Kids Will be Rapt to Find More Wrapped this Christmas – Part 2

Back again with yet another wonderful collection of gift suggestions for the festive season (see Part 1 here). This time, a few picture books perfectly gorgeous for preschool children who will love the buzz, love and tingle that feels like Christmas.

Merry Everything! is an utterly joyous celebration packaged in a magical wrapping of scrumptious words and pictures to create all kinds of warm and fuzzies. Naturally! It’s by one of my favourite creative combinations; Tania McCartney and Jess Racklyeft!

A book about inclusion and togetherness at Christmas time – what better way to introduce this global jollification than with the endpapers adorned with addressed letters to different animal families around the world. The story continues with sentiments so lovingly expressed through Tania’s kind of lyrical prose about all the preparations pertained to the common link that is Christmas. Bees buzz with busy, pandas wrap surprises, monkeys hang lashings, whilst penguins string songs on the starry sky. Appropriate atmospheric and seasonal scenes and habitats are beautifully thought out in Jess’s sugary sweet watercolour illustrations. Her paintings dazzlingly feature a medley of winsome critters and creatures so busily assembling the festivities with their families. And “on Christmas Day, the world tingles with happy.” Tania’s text continues to bring joy with her mix of cheerful verbs and rhyming elements, humour and bursts of emotion, just like full tummies at the end of a jubilantly hectic day.

A universally appealing book that is brimming with love and intimacy, warmth and unconditional happiness, Merry Everything! is everything a young reader could wish for this Christmas.

Windy Hollow Books, October 2017.

That Christmas Feeling is another heartwarming tale by Lili Wilkinson and Amanda Francey that has us craving that aura of magic and excitement in the lead up to the big day.

But how do you define ‘that Christmas feeling’? Is it baking the Christmas pudding, decorating the tree as a family, singing carols or visiting ‘Santa’? Dottie, Jem and their pup Shortbread reminisce about their special moments last year as they await the arrival of Mum and Dad at their grandparents’ house. This year is not quite the same, and for some children this may be a reality where compromises and adapting to change need to be made. In a bid to find the feeling they so long for, Jem shows Dottie a tree with twinkling lights and they sing songs together. Then Mum and Dad join them with a delivery that qualifies as the most precious ‘Christmas feeling’. It will literally give you shivers!

Touching and packed with emotion, and detailed illustrations that are equally full of life, reflection and charm, That Christmas Feeling is a tribute to the significance of family love and balancing expectations in times of uncertainty or change. Preschoolers will be overcome with hearts filled with joy after sharing this gorgeous book.

Allen & Unwin, September 2017.

What a joyous story brimming with sunshine and optimism, friendship and generosity! A Very Quacky Christmas by Frances Watts is delightfully cheerful with stunning illustrations by Ann James, perfect for reflecting on the true spirit of a bright Christmas.

Samantha Duck gloriously sings, “We wish you a quacky Christmas” whilst winding tinsel around reeds, hanging baubles and stockings on branches, and writing wish lists for all her friends. In the meantime, by her side is the pessimistic tortoise, Sebastian, certain that Christmas is not for animals. But, despite his scepticism he agrees to help his friend collect precious items from animals around the farm – sharing in a Christmas for animals is a delightful idea, after all. A cart full of presents and a bumpy ride later, who else shows his support, encouragement and nobility but Sebastian himself!

A Very Quacky Christmas is an absolutely feel-good book about giving and sharing, with its provocative text and effortless, dreamy illustrations that allow the golden effervescence to wash over the pages and into your heart. Love.

ABC Books, HarperCollins, October 2017.

Here’s a gift that keeps on giving – the legendary classic, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury), specifically designed as a gift book with an all-encompassing snowglobe inset into the cover.

Follow your journey through the long wavy grass, deep cold river, oozy mud, dark forest, and into a swirling whirling snowstorm as you shake and swish the book to create a ‘cool’ whooshing, kinaesthetic experience. What a blast! Continue on your suspenseful way to the narrow gloomy cave, and rush back home again with bear-on-tail, right into the comfort of your bed.

A masterful gift idea from the people at Walker Books to allow us oldies to relive the drama and excitement, and for the youngsters to be inspired to engage in all the songs, actions, role plays and good old cuddles that accompany this favourite treasure. Designed to captivate our hearts with some interactive fun, We’re Going on Bear Hunt Snowglobe Gift Book will be a winner for preschoolers this Christmas.

Walker Books, October 2017.

Superb Sequels – Picture Book Reviews

We certainly got a buzz upon discovering the latest sequels to a few of our favourite picture books. Still highly capable of capturing our hearts and imaginations, just like their predecessors, these titles don’t disappoint. From forming new friendships to rekindling old ones, from commencing inspiring adventures to revisiting good old-fashioned traditions, preschoolers and early primary aged children will delight in every part of the wonderful journeys these books will take them.

imageSnail and Turtle Rainy Days, Stephen Michael King (author, illus.), Scholastic Press, 2016.

With the same warm and playful narrative and animated illustrations as in the original Snail and Turtle are Friends, King beautifully compliments this sequel with an equally gentle and humbling innocence in its tone. Once again, King has successfully alllured his readers with a tactile, blithe and innovative experience.

Snail and Turtle Rainy Days is a creative and heartwarming tale about going to assiduous measures to help out a friend in need. I also love the undertone that Turtle might possibly be doing so to satisfy his own little pleasures in life! However, children from age three will absolutely soak up these busy characters and adorable qualities in this sunny story set in the rain. See my full review here.

imageI Don’t Want to Go to Bed, David Cornish (author, illus.), Angus & Robertson, 2016.

Immediately following on from its prequel comes the opening line, “Every night when dinner was done, Rollo would cry ‘I Don’t Want To Go To Bed!‘”. Cleverly written and hilariously illustrated by David Cornish, this next title in the series certainly ticks all the stubborn-child-mastering-routines boxes.

In this short and sweet tale, Rollo attempts every excuse under the sun to avoid going to bed. Fortunately, with a little imagination (and perhaps some imperceivable parent influence) Rollo can check off his ‘story, food, water, toilet and monster’ checklist. Is he finally ready for bed?

Bold, vibrant and loud, and exhaustingly true, preschoolers and their parents will both cringe and delight in the arduous strategies determining when and how they will go to bed.

imageMe and Moo & Roar Too, P. Crumble (author), Nathaniel Eckstrom (illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2016.

When Me and Moo first made its grand entrance we were udderly – oops, utterly – delighted by this comical tale of friendship between a boy and his mischievous cow companion. Now, roaring onto the scene is their newest comrade, surprisingly delivered straight from the zoo; Roar.

In Me and Moo & Roar Too, it is Me and Moo’s quest to return Roar back to his home-away-from-home after he causes chaos in their house. Although this might be disheartening for readers, they will be reassured to know that every animal is happy in their place of belonging, and that Me and Moo may just encounter yet another wild pet adventure any time soon!

With its child-friendly narrative voice and gorgeously textured and discernibly witty illustrations, this sequel perfectly compliments the first and will have its preschool-aged readers roaring for more.

imageBird and Bear and the Special Day, Ann James (author, illus.), The Five Mile Press, 2016.

In a story of discovering the beauty and nuances of the world around them, Bird and Bear explore nature, science and their close relationship. When they meet again in Bird and Bear and the Special Day, Bird, on her ‘Birdday’ enchants her friend Bear with a series of ‘Eye-Spy’-esque challenges as they take a stroll through the park.

James’ winsome dialogue cleverly integrates concepts of prepositions, opposites and scientific observations, as well as the pressing problem of whether Bear will remember Bird’s Birdday. Watercolours, pencil and pastel tones perfectly suit the whimsical yet tranquil adventure walk and the gentle, harmonious friendship between the characters.

A joyous exploration of words and the outdoors, imagination and strengthening bonds, this series has the magic of childhood autonomy at its forefront. Recommended for children aged three and up.

imageLet’s Play!, Hervé Tullet (author, illus.), Allen & Unwin, 2016. Originally published by Bayard Editions as ‘On Joue?’, 2016.

A brilliant companion to the best-selling books, Press Here and Mix It Up!, pushing boundaries and exciting creative imaginations is the latest by Hervé Tullet; it’s Let’s Play! A genius masterstroke by the artist, engaging readers in a vibrant sensory, kinaesthetic and all-round enjoyable interactive experience.

Instructing its willing participants to join in, the yellow dot pulls us on its journey along, up, down, round and round a simple black line from start to end. With the dot we encounter more dots in primary colours, play games of hide-and-seek, face ominous dark tunnels and black, messy splashes and scribbles, until we finally reach the safety of clean pages and fairy-light-inspired canvases.

Children and adults alike will delight in this gigglicious, playful adventure exploring shape, colour, space and line with its subtly thrilling storyline to tempt your curiosity many times ’round.

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Janeen Brian’s Hunger for Stories Leaves us Wanting More

imageJaneen Brian is the much-loved, award-winning author of over 90 books for children, many of which have been translated and distributed around the world. Some of her most popular titles include I’m a Dirty Dinosaur, I’m a Hungry Dinosaur, Where does Thursday go?That Boy, Jack, I Spy Mum!, Hoosh! Camels in Australia, Silly Squid! and Pilawuk- When I was Young. Janeen is also widely known for her wonderful contributions to the industry, winning the Carclew Fellowship 2012, being Ambassador for the Premier’s Reading Challenge, and presenting at a number of conferences and schools. It is an honour and thrill to have had the opportunity to find out more about Janeen and her latest gorgeous books, Mrs Dog, Where’s Jessie? and Our Village in the Sky (reviews here).

Where did your passion for books and writing children’s stories begin? Are there any particular books or authors that have played a significant role in where you are today?

I think the passion was always there. I can’t remember a time when words and stories didn’t fascinate me. The sound and power of words has always intrigued. However, we were a book-poor family. And I went to a book-poor school. It was just how it was. I now realise I’ve always carried that ache inside of me. So, I guess it had to come out somewhere, sometime. I’m grateful it did. I would probably credit becoming a teacher and having daughters of my own with the eventual, tentative, stepping out into the children’s writing arena. But I also had a couple of angels in my later adult life who gave me a nudge.
Without a childhood plethora of books or reading matter, I’m on a constant treadmill, trying to capture the thrill of books which are embedded in the psyche of many of my writing colleagues, for whom those books were friends. And so I swing; to read back to my childhood and forward to what is out there today. I’m constantly reading. At times, I wonder if I evaluate enough of what I read. It just seems that I’m hungry or thirsty for stories and poetry. So many authors affected me, but two who immediately spring to mind are Robin Klein and Ruth Park. Their writing touched me; it was full of exquisite detail, rich in character and expressive in language. And they spoke of our country and culture, and at times, our history.

Your writing style varies between heartrending poetry, to playful rhyme and informative and lyrical narrative. Do you have a preferred style of writing? How has your style evolved over the years?

I think once again it comes down very much to what pleases me, particularly aurally. I don’t have a particular favourite way of writing. I write in the style that suits the work. And I find it interesting that although the style might differ according to what I’m writing, people still say they can recognise my work when they see or hear it. I guess my style is like a maypole, with many ribbons attached – each one individual but connected. I think, or hope, that my style has become more honest and richer as it’s evolved. That would please me.

Some of your recent books, in particular Our Village in the Sky, Where’s Jessie? and Mrs Dog, all carry a timeless feel with their beautifully lyrical language and images, as well as encapsulating more sophisticated topics such as cultural differences, loss and survival. What draws you to write with these kinds of themes?

Although at times, I can feel like a suburban fringe-dweller, I have to remind myself that my life has been full of interesting twists and turns and often it is the idea of survival that is uppermost. I think that many everyday people are heroes, tackling life’s mountains. However, from different, and sometimes difficult challenges comes strength and confidence. The word used a lot today is resilience. I think I try and show that in my work. We all battle at times, in various ways, and sometimes we have to dig deep to find courage or strength to continue. Or to look at a situation in a different way. Often, too, help can come when one person takes the hand of another.
I love to see a world of real things; kindness, laughter, nature, play and creativity. I’m not much of an adult in the highly commercialised world.
I think all of this affects the kind of stories and poems I write – and the themes and language embedded in them.

Your most recent release, Mrs Dog, is a truly moving story of unconditional love, nurturing and courage, with elements of humour and adversity blended in the mix. Did this story emerge from a personal experience? What aspect of the story is most meaningful to you?

imageLike in most stories, Mrs Dog is a mixture of experience and imagination. Over a period of years I had collected two names. They sat around in my head for ages with no story. Over time I linked them to farm-style incidents told to me by my husband, and then changed the ideas during many drafts until the final story emerged. It certainly wasn’t one whole package to begin with. I really like the fact that when under pressure, a person/creature is often able to rise above their own expectations, as Baa-rah did in his effort to save Mrs Dog.

What has been the most insightful feedback or response to Mrs Dog so far?

The unconditional love and compassion shown within an unlikely inter-generational relationship.

Illustrator Anne Spudvilas has provided the spectacularly dreamy artwork for both Where’s Jessie? and Our Village in the Sky. How did the pairing come about? How do you feel her illustrations complement your words? Were you able to work closely on each book?

imageIn both instances, I was able to work closely with Anne, which is not the usual experience with author and illustrator. Often seeds are sown many years before eventualities and this was the case in our first collaboration, Our Village in the Sky. Anne and I had become friends through many creator-style catch-ups, and she liked the photos and experiences I told her of my stay in the Himalayan mountains. When I later applied for a Carclew Fellowship for the 2012 Adelaide Festival of Literature, I devised a picture book of poems as a potential project and asked Anne if she’d illustrate. Fortunately I won the award, and in a serendipitous situation, Anne took her sketches and several of my poems to Allen and Unwin, who subsequently published the title.
Anne was able to use images from my photos to create her scenes and characters and we worked closely on the layout and flow of the book, with me making several trips interstate.
In both books, Anne’s palette and style suit the stories perfectly and I am full of admiration for her work. It evokes both emotion and sensory appreciation.
Where’s Jessie? is a story triggered from the sighting of a real teddy bear that’d travelled to the outback on a camel. Because I’d earlier researched and written an award-winning information book, Hoosh! Camels in Australia, I was able to provide Anne with much visual material. Anne could also access the historical database of Trove in the National Library of Australia.
There was story collaboration, too, when Anne suggested changing the character of the person who eventually finds Bertie, from an Afghan camel boy to an Aboriginal boy.

Where’s Jessie? is based on the real life travels of Bertie the bear through the outback in the early 1900s. What was it about Bertie’s story that caught your attention? What was it like to research, and how did you feel meeting the daughter of Bertie’s owner?

imageWhile visiting a country Cornish Festival in South Australia in 2011, I entered a church hall to view a collection of historic memorabilia. The real Bertie bear was seated on a chair, looking slightly tatty but well-loved. The note attached mentioned two facts; he was 101 years old. And he’d travelled to Alice Springs by camel. What a thrill! I had no idea of what I might do with that information, but I was finally able to track down the now-owner, the daughter of the original-owner, who’d been a baby at the time she’d received the bear. I’d had enough experience in the outback (flash floods, included) as well as my earlier research with camels, so it was really the story I needed to work on. At the launch of Where’s Jessie?, the now-owner spoke movingly about how well-loved the ancient bear still is within their family; citing that he is still the comforter of sick children and the soother of bad dreams.

Our Village in the Sky is beautifully written in angelic language that reflects the perspectives of different hard-working, yet playful, children in a remote village amongst the Himalayan mountains. This book is based on your observations whilst living there. What else can you reveal about your experience? What was the most rewarding part about writing this story?

imageI felt compelled to write about this village, and particularly the children, because I was able to interact with them at the time, using sign language or games. Or I simply watched them. Only a few villagers spoke any English at all, and it was very minimal. Culturally, and because of the language barrier, it was not possible for me to ask about many things pertaining to women or family life. So my focus was the children. I noted and photographed. I wrote a diary of my feelings and thoughts. But, back home, when I came to write, it was the children I wanted to write about. The images in my mind decided that the ‘story’ would be a series of poems depicting their life, so different to children in the Western world. The most rewarding part was the connection I felt through the words, and that I had acknowledged my experience in that area of the world.

What do you hope for readers to gain from this book?

Curiosity. Understanding. Awareness. And being able to relate to the child-like aspects in each poem.

Can you please tell us about your working relationship with illustrator Ann James on the I’m a Dirty/Hungry Dinosaur books? Was this collaboration any different to any other of your author-illustrator partnerships?

imageAnn and I had been published together in a book called Dog Star, an Omnibus/Scholastic chapter book in the SOLO series and we’d become friends mainly through catch-ups at various festivals and so on. At one festival at Ipswich in 2009, I asked Ann to consider a poem I’d written. It was called I’m a dirty dinosaur. Over discussions, Ann agreed to illustrate it and with the poem and a few sketches the material went first to my agent, Jacinta di Mase, before it was picked up and published by Penguin Australia. (now Penguin Random House Australia) Ann and I chatted about the text and pictures throughout the process, just as we did with the second book, I’m a hungry dinosaur. Both books have been a lovely culmination and collaboration of ideas.

What were the most rewarding and challenging aspects of creating the ‘dinosaur’ books?

imageWorking with Ann is a joy. She is alive with ideas, energy and enthusiasm. We both enjoy the playfulness of the books, and the act of play and fun with language is important to both of us. Ann also likes to minimalise her line work to give the maximum effect and I think she’s done this brilliantly in both books. I also like to hone down my words so they shine without any extra unnecessary baggage.
There’s also an integral trust between the two of us, which is wonderful.
The challenge came in the second book. It’s not an unusual dilemma. The first is the prototype. The second must follow the format yet still have its own life. We believe we achieved that in I’m a hungry dinosaur!

If you could be any kind of dinosaur, what would that be and why?

I guess if I could be any dinosaur it would be the one Ann created!

As an experienced author, what advice would you give to those writers just starting out?

Apart from reading and writing, I think it’s interesting to write down passages from other authors’ books. Writing slows your thinking down. You might enjoy reading the passages, but when you write them down, you are considering the authors’ motivations and reasons for writing those particular words. You might notice more fully the effect those words have. You might feel the pull of a different style, which could loosen your own, stretch it or challenge it. Finding your own voice can often take a long time. But playing around with other people’s words can sometimes be quite surprising.
Work hard. Understand that writing is a craft. As such, there is always room for improvement. And improvement brings you closer to publication.

And finally, if you could ask our readers any question, what would that be?

Some authors write in a particular genre. Their readers know what to expect. However, I write in many different genres. Do you see this as problematic in your reading of my work? **

Thank you so much for the privilege, Janeen! 🙂

Thank you, Romi. Your wonderful, thoughtful questions were much appreciated.

Janeen Brian can be found at her websiteFacebook and Twitter pages.

** Please respond to Janeen’s question in the comments below, or head over to Twitter and join the thread at #JaneenBrianAsks

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Real Books to Read

I'm a Hungry Dinosaur‘Real’ books to read are sought after by those introducing young children to the exciting and vital world of reading. Many picture books are invaluable in opening children’s minds and imaginations to story but only a small number of these can actually also be read by readers at the earliest stages of reading for themselves (although don’t discount children’s memorisation of text as not being reading – they see it as such and it should be affirmed as a stepping stone).

These select ‘real’ books are examples of quality literature, appealing story and are easy enough to read.

Repetition of, generally, simple words is the key. There can be exceptions if some words are interesting enough though – and their meaning supported by the illustrations.

MaxsBear_BoardBook_CoverA series about a little boy called Max by Barbro Lindgren and Eva Eriksson (Gecko Press) has just been re-issued in board book form. These sturdy books are great for very young children to manhandle but can also be used to introduce reading. The three books in the series look at simple events in Max’s day and feature Max, his dog and his bear.

The simple, repetitive text in Max’s Bear begins:

Here is Max’s dog.

Here is Max.

Here is Max’s bear.

And continues:

Max kisses the bear.

Max licks the bear.

Max bites the bear.

Max throws the bear.

Children will enjoy the realistic humour.

Max’s Wagon re-introduces us to the characters and format and Max’s Bath humorously relates all the things that fall into Max’s bath.

Where is PimA step up, but still easy to read is Where is Pim? by Lena and Olof Landstrom (Gecko Press) about a dog who takes off with a toy. An adult could start reading this picture book aloud and encourage a child to join in when the text becomes very predictable:

Is that Pim?

No, that’s a bag.

Is that Pim?

No, that’s a can.

As with many other books, children will spontaneously often join in on subsequent readings – ‘reading’ along as well. To help the reading process, remember to point to the words when you’re reading picture books to young children when it suits – not if you’re getting in the way, though.

I'm a Dirty DinosaurRhythmic text is another aid to helping young children read. Janeen Brian and Ann James have just duplicated the success of I’m a Dirty Dinosaur (Puffin Books) – which James illustrated with clay from her dam and coloured pencils) in I’m a Hungry Dinosaur. Both these books have a rhythmic, ‘join-in’ text, with plenty of repetition:

I’m a hungry dinosaur,

Oh, the cake looks nice.

I’ll chomp and chew

A piece or two …

Maybe one more slice!

And Ann James has even used actual chocolate icing and hundreds and thousands in her illustrations. The cake looks delectable.

Dog In, Cat Out

Another old favourite by Ann James is Dog in, Cat Out with text by Gillian Rubinstein.

Dr Suess, of course, also ticks all these boxes, including humour – a child magnet.

Green Eggs and Ham