Freya Blackwood’s Books Make the Perfect Gift

It’s true. You can’t deny it. Freya Blackwood‘s art is so exquisite that whether it’s for a Christmas or birthday gift, or a ‘just because I want it’ gift, every household should own a piece of her talent. And of course, coupling with superb artists of writing makes purchasing decisions all that much easier. Two of the many books on this year’s Kids’ Reading Guide list are ‘The Cleo Stories: A Friend and a Pet’ and ‘Perfect’, both illustrated by Freya Blackwood.  

imageThe collaboration between Freya Blackwood and Libby Gleeson continuously impresses, with previous winning titles including ‘Clancy and Millie and the Very Fine House’, ‘Banjo and Ruby Red’ and ‘Amy and Louis’. Also on the awards list is ‘The Cleo Stories: The Necklace and the Present’ (review) with its success for Younger Readers in the 2015 Children’s Book Council Awards. Following on with another beauty is the second in the series; ‘The Cleo Stories: A Friend and a Pet’.  

Text and illustrations once again work harmoniously, beautifully connecting emotion, energy, playfulness and a sense of familiarity and everyday life. The colourful, pencil sketches throughout this hardback chapter book are delightfully engaging and appealing to its intended audience; perfectly relatable as a read-alone or read-aloud experience.  

In A Friend, Cleo has nothing to do on a rainy day, and cleaning her room just doesn’t appeal. But her parents’ patience with her food-splattering, mascara-splashing ways are wearing thin. Cleo is a fun-loving, creative and resourceful little girl with a big imagination. How will she overcome her boredom? In A Pet, Cleo’s friend Nick, and the rest of her class (almost) have a pet. But not Cleo, and she is desperate to have one. When her parents refuse Cleo is disappointed, but her inquisitive and rational nature leads to a win-win solution for all.  

imageThe authenticity of the conversations and actions in the stories effectively translate through Freya’s illustrations. When Peanuts the puppy pees on Cleo’s dress, you can see that real shift from gentle comforting to true frustration (and the puppy’s confusion), all drawn with spot-on body language and perfect line placement. Genius!

‘A Friend and a Pet’ is a book packed with genuinely heartfelt, and humorous moments, encouraging readers from age six to explore their own imaginative and creative sides, just like the loveable Cleo.  

Allen & Unwin 2015.  

image‘Perfect’, written by Danny Parker, explores a wonderfully carefree Summer day for three little children and their cat. This picture book, aimed at the early childhood age group, oozes beauty and tranquility, radiance and tenderness.  

With Danny Parker‘s expressive, poetic verse, accompanied by Freya Blackwood‘s soothing, soft shades of blues and yellows, you can’t help but feel a sense of transcendence wash over you with each page turn. Sunshine and baking, construction and balancing, fresh air and cool shade, windy skies and ‘one great big day’. We are taken on this joyous path as the children wander and explore the beautiful seaside beside their lush green country town, and then settle for a snuggle and a night-time dream.  

imageI adore Freya’s magical pencil and acrylic illustrations that enlighten all the senses, and her beautiful way of capturing light and movement through sequences, texture, depth and perspective.

A ‘Perfect’ resemblance of the spirit of childhood, the warmth of togetherness and the refreshment of a cool breeze on a balmy Summer’s day.    

Little Hare Books 2015.

Trace Balla’s Time to Shine

IMG_7630Up-and-comer author illustrator, Trace Balla, has quickly hit the scene with the recent success of Rivertime, being both shortlisted in the 2015 Children’s Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year Awards, and winning this year’s Readings Children’s Book Prize. Her work stems from a background in art therapy, animations and community involvement, with a strong focus on environmental themes. Let’s enter the magical tales of nature, love and loss with her two books, Rivertimeand ‘Shine’.  

9781743316337Rivertime, published by Allen & Unwin in 2014.  

You know a book’s going to be special when the front cover is graced with both an entrancing illustration and a testimonial by acclaimed environmentalist, David Suzuki, telling us about the delight and magic that awaits inside. I’m already loving the endpapers that greet us with a wonderfully hand-drawn menagerie of native birds at the front, and other flora and fauna at the back, all ready to be spotted along our river journey.

Rivertime book image2Boxed vignettes, speech bubbles of handwritten dialogue and endearing pencil drawings form the visual and sensational adventure that we embark on with characters, ten year old Clancy and his Uncle Egg. When number-loving Clancy is finally big enough, his bird-loving uncle plans a ten-day (or 240-hour, or 14,400-minute) paddling trip along the Glenelg River, minus all the technological gadgets. At first, Clancy is grumpy, but as the days pass, so does his temperamental attitude. The pair encounter beautiful wildlife, serene views and fascinating people of the land. Clancy learns to appreciate the beauty of nature and its creatures, a few camping skills, and particularly, to conquer the jetty exit! I just adore the tranquility, including scenes of ‘timelessness’; of gentle, seemingly-infinite rivertime drifting and star gazing on double page spreads. Final pages include a map of the canoe trip on Bochara (the Glenelg River), and the author’s inspiration for the story following her own river journey, away from the modern world.

Rivertime is a calming influence on what is normally a chaotic lifestyle for most of us. It lets us take a breath, or a few, and enjoy the Australian river ride, encouraging its readers to connect with, and hopefully strive to sustain, our unique and wonderful natural environment. Paddling up this river is a true delight; ‘oar-some’ to be explored independently and as part of a class discussion.  

Download a handy pocket bird-watching guide to accompany Rivertime here.
And, look out for Trace Balla’s sequel to ‘Rivertime’; ‘Rock-hopping’.  

9781743316344Shine; a story about saying goodbye, published by Allen & Unwin in 2015.  

From an intensely raw place in her heart, Trace Balla wrote ‘Shine’ for her sister’s children after the sudden passing of their father. From the dedication page, this book takes the reader on an emotional journey, even for those who haven’t experienced loss of great magnitude.

With its heavenly, Indigenous-look line and dot paintings, and equally sentimental Dreamtime essence in the words, we are introduced to a shimmering light amongst the golden stars; a young horse called Shine. As the planets align, he meets the lovely Glitter, and together they are blessed with two little sparkles, Shimmer and Sparky. When Shine has to return to his star, the family weep golden tears that form a huge golden ocean. But this is the part that really got me… As they climb the steepest of mountains to reflect upon its beauty, Glitter explains that its vastness represents the endless and enduring love they have for Shine and for each other. Finally, it’s the brightest, most special star of all amongst the twinkling night sky that allows them a deep and beautiful sleep.

Shine book image ‘Shine’ is a touching story that sensitively deals with ‘saying goodbye’ in a simple, yet profound way. Trace Balla cleverly uses yellow and blue hues not only to represent the shine amongst the dark, but also as the hope and love amongst the tragedy of loss.

A metaphorical beauty for young children, with the power of everlasting love at its core.  

Both these stories inspire an appreciation for every moment spent with the things that matter most in this world, and far beyond it…  

Margaret Wild Changes Lives – Picture Book Reviews

margaret -wild-300x0Margaret Wild is a much-loved, award-winning author with over 70 titles to her name, having great success with acclaimed books including Fox, The Very Best of Friends, Harry and Hopper, Lucy Goosey, Davy and the Duckling, and The Treasure Box. Her books extend to a wide range of themes, and are characteristically known for their exploration of identity, hardship and loss. The two current titles outlined in this article differ in their exposition and intended audience, but they comparably focus on the central themes of change, finding oneself and having a positive outlook on life.  

9781742978185The Stone Lion, illustrated by Ritva Voutila. Little Hare Books, 2014.

“COMPASSION IS A FORCE MIGHTIER THAN STONE”  

Shortlisted for the 2015 Children’s Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year Awards, The Stone Lion is undoubtedly a stand out. From the magestic, embossed front cover to the delicate, subdued pastel drawings and equally sensitive plot, this is a profound and powerful story to warm the heart.

Set to be a classic, this story tells of a fierce-looking stone lion with the desire to become a breathing creature, able to sense emotion like the human visitors outside his library pedestal. The need for freedom, even if only for a short while, grows immensely, and it is upon the devastating collapse of a cold and hungry homeless girl with her baby brother in the frosty winter that the lion feels his first flicker of emotion – pity. As fervent as his appearance, so is his desire to save the poor children, and with flexed claws, stretched legs and a beat in his heart, the now powerful lion carries the baby basket, and then drags the little girl inside the library. The flexibility of his muscles may not remain permanent, but the warmth, contentment and spirit in his heart does, as does the gratitude and love that Sara and her little brother share for the lion for years to follow.

Stone Lion 1Wild‘s sophisticated and elegant use of language, beautifully complemented with Voutila‘s Depression-era, breathtaking imagery, literally sends chills up your spine and sparks a fire in your heart both at the same time.

The Stone Lion will be treasured for its undeniable beauty and depth, with themes of kindness, compassion, optimism and sense of self at its core. It is an inspirational story for primary-aged children to be empowered to change others’ lives, whether it be a mighty, or mini gesture.

1431011577357Bogtrotter, illustrated by Judith Rossell. Walker Books, 2015.

Targeted at a younger audience, preschoolers will be immediately drawn to the adorable lime-coloured creature that graces the cover of Bogtrotter. Whilst soft and muted greys and browns suit the subdued mood in The Stone Lion, more vivid greens and splashes of watercolours wash over the bog in this lively, yet sensitive story of an energetic Bogtrotter.

Imagine living in a world of monotony, without ever taking the time to stop and appreciate the beauty that surrounds you, without realising there is a world out there full of opportunities. This certainly is reality for Bogtrotter, who spends his days awaking from his gloomy cave only to run across, up, down and around his bog, for days and years on end. But sometimes he feels bored and lonely without understanding why and how to change it. A small, lateral-thinking frog probes Bogtrotter, empowering him to alter his dull existence, even if it is as minor as picking a flower. And in that instant, the world becomes his oyster, and the possibilities are endless.
With hope and motivation in his heart, Bogtrotter replays his usual daily jog, but with a difference. He befriends a family of muskrats, swings from a tree, and makes a pink daisy chain. Delightfully, he doesn’t stop there. However, there’s still one thing missing. It is his discerning amphibian friend that leaves him with another thought to ponder, and Bogtrotter takes the biggest risk of his life. What he discovers is nothing more than remarkable.

Bogtrotter book imageWith Margaret Wild‘s simple yet multi-layered, philosophical tale and loveable characters in their mentor-student-like roles, paired with Judith Rossell‘s enticing illustrations, Bogtrotter opens up a world of new and exciting challenges for all its readers. I love the beautifully painted scene of this endearing character pining for more as he gazes into the starry night sky. This powerful moment literally shows us that the sky’s the limit.

There will definately be plenty of “Ah” moments upon exploration of this inspirational, enchanting story of self-discovery, courage and change. And perhaps adults will be more inclined to delve further into the answers to their preschooler’s favourite question – “Why?”  

Musical Book Beats for Little Ones

Music and books have many benefits in common for a baby’s long-term development. Learning about patterns and sequencing, counting, memory, expressing language and emotions are all powerful advantages to being exposed to these experiences. And when combined, this makes for a most engaging, dynamic and instrumental union. Here we explore a few upbeat and rhythmic books for toddlers and preschoolers that are sure to have them bopping away to their little hearts’ delights.  

Fish jamFish Jam, Kylie Howarth (author, illus.), The Five Mile Press, 2015.  

Who doesn’t love a scit-scatting-dooba-diddling jazzy sea-minor fish? Unfortunately, all the creatures in the sea. Toot the fish beep-bops his way around the ocean, only to be shooshed by grumpy seals, lobsters, penguins and killer whales. He is just too noisy. But one day he comes across a most unexpected surprise that changes his solo singing days forever!
‘Fish Jam’ is such a fun way to explore music through the instrument of your voice. Author / illustrator, Kylie Howarth has produced a bubbly and entertaining story through her minimal text and vivacious cartoon-style pictures.
Preschoolers will be ‘o-fish-ally’ overjoyed to chant along with Toot for plenty of pipe sessions, no matter who’s listening!  

Children's+Book+Review,+B+is+for+BedtimeB is for Bedtime, Margaret Hamilton (author), Anna Pignataro (illus.), Little Hare Books, 2014.  

Here we have a beautiful lyrical lullaby that sings us through an alphabetical routine from awake time to catching zzz’s. A little girl and her puppy dog settle for bed with the help of their loving family. A Book read by dad and a ticking Clock on the wall, “Dd is my Dog, who’s not sleepy at all.” Gran gives a Hug and mum gives a Kiss. The Moon shines on her Nose. Eventually she is Quiet and as she goes to Sleep, she cuddles her Teddy Under the covers, Yawns and hushes until morning.
Anna Pignataro’s illustrations are as sweet and harmonious as the gentle tempo of the words. I love the fluidity of the watercolours and gouache and the patterns of the collage.
‘B is for Bedtime’ is perfectly paced to soothe young ones into a cosy slumber, to be enjoyed each and every night.
CBCA 2015 Early Childhood Notable Book.  

Baby BeatsBaby Beats, Karen Blair (author, illus.), Walker Books, 2014.  

Toddlers will love joining in to the rhythm and beat with this group of young children playing on their instruments. ‘Baby Beats’ immediately sets the musical tone, inviting the readers to make sound with their hands and feet. We explore beats and booms on the drums, bangs and clashes on the cymbals, tapping sticks and the chick, chick, chick of the shakers. All the strumming and singing eventually exhausts these tiny superstars as they lay down to rest.
Gorgeous, soft crayon and watercolour paintings set against white backgrounds effectively gives focus to the performances of the characters. The little details in the pictures like the funny actions of the cat, and the additional ‘home-made’ instruments also lend themselves to further enjoyment and ideas on creating your own music at home.
‘Baby Beats’, with its inclusive onomatopoeia, is a perfect book of sounds and rhythm and the introduction to a range of musical instruments.
CBCA 2015 Early Childhood Notable Book.  

51wdwNe+JBL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Chooky-doodle-doo, Jan Whiten (author), Sinéad Hanley (illus.), Walker Books, 2014.  

This one’s not musical as such, but is ideal as a preliminary to finger games and songs about numbers. ‘Chooky-doodle-doo’ is a whimsical counting story with some rhyming elements to keep little ones joining in all the way through. One chick finds what it thinks is a worm and gives it a good tug. Enlisting the help of another chooky chick, the pair huff and puff, struggling to get this worm free. The story continues with subsequent numbers of chookies pulling on a continually elongating worm. Five chicks and a rooster cannot shift the stubborn squirmer, and with a final flop and a chooky sprawl, they discover that the worm is not actually a worm afterall!
Adorable, funny and interactive. With colourful handcrafted and digital illustrations, young preschoolers will love the humour and playfulness of these cheeky chooks.
CBCA 2015 Early Childhood Notable Book.

Stephen Michael King’s Triumphant Trio

29cde5eWhat is it about Stephen Michael King‘s illustrations that make his picture books so sublime? How can his drawings make us want to delve into those stories over and over again? Well, that’s just it! It’s the artwork that adds another dimension to those already meaningful stories, allowing us to dive right in with those characters; feeling what they feel – emotionally and sensorially. With a multitude of divine books under his wing, the extremely talented Stephen Michael King has three that are currently soaring to the top with their prize winning prowess, being shortlisted in the CBCA’s 2015 Early Childhood and Picture Book of the Year Awards and nominated in the 2015 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.  

snail-and-turtle-are-friends-293x300Snail and Turtle are Friends, Scholastic, 2014.
CBCA Early Childhood Shortlisted Book.

Stephen Michael King’s distinctive style of sweet faces, with a combination of little dot eyes and large round ones, always seem to perfectly suit the mood of the story and personalities of the characters. In the case of ‘Snail and Turtle are Friends’, these two gentle animals emanate a feeling of peace and calm about them, but not forgetting a wonderfully whimsical touch of cheekiness. Even at their craziest moments, when Turtle sings in the rain and dives in the water, or Snail boldly chomps leaves and paints swirls, the vibrant colours, eclectic patterns and varying shapes fit together beautifully harmoniously.  
Just like Snail and Turtle, the illustrations display an eye-catching array of techniques to reflect aspects in common and those that are unique from one another. I love ‘Snail and Turtle are Friends’ for its ability to capture a sense of adventure, playfulness and its underlying message in friendship and accepting differences.  

9781921504631Scary Night, Working Title Press, 2014.
CBCA Early Childhood Shortlisted Book.

On a more dramatic note, but no less animated, is ‘Scary Night’, written by Lesley Gibbes. With his usual, striking use of pen, ink, brush and digital compilations, Stephen Michael King manages to tick all the boxes once again when it comes to creating just the right mood. The story, set in darkness as the characters journey through treacherous fields with only the glow of the pale moonlight to guide them on their way, is far from gloomy. Its upbeat rhythm, rollicking text and leading suspense are perfectly captured in King’s drawings. When the characters sneakily tip-toe through dark woods and crocodile-infested terrain, it is their wide, terrified eyes and the scenes’ cool, moody hues that keep the thrill-seekers in us entertained. When we turn the page to be blasted with a shock of bright orange and large ‘roaring’ font, it is not just the characters getting the most wonderfully horrifying fright of their lives.
The playfulness, facial expressions, effective use of colours and gorgeous Suess-like sketches are a real treat that will ensure young children want to journey on this most mysterious, spooktacular experience again and again.  

Duck and DarklingsThe Duck and the Darklings, Allen & Unwin, 2014.
CBCA Picture Book of the Year Shortlisted Book.
NSW Premier’s Literary Award Nominated Book.

In similarity to ‘Scary Night’, ‘The Duck and the Darklings’ is disposed to the darkness, with just a glint of a glimmer that so significantly paves the way to a brighter future. With more of a complex storyline than the previous two books, ‘The Duck and the Darklings’, is written creatively and almost poetically by Glenda Millard. Its message is strong with the metaphor of dark versus light to represent ‘disremembered’ yesterdays versus the glow of forbidden fondness (happy memories). With this theme, Stephen Michael King’s illustrations are spellbinding. He has created depth, texture and warmth amongst the darkness. His characteristically adorable characters are hand-drawn as outlines and set against the silhouettes of black and white; shadow and light, past, present and future, that hit Millard’s intention so brillliantly.
‘The Duck and the Darklings’ is a heartwarming story of family, friendship and optimism that is beautifully captured in its words and pictures. Primary school children will definately hold a candle to this shining star. Stunning.  

More information about Stephen Michael King and his books can be found at:
http://www.stephenmichaelking.com

Teaching notes for ‘Scary Night’ and ‘The Duck and the Darklings’ can be found at:
http://www.romisharp.wordpress.com/teaching-notes

Review – Fire by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley

Fire, Jackie French (author), Bruce Whatley (illus.), Scholastic Press, 2014.  

fireHarsh 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.”
Fire book imageNext, 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.

Interesting background information on Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, as well as fantastic teaching ideas based on the book, ‘Fire’, can be downloaded from Scholastic here:
http://resource.scholastic.com.au/resourceFiles/8219103_8176.doc

Elizabeth Honey’s ‘Hop Up! Wriggle Over!’ – One for Mum and Bub

1733911_origHop Up! Wriggle Over!, Elizabeth Honey (author, illus.), Allen & Unwin, April 2015.  

Cherish the moments of early mornings, chaotic meal times, constantly chasing tails and a house that’s never tidy, because one day it will be a distant memory; and you’ll miss it. This recent release emanates all this energy, and more; it’s a gorgeous, totally relatable book for mums to share with their little cherubs for Mother’s Day.  

elizabeth_honeyAward-winning author of poetry, novels and picture books, Elizabeth Honey‘s books exude vibrancy, joyfulness and wit. She also illustrates her own books, which are characteristically heartwarming and delightful. Some of her titles include I’m Still Awake, Still!, Ten Blue Wrens and That’s not a Daffodil! (CBCA 2012 Honour Book).  

Distinct to her charmingly boisterous style is her latest celebration of our unique national fauna; ‘Hop Up! Wriggle Over!’ is a completely adorable book of an Australian animal family bouncing through a busy day.  

With glorious onomatopoeia in short, punchy bursts, the baby mammals jumpstart the day with a scene parents know all too well. No more rest for the wicked; Mother Koala and Father Kangaroo are soon hustling as the daily routine begins.

”Hop up! Wriggle over! Wakey wakey. Hungry.
Crunch crunch. Gobble gobble. Lick lick. More!
Bong! Bong! Clang clang! Ting ting! Shhhh!”
 

Hop up! Wriggle Over! ImageWith nine little ones to attend to, breakfast is like a clanging, tinging orchestra of bowls and spoons. A trip to the playground is like running a marathon trying to keep up with their abundance of energy. Tea time sounds of nibbles, chomps, slurps and burps. And bath time is bubblicious pandemonium. Finally, the kidlets settle for a story, and kisses, snuggles and sweet dream wishes see the babes peaceful at last.  

As playful as the text, Elizabeth Honey’s illustrations radiate life, animation and spirit. Typical toddler-like actions in the pictures suitably mimic the frolicsome hubbub that the words express. At the same time, her pencil and watercolour paints create a gentle feeling in its technique and natural earthy tones; perfect to capture the warmth and innocence of this loving family.  

‘Hop Up! Wriggle Over!’ is a beautiful introduction to different Australian animals and the reinforcement of the daily routine. It is a book of romping good fun, but also a nice way to end a busy day. What could be better than a story and a snuggle with your precious ones just before bed? An enchanting, lively book recommended for babies and young children, and their mums.
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