Lara of Newtown
Allen & Unwin, 2015
32pp., hbk., RRP $A29.99
When Misty’s owner becomes too old to look after, Misty is left wrapped in a basket and left like an abandoned baby on a restaurant doorstep in a busy street in Newtown, Sydney. While she was well-cared for during the day, at night she was put in a cage and waited for the long night to pass. All Misty wanted was a new home and to be loved as she had been. One day her dreams came true and she was presented as a pet to Noni Nice of Pymble. But when Misty did cat things like eating the budgie, she soon found herself back out on the street again having to fend for herself. Until she was found by the Kafoopses who rename her Lara… Is this the home that she has been looking for?
Author-illustrator Chris McKimmie is gaining a reputation for creating quirky picture books that have many layers to them which is why they appeal to a wide audience. Lara of Newtown is no exception. Written from Lara’s perspective, the reader is drawn into the world of the abandoned cat and what it feels like to be so alone and unwanted. Even though McKimmie draws a bleak picture of life on the streets, nevertheless throughout there is always a glimmer of hope that this story will have a happy ending. There are some very clever lines that give it an adult appeal too – look for the Bob Dylan reference – as well as a number of clever references in the details in the artworks like the low-flying plane being part of Duck Airlines.
As well as McKimmie’s iconic illustrative style, there are a number of other illustrations interspersed throughout which are creations of the children in McKimmie’s life that add another layer, all of which are acknowledged on the publication page. Even Misty/Lara is based on a drawing by a four-year-old. This approach, along with the random choices of font for the text lighten the theme of the story and add a touch of humour. Busy pages reflect the frenetic pace of parts of the story while those where Lara is alone and down are more subdued and empty. There is a very clever meeting of visual effects mirroring mood and emotion.
On occasion McKimmie has created stories that some younger readers need help to interpret to appreciate fully, but even on just the surface level Lara of Newtown is a story that will resonate with anyone who has ever had a pet as well as giving pause to ponder the stories of those we know are unwanted for whatever reason. It could lead to interesting discussions about the morality of abandoning them, the annual message of ensuring pets are wanted before you give them as gifts, perhaps even the compulsory neutering of pets. Over and above that there is the theme of identity and the need to belong and to be loved that is very human. Food for thought.