Winning Pets – Picture Books of Animals

From egotistical and obnoxious, to intelligent and in desperate need of affection (and food), our furry pals have differing needs and talents but we just love them no matter what! The following picture books are bound to surprise and delight your little ones with their humorous, sweet and heart-warming antics that only our beloved animals can offer.

imageRemarkably Rexy, Craig Smith (author, illus.), Allen & Unwin, 2015.

Rex is the proudest, most majestic and self-absorbed cat in town. For years he’s owned the streets – well, Serengeti Street. His incessantly groomed appearance, captivating dance steps and poses have been the biggest attraction amongst the kids passing by. That is, until Pretty Pamela steals his thunder with her elegant prancing. What follows for Rex is just like a series of unfortunate events that leaves him looking a bit less than perfect. Has he come to the realisation that maybe the fuss isn’t worth all the effort?

Craig Smith‘s watercolour and pen illustrations are characteristically warm and hilariously energetic. And in his debut as an author, he also successfully brings us a charming and skittish story. There’s something very visceral and real about this vain yet likeable cat, and the other irritable animals, that makes this book so relatable.

‘Remarkably Rexy’ is a fun, delightfully comical and engaging story that preschoolers will be giving prominence to over and over again.

imageOur Dog Knows Words, Peter Gouldthorpe (author), Lucy Gouldthorpe (illus.), Lothian Children’s Books, 2015.

Some pets are brilliant and shine in their own way. From cats to dogs, in ‘Our Dog Knows Words’ this clever family pet can definitely impress. From simple commands like ‘sit’, ‘shake hands’, ‘stay’ and ‘come’, to more complex tricks like ‘roll over’ and ‘scratch’, this playpul pup always obeys. Well, maybe not always! I love how this dog is such a loved and integral part of this household. From bed jumping to car rides, cat chasing and beach time frolics, this pup is having a ball.

This is a beautifully simple, and ‘waggish’ story of a word- and fun-loving canine companion. The equally endearing and uncomplicated line drawings and coloured patterns make ‘Our Dog Knows Words’ a clear, light-hearted book. It’s also terrific for encouraging young children to value and appreciate our faithful furry friends.

imageWombat Wins, Jackie French (author), Bruce Whatley (illus.), Angus&Robertson, 2015.

Speaking of champions, two in the children’s literature field are the superlative Jackie French and the prolific illustrator, Bruce Whatley. They have teamed up again for the next winning wombat book in the series; it’s ‘Wombat Wins’.

While Mothball is up to her usual cheeky capers of wanting (and demanding) carrots, she also happens to be competing with a group of small, athletic humans to be the first to reach her prize. This determined, robust character takes us through an energetic, fast-paced and amusing romp. I love how she speeds across the uncluttered landscape pages in her characteristically melodramatic style. The simple, punchy language is the perfect match for this fiesty but adorable creature.

Preschool aged children will no doubt be racing to savour ‘Wombat Wins’ as much as humanely (or wombately) possible. It really is a winner!

imageI Need a Hug, Aaron Blabey (author, illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2015.

From winning wombats to winning hearts, Aaron Blabey once again seduces us with his charming story and its theatrical satire. Although not your common type of pet, this sweet little hedgehog starving for a cuddle is certainly irresistible. Unfortunately, this is not true for Lou the rabbit, Ken the moose and Moe the bear who don’t fair kindly to this poor, prickly creature. But when hedgehog feels all hope is lost, the story closes in a satisfying way…with a bit of a twist!

Blabey presents this story with his typically expressive rhyming couplets, farcical scenes, tongue-in-cheek humour and intense-looking characters. Always a winning combination throughout his books.

‘I Need a Hug’ oozes tenderness and kindness. It shows us literally (check the endpapers) that negative feelings can be turned into positive ones by perhaps taking a risk and offering a gesture of peace. Even towards the most unlikely of friends. It’s an adorable book of learning compassion and receptiveness in a cute and funny way, as well as being the perfect bedtime story when you can steal a few extra hugs and kisses!

And for more reviews on amazing animals check out Dimity‘s recent line up of picture books here.

Pearson, REDgroup, Amazon and the Depository: The Market Concentrates

Big news the past couple of days! So very big that I’m still having trouble digesting it all. But here it is – Pearson, the parent company of Penguin Australia – have bought the online arm of the bankrupt REDgroup (that is, Angus & Robertson and Borders). That was a couple of days ago. And then in unrelated related news, Amazon bought the Book Depository – the only real international competitor they have for selling books.

This is big news for everyone in the Australian book industry (and possibly everywhere else). But particularly the Australian industry. The Book Depository represents only a small part of international book sales – and still only a small proportion of the UK book market, where the company is based. But in Australia? A massive chunk. Forget Amazon. The reason local booksellers are threatened by online bookselling is largely to do with the Book Depository and their loss-leading free-shipping tactics.

So what the hell is going on? Was there monopolistic Kool-Aid in the water supply over the past week? Or am I cynically bundling two vaguely related stories into one neatly packaged blog post? You be the judge.

Let’s start with Amazon and The Book Depository. The Book Depository was founded by ex-Amazon people, and I’ve always secretly thought they didn’t see the business model as particularly sustainable, and were waiting to be snapped up by Amazon at a later date and a decent profit, once they’d had off with as much investment money as they could garner (which, I should point out, they’ll pay off in spades with the sale of the company to Amazon). There’s no evidence I can find that they were profitable yet – though they may well have been eventually (or might have been already – I’m not one of their investors). According to some reports it appears that they were somewhat dependent on a massive discount from the Royal Mail – which they may not continue to get with Amazon in charge. At any rate, there is already speculation about investigation from various trade commissions into this new potential monopoly.

Either way it’s quite possible that the Book Depository will cease to be as good as it used to be at doing what it did best. And what the Book Depository was very good at doing was stealing market share from Amazon. That is without doubt a blow to competition. It’s certainly true that since the Depository has been around, books have been available more cheaply to readers – especially in Australia. But there’s also an argument to be had here that this was a bubble that was always going to burst – based as it was on investment rather than profit – and in the meantime it has contributed significantly to the decline of local booksellers (both on and offline).

Now to the Pearson–REDgroup Overmind. This is a real noodlescratcher. There’s a diversity of opinions here. Peter Donoughue over at Pub Date Critical believes that it’s a stupid move by Pearson. The intricacies and subtleties of running an online retailer are too great a burden for a mere publisher, he says. On top of that, it might be that the dual (and sometimes conflicting) responsibilities of being a publisher and a retailer will be too much for one company. But I guess if they run into trouble, they might ask Amazon for advice. It’s very likely that some publishers, as Donoughue says, will be deeply suspicious of Pearson’s intentions, and may refuse to work with them. Just as other book retailers have been unwilling to stock the books that Amazon’s publishing imprints are beginning to put out in print.

Once again, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, it seems to me that a massive corporation like Amazon needs to have competition from someone – and perhaps one day that’ll be from someone like Pearson. On the other hand, however, all this concentration of power into the hands of fewer owners doesn’t seem to me to be a good thing for anyone except the owners. Cultural diversity is a beautiful thing. Being flexible and nimble is also a good thing. Monopolies are traditionally not very good at fairness for their customers in the long run, nor at adapting to change. This has been the whole problem with publishing companies in the past few years – too slow to react, too massive and too conservative to change when a reaction is deemed necessary. You can see the Big Six publishers in the US (and Australia) are struggling under the same conditions now. Does it really make sense for Pearson and Amazon to be getting bigger and even more burdened by conflicting responsibilities in this climate? As always, I do not have the answer. But I’ll admit that this news makes me distinctly uncomfortable. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Special thanks to Twittervirate @ryanpaine, @mrconnorobrien and @felicetherese for the long email conversation this evening. Most illuminating.

As A Retailer, They Made A Good…

It’s been a week and most of us are still reeling over the likely demise of Red Group Retail‑owned Angus & Robertson and Borders.

I wasn’t planning on weighing in on the debate, both because I don’t think I have all the answers and because I think others can say it much more incisively and eloquently than me. But having pored over the flurry of blogs and articles that have emerged over this last 10 or so days, I think there are a couple of things that need to be clarified.

First, while I would love to credit tenacious, community-based, customer service-driven, independent, ‘David’ retailers for toppling this big-box ‘Goliath’ (as some blogs are doing), I can’t. Because I’ve seen the inside of the behemoth and it wasn’t being toppled by independents nipping at its heels—it was already fundamentally going to pieces within.

Time now, for a confession of sorts: I once worked part-time at Borders. I’m not claiming to have been privy to the company’s financial statements, but I’ve had more experience in retail than I care to admit courtesy of a long, long university enrolment and subsequent need to feed myself. I’ve especially had experience in retail in a really competitive, low-margin environment courtesy of having worked for Sanity/Virgin/HMV for the better part of a decade. And it didn’t take a rocket scientist of an employee to know that things weren’t so good at Borders.

Morale was low, stock variety was reducing, prices were increasing, and changes to systems didn’t put the customer first (say, for example, the push to get customers to conduct their own searches and place orders via the online store, typing in their credit card details while other customers hovered nearby).

Staff weren’t being supported to do their jobs (the database we had to ‘use’ to find books was an absolute clunker and the customer order system nightmarishly random and manual). Staff’s vast book knowledge and passion wasn’t nurtured or drawn on, senior management was all but invisible, and the company was directionless and had no clear plan for winning customers back from the alluring cheaper online options.

The independents are surviving because they’re doing all the things that Borders didn’t—valuing their customers and working hard to find and then share the books they’ve found. But to say they kneecapped the giant with their above-and-beyond personalised service? No, the giant purely and simply shot itself in the foot in its fumbling.

We talk about mining magnates but not bookselling ones for a reason—there’s money to be made raping and pillaging the land for precious natural resources, but feeding the mind and soul appears to be less fruitful. There’s also a reason why independent bookshops don’t really branch out into multiple sites—the margins are tight, and the exhausting necessity of closing monitoring every dollar and every margin in every book brought in to be sold, as well as fostering personal relationships and subsequent trusted recommendations, is necessary but exhausting. Larger, multi-site operations dilute this.

Arguably, big-box retailers dilute this to the nth degree. Borders, for example, operated on a kind of ‘if you build it, they will come’ philosophy. And come they did. Even people who you’d least expect to be there would show up. I spotted more card-carrying ‘I support my local independents’ book buyers than you’d believe during my time working at Borders. Some of them bought books (because few book lovers can leave a bookshop without having fallen in love with and had to have some text-based tome-y goodness), but even more of them used Borders as a resource. A library resource.

And that’s perhaps the greatest tragedy of Borders’ demise: as a book retailer, it made a great library. Should it go under (as it’s reported based on the trends of companies that go into administration it has over a 90% chance of doing), we’ll lose an invaluable resource.

I long held reservations about what such a big-box retailer meant environmentally (and I’ve touched on this in a previous blog), with vast quantities of books being produced and shipped and then returned after having served as three-dimensional wallpaper to fill and flatter huge shelf space.

But I haven’t touched on how the vast shelf space and the initially diverse range of books enabled so many of us to see, smell, touch, and maybe even taste what was available on a given topic before purchasing it. It helped us put books side by side and pick the best one for our tastes and needs. It also helped us discover books we didn’t know existed and be swept up in the desire to read.

Sure, many people then took the knowledge they’d gained from picking staff’s brains about the available books, trawling the shelves, and flipping through the books, and then bought their book of choice at a cheaper, often online store. For many others, Borders was the closest they came to stepping into a library and conducting school or university research.

As a side note, I’ve often wondered why, although I’m a big library visitor, bookstores excite me much more. Methinks it’s because the books are shiny and new and merchandised nicely and are emitting the new-book drug/perfume that says buy or read me (or both).

There’s obviously a certain amount of schadenfreude to be had at Borders’ current and likely further demise. But while they might not have been the retailer you supported or wanted to support, as a library they supported us more than we probably realised.

Ebook News Christmas Wrap-up

So the silly season has come and gone, bringing with it what is most likely the biggest shift in consumer behaviour in regards to ebooks that has ever occurred. As I’ve been saying for the past six months – the future isn’t just coming sometime soon, it’s already here. Here’s a wrap-up of the ebook news over the past couple of weeks that you might find useful.

As predicted, Amazon made great strides this Christmas into the ebook space. They announced that the Kindle is now their best-selling product of all time. This means it has outsold the final Harry Potter book, so we are talking millions of Kindles out there over the Christmas period. And due to the instantaneous nature of ebook purchasing, we’re quite likely to see a spike in ebook sales over the few days of the Christmas period – though we’ll likely have to wait a while before anyone releases those figures. Guestimates so far have pegged the number of books sold as close to 3 million, which is damned impressive.

A poll has shown that almost a third of internet users say they already have a Kindle or plan on buying one in the next year, and that 40% of iPad owners already have a Kindle or are planning to buy one – which seems to support the assertions of Jeff Bezos (Amazon’s CEO) that the Kindle and the iPad are not in direct competition.

All in all this has been a superb holiday period for Amazon’s Kindle – all the more reason to hope they don’t do anything (else) evil in 2011.

Google has hinted at a timetable for the Australian launch of the Google eBookstore initiative, indicating they may launch early this year.

The Borders/Kobo tagteam appears to be coming apart at the seams – at least one major publisher in the US has halted shipments to the embattled chain and Hachette are considering doing the same. This is bad news for Kobo, which has tied itself quite closely to Borders in the US and here in Australia (Australia’s REDgroup – which includes Angus & Robertson and Borders – has been considering cuts and facing disappointing sales for months).

Choice magazine has named the Sony Touch the best ereading device, which is good news for the ereader (and for the potential fortunes of other independent ereading devices that aren’t chained to a single retailer).

Forecasts are showing that tablet sales will more than double this year in the US, which is great news for Apple and the iPad, which will likely snap up a big chunk of that.

2011 is shaping up to be the biggest year yet for digital reading. Thanks for reading in 2010, and I look forward to your comments and support if you decide to stick around this year. If there’s anything you’d like to see covered or analysed in more detail – let loose in the comments or get in touch on Twitter.