Plaits and mandibles, Margaret Mahy

Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun
Janet Frame, illustrations by David Elliot
Random, $29.95,
ISBN 1869417240

Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun, by novelist Janet Frame, was first published in 1969. In those days not many books for children were published in New Zealand, and Mona Minim was published in New York. It is hard to find out just what sort of impact it made here – let alone there. I was made aware of the book when I worked in the School Library Service and then only as a title. I have never heard anyone refer to it with nostalgia, and, although the author is one of New Zealand’s most significant, she is known as a writer for adults. Perhaps, as a book for children, it has been regarded as an insignificant part of her oeuvre.

Now, however, republished in 2005 and illustrated by David Elliot, one of New Zealand’s outstanding illustrators, the book is possibly achieving more notice than it did originally, particularly as it has recently been read over National Radio … not in the children’s slot, interestingly enough, but in the morning session which is directed at adults. Possibly the listeners have been largely women, the listeners most likely to receive the story with pleasure and indulgence, although it did play at the end of the school holidays

One approaches a story written 30 years ago with a degree of curiosity. Has the story, even when written by a literary genius, retained its relevance? Is it couched in idiom that has now dated? Do the obsessions of the hero or heroine match the probable obsessions of today’s children?

Mona Minim has yearnings that have probably weathered the intervening years pretty well, because of the quality of her imaginative passion. Her yearning for flight and for magical encounters with an upper, open world may not be quite the yearning a human child might experience, but they are acceptably the yearnings of an ant, and certainly the essential nature of that longing is something to which many readers will be able to respond, particularly, perhaps, if the story is read aloud.

An ant seems an unlikely heroine for a story. Ants have a group presence. We tend to see them as an active scuttling gang whose individual members are largely anonymous. So it says something for the skill of the author that Mona Minim is so much an individual. Inevitably this individuality is achieved through a strong element of anthropomorphism. Janet Frame certainly stretches reality. Mona Minim has a bedroom all to herself. She wears a yellow sunbonnet, a floral apron and black buttoned shoes – though admittedly she does wear six of them. And this will probably prove to be a book for girls rather than boys, since Mona herself is such a feminine character and the society in which she moves is so largely feminine too. There are male ants in the story, but many of the details, including the details of Mona’s dress, seem destined to exclude all but a few determined boy readers. Mona’s imaginative ambitions may be universal and she certainly lives a dangerous and adventurous life, but all the same she is very much a girl, and her romantic preoccupations are female ones … inevitable, perhaps, in an ant society.

On her first day out into open air, surrounded by the haunting allure of the sunlight, her excitement and enthusiasm immediately plunge her into adventure, and an increasingly wide perception of the world around her. This involves an initial tumble through a crack in the stair, followed by an encounter with the potentially hostile garden ants. (Mona, being a house ant, has the wrong smell from the garden-colony point of view, but fortunately makes a friend who helps her to disguise her smell and, after an initial challenge, she is accepted by the garden ant guards and passes through into a colony that is different from her own.)

She then encounters the astonishment of a garden world – a forest of sunflowers, for example, and, increasingly, that dream of flight … a dream which obsesses many girl ants of her age. How wonderful it would be to have wings: “What is the smell of the blue when you are flying in the sky and the smell of the sun and of the wind that never blows close to the grass and the earth? What is the smell of the sun?” These are questions which Mona asks herself over and over again.

These days there is something rather cute about this miniature world – about Mona’s ladybird handkerchief and the spider sandwiches with the crusts cut off, let alone the ant-eggs wrapped in white blankets (though I could not help noting that at least one girl reader I know was charmed by these details). All the same, in spite of this cute miniaturisation, the story is haunted by huge imaginative obsessions which take on a curious sadness, so that ultimately the story extends beyond being merely pretty.

Mona has a personal encounter with Antonia, the young Queen who has achieved that ambition of all girl ants – the wonder of wings, the experience of flight towards the sun.  But Antonia is now lying with her wedding dress in shreds and her wings ruined. She has somehow passed beyond that initial romantic vision of flight and is now happy at the prospect of laying eggs and becoming the matriarch of a new colony. However, there is, for Mona, something tragic about that torn wedding dress, those broken wings, and about the complete abandonment of the imaginative ambition that had been implicit in the freedom of the open air.

And there is nothing cute about the direct way in which the story is told. The necessities of Mona’s ant life may include a beetle-back mirror, a red velvet dress, and a best brush made of thistledown, but the style is straightforward and grave, though there are constant jokes implicit in the printed text. In words like “attendant”, “constant”, “flippant” and “fantastic”, the ant letters are italicized; “fantastic”, “flippant”, “constant”, and, of course, “antennae”. There is a continual ripple of association in the very print on the page. Though I have suggested this story is one to be read aloud, these words need to be seen by a reader’s eye in order to make their connection.

From the point of view of either the listener or the reader leaping from one line to another, Mona is simultaneously a human child and a young ant. She has ant duties to perform. She has plaits but she also has mandibles. Illustrating this book in a way that is both appealing and true to the story must have constituted something of a challenge, but  David Elliot’s pictures successfully reflect this curious duality. The characters are six-legged but have largely human faces and, dressed as the text dictates, have the appeal of a minute society, with something of the fascination of an old-fashioned fairyland, particularly as there is that constant theme: the longing for wings and flight, for soaring into the upper air.

Mona is not the only young ant to dream of the smell of the blue sky, of the clouds and of the sun. But by the end of the story she has become, to her own surprise and probably the surprise of the reader too, an old ant – has suddenly become Aunt Mona, helping the young ants and hearing them speculate in their turn about their chances of flight: the same dreams she had in her childhood. She listens in silence, giving away nothing of what she has learned through her own adventures and encounters. It is hard to know just how the majority of child readers will respond to the revelation that Mona has aged through the story and no longer belongs to their own age group. She is disenchanted and yet fulfilled, which is quite a hard state for children to understand. Yet of course there is truth in this ending … an ending in which Mona’s unachieved ambitions live on in the next generation: “You must go out little ants,” she finally advises, “and see and smell and taste and touch for yourselves and then you will know.”

I think this is a story which could be rewardingly read aloud, partly because of the sound of the language, partly because there are at times long descriptions and detailed accounts of ant routines in which some young readers might get bogged down. For an adult reader it is a story of adventure, enterprise and unachieved passion … but this is something into which the child, like Mona Minim herself, must gradually grow.


Margaret Mahy’s Madigan’s Fantasia and Kaitangata Twitch are both finalists in the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults 2006.


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