It took Bruce Whatley almost the same amount of time I have been plying my trade as an author to conceive and create this 96-page picture book (around 10 years that is). To call Ruben a masterpiece is a discredit to the complexity and intense beauty that harbours within each page. One might spend hours alone exploring the end pages, searching for clues and analysing the significances secreted within. This is not a picture book for the faint hearted. However, it is a supreme testament to Whatley’s self-effacing talent and a proclamation to strive to be the best you can be. As decreed by Whatley himself, ‘It had to be the best I could be.’
Ruben is a captivating synthesis of picture book and graphic novel. Told in parts akin to chapters, it describes the solo existence of a small boy living in the shadows of a futuristic city that functions only on what it receives. It is incapable of producing anything in return, an inequitable industrial wasteland of pylons, viaducts and ominous occupants who represent the pseudo organic heartbeat of a mechanical monster.
Animal antics, you can’t beat them. Creatures great and small, they make us laugh, cry, and ponder. As characters in picture books, they are culturally neutral, globally recognisable conduits for expressing a range of emotions that small children (and adults) are readily able to relate to. In short, their appeal is universal. Today we get up close and personal with a few new animal orientated picture books bound to stir up the David Attenborough in you.
Hot new author illustrator, Philip Bunting has produced a veritable winner. Mopoke’s cultivated, impossibly restrained colour palette and fierce economy of words positively exudes brilliance. It’s the genius absence of colour and preamble that snaps readers into full alert, squaring their attention on the one and only character, a small southern boobook owl, aka Mopoke (although there is an incongruous cameo appearance by a certain nocturnal marsupial, as well).
Mopoke is quiet and unassuming, clearly one who relishes peace and tranquillity. The Australian bush at night, however is rife with annoyances forcing Mopoke to assume various airs of tolerance until finally, he makes a dramatic move.
Covertly comical and clever, one could interpret this picture book as a subtle poke, pardon the pun, at our social media addictions and the intrusive way they interrupt our daily lives. Of course, none of this will matter to readers under seven or so. They will simply be enthralled by Mopoke’s milk chocolate coloured marvellousness. An experience to be savoured.
Until I’d open the sepia hued covers of My Friend Tertius, I had no clue this zoo/war time story even existed. Fenton has, however not just written an historical, fact based picture book, she has encased the true-life story of a British Intelligence covert living in pre-war Hong Kong with that of Tertius, a small-orphaned gibbon into a kind of love story.
Told from Arthur Cooper’s point of view, Tertius soon becomes an inextricable part of Cooper’s life. Together they work and savour the steamy tropical pastimes of Singapore and Hong Kong until the onset of World War II finally forces Cooper to evacuate to Australia. He is loath to leave his best mate behind though so smuggles him into the country before having to surrender him to the Melbourne Zoo.
This is a story of turbulent times, separation, and unconventional friendships that somehow endure. Despite Tertius’ imperfect circumstances, one cannot help but feel a certain warmth for his relationship with Cooper. A fascinating picture book for older readers revealing yet more amazing wartime alliances thoughtfully illustrated by Swan.
Not since One Woolly Wombat have I come across an animal counting book that is so full of bounce and spirit, I thought I might have to a lie down after reading it. Wild’s wondrous way with words is so pleasing to read, you’ll wish this continues beyond the count of 12 happy possums. Light, breezy, and bristling with Australiana, her verse escorts young readers from numbers one to twelve whilst gently stimulating them with the notion that new beginnings are indeed enjoyable. The appeal for new pre-schoolers or primary schoolers is therefore ten out of ten.
Whatley’s illustrations are soft and unobtrusive albeit awfully cute and fun. He even manages to inject new life into an old favourite, the perennial wombat.
One Keen Koala is a counting / back to school book that almost makes me want to troop back off to Kindy. Highly recommended.
Mother’s Day – a day to celebrate the efforts of mothers and mother figures in our lives. Affirming one’s love and appreciation is the best way to the deepest part of her heart, and this can be shown in many ways. One special way to create and savour those deliciously tender moments is to share stories. A kiss, a cuddle, sharing of fond memories, or making new ones, can all develop from the source of a beautiful book, or a few. Start here with these gorgeous picture books specially for mums and grandmas.
Combining once again is the superb duo that brought us Daddies are Awesome/Great! is Meredith Costain and Polona Lovsin with Mummies are Lovely.
Beautifully lyrical yet simple canter leads the path to your heart as this delightful read shows cat mothers in a string of sentimental moments. Furry feline mums and kittens grace each page spread with their adorably realistic and energetic prominence. Readers, being both young children and adults, will appreciate all the amazingly loving attributes that mothers so willingly pour over their young. Soothing their troubles, cheering their mood, fearlessly and fiercely protecting them. And there’s no better way to end a busy, active day than to settle down with a tender, squeezy hug and the affirmations of this unconditional love.
Mummies are Lovely, with its all-round playful sweetness that is sure to generate all kinds of warm and fuzzies, is a purr-fectly soothing way to embrace your mother-child relationship this Mother’s Day.
Mums aren’t the only significant female figures in a child’s life. Those fortunate enough to spend time with their grandmas will certainly reap the benefits of their care. And of course, to Grandma, their little angel can never do wrong.
That is certainly the case in this adorable sequel to the ‘Wombat’ series by the unequivocal talents of Jackie French and Bruce Whatley. A witty story of untold truths relating to cheeky child behaviour and grandparent bias, Grandma Wombat is simply delicious.
Prim and proper (as far as wombats go) is the matriarch, Grandma Wombat. Her babysitting duties are divinely simple and pleasurable (besides the rude disturbances by bounding kangaroos). Just the like the crisp language, her daily schedule is uncomplicated and (usually) straightforward. Whilst Grandma naps, she is blissfully unaware of the happenings behind the scenes. Let’s just say, between heedless bounding kangaroos and high flying stunts, baby grandson bids more of a wild adventure than Grandma Wombat would even care to dream of!
With its suitably boisterous and whimsical illustrations, Grandma Wombatcertainly packs a punch in the humour department but also treasures the endearing qualities of a special bond and a grandparent’s love. Delightful to share with preschool-aged children at any time of the day.
The joys of the bedtime routine are gorgeously represented in this frisky tale, suitably fashioning the precious relationship between a little girl and her mumsie. Mum plays along with all the ‘onesie’ characters that her daughter becomes as she, not so inadvertingly, delays the inevitable. The ever-so-patient parent sneaks opportunities of affection between the drama and the outfits; a nibble on the crocodile, a tickle of the tiger, swinging of the penguin, and a squeezy cuddle with the bear. And when it’s finally time to tuck in for the night, who is waiting with a ‘tall’ surprise?!
Rex’s narrative flows smoothly and repetitively for a pleasurable read for little ones to follow and try to predict what animal comes next. Amanda Francey’s exuberant illustrations spill imagination and spirit, with the added lightly-shaded softness for those tender moments.
Onesie Mumsie is a charming book to wear out your little ones at the end of your fun-filled Mother’s Day. It is also the perfect companion to Francey’s latest book, Take Ted Instead(text by Cassandra Webb), reviewed amongst others by Dimity here.
Happy Mother’s (and Grandmother’s) Day to all the cheery, thoughtful, playful, and biased mums and grandmas!
I was but a babe in arms when Cyclone Althea swept across Townsville on the eve of Christmas in 1971 however, I will never forget the noise of it; the warning sirens, the howling winds, the pelting rain. We were hushed into submissive silence by the storm screaming to get through our walls; muted by the all-consuming blackness, the sheer force of it. And then afterwards, struck again with incredulousness; our roof still over our heads whilst every other in the street lay shorn off, twisted and deformed in backyards where they didn’t belong.
Images like these are hard to erase. A few years later, another cyclone, this one by the name of Tracy struck at a similar time of year, blighting a similar town, producing similar indelible memories for the survivors.
45 years on, powerful storytelling duo, Jackie French and Bruce Whatley mark this event with their new picture book, Cyclone. It’s hard to ignore the images of this beautiful work, as well.
Following in the same potent spirit of their Flood and Fire collaborations, Cyclone focuses primarily on a single tragic natural disaster, which had cataclysmic consequences for not only the community it affected but also many others across Australia. The results are profound and moving, yet also hopeful.
A storm brewed out at sea on the 24th of December 1974, yet the residents of Darwin hunkered down, unconcerned, too preoccupied with the imminent arrival of Santa Claus to worry about a fairly normal occurrence for them. When Cyclone Tracy unexpectedly swung and hit Darwin full in the face, she did so with such vehemence and force that the township was taken unawares. As the BOM quoted, ‘The entire fabric of life in Darwin was catastrophically disrupted, with the majority of buildings being totally destroyed or badly damaged, and very few escaping unscathed.’
French depicts this wholesale devastation with lilting verse that pays homage to the intensity of the storm as well as infusing the tragedy with a personal touch. The narrator, presumably a small expectant child waiting for Santa but faced instead with a wild beast who consumes their town overnight, is shown huddling with their family in their brick barbecue amidst a sea of destruction.
The poignancy of the situation and the degree of loss is beautifully rendered by Whatley’s pencil and acrylic wash illustrations. As with its two predecessors, I believe Whatley executed Cyclone’s drawings with his left (non-dominant) hand producing exquisite expressions of infinite detail and fluidity. Streaks, smears and runs feature in every landscape representing the force and chaos of the storm and later the pervading sense of new life, slowly seeping back, where ‘houses grow…day by day’ – my daughter’s favourite spread. The washed-out appearance and toned-down hues do indeed reflect the tone and look of a feature film reel likely to have existed in the 70s. The whole effect is goose bump raising.
Cyclone is an ode of sorts to the man at the end of the phone line French happened to answer one fateful day following the catastrophe of Cyclone Tracy as she manned the Information Section of the Department of Urban and Regional Development. She will never forget his despair, nor his tenacious courage to rebuild and move on.
Like Flood and Fire, and Cyclone Tracy itself, Cyclone is a telling testimony to the legacy of good that can emerge from ravaged lives and homes. It cites that humans are ultimately survivors, capable of adapting and ‘inventing ways to live with whatever challenges the planet throws at them.’ We are reminded to respect the forces of nature and learn from our mistakes; a significant observation for those who have endured a natural disaster and for those of our more recent generations who have not. Highly recommended.
Reaching a new milestone is one that comes with excitement, pride, aspirations and sometimes, trepidation. We’ve already been through the first year of school experience (with another waiting in the wings), but even so, starting afresh has its own set of rewards and challenges. From learning a whole new routine, to meeting new friends and setting new goals. Here are a few picture books that are sure to help your kidlets relate (and ease their minds) to what’s in store for their year/s ahead.
Aptly dedicated to those nerve-racked, first-time school parents, experts Rosie Smith and Bruce Whatley send a most encouraging message from the outset. Then, warmly greeted by a little yellow duckling the first day routine begins.
Each turn of the page introduces us to another adorable creature as s/he embarks on an independent journey to life as a student. And no matter how complex the task might seem, such as a caterpillar dressing each of its many, many legs or a pig attempting to eat from an upturned bowl on its head, they are all completely doable.
Written in first person and with minimal text, both words and illustrations work beautifully together to showcase the variety of experiences yet keeping it simple and focussed at the same time. Soothing pastel coloured backgrounds allow the characters’ personalities and humorous antics to pop and burst in this utterly joyous and memorable occasion.
‘My First Day at School’ is the perfect companion that works in partnership with parents and children to successfully accomplish what may feel like a daunting experience. Children between 3 and 6 will fall head over heels in love with this fun, exuberant and relatable story about a typical school day.
Setting off into unfamiliar territory, so to speak, definitely takes a lot of courage. For Pink Piglet, this is certainly true. When mother pig gives her babe the all-clear to expand on his horizons, he is less than confident. Poor Pink Piglet encounters some frighteningly large and noisy animals on his way around the farmyard. But his resilience and frolicsome nature prevail. Covered in brown worms in muck, red squished berries and green squelchy pond weed, the bedraggled-looking piglet is the scariest sight for sore eyes as he heads back home. Well, all the farm animals think so… except for his mum, of course.
The illustrations are beautifully textured and layered with a mix of oils on canvas and digital media in soft, pastel-coloured hues. The expressions and energy emanating from the pictures perfectly compliment the jolly onomatopoeia and animal sound effects.
‘Be Brave, Pink Piglet’ is a spirited read aloud story wonderfully capturing a serendipitous moment of bravery and playfulness. Another relevant read for your little school starter – your own ‘brave explorer’.
Watch Phil Cumming’s special video message to school starters here.
Capturing our attention from first glance is ‘When I Grow Up’ by much-loved duo, Andrew Daddo and Jonathan Bentley (Check on Me and First Day). With its scattered assortment of occupational items on the cover and bright neon colours upon entering the book, you know this story will be full of diversity and effervescence.
It’s not only children with aspirations for a glowing future. Adults, too can take inspiration to making their dreams come true. The teacher, as the role model, opens the story with the projection that she’d like to be the school principal. Then she facilitates open minds with the question, “What do you want to be?” Throughout the story, several children stand up and with the most imaginative and optimistic of responses as they proclaim their future desires. From a hair-raising hairdresser to a whizz-bang, supersonic-robotic inventor, an alien-photographing astronaut, writer of the most epic of stories, and an all-round stage performer. But in a tidy conclusion we learn, yes, we can be a multitude of things, but most importantly we should just be ourselves.
Whether realistic or far-fetched, the concepts and language are age-appropriate with an element of humour that kids will enjoy. Visually this book is captivating as the text weaves in and around the bold and colourful illustrations. Each spread captures that enthusiasm with its pictures that fill the page and extra hidden details to explore.
‘When I Grow Up’ will take children (and adults) from age four to big places, and all it takes is the power of imagination to turn dreams into realities. It is also a useful resource for learning about different jobs and their roles.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
So, you’re torn between traditional sensible titles and contemporary crazy reads to fill your under 12 year-olds’ stockings. Why not splash out on both and please everyone. Here are some more stocking stuffers to complement the rollicking fun ones Romi featured in her Christmas inspired picture book round up. Time to get your Santa on.
And what a Santa we have first up. Colin Buchanan and Greg Champion shine again in We Wish You a Ripper Christmas. Sing-a-long to this Aussie bushed inspired slice of summer fun. Santa Wombat is all in a fuddle after losing his delivery list. As he streaks across a burnished outback sky in search of his all-important catalogue for kids, he encounters the bush inhabitants madly making merry in readiness for Christmas day; koalas hanging tinsel, galahs rockin’ on, dingos wrapping thongs – well of course. But will he find his list in time? Choice watercolour illustrations by Roland Harvey, link-arms, sing-a-long tunes included on a CD and a surprise ending make this the perfect picture book gift for international visitors or your own tribe in here in Oz.
What does Santa do When it’s not Christmas? is the question author illustrator Heath McKenzie puzzles in his Chrimbo-themed picture book released last year. McKenzie’s meticulously detailed illustrations glitter with festive cheer long after the last gift is delivered. Readers embark on a thrilling behind the scenes tour of the North Pole like never before where we are privy to the machinations of the Christmas Tree Angel aka gift trendsetter and planner, the Sleigh Pit Crew, the tireless Elves and the grunt and muscle of the Sleigh pulling team aka Santa’s Reindeer. Bubbling with fun and enigmatic suggestions, we never really truly find out exactly what Santa gets up to but can be sure that he’s always somewhere close by. Wink wink, say no more. Highly recommended fun for lower primary schoolers.
I think Mike Dumbleton and Tom Jellett may have uncovered the truth with Santa’s Secret. This splendid little picture book allows Santa one day to recover after a rather intense night of labour (2 billion pit stops no less) before he sets off on a flight to balmier climes. Forsaking fur-trimmed coat and winter jocks for a pair of boardies, straw hat and obligatory Hawaiian shirt – push pineapple if you please! – Santa lobs up at an old Aussie beach shack. He stashes the reindeer round the back, then…gets out, and cuts some cranking waves aka surfs, until the sun sets. True to his nature however, Santa doesn’t just leave with surfboard in hand, oh no. Ho ho ho! Delectable Aussie flavour ripples throughout this jaunty Christmas tale. You’ll love it and so will the kids.
I love jingling my bells at Christmas time, who doesn’t? Claire Saxby and Janine Dawson have given young readers and me all the excuse they need to ‘jingle all the way…’ with Christmas at Grandad’s Farm. Loud, bold, bouncy rhythmic verse catapults this familiar tune to new heights as we visit Grandad’s Farm for some festive fun. The whole family is there, busting for a swim in the country creek and scoffing the Christmas treats before collapsing in the obligatory heap on the couch. Good old-fashioned Aussie festive fun. Some things never change. Only a CD would make this classic better.
Speaking of classics, ever wondered how some of our most endearing Christmas traditions came into being? Jackie French and Bruce Whatley’sQueen Vitoria’s Christmas endeavours to disclose a few historical truths in this must-have Christmas classic. Portrayed from the royal canines’ point of view in loping verse and muzzle-high perspective, the mysterious behind door going ons in the palace home of Queen Vic and Al and their five children are eventually explained but more mystery ensues following the disappearance of the Christmas turkey. Jolly and droll, this is history served up with all the best bits included.
Little readers who revel in sparkles and flickering lights, sugar plum fairies and stars shining bright will adore this look and find book by Anna Pignataro, Princess and Fairy A Very Sparkly Christmas. Festooned with more glitter than a winter wonderland morning this follows the quest of bunny friends, Princess and Fairy. They are paw-deep in pre-noel preparations when they suddenly receive notification from the Keepers of Christmas that they are in charge of decorating the tree this year. They hop to the challenge in search of the various baubles, treasures, and delights described on their list. And let me tell you, locating these objects so cleverly secreted within Pignataro’s sweeter than sweet illustrations is no sloppy challenge. I’m sure pre-schoolers will have more success than I did and be thoroughly rewarded in glitter and good cheer for their efforts. Crafty, clever, and cute beyond measure, it’ll keep them busy for hours. It did me.
I’m not sure how or why but I’ve still got many of the board books of my childhood and now, those from my daughter’s early learning days.
Their very construction may have something to do with standing up to the test of time. Maybe, I just can’t bear to part with them because of what they represent, an intensely intimate time of shared firsts, revelations, and discoveries.
Board books not only symbolize these never to be repeated phases of a child’s development but also crucially supply growing intellects with those first initial stepping stones towards visual and verbal literacy.
Here are some fun newbies to add to your collection.
Big Books by Natalie Marshall. I absolutely love the look and feel of these large format board books. The Big Book of Silly allows pre-schoolers to revel in the surreal and silly, like a rhino eating three hundred jellybeans before bed for instance (however perhaps this is not as silly as it sounds to a child). As with the Big Book of Happy, it is illustrated with loud colour-filled pages of big bold characters prompting very young readers to question their own happy and silly moments. Too much fun to pass up.
Kit the mechanic owns a car wash and small but eclectic fleet of vehicles in the town of Tyre Flats. (Don’t you love the connections?) The thing is, whenever the cars drive through the car wash, magical things happen; front and back ends mix and match resulting in some curious combinations…and adventures.
Beginner readers will get a real buzz of out these Transformers meets Cars tales. They provide the idea vehicle from which to explore concepts of fear, friendship, spatial awareness and direction, and the benefits of working together to achieve great results. I adore the simple colourful graphics, exploration of language and brilliant little twisty endings of these books. Robust (super thick glossy pages means these books will last for a long time on the book shelves of even the most active readers) yet cute enough to win over boys and girls, and hopelessly appealing, the Magic Car Wash series is another great example of board books on offer from The Five Mile Press May 2015. Titles include The Giant Mouse, The Runaway Car and Red’s First Fire.
Lastly but not least (there are still so many to fawn over) a little bit more magic…Possum Magic. Mem Fox and Julie Vivas have joined formidable forces again to develop a series of beautifully bound board books aimed at pre-schoolers and based on their perennial picture book favourite, Possum Magic. Animals led the way, now followed by, Actions, an exploration of ‘doing’ words.
Words that inspire action in various modes are lovingly represented by Vivas’ cheerful illustrations. Familiar yet brimming with new eye-catching detail, each spread features two different verbs demonstrated by those endearing Possum Magic bushland characters we’ve come to love.
If you like eating (lamingtons), reading (in comfortable places) and dancing (under starlit skies), you will love Possum Magic, Actions and so will little ones aged 0 – 4 years of age.
Here’s another hot off the press. Pig Kahuna Pirates! by author illustrator, Jennifer Sattler just corkscrewed its way across my desk. This chunky little board book follows in the wake of Pig Kahuna and Sattler’s previous Chick ‘n’ Pug picture book creations. Goofy, cutesy characters bounce through seemingly parochial situations yet inspire adventure and genuine expressions of love.
The porcine brothers, Fergus and Dink spend a day at the beach together caught in a world of pirates and brotherly disagreement until Fergus realises the value of his baby brother. Heavily textured illustrations ably capture the emotions and the ambient beauty of the day. A great board book addition for those with siblings under 5 years old.
Harsh weather conditions are terrifying enough at the best of times, but what about when Mother Nature plays a hand in the wild and extreme that gamble with actual lives?
Award-winning author and Australian Laureate, Jackie French, together with the unequivocally talented illustrator, Bruce Whatley, have joined forces in producing a gripping and stunningly haunting book of adversity; ‘Fire’. Just like their previous book, ‘Flood’; depicting the horrendous Queensland floods in 2011, ‘Fire’ is another efficacious story of courage and strength in the face of a natural disaster.
Throughout the book are amazing, succinct verses that take your breath away with every word. The story begins with a serene outback set amongst golden hills and limp gum tree leaves. Upon turning the page, we are faced with the sudden impact of ferocious orange flames and black smoke, sending a once peaceful cockatoo fleeing for its life. Ramifications advance, affecting the people who live amongst the burning trees as the fire engulfs the land in a thunderous, cackling roar. Pretty soon, whole page spreads bleed with blood-red paint across the atmosphere, and thick grey ash that forces inhabitants to quickly escape the “gulping smoke and singed debris.” Next, a gut-wrenching image of the oven swallowing houses, trees, the land. What about the aftermath? Loss, grief, disbelief. But the bravery of the firefighters and the safety of loved ones is what is appreciated most. From pain comes the strength of the Australian spirit, as we see the CFA tending to sick animals, and read of those friends who give love and help rebuild a world burnt bare. And eventually, the Earth is reborn once again.
The final page details Jackie French‘s personal experiences with fighting bushfires and its effects on the land, and how best to manage its dangers. Bruce Whatley also gives appreciation for the courage of those dealing with these terrors, and his account of his illustration process. It is fascinating that he felt the erratic nature of the fire was the hardest thing to capture, because looking at his daubs, flicks, bleeding outlines, reds and yellows amongst their surrounding darks certainly creates intensely evocative and impactful imagery in my eyes.
‘Fire’ is a powerful, poignant and moving story of real life truths; a devastingly beautiful, poetic rendition of a tough facet of nature. It is a book about life, love, friendship, hope and the human spirit that is so brilliantly captured in its words and images. ‘Fire’ is suited to primary school children, and is deservingly shortlisted in the CBCA’s 2015 Picture Book of the Year awards. Just phenomenal.
In just a couple more months, Australia commemorates the Centenary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli. Dozens of new titles are already marching forward to mark the occasion with heart-rending renditions of tales about ‘bloodshed, death, ruin, and heartbreak.’ This is how singer/songwriter, Eric Bogle views the futility of war.
It’s a timely message that fortunately more and more schoolchildren are gaining a deeper respect and understanding for through historic picture books like this one, And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.
Bogle’s iconic lyrics make your chest heave with anguish at the awful waste of life, yet rippling beneath the waves of depression, is an undercurrent of pride and admiration, perhaps borne from a determination to never ever let this happen again; and yet we do.
One wonders how so beautiful and wrenching a tale could be visually resurrected to deliver the kind of visceral impact young people will appreciate and gain from. Easy, you get a master with the surest of touches and the purest of hearts to illustrate it. You allow his colours to bleed across images that tumble across the pages, injured and torn, dirty and forlorn. You watch until your skin prickles with emotion and your eyes burn with tears.
Today, I am honoured to have that master at our draft table. Please welcome, Bruce Whatley. Here’s what he had to say.
Who is Bruce Whatley? Tell us one thing about yourself we are not likely to find on a web site.
If it wasn’t for my Mum I would not have the use of my right arm. Injured at birth, the damage to my right shoulder was such that she was told it would whither and be useless. Fortunately she refused to believe it and after nearly three years of massaging I held a spoon in my right hand for the first time. Since then I think I’ve held a brush as that’s the hand I’ve made my living with.
You’ve penned and illustrated many children’s stories. What aspect of children’s book creation do you prefer? Which do you regard yourself more proficient at and why?
When I write and illustrate it isn’t as if I write first then think ‘How am I going to illustrate this?’ It comes together like a movie in my head and I don’t really separate the text from the images. That’s why the text and images are so reliant on each other in my books, they compliment and bounce off one another to tell a more complex story.
I guess I think of myself as a better illustrator than writer because that is my background but I am enjoying writing more and more and as I get more confident am working on longer manuscripts. Doing both means if I hit the equivalent of writer’s block when illustrating I can put down the brushes and write for a while.
Can you name one title you feel exemplifies your work the best? Is it the title you are most proud of, or is that yet to come?
The book I’m working on now I am most proud of. This is the book I would give up all others to have published. It is a story I’ve written and though the illustrations use the simplest of mediums – the medium I am most comfortable with – lead pencil – they comprise extensive use of 3d programs to create a unique world and environment. This book will have no compromises. This will be the best I can do. ‘Ruben’ approx. 120 page picture book.
Recent picture book collaborations with Jackie French have focussed on dramatic occurrences such as natural disasters. And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, is no less powerful. What attracted you to take on and to fulfil a project of this emotional magnitude?
Because they were of such emotional magnitude. Success with wombats and ugly dogs had the potential to pigeon-hole me as a particular type of storyteller. I am always looking at ways of growing as an illustrator, looking for new ways of expressing the narratives. These books also enabled me to explore what I had discovered using my left hand. That I produce far more expressive and emotional images drawing with my other hand. Matilda is by far the most emotional book I have illustrated.
Did you ever feel emotionally challenged at any point of this book’s production (because of its heartrending subject matter)? If so why?
I based my illustrations on original photographs taken in Gallipoli at the time. Even though I needed to adapt what I was looking at I wanted the images to be based on reality as much as possible. When using photos this way especially when drawing details it is a bit like those ‘spot the difference’ puzzles you get in newspapers and magazines – you flick your eyes from one to the other to spot the differences. Similarly when you are copying an image you flick from the photograph to your drawing to make sure you are getting the right shape and size etc. It’s not so much about what you are drawing you are concentrating on lines, shapes and position.
I was doing this on one of the illustrations. It wasn’t until I completed the piece I realised what I thought was a rock was the hand of a dead soldier. I lost it at that point.
This was symbolic to me as it highlighted that we look without seeing. We watch the old veterans march and wear their medals. Old men. But we don’t see the 19 year old that watched their mates get their legs blown off. We do forget. And we still send our children to war.
You are enviably competent in a number of illustrative mediums and styles. Describe those you used and incorporated into Matilda.
As I said I’m always looking for new ways to illustrate. Matilda was done with my left hand – which has a mind of its own!!! I can’t write with my left hand and really I have very little dexterity when I use it – but depending on your definition I draw better with my left than with my right. I used a waterproof felt tip pen for the line work then an acrylic wash over the top. Using acrylics instead of watercolours meant I could work in layers without dragging the colour from underneath.
The predominant colour scheme throughout this book is one of solemn sepia hues stained with splashes of red. What mood are you trying to convey with this palette choice?
I guess it was influenced by how we normally see this period but also I wanted to reflect the mud and despair. Bright colours suggest hope and laughter – I don’t think there was much of that.
Your use of perspective at the start and end of this tale is both visually arresting and choking with emotional impact. Was this your intention? How do close up views influence the feel of a picture book story when compared to flowing landscape illustrations?
Faces are amazing things and I often have my characters looking directly out at the reader. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. I think that last close up opens that window a bit. (Interestingly I could not have achieved that intensity with my right hand.) Being so close also means it’s in your face literally. After watching from a distance suddenly you are confronted with the reality of the consequences.
My first glimpse of the flamed-licked cover of Fire, sparked a considerable amount of emotion. Growing up close to the Adelaide foothills meant scorching childhood summers were unfortunately often synonymous with phrases such as Ash Wednesday and Black Friday.
A couple of years ago I was inextricably moved by the heart-rending picture book recount of the Brisbane floods by the same quietly sensational picture book team, Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, (Flood) so viewed this new picture book release of theirs with anxious anticipation. Could they pull off another disaster-inspired winner able to resound with children and adults alike? The answer is, yes.
The cover and title pages, both featuring the single word, Fire, as though smeared by someone’s finger across a grimy, ash-streaked window pane, mesmerised me from the onset. I was unable to quell my attraction in the same way one is unable to sever ones hypnotic trance with fire’s dancing flames.
This is apt, for fire is the predominate character in this masterful expression of how our nation weathers one of its most deadly natural adversaries. Its release is timely. Once again, vast tracks of Australia bake till hills are ‘bleached golden…and leaves lay limp in the air sucked dry.’ All sobering reminders of Victoria five years past.
French balances beautiful evocative language with harsh stark imagery. She tempers the brittle narrative reality with soft lilting rhyme, thus allowing us to ‘enjoy’ the awful spectacle unfolding before us. A sulphur crested cockatoo sits alone under ‘a baked blue sky.’ He is disturbed by a flickering, snickering enemy. The birth of a bush fire takes hold with alarming ferocity and speed.
Fear feeds confusion, people flee. The fire feeds itself, growing more and more invincible and mocking as it consumes everything in its path without mercy or remorse. Soon an inferno rages; a fire storm spitting fury and blasting away life, deforming reality and changing lives forever.
But there is hope, always hope, on the horizon: a speck overhead, a hose, a loved-ones hand…And in spite of the devastation, French shows us that it is how we face the aftermath that is often the true measure of our survival.
I am unable to say whether the narrative imagery out surpasses the illustrations or vice versa, however Bruce Whatley’s visual images burnt themselves deep into my psyche like the very stink of fire ravaged bushland. They are breathtaking.
Most fascinating are Whatley’s endnotes describing how difficult it was for him to capture ‘fire’ in paint. And yet all of its dirty, erratic intensity and heat are rendered with such brilliant acuity, that the pages look almost too hot to touch. Logs turned to charcoal glow amber so realistically, you swear you could toast marshmallows on them.
But this is no marshmallow-toasting-time as we are reminded by images of burnt out cars, stricken families and most poignantly, a volunteer fire fighter giving a koala a sip of water from his bottle; all vivid recollections of news clips from former dire times.
Every page is hemmed in by ruled pencilled borderlines. The water coloured illustrations fill these windows, sometimes bleeding over the edges which for me, softens the impact of the scene, contains it somehow and therefore prepares me to turn the next page. I presume many younger readers will experience this subconsciously as well. My 8 year old appreciated the cockatoo’s presence throughout as much as I valued the lingering message that out of tragedy and despair, ‘good things will grow again’.
Fire is a warming testimony to the selflessness of those who give everything to fight Australia’s bushfires. It is as powerful and dramatic as fire itself but is a picture book that will have significant relevance for readers 4 + for varying reasons. It embraces the sometimes bleak reality of living in Australia and how that translates to our ‘never say never’ attitude and our indomitable spirit of survival.
Another CBCA award book in the making. Get your copy here.
Given my infamous obsession with all things underpants, and considering that I pride myself on being relatively across Australian illustrated book royalty Jackie French and Bruce Whatley’s oeuvre, I’m not sure how knowledge of Queen Victoria’s Underpants slipped past me.
Nonetheless, I’m rectifying that now. I mean, really, what’s not to sell you on a book about underpants like an illustrated cover featuring a windswept dog? Two windswept dogs if we’re going to argue semantics.
Queen Victoria’s Underpants is a whimsical tale with an important historical bent. Until Queen Victoria popularised wearing underpants, few women wore them (something that is, these days and to a underpants connoisseur like me, almost inconceivable).
Her championing of underpants meant—and here’s the kicker—that girls then had the freedom to engage in activities otherwise considered, without the modesty aid of underpants, to be unladylike or risqué. Cue horse riding and bike riding and dancing and archery …
Queen Victoria ruled half the world, the book’s un-named protagonist tells us, but she, like most people of her time, was underpants-less. ‘What if the wind blows the Queen’s skirt up?’ is the question that’s posed to refute the archaic claim that the Queen had no need of undies.
Broken down, the Queen Victoria’s Underpants’ premise is my friend’s someone did something incredible [insert heavy-hitting historic figure and their claim to fame here]. But her mum (as in the protagonist’s mum) made Queen Victoria’s underpants. This is the moment that the ‘My dad, picks the fruit …’ celebrating-the-everyday Cottee’s cordial jingle entered (and still hasn’t left) my head.
The tributes at the book’s beginning are whimsical, with double meanings set to deliberately sail over its target audience’s heads. French’s reads:
To Bruce, Lisa, Jennifer and Natalie, with love and enormous gratitude … playing with royal underwear has never been so much fun.
For Lisa, who keeps me busy enough to afford clean underwear every day.
The illustrations are, as always with this pair, complementary and complimentary all at once. The dogs’ facial expressions are, hands down, my fave elements.
I’ve got to say, though, that Queen Victoria’s Underpants is a bit light on substance—I expected more and better from such an accomplished, well-oiled writing-illustrating team as French and Whatley. I’m admittedly not in this book’s target readership, but I’d still argue that it doesn’t cater well to either kids’ imaginations or wink at adults—or do both, as most seriously good children’s books do.
For example, beyond bringing the quirky Queen Victoria creating an underpants trend trivia to our attention, the book doesn’t include enough historical matter to warrant inclusion on educational reading lists. Nor does it include story elements exciting or out-of-the-box enough to hook kids into reading it (or adults reading it to them) for free-time fun either.
Which kind of makes you wonder when—or rather, if—anyone’s reading it. Which in turn may explain why I hadn’t heard of this book, first published in 2010, until now. Which is why I think I’ll be sticking to re-reading French’s and Whatley’s back catalogue. Diary of a Wombat, anyone?
For more than 20 years Bruce Whatley has been bringing to life some of the cutest, craziest, sweetest and ugliest characters in children’s books.
His credits include Little White Dogs Can’t Jumpand Detective Donut and the Wild Goose Chasewritten with his wife Rosie Smith who continues to be a large part of his work,The Little Refugee, Zoobots, Monster, Diary of a Wombat and he has worked with authors such as Jackie Fench, Anh Do, Andrew Daddo and Libby Hathorn.
The Ugliest Dog in the World is a timeless example of Bruce’s talent as a storyteller and illustrator.
Everyone thinks the Ugliest Dog in the World is ‘ugly’, but in different ways. Mum thinks she’s ugly in a cute sort of way, the lady next door thinks she’s pretty, but you haven’t seen the lady next door. My best friend even screams when she sees her…But I think she’s beautiful, in a sloppy kind of way!
BRUCE WHATLEY has been writing and illustrating award winning children’s books for over twenty years. He has previously worked as an art director in advertising and has illustrated over 60 children’s books.
In 2008 Bruce completed his PhD, Left Hand Right Hand: implications of ambidextrous image making looking at the ability to draw with the ‘other hand’. He has since produced 3 books illustrated with his left hand including Flood and more recently A Boy Like Me.
A Gloriously funny tribute to a little known corner of royal history – complete with Christmas chaos
The sequel to the hilarious (and historically accurate) QUEEN VICTORIA’S UNDERPANTS, this Christmas tale tells the story of one of our most endearing Christmas traditions – the Christmas Tree
Something strange is happening at the palace and the dogs can’t work it out.
The cooks are busy … are royal visitors arriving?
Mysterious parcels are arriving.
And most curious of all … what is that TREE doing in Prince Albert’s study?
From the creators of the delightful QUEEN VICTORIA’S UNDERPANTS comes the story of the first ‘traditional’ Christmas, complete with a Christmas tree and presents for the family, as seen from the point of view of Queen Victoria’s dogs.
JACKIE FRENCH is one of Australia’s most renowned and best-loved children’s authors. She is a full-time writer who lives in the Araluen Valley, NSW.Jackie’s books have won numerous awards, both in Australia and overseas, and they have been translated into over twenty languages.
BRUCE WHATLEY has been writing and illustrating award winning children’s books for over twenty years. He has previously worked as an art director in advertising and has illustrated over 60 children’s books.
Celebrating ten years of one very determined wombat and one extraordinary collaboration
Jackie French’s love of wombats comes alive in this cheeky observation of Mothball’s life, while Bruce Whatley’s captivating illustrations of Mothball’s antics show just how entertaining and endearing wombats are to humans.
Published around the world including in France, United Kingdom and the USA Diary of a Wombat is a beautiful tale of one wombat’s daily life.
From the creators –
‘Mothball Wombat bounced into our lives 17 years ago, bashing up the garbage bin, shredding the doormat, and demanding carrots. Diary of a Wombat changed my life. No matter where I talk – from keynotes at history conferences to talks on literacy or weed ecology – someone always wants to know ‘is the wombat in Diary of a Wombat real?’ She’s real, she’s big, stroppy, smelly, and she and the book she inspired have brought us enormous joy.’ – JACKIE FRENCH
‘The inspiration for Mothball, the wombat was a very ugly, white English Bulldog i had at the time. In many ways they were the same shape. They definitely had the same personality. The success of Diary of a Wombat’ has been overwhelming at times – it’s not something you can plan or predict. There’s just no stopping that wombat.’ – BRUCE WHATLEY
About the Authors
JACKIE FRENCH is one of Australia’s most renowned and best-loved children’s authors.Jackie’s books have won numerous awards, both in Australia and overseas, and they have been translated into over twenty languages. She lives in the Araluen Valley, NSW.
BRUCE WHATLEY has been writing and illustrating award winning children’s books for over twenty years. He has previously worked as an art director in advertising and has illustrated over 60 children’s books.
Happy belated Father’s Day, dads! I hope you were spoiled and adored, as Dad should be on this very special day. In celebration of fathers everywhere, here are my picks for the best new release Father’s Day books.
Rosie Smith and Bruce Whatley are back in this sequel to My Mum’s the Best – this time featuring ultra cool dads of all shapes, sizes and orientation, from a strutting rooster (with tickly feathers) to a mouse-shy lion, a mud-rollicking pig and a kooky-looking penguin.
Ideal for the very young, Bruce Whatley’s divine animal friends parade across the page with typical humour and charm. Simple text makes this ideal for a bedtime read.
Justin Ractliffe’s striking, modern and totally funky book on dads is taken to great heights with Cathie Glassby’s kooky, childlike and immensely whimsical illustrations.
Dads, en masse, are totally represented in this low text book, making it ideal for tots, and I love how they are represented in totally out-there ways – from a dad who wears undies and one who wears boxers, to a dad who’s ever-smart and one a little scruffy.
Charming, colourful and fun.
What Makes My Dad Happy (Allen & Unwin)
What makes had Happy?
Well, a lot of different things, for it really depends on what dad you have.
Maybe it’s building towers or picking flowers. Maybe it’s a note, strategically placed in a coat pocket, or when he becomes a launching pad for little aeroplanes. Every dad is different and that’s what makes them special.
Loretta Broekstra’s charming illustrations make for a sweet book for the younger set.
It’s nearly Christmas Eve at the toyshop and every toy is hopeful they will be snaffled for the festive stocking. All the shiny new toys are the most popular, of course . . . they come and go quickly, and never last long enough to make friends of the other toys.
At the very back of the toyshop, covered in a layer of dust, an old fashioned wind-up toy sits forgotten – its glory days long past. The older toys well remember Space Ride and its fabulous whirling glee – but alas, this vintage toy needs a key to get whirling, and that key is long gone.
The older toys try to get Space Ride working again. They try Annie’s pretty golden key. They try Chirpy Chick’s small silver key and Doris the Dial-Up Typewriter’s key – to no avail.
The new toys just don’t understand. They don’t need keys to light up their whiz bang special features! So, how can the older toys recover Space Ride and show the new toys just how fabulous a vintage toy can be? There’s one key left to try . . . can the toys recover it without scaring the pants off the elderly shop keeper?
The highlight of this book is the lustrous Pixar-style animation – so realistic, you can imagine it popping to life on a movie screen. From the endpapers to the divine characters and typefacing, this latest book by the masterful Bruce Whatley is a true delight in retro design. Co-written with Whatley’s son Ben, this is a simple, sweet story with a strong illustration focus.
It’s the story of Nog who is the only one in town who doesn’t have a nose that does anything useful. His family and friends have noses that can do all sorts of things; sniff out a bargain, play music and even catch fish.
But all Nog could catch was a cold.
Nog would dearly love to have a nose that had some use, but one hasn’t been discovered yet. Grandma has always said Nog has a nose for trouble, but that hasn’t come to fruition yet – until the day Nog sniffs out a pepper storm and saves the town from catastrophe.
Nog didn’t know he had a nose for trouble until ‘trouble’ came to the Land of the Noses!
Kids love playing nose games and the things that come out of noses are of particular fascination so this book has plenty to tickle their sense of humour.
I found so much to love about Nog and the Land of Noses. The text is clever and the illustrations are hilarious. I think my favourites were the blocked noses, the running noses and the picked noses.
While this book is funny and colourful and quirky, it has an important underlying theme – that everyone has their own special qualities.
I can imagine readers of all ages from 0 to adult having a lot of fun with this book.
Bob Graham took us through his life and his life’s works. He was then treated to orchestrated interpretations of four of his picture books (composed and conducted by George Ellis) including How To Heal A Broken Wing.
Sandy Fussell, author of the recent Jaguar Warrior talked all things Internet…
… with Boomerang Books’ own Dee White, author of Letters to Leonardo and helmer of Kids’ Book Capers.
Queen Victoria made a rare posthumous appearance at the book launch of Queen Victoria’s Underpants, Jackie French and Bruce Whatley’s latest.
Okay… so I almost went a full festival without making myself the centre of attention – Margaret Hamilton looks on as I, the youngest member of the CBCA NSW Committee, and Maurice Saxby, the oldest living former CBCA NSW Committee member, cut the cake for the CBCA NSW’s 65th.
The cake in question before Maurice and I hacked it to bits. For the record, it was delicious.
I’ve been to my fair share of festivals, but never before have I been to one that felt so inclusive. Authors and other attendees weren’t separated. My experience with other festivals, as both speaker and attendee, has been that after sessions, speakers disappear to green rooms, never to be seen when they’re not onstage. The CBCA NSW Committee (and I’ll register my bias now: I’m on it) abolished the green room for the Conference, and what a difference it made. It felt like a gathering of equals: there were authors, publishers, librarians, teachers, booksellers, students all amassed togher and relating to each other as children’s book lovers.
I was speaking with Susanne Gervay (author of the sensational I Am Jackand its sequels, not on the Committee, so there isn’t an obvious bias), and she put it perfectly:
“I really loved the set up where everyone could get together.”
And we did come together. Authors talked process (with the behind-the-scenes workings of picture book partnerships), and politics (keynote speaker Libby Gleeson with the quote of the Conference: ‘What’s the point of building an education revolution, and building libraries, if there are no teacher librarians in those buildings?’)
While there’s no way to cover the entirety of the Conference, I will write about a selection of moments that really struck me. And there were many moments. It really was the perfect place to be perpetually adolescent…
[Note:If I don’t look particularly happy in photos, disregard it… Mum’s pulled me up on smiling like Mr Bean in pics, so I’m trying to dial down the rubber-faced grin from ear to ear. Right now, I’m having difficulty finding the attractive median between ‘rubber face’ and ‘serial killer’. Case in point, I’m giddy in the above photo to be meeting Jackie French (an icon) and Bruce Whatley… can you tell? Haha. PS, this is their new book, which was launched at the Conference.]