Pete the Sheep
by Jackie French
illustrated by Bruce Whatley
Published by HarperCollins
32 pages, 2005
Buy it online
Move Over Babe
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
You've almost certainly heard of Babe the sheep-pig. This picture-book story is about Pete the sheep-sheep. Shearers Ratso, Big Bob and Bungo all have respectable sheep-dogs; Brute, Tiny and Fang. Their shearing-shed does things properly, the same way as every other shearing-shed. The dogs round up the sheep and the sheep are sheared in the proper way. One day, a new shearer, Shaun, arrives with Pete, a sheep who rounds up his fellow sheep (but very politely!). This simply isn't done! The other shearers protest, even though Shaun and Pete are a first-class shearing team and the sheep all admire Pete. When the sheep refuse to let the dogs round them up because they're waiting for Pete, the new team are exiled from the shearing shed. No matter, though, because this leads to the establishment of a highly successful sheep salon that looks a lot more like a hair salon than a shearing-shed.
This being a lighthearted story, of course, all ends well and everyone makes use of Shaun's Sheep Salon, including the dogs, the other shearers and quite a few animals that are not usually sheared.
Pete the Sheep, created by the award-winning team of Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, authors of Diary of A Wombat, is very, very Australian. The singlet-wearing shearers with their border collies couldn't be anything else. You can practically feel the heat of the Australian sun beating down on the characters. The shearers, sketched in a few lines with some shading, are all recognizable Australian rural types.
There may be only a few words in the story, but each shearer has his own personality, not a simple achievement in such a short work. Every would-be writer thinks he or she can do a picture-book and that it's somehow easier than doing a full-length novel. Well, try telling an amusing, entertaining story that children will enjoy in under a hundred words, or even under fifty, and see how easy it is! If anything, a properly-done picture-book is harder than a novel, because it has to tell a full-scale story in only a few words. Jackie French is better known for her novels for older children, so it seems that she has skills in both areas.
Bruce Whatley's cartoon-like drawings complement beautifully the gentle whimsicality of the text; neither would quite work without the other. A good picture-book is a team effort, not merely a story with pictures attached to it or, for that matter, a collection of pictures created to be admired by adult fans, with some text attached. No adult is going to buy this for her own collection of beautifully illustrated books; it is definitely aimed at a young audience.
Preschool children will enjoy the silliness of the idea of sheep at a hairdressing salon and of a sheep-sheep. It is also the chance to discuss the notion of difference with children, and how difference can be, not merely acceptable, but can actually add to the richness of life. Still, if you don't feel the need to make your child sit through a lesson while reading to her, it's still a perfectly good, entertaining story that will make her giggle and will probably be requested multiple times. | April 2005
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.