I am possibly the world’s worst aunty.
Not only did I descend on my brother’s house solely to read Tai Snaith’s The Family Hour in Australia to my nephew as a sort of pseudo-literary experiment, but I took it back home with me after promising I wouldn’t.
“Please leave it here, I want to read it again in the morning. It’s Very Special.” says my sleepy nephew as I close the pages of the book. The Family Hour in Australia is Going Down Swinging visual editor Tai Snaith’s first published picture book.
“But I still have to use it for research.” I reply.
“But it’s Very Special, Aunty Megan. You must leave it here.”
So, I lied to a three-year-old. But as much as I can admire the wit and bright colours of The Family Hour, I hadn’t expected my nephew to love it quite so much.
There’s a secret weakness to every child, that Tai has exploited in this book – hide and seek. There are clocks hidden in every scene, people! I made a point of finding all the clocks before my nephew. Except for the clock on the page with the baby swans. He found that one first. I was too busy looking at the slick quiffs of the two swan dads and the love-heart as their necks arched sensually towards each other. The page is a marvel of colour splashes, and the rainbow sweeping over the whole scene makes your eyes binge on the brights.
[The images in this article are cropped, so you if you wish to find the clocks you’ll have to get the book – Ed.]
Tai was approached by publisher Thames and Hudson with an idea for a book on Australian animal families a little over a year ago and says she based the animal stories “on different models of what a family could be”.
Instead of just taking any old heteronormative family model for her book, Tai has played around with the idea of the big bad Australian family.
“I really wanted to have single parents, extended families and single-sex parents in the mix. I really wish I could say I knew a family rock band like the punk Tassie Devils – they would be rad to hang with.”
Each double-spread page introduces a different Australian animal family based around a quirky animal fact. There are Tasmanian devils rocking out; corroboree frogs sipping martinis; and kanga mums stocking up on Kangamite.
“I really wanted the images to be almost fantastical but still based in a literal fact,” Tai says of her watercolour, pencil, pen and gouache drawings.
Actually, there is more than the “almost fantastical” in The Family Hour. Take this, for example: it’s very true an echidna mum feeds her baby puggles (real word!) pink milk. Apparently the spiky mites are born with such low red blood counts that mother echidnas produce extra haemoglobin in their milk, turning it pink.
But, then, echidnas probably don’t slurp the milk from a straw, like in Tai’s drawing. Echidna mums maybe don’t have manicures and wear wristwatches, either. Tai tried to draw two baby puggles on the back of their mum, but her editor pointed out echidnas only ever nurse one offspring at a time. So she re-drew. The nail polish stayed.
A few Saturdays ago, Tai held a kind of book-launch-for-kids in St Kilda’s Readings. There was a strange light falling that winter day – I think it was the sun – and the children’s reading circle and bright colours were enough to startle many a stray twenty-something flicking through titles in the social theory section. Tai was swamped by a sea of too-cute children once the reading was over.
I think she may be their new Favourite Person.
“It’s actually really lovely seeing my book being sold in Readings,” says Tai, who worked in the St Kilda store for five years. “It’s nice being this side of the store, and not behind the till.
“It feels like everything has come full circle.”
Tai says it was “pretty special” being able to read the book fresh from the courier to her own two year old. She describes the sense of freedom that came from creating a book just for kids.
“Making art for a younger audience is very different […] I feel like I can exercise my sense of humour more and also my use of colour. Sometimes adults find too much saturated colour offensive.”
Tai says the writing of the book was slightly trickier.
“It was hard not to use too many long words, but also important to me to not use too few.”
Dumbing things down for kids is something The Family Hour just doesn’t do. As well as a kid-friendly scattering of three-syllable words among the onomatopoeia, Tai has added a glossary of Aussie animal facts (with endangered ratings) in the back of the book.
Tai says the Australian animal she loves best is the one with the sweet tooth.
“I really love sugar gliders. Everything about them really; they climb and fly, they have awesome markings, they live in communes, they only like sweet things, and they have the biggest cutest eyes you can ever imagine. I also adore the weedy seadragon.”
Weedy seadragons, as the book points out, are also unusual because unlike most animal dads – black swans and ringtail possums excepted – weedy seadragons do give a damn about their kids. Tai says the weedy seadragon is also a really “wacky looking dude – so delicate and colourful”.
“I love anything that can manage to be graceful and odd at the same time.”
“Graceful and odd at the same time” aptly summarises The Family Hour, it is at once brilliant, beautiful, fun, and weird. Tai, who would ideally like to work on a South American version of The Family Hour next (or, failing that, begin work on a doll’s house project), has illustrated just how very unique any given hour of Australian family time can be.
When I re-enter my nephew’s room to bring the book back, he sits up.
“What is it?”
“Maybe you could… have a spew in the kitchen!”
I think I was just cursed by a three-year-old.