Chooks in Dinner Suits by Diane Jackson Hill, illustrated by Craig Smith (Museum Victoria) PB RRP $19.99
Reviewed by Dianne Bates
Sub-titled ‘A tale of big dogs and little penguins’ this picture book was inspired by a true story about a town’s efforts to protect their population of Little Penguins (or Fairy Penguins). In 1999 there were 600 penguins and 350 burrows on Middle Island, Victoria; mostly due to death by foxes, by 2005 there were no active burrows and only four penguins left. This project, a world-first and called Middle Island Maremma Project, saw a Warrnambool man train two Maremma dogs to become penguin guardians.
Told in third person past tense, the picture book text tells how civilisation arrives near Middle Island and how gradually the penguin colony is decimated. Then a character named Swampy Marsh is introduced. Swampy becomes acutely aware of the penguin problem; when he presents his solution ‘... (At first) the townsfolk aren’t convinced. Some laugh.’ When they change their minds, Swampy picks his two protective and loyal dogs Mimi and Max who have long protected his chooks to go onto the island where they then protect the penguins from intruders such as dogs and foxes. Problem solved when the colony begins to repopulate!
The author says she wanted to help with the project and ‘thought a picture book would be a good way to promote the project nationally.’ This book certainly works to do this. It is beautifully illustrated by well-regarded illustrator Craig Smith who uses watercolour pictures to help tell the story. As well, there is a page at the end of the book which relates the Maremma story; it also includes a website with more information on the project.
This book will certainly not only tell the penguin-saved story, but will help readers, young and old, to see how a mammoth effort made by small groups of people (and individuals) can help to protect and restore their environments.