Review Blog

Oct 08 2012

The sugarbag by Nola Turner-Jensen

cover image

Ill. by Dub Leffler. Magabala Books, 2012. ISBN 9781921248474
(Ages 4+) Recommended. Picture book. Aboriginal themes. Environment. Jimmy and Max are out in the bush when a native bee passes by. Jimmy catches the stingless bee and takes a little bit of stuffing from Max's toy, attaching it to the back of the bee. He tells Max that his grandfather has told him about doing this so that they can follow the bee and find sugarbag or ngarruu or honey. Max thinks that finding sugarbag is a great idea, and imagines all the sweets that he will be able to eat. But when the bee goes into a hollow log, and Jimmy finds some large sticks to pry the log open, many angry bees erupt from the log. Max hides but Jimmy perseveres, eventually finding his reward, sweet honey. This is not quite what Max imagined, but one finger full of the honey convinces him that this is sugarbag. The boys eat some of what they have found, then Jimmy puts some on a flat stick and wraps it in bark to take it back to his grandfather.
This is a lovely story based around bush tucker found by Aboriginal people over Australia. Called sugarbag by the European settlers, it is called ngarruu by the Widajuri people of northern New South Wales, and the words of the book point to more than the simple story of the boys collecting honey. There are under-stories of older people passing on information and skills, the theme of sharing, of bush tucker, of family and obligation. And in a country where obesity is a growing issue, the idea of what sort of sweets are good for you is another area of discussion which this book promotes. Books from Magabala are always multi-layered, teaching more that just story, giving layers of meaning and story to chew upon.
The illustrations are muted and soft, with colours reflecting the sorts of sweets Max is imagining he will find in the bush. The two boys are entertainingly drawn, making the eye follow their antics across the page. The design of the book is noteworthy as the words move across the page, emulating the trail of the bee and stressing some of the questions Max has for Jimmy.
Fran Knight

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