As the capstone of a study of their community, a class at St. Joseph's Convent School receives
an assignment to take an in-depth look at the needs of the elderly in the community. The students may choose their partners
for the assignment - except for Joe and Belinda, who appear to be the bane of their teacher's existence. Unhappily paired together for this assignment, the two befriend old Mrs. Carpenter and her god-sent (11),
"yeti"-like (41) sheep, Agnes. Joe and Belinda successfully interview the eccentric
old lady, who later extracts a promise from them look after Agnes the sheep if Mrs. Carpenter dies. When Mrs. Carpenter dies, the two are faced with the challenge of rescuing Agnes from Mrs. Carpenter's
greedy relatives, who try to sell Agnes for her wool and for mutton. It's a daunting
task, since Agnes is anything but gentle. Indeed, Mrs. Carpenter's sign, "'Beware
of Dog. Enter at Own Risk'" had been hung with Agnes the sheep in mind.
William Taylor has a talent for aptly and humorously depicting his characters' flaws.
Joe cannot resist speaking, even when speaking lands him in trouble. When
he hears about the assignment, for example, Joe reckons aloud that his teacher is "one of them oldies (3)" herself. Of a managing disposition, Belinda can't resist adding her opinions; their comments insure that they are
Some of Taylor's characters are caricature-like in their depiction. If
Belinda and Joe are the students who make their teacher's life miserable, Belinda's mother, Mrs. Wiggins, fills the parent
equivalent of that role. Mrs. Wiggins constantly finds fault, and the teacher's
day would not be complete without a written complaint from her. Mrs. Robinson,
the teacher, says with dismay that since the year began, she's had "more effort from [Belinda's] mother . . . with all her
notes (6)" than she has had from Belinda and Joe.
depiction is Father McIntosh, the quintessential Roman Catholic priest. Agnes,
who is on the loose, hides under the church steps. When Father McIntosh descends
the stairs, Agnes pushes upward against the stairs, scrambling to get out, with the result that Father McIntosh and the stairs
are propelled into the air:
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph!'"
yelled Father McIntosh as the steps fell on top of him. "It's a bloody earthquake,"
following which he was knocked briefly unconscious. He was just coming around
. . . when Belinda and Joe found him. . . . "Help me home, my children. I feel
a mortal need for a drop of the hard stuff after that little to-do. The voice
of God all right," said Father McIntosh. (62-3)
characters, William Taylor takes an irreverent peek at the world. When Mrs. Carpenter
dies, Joe persuades some of his classmates that a cannon would play a part in the funeral service, in keeping with Mrs. Carpenter's
former life in the circus as a human cannonball. The decedent "would be sped
on [her] way to heaven from a gigantic cannon that was to be set up in the gardens of the Presbyterian Church. After all, wasn't that the only way that Presbyterians were likely to get into heaven (44)?" Taylor doesn't limit his irreverence to poking fun only at Presbyterians, however. As students in a Catholic school, Mrs. Carpenter is surprised to discover that Belinda and Joe don't know
the meaning of the name Agnes ("Lamb of God"). She says bemusedly: "'And you two don't know the meaning of Agnes? Lamb of God? My goodness gracious me. It seems the Holy Roman Church isn't doing much better than the education system.'"
of this book by a New Zealand library[i] states unequivocally that the book is set in New Zealand. For
the reader, however, this perception of the setting might be more difficult to establish, since Taylor never specifically
states the novel's location. This could account for the fact that a review in
The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books places the tale in Australia.[ii]
include cultural markers, however. These markers include numerous words (nicking, bloody, mate, mutton) and several vernacular passages: "'D'ya seat, mate?'" (for "Do you see it, mate? ). Houser
(1991)[iii] notes that "The New Zealand dialect may bother some, but it is so far into the story that readers will
surely continue." While her assessment of the placement of the vernacular is
correct, but it is unfortunate that Houser appears to find the dialect disconcerting.
On the contrary, the vernacular passages, in conjunction with other cultural markers, give a nice flavor of New Zealand
and its people. Other cultural markers include Belinda's statement that she is
part Maori (21) and a mention of a display of "Cook Island tomatoes" in the grocery store.
to the Esther Glen Award (1992) and the Premio Andersen award (1998, Genoa, Italy) for Agnes the Sheep, William Taylor
has received many other honors for his writing. These include the Margaret Mahy
Lecture Award (1998), the AIM Senior Fiction Award,[iv] and White Ravens 2003 (for Scarface and the Angel).[v]
[iii] Houser, Donna. 1991. Review of Agnes the Sheep, by William Taylor. Voice of Youth
Advocates 14 (2): 104.
[iv]Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series 94. William Taylor.
Taylor, William. 1990. Agnes the sheep. New
York: Scholastic. ISBN 0-590-43365-2
This review was written for a graduate course at Texas
Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.