welcome awaited the children’s authors. I lined up (willingly) for 35 minutes in front of the State Library to get some Billie B books signed, while my daughter and her best friend, accompanied by the latter’s father, had their faces painted and visited the petting zoo around the corner in Little Lonsdale Street. As luck would have it, I reached the top of the queue at the right time for the girls to be free to meet Sally — a highlight of the day.

Meanwhile, the signing queue for Andy Griffiths had grown like Jack’s beanstalk before the author had even left the building. As writer Fran Cusworth tweeted, ‘Anyone who thinks kids aren’t reading hasn’t seen the 5,889,556m queue to get Andy Griffiths’ autograph at kids’ book fest.’

I gave our girls a choice between another author talk and an illustrator’s workshop and they chose the latter, which found us in Anna Pignataro‘s wonderful world of fairies, rabbits and glitter. Again I was impressed with how much respect and patience children’s authors and illustrators show their fans as we crafted up a storm of bunnies, wands and tiaras.

As Anna’s workshop was coming to an end, Bernard Caleo (full disclosure: close personal friend) arrived for a story telling session using his amazing kamishibai story box; and although my six-year-old and her friend were shattered by then, both were intrigued enough to stay for the opening and might’ve stayed for the duration if not for their flagging energy levels.

A word to the organisers for next year: load the morning sessions with stuff for 3-6 year olds, because that’s when they peak. Advertise cool stuff — like Bernard Caleo’s comic strip workshops — expressly for older kids in the afternoon.

I would’ve loved to have seen/met Graeme Base and Alison Lester, two of my favourite Australian author/illustrators. But clearly the 1:1 ratio of adults to children we had this year for the Children’s Book Festival was not enough. Next year I’ll aim for a 2:1 ratio in the adults’ favour and see if I can get to more author events.

Kudos and thanks to The Wheeler Centre and the State Library of Victoria for another excellent event.

Magnetic Island…strangely alluring

1 January 2012 by

Magnetic Island holidayMagnetic Island, off the coast of Queensland just out from Townsville, has to be one of the most family friendly holiday destinations this country has to offer, at least outside of stinger season.

We went in July 2011 and while the locals thought it was too cold to swim, we had no problem taking the plunge — especially given the gorgeous swimming and snorkelling opportunities on offer.

We stayed at Arcadia on the southeast coast, across the road from toddler friendly Geoffrey Bay and a short walk from the good swimming beach of Alma Bay. Having visited the other settlements on the island, Arcadia is where I would choose to stay again for its proximity to what were, for me, some of the islands main attractions.

Alma Bay is a patrolled beach and there’s a kids playground with shady lawn and amenities that fronts on to the sand.

Magnetic Island holidayLow tide at Geoffrey Bay is perfect for beach-combing, the kids chasing hermit crabs and paddling around in the shallow water. This is an ideal beach for building sandcastles and decorating them with shells, coral and seaweed, all of which are in ample supply.

At the northern end of Geoffrey Bay a dirt road curves around the water to Bremner Point. The road is lined with the volcanic boulders that characterise Magnetic Island’s dramatic landscape, and at sunset rock wallabies come down from the cliffs, balancing on the boulders with the dexterity of circus performers. They gather in the carpark where people feed with specially purchased pellets or certain types of fruit and vegetables (outlined on a sign). However, it’s not necessary to feed the rock wallabies to get close and the photo opportunities are amazing. Look out for joeys in the pouches and keep clear of the boxing males.

Magnetic Island is rich in native wildlife. If the clamour of the curlews doesn’t wake you in the wee hours of the morning, chances are the kookaburras will; there’s a blue-winged variety unique to this region. Just around from where we were staying was a flying fox colony, while a sea eagle welcomed us when our ferry from Townsville pulled into the jetty at Nelly Bay.

Magnetic Island holidayThe flora and fauna on land is rivalled only by that in the sea. Snorkelling off Magnetic Island, it’s easy to remember that you are not far from the Great Barrier Reef. We snorkelled at a few places, but by far the best was Arthur Bay, north of Alma Bay. Accessible only by 4WD down an unsealed track, Arthur Bay has shade, sand, fabulous rock formations, and — at the northern end — splendid coral reefs teeming with tropical fish. If you get the tide times right, you can walk out and snorkelling only centimetres from the coral. We spent several mornings at Arthur Bay, the highlight of which was swimming with a sea turtle in the coral garden.

Tropical Cyclone Yasi, which hit northern Queensland in January 2011, had taken it’s toll on sea turtles in the area — or at least the sea grass meadows they rely on for food. Injured and hungry turtles often end up on the nursery at the ReefHQ Aquarium in Townsville, which we visited on a day trip to the mainland. We timed our visit to catch the daily Predator Dive Show where, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, we got hear the diver chat as he swam with sharks and other animals in a tank full of predators. We got introduced to aquarium long-timers Leo and Leonie, a mating pair of leopard sharks, and sentimental favourite Cuddles the tawny nurse shark, resident since 1996, who spent his days snoozing, harvesting food from under rocks when he could be bothered. We learned that blacktip reef sharks never stop swimming, and the long blade-like nose of a sawfish is called a rostrum. The woman who interviewed the diver in the tank also handed around stuff for us to touch: a small shark jawbone and teeth, egg sacs and a sawfish rostrum. A great show.

Magnetic Island holidayOur visit coincided with the school holiday program at the aquarium. Indigenous project officer Russell Butler, whose background is the Bandjin people of Hinchinbrook, was demonstrating traditional skills, and there was a range of craft activities on offer linked to traditional Aboriginal stories from the region. Our favourite was ‘The two boys and the Dhui Dhui’ best, the story of how the Southern Cross got into the sky. As well as a model Dhui Dhui — shovel-nosed stingray — to cut out and colour, we got a print out of the story and a visual map, complete with legend to help us read the symbols.

The other highlight of our day-trip to Townsville was the Strand Water Park on the foreshore. Not much beats watching kids so excited, they can’t stop jumping for joy.

While it might not rival ReefHQ Aquarium, the Aquasearch Lab and Aquarium at 6-10 Elena St in Nelly Bay is worth a visit. Set up outside the home of Rick and Nell Braley, the quirky,  compact display includes tanks of colourful corals, anemones, tropical fish — crowd pleasers like clown fish, moon wrasse, damsel fish, blue tang — and a 25+ year old cultured Giant Clam, cultivated as part of Dr Rick’s PhD research.

Magnetic Island holidaySpeaking of culture, don’t miss the weekly Cane Toad races at the Arcadia Pub, held on Wednesdays though rescheduled to Friday during our visit on account of some rugby match. The races are hosted by ‘Island icon’ and colourful racing personality Verne Jack, who is also responsible for the wallaby feeding. Wearing shorts, a T-shirt and one white sock on the night we attended, Verne hoists the toads from a plastic garbage bin one at a time, each wearing a different coloured ribbon, and introduces them: orange is ‘The Flying Ductchman’, green is ‘Irish’, pink is the ‘Pink Pussycat’, etc. Verne auctions them off one at a time to the highest bidders — someone paid $80 for a toad the night we were there — then places them in an octagonal perspex pen at the centre of a large painted circle. When Verne lifts the box away, the cane toads — which look even uglier for wearing ribbons — ‘race’ to the edge of the circle. First one over the line wins…unless it doubles back, in which case the next one wins. The winner gets a cash prize, with profits going to junior lifesaving. Awesome.

Another island event worth mentioning is the open air food market at the RSL Hall, 31 Hayles Ave, Arcadia, with Thai and Indonesian foodstalls, a full bar inside the hall, and a fabulous range of home-cooked cakes and preserves. Open from 5-8pm on Fridays, come early to get a table or bring a picnic rug.


The Coral Sea area around Magnetic Island is an extraordinary, pristine marine environment. To add your voice to the campaign to keep it that way, go to the Protect Our Coral Sea website. It takes less than a minute to make a submission to the Federal Environment Minister, and while you’re there, you can check out the superb photos and videos.

Singapore Zoo

28 April 2011 by

Singapore ZooElsewhere on this blog I have described zoos in Asia as ‘guilty pleasures’, though some are downright depressing. Singapore Zoo is in a class of its own and certainly the best zoo we have visited in Asia.

We spent a full day of the Easter weekend at Singapore Zoo and barely covered half the exhibits. The zoo is laid out on 28 hectares of superb grounds and almost completely surrounded by water. Much of the paths are shaded by trees and the plant life is astounding. Touted as the ‘World’s Best Rainforest Zoo’, the zoo’s ‘open concept’ design means there are few visual obstacles between visitors and the wildlife, despite the often spacious enclosures.

Singapore ZooAn example is the free-ranging orang utan habitat, a wonder of design where from a series of cleverly designed boardwalks, you can view the orang utans overhead and often at eye level, lounging around, climbing trees, swinging along ropes, playing and in our case, settling in for a snack on some foraged food. This was one of my favourite exhibits.

My other favourite was the Fragile Forest, a walk-through dome (the world’s largest) containing not only butterflies, but two different types of lemurs, flying foxes, crested pigeons, Eclectus parrots, whistling ducks, freshwater stingrays, and other creatures I couldn’t name. I think I was probably more excited than Tash by my close encounter with a lemur.

Also worth mentioning is the Great Rift Valley of Ethiopia exhibit, which houses a large tribe of red-bottomed Hamadryas baboons, mountain climbing nubian ibexes with horns like scimitars, and saddle billed storks. Baboons are always fun to watch — though the Proboscis Monkeys give them a run for their money in terms of amusement value.

Singapore ZooFor Natasha, the day’s highlights had less to do with the exotic animal exhibits and more to do with ‘Rainforest Kidzworld’, a park within the zoo. Tash ran in ahead of me, then came running back with her hands in the air saying, ‘Mum, it’s fantastic!’

There is a spectacular ‘wet play’ area — we’d come prepared with bathers and a towel — with pools, fountains, waterslides, showers, and a giant bucket that filled up every five minutes. When the bucket was ready to be emptied, a bell would ring and all the kids assemble in front of the main play station to let themselves be doused by the downpour. Tash was literally jumping for joy.

The other highlight of Kidzworld for her was going on her first ever pony ride. Princesses ride ponies. Enough said.

Singapore ZooI know some think zoos are inherently bad and that animals shouldn’t be in them. While I firmly believe we must make every effort to conserve natural environments so that animals can thrive in the wild, I believe zoos can help raise awareness of the need for conservation and also build an emotional commitment by inspiring people of all ages with awe at the wonders of nature. Brimming with educational displays and beautifully designed, Singapore Zoo delivers on this front.

And kudos to a souvenir shop that sells kids undies alongside a place where existing undies can easily go missing or get wet!

Singapore Zoo is accessible on public transport via Singapore’s brilliant MRT train system, followed by a bus that connects with the station. The train fares cost us SGD$8.10 (AUD$6) each way, the bus SGD$4.10 (and a curse on you if you don’t have the correct change for the bus driver). Zoo entrance fees are SGD$20 for adults (AUD$15) and SGD$13 for children (AUD$9.70). We paid extra for unlimited tram rides but didn’t end up travelling by tram at all. Some 90% of the park is wheelchair accessible and facilities exist for people with disabilities. Tips on enjoying the zoo are here.

And what better way to finish up a great day than with dinner at The Jungle Tandoor, 102 Serangoon Road, Serangoon (Little India), where faux rainforest decor meets delicious North Indian cuisine.

Celebrating Children’s Books

3 April 2011 by

Children's Book FestivalKudos to the Wheeler Centre for Books Writing and Ideas for today’s Children’s Book Festival. I heard a number of speakers describe it as Melbourne’s ‘first’ Children’s Book Festival, and I’m hoping this means it will become a regular fixture in the calendar for our City of Literature.

Next year it won’t be the morning after my brother’s 40th birthday celebration and we’ll make a proper of a day of it. This time around, we managed a couple of ‘Experimedia’ Children’s Workshops in the State Library of Victoria. This included a talk by illustrator Bob Graham, whose book Jethro Byrd, Fairy Child is one Tash enjoys. I was inspired by the fact that Bob didn’t start writing and illustrating children’s books until he was 40 (I was 3 months shy of my 40th when my own first book was published), and he’s gone on to win multiple awards and build an international following — not that you’d know it from his humble presentation.

Children's Book FestivalWe had actually gone to the Experimedia space to see Leigh Hobbs, writer/illustrator of the Horrible Harriet, Old Tom, Fiona the Pig and Mister Chicken, books beloved by all our family. By the time I worked out that there were simultaneous sessions going on, Leigh had already run a session for the kids on how to draw Old Tom. However, Tash managed to sit in on a lesson in how to draw Mister Chicken — and did a pretty good job of it if I do say so [at the risk of sounding like a doting mother] myself.

Following the workshops was a screening of Shaun Tan’s Oscar winning short animation, The Lost Thing — another great reason to attend the Children’s Book Festival when we did. The film was stunning and it was a real treat to see it on a big screen in a public space — me, Roo and Tash, all sprawled on the same beanbag. All three of us loved it.Children's Book Festival

We headed outside after this to the lawns of the State Library where Coco’s Lunch were performing. We watched and listened while queuing up for the free petting zoo, which in an homage to the Mem Fox/Judy Horacek classic contained a green sheep among its residents, plus a green-faced piglet that had obviously been butting heads with the green sheep. Tash’s favourites were a sweet little kid and a soft white duck.

Children's Book FestivalWe would have stayed longer if not for the party the night before, as we didn’t get to the Kids’ Own Publishing Book Cubby — which looked great — nor to any of the book signings or exhibitions. But as I said, I’m hopeful today augurs in the Children’s Book Festival as an annual event.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that my partner Andrew Nette currently holds a Wheeler Centre Fellowship.

This post also appears on my author blog.

Travelling with kids: a reminder

16 March 2011 by

Werribee Open Range ZooWe spent the Labour Day public holiday this year at Werribee Open Range Zoo, an experience which funnily enough reminded me of what it was like travelling in South East Asia with Natasha. I was reminded that what excites me is not always the same as what excites her. Furthermore, I need not to let what I think should excite her distract me from what actually does excite her. I might even learn something.

Werribee Open Range ZooA case in point: while I was excited by the hippos (left), Tash was more excited by the Hippo Play Trail and way more excited by the Hippo Water Play (above). In truth the statue versions with their inviting climbs and tricky fountains were considerably more animated than the real thing. Note the fountains come on once the thermostat hits 23 degrees.

Werribee Open Range ZooWhile I think the Scimitar Oryx are exquisite and amazing, especially given they are endangered and ‘conservation dependant’, Tash found the packaging they came in (below) — from the Monarto Zoo in South Australia — way more interesting. And after ten minutes of crawling in and out of packing crates, I had to concede she had a point. The animal packaging playground at the end of the Pula Reserve Trail is inspired.

Werribee Open Range ZooDifferences aside, both Tash and I were very excited to see four-week old zebra foal Shamwari (below) during our Safari bus tour, while Roo enjoyed getting up close and personal with the giraffe herd.

When we asked Tash about her favourite part of the day, she nominated the icy-pole in the Meerkat Bistro. Sometimes Roo and I wonder why we try so hard…

Werribee Open Range ZooBut all three of us were united in our happiness on the way home to visit the Ðòng Quê restaurant for a late lunch of Hanoi style grilled pork with vermicelli noodles, Vietnamese coleslaw with shrimp and pork, and steamed rice paper with grilled pork and rice crackers. Our favourite eatery in Footscray, Ðòng Quê can be found at 102 Hopkins Street.

The day was a salient reminder to recalibrate expectations when travelling with a child, which is timely, given we are heading back to Thailand in less than a month. We’ll be spending the school holidays on what will be a research trip for me, visiting the parts of Thailand where my next book will be set.

Who knows what delights Tash may open my eyes to.

Nemo found! Time to move on…

27 February 2011 by

Aquarium 1That Nemo has a lot to answer for. Ever since the 2003 animated film took over the imaginations of children throughout the world, Clown Fish — and to a lesser extent puffer fish — have enjoyed celebrity status at the expense of other, arguably more fascinating marine life. Sure, Clown Fish are cute and some species are immune to the sting of anemones. But they can’t match the sea stars for dexterity, the sea jellies for grace, the sea lions for splendour, the Weedy Sea Dragon for camouflage and the giant cuttlefish for strangeness.

All these creatures and more can be admired up close at the Melbourne Aquarium, where we spent several hours this afternoon. The first exhibit inside the door is the penguin enclosure, where King and Gentoo penguins stand around in huddles on the ice like guests at a winter wedding who’ve stepped outside for a smoke. They are more animated in the water and if you step around to the right side of the tank, chances are you’ll have the view — and the photo opportunities — to yourself.

Aquarium 2Retrace your steps to go through to the Ice Station display and the Weird and Wonderful exhibits featuring the aforementioned lion fish, giant cuttlefish and weedy sea dragons, as well as the gruesome and highly toxic stone fish, moray eels and long-necked turtles. The weedy sea dragons had babies earlier this month and the dear little things, looking like sprigs of seaweed, are worth checking out.

The next area is called From River to Reef and include exhibits where kids (and game adults) can crawl under the tanks and get a close look at freshwater rays, sucker fish and eels through perspex bubbles. There are touchable exhibits, too, of sharks’ egg sacs, sea stars and sponges in the rock pools sections, where a staff member is available to answer questions about the different animals. See for yourself how sea stars grow a new limb when they lose one. There are also large hermit crabs and gorgeous coloured anemones to be seen in the rock pools.

Aquarium 5In the nearby lagoon are barramundi, freshwater sharks and one of my favourite of the creatures we saw today, the Freshwater Sawfish, its long serrated blade of a nose like small chainsaw. It looks bizarre, almost mythical, but is actually quite gentle, a member of the ray family, the saw is used for digging rather than combat.

We hightailed it to the Oceanarium a.k.a Sharks Alive to attend the 2pm Dive Feed. It’s a great spectacle watching the divers get sandwiched against the glass of the 2.2 million litre tank by the giant Smooth Stingrays angling for some fish. The Oceanarium is currently housing a couple of sea turtles until they are fit enough to be released back into the wild, and they were giving the rays a run for their money on the feeding frenzy.

As the divers surfaced, we doubled back to the Coral Atoll exhibit to see the beautiful corals and pretty fish including the Regal Blue Tang (that’d be ‘Dory’ to you Finding Nemo fans) and bright yellow Butterfly Fish. The Coral Atoll also houses a cheeky spotted Eagle Ray that seemed as keen to get a good look at Tash as she was to look at it.

Aquarium 6In the Sea Jellies exhibit, the room is dark and the tanks are UV-lit, adding to the hypnotic effect of watching these graceful creatures in action.

The other place to sit and stare is the Ocean Theatre on the far side of the Oceanarium before the kids play area. I recommend heading their before your kid runs out of steam as it’s the perfect spot to gaze on sharks — including a Scalloped Hammerhead — rays and giant snapper.

The Melbourne Aquarium is not a cheap date at $33.50/adult and $19/child. But there are family discounts and other specials worth looking out for. The free Melbourne guide found in the City Circle tram has a 20% discount coupon, and we got something in the mail recently that entitled us to one free ticket of equal or lesser value, saving us the price of an adult ticket today. It’s worth checking publications that target tourists to see what you can find.

It beats watching re-runs of Finding Nemo.

Minibeasts and Altona

21 January 2011 by

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryTwo things to rave about today: Andrew Wegener’s Minibeasts show, and the suburb of Altona in Melbourne’s west.

It was thanks to the former that we ended up at the latter. Andrew is a former Melbourne Zoo keeper, author, photographer, community educator and government licensed Commercial Wildlife Demonstrator. His Australian Wildlife Lecturers appears annually at the Altona Library courtesy of the Hobson’s Bay Council. I saw it advertised in the paper, and we headed there today for an amazing ‘hands-on’ learning experience.

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryAndrew brings live snakes, lizards, stick insects, a tortoise and tree frogs, all of which can be handled — under careful supervision — by kids and adults alike. In fact, the adults outnumbered the kids most of the time we were at the library. As you handle the animals, Andrew passes on interesting information about them. I learned that frogs breath and absorb water through their skin, for example, and that some lizards — like the blue-tongue — have live births while others lay eggs. Also very few tortoises can turn themselves over if they are knocked on to their backs/shells, the long-necked tortoise in Andrew’s care being an exception.

There are live spiders in containers and other beasties in tanks, all clearly labelled and accompanied by fact sheets. Here I learned that white-tailed spider bites, while painful, are not life-threatening. Phew!

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryThere are other minibeasts preserved in formaldehyde or behind glass, including a baby shark and a small blue-ringed octopus. The library has an impressive display of stuffed animals and shells, while I think others belonged to Andrew. It was a treat to see the delighted look on my nine-month-old nephew’s face when his hand made contact with possum fur.

Tash was a little disappointed there was no redback handling, also that she wasn’t allowed to kiss the green tree frog and turn him into a prince. But the photos show how much we all enjoyed the experience.

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryAs well as being learned and informative, Andrew is entertaining and patient. He set up photos for us, producing a great record of a wonderful experience. He doesn’t do parties — too much like babysitting — and he warns against dodgy snake wranglers posing as kids entertainers. But he’s available for school incursions and excursions covering a range of wildlife issues, including beach walks and rockpool rambles. Highly recommended.

Kudos to the Hobson’s Bay Council for providing such a wonderful, free school holiday event, and to the Altona Library for being so hospitable. It was great to see a group of older persons and carers enjoying the same experience as the four-, five-, fifteen- and forty-something-year-olds in our party.

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryAltona Library is located a convenient two blocks from Altona Station on the corner of Sargood and Queen Streets. Another block south on Sargood Street is the RJ Logan Reserve, a shady park with a kids playground, which overlooks Altona Beach. Alongside the park on Pier Street is the Altona Pines Takeaway, which sells seriously good fish and chips. The nearby Pier Cafe next door has good coffee. In terms of urban planning, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Our band of four little kids, one teen and two hot mamas enjoyed fish and chips at a table in the shade right by the playground with a view of the beach. The air was filled with dragon flies and the Morton Bay Fig Tree begged the kids to come back again when they were big enough to climb it.

We’ll be back.

Full set of pics here.

Princess movies adults can stand

7 January 2011 by

As the holidays continue and Melbourne’s weather fluctuates as usual, I am stock-piling DVDs to get us through the holiday season. My focus is kids films adults can bear to watch, which meet my daughter’s key criterion.

When my brother, a lecturer in cinema studies, visited us from the UK last year, Tash sidled up to him and asked, ‘Uncle Julian, what’s your favourite kids movie?’

‘Funny you should ask,’ he said. ‘I was just thinking about that the other day. It’s a film called Bugsy Malone.’

The 1976 Alan Parker film starring Jodie Foster and Scott Baio features kiddie gangsters armed with guns that fire cream pies. But Tash wasn’t satisfied.

‘Uncle Julian,’ she tried again, ‘what’s your favourite princess movie?’

To my surprise, he had one: The Princess Bride.

And so to the following princess movies adults can stand.

The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride (1987, PG), directed by Rob Reiner of Spinal Tap fame and based on a novel by William Goldman, opens with a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a book to his sick grandson (Fred Savage). The boy is unenthusiastic, but gives the grandfather the benefit of the doubt on learning the story has “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” And it delivers on every front.

While Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright in her debut role) could be more helpful when under attack, she looks gorgeous and sustains the drama while all those around her — Cary Elwes as Westley/the Dread Pirate Robins, Chris Sarandon as the evil Prince Umperdinck, Billy Chrystal as Miracle Max — ham it up. The other note of pathos comes from the underrated Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya, hell bent on avenging the death of his father by the sword of the six-fingered man (Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest as Count Rugen).

A film with appeal for girls and boys, from toddlers to teens, though the younger ones might need their hands held during the scarier scenes. Those Rodents of Unusual Size sure scare the hell out of me.


Enchanted (2007, PG) begins as a classic Disney animation. Lovely Giselle (Amy Adams), surrounded by her friends the forest creatures, pines for a prince and “true love’s kiss”. Enter the perfect candidate, Prince Edward (James Marsden), distracted from his troll hunting by Giselle’s lovely singing. They fall in love but before they can go through with the wedding, Giselle falls foul of Edward’s evil step-mother Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon, having loads of fun), who sends her to “a place where there are no happy ever afters”.

Giselle emerges in modern-day New York and the film segues into live-action. Neither her arrival, nor the subsequent arrivals of Edward, his valet Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) and Pip the chipmunk seem to phase the locals, though a bus driver does get irate when Edward stabs her bus and announces, “The steel beast is dead, peasants. I’ve set you all free!”

Meanwhile, Giselle is rescued by and falls for divorce lawyer Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey), who scoffs at her romanticism but falls for her, too — to the delight of his daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey) and displeasure of his girlfriend Nancy (Idina Menzel).

Enchanted works because it is not cynical, celebrating the same fairytale qualities that it parodies. In one hilarious scene, Giselle summons friendly creatures to help her clean up the apartment where Robert and Morgan live, just as Cinderella summoned the rabbits, fauns and bluebirds to help her tidy the home of the seven dwarves. But because it’s New York City, Giselle gets pigeons, rats and cockroaches to do the job as she sings her “Happy Working Song.”

With its cross-cultural blunders, jokes and big musical numbers, Enchanted is great fun, and with the exception of one “spiteful, vindictive, very large” dragon, not too scary.

Ella Enchanted

Based on the novel by Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted (2004, PG) is another live action film that subverts typical fairytale plots and devices while remaining faithful to the qualities of the genre. Ella (the lively and lovely Anne Hathaway) is given the ‘gift’ of obedience by an irresponsible Fairy Godmother, Lucinda (Vivica A Fox), which requires her to do whatever she’s told, regardless of the personal consequences. A throwaway line like ‘you wait here’ fixes her to the spot, even if that’s in the path of a speeding coach. Ella struggles to keep her curse a secret from her awful stepmother (Joanna Lumley) and stepsisters, knowing they would use it to exploit her.

Meanwhile, the kingdom of Lamia is under the rule of the evil Sir Edgar, played in a nice twist by The Princess Bride‘s romantic hero Cary Elwes, who is plotting to keep the crown from his naive nephew, handsome prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy). When Char turns up at a public event, Ella and a friend’s protest against ‘ogrecide’ draws his attention. Ella ends up taking him to see what Edgar has done to the kingdom, driving out the ogres, enslaving the giants and forcing the elves to work as entertainers. They befriend an array of creatures, including Slannen the Elf (Aidan McArdle), who hates singing, dancing and ‘tomfoolery’ and wants to be a lawyer. Slannen ends up being wooed by the giantess Brumhilda (Heidi Klum).

All the while Ella is trying to find Lucinda in order to ask her to take back her gift. But Sir Edgar with the help of the evil stepsisters has discovered Ella’s secret and so that he can retain the crown, lines Ella up to assassinate Prince Char.

The satisfying twist on the typical fairytale in Ella Enchanted is that while your typical fairytale princess is dependent and submissive, Ella’s recognises these qualities as a curse. She must rely on her resourcefulness and strength of character if she is to bring about a happy ending.


Stardust (2007, PG) opens with a young man breaching the wall between an English village and the magical kingdom of Stormhold, where he meets a princess held captive by a witch. They have a brief romance and a year later their son Tristan turns up in a basket on his doorstep. Fast forward 18 years and Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) follows unknowingly in his father’s foosteps over the wall, hoping to retrieve a fallen star to impress his obnoxious girlfriend Victoria (Sienna Miller).

The star turns out to be a beautiful young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes), who is outraged by Tristan’s plans to make a gift of her to Victoria. “But of course!” she scoffs. “Nothing says “romance” like the gift of a kidnapped injured woman!”

Also hot on the heels of the star is the evil witch Lamia — played with delight by Michelle Pfeiffer — who wants to cut out the star’s heart to restore hers and her sisters’ youth and beauty.

Meanwhile, the succession of Stormhold is in dispute as the dying king’s seven sons keep killing each other off in order to win the throne. The last two standing, Primus (Jason Flemyng) and Septimus (the fabulous Mark Strong), are hunting the king’s ruby necklace, watched over by the ghosts of the brothers they have assassinated before them.

There’s also a subplot involving a shipload of thunder hunting pirates, with a cross-dressing captain played by Robert de Niro, whose performance alone is worth watching the film for.

All the narrative threads come together, but the complexity of the plot meant Tash had a lot of questions the first time we watched it. And there are some scary bits: a witch is beheaded, another run through with a lance, and then there’s all those dead princes. But it’s a wonderful, magical epic with great performances, gorgeous production values and a happy ending.


The last of the princess movies adults can stand is perhaps an obvious choice since the Shrek movies can appear to have been made with adults rather than, or at least as much as kids in mind.

But I’m including the first Shrek (2001, PG) here because it’s a great antidote to those other Disney princess movies. ‘True love’s kiss’ doesn’t transform the ogre Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz) into the pretty Princess Fiona, but demonstrates that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that Fiona is gorgeous, regardless of how she looks.

That true love takes many forms is demonstrated not only by the relationship between cantankerous ogre Shrek (Mike Myers) and the feisty Fiona, but by the fiery (pun intended) romance between the hilarious Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and the giant girl dragon that guards Fiona in her tower.

There are also lots of fart jokes, puns, riffs on well-known fairytales and singalong opportunities for the whole family to enjoy.

But if despite these recommendations, your own little princess reaches for the animated Disney options, try steering her towards The Princess and the Frog (2009, G) or Mulan (1998, G) — to my mind, the most bearable of the bunch.