As an Australian writer fascinated by all things witchy, I’m always on the lookout for witches with a distinctly Australian flair. Unfortunately, throughout my reading life so far, such witches have been virtually non-existent – with one notable exception. Daisy O’Grady is a terrifying Australian sorceress, her face gaunt, her hair wild, with a literal skeleton tucked away in her closet. She wears a macabre fox stole around her neck, and proudly mixes potions containing rats’ tails, toe-nails and dead lizards’ scales.
Oh – and she also happens to be the main character in a picture book for children.
Guess What? is a 1988 picture book written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Vivienne Goodman. It’s a book that sets you up to feel uneasy from the very beginning, establishing a fleeting sense of distance (“Far away from here lives a crazy lady called Daisy O’Grady”) before slowly drawing the reader closer to its mysterious protagonist. Each of the simple, sinister questions asked by Fox (“Is she tall?” “Is she thin?”) gives a further clue to Daisy O’Grady’s identity, building and building until the conclusion of the story seems terrifyingly, unsettlingly inevitable. You hope that Daisy won’t be a witch. You hope there’s going to be a twist. You hope the book won’t give you nightmares.
And, well, there is a twist – but I’m certainly not going to ruin that here!
Fox’s prose is a masterclass in creating a sense of looming dread, but it’s Vivienne Goodman’s illustrations that give the book its distinctly Australian flavour. Through a series of vivid, almost photorealistic pictures, Goodman provides a detailed insight into Daisy O’Grady’s world, documenting everything from her modest scrubland shack (complete with corrugated iron roof and brick outhouse) to the native animals that live both inside and outside her abode. Every illustration is cluttered with incredible, recognisable detail: The Weekend Australian lying crumpled on the floor; a reconciliation badge pinned to Daisy’s black hat; an ordinary tin of Keen’s Mustard sitting beside a jar of blowfly eyes. It’s a perfect snapshot of Australian farm life, filtered through a weird, witchy gauze. I’ve spoken earlier in this blog about my love for witch products in The Jolly Postman, and Goodman’s own creations – “Lifeless Lizards Scale Powder,” “Heinz Big Red Blood Sauce” – form a lovely complement to that text.
I’ve always thought of Guess What? as being an edgy, enthralling picture book, and so I was recently fascinated (if not surprised) to learn that, in American libraries, the book was the 66th most challenged book of the 1990s. According to one library website I found, the book was most likely challenged because of its “age-appropriateness and offensive language” – and while age-appropriateness is too subjective to easily refute, I am truly baffled by the second accusation. Does the charge relate to Daisy O’Grady’s wicked collection of 1970s pin badges, which includes buttons that say Sex Pistols and ABBA is Dead? Possibly – but it’s hard to shake the feeling that certain parents were looking for any excuse to object to the book once they found out there was a witch lurking inside.
But don’t let those “offensive” badges put you off – Guess What? is a magnificent picture book, perfectly designed to spook a child even as it delights them. The world needs more witches like Daisy O’Grady: cursing, cackling and cranky while remaining entirely, wonderfully Australian.
— I first had Guess What? read to me when I was one year old. I know this because my copy of the book is signed to me by Mem Fox, with an inscription dated 1992. My witch lit credentials are super legit.
— Mem Fox is notable for having written many, many famous picture books, but my other favourite book of hers is Possum Magic, from 1983. There isn’t a lot of magic in Australian literature, but with these two picture books Fox sets out a vision of a mythic Australia that was hugely influential on me as a young reader. (I even had a pet brush-tailed possum called Hush, rescued from the forest beside our house.)
— From all reports, the best reading of Guess What? you’ll ever hear is by Mem Fox herself. I can’t find a video of her performance anywhere on the web, but my mum recalls that a great, urgent emphasis must be placed on the constant refrain of “Guess? Yes!” In lieu of a video, you can read about how Fox developed the book on her website.
That’s all for now – happy witching!